Genetically Corrupt

The New York Times offered us a fine lesson in Eurocentricity and how a normative, idealized West stands apart from a corrupt and deviant East. In this case, the East is Russia, a region of the globe evicted from European/Western histories for convenience and self-regard.

Titled “An X-Ray Of Russian Corruption”, it featured the work of photographer Misha Friedman. [Jesse Newman, “An X-Ray of Russian Corruption”, New York Times, February 23, 2013]. The project is said to study how corruption has influenced Russia’s social, civic, political, and industrial life. However, despite the fine images, I was struck by the text, written by one Jesse Newman, which seemed to transform the images from being a photographer’s imaginative exploration of the failures of the Russian state into something far more insidious. What caught my eye and perhaps disturbed me the most was this line that Newman wrote:

Mishsa Friedman is training his camera on what seems like a common train in his national genetic code. Corruption. [Jesse Newman, “An X-Ray of Russian Corruption”, New York Times, February 23, 2013].

It takes an incredible level of courage and an even greater level of stupidity to write such a generalization – complete with all the bigotry that it encapsulates, anywhere, let alone in a major newspaper’s blog. It is racism in its purest.

The editors at Lens are being a bit lazy these days. I can’t believe that Jesse Newman meant what she wrote here. But then again, I have to think she only told it because of a terrible lack of self-reflection.

The images are lovely to look at, but unfortunately, as I went through them, I saw not examples of a genetic propensity to corruption but a series of stories and situations of nepotism, cronyism, and state failure that are echoed in our very own – the United States of America. The fact remains that nothing that Mishsa is discovering in Russia can’t be found in many states worldwide and can indeed be found in the modern USA, where politics, corporatism and cronyism may be at an all-time high.
But no one at the New York Times dared claim that the American genetic code leads them to corruption, as much as they could say that African Americans love watermelons, or Jews are stingy, or Muslims are terrorists. Ok, that last one…that they could and do say!

A further examination of the images confirms this suspicion – Mishsa Friendman has produced a nice set of images, but nothing that warrants a sweeping, bigoted generalization like the one on offer. Yet, each image says little or nothing until a particular accusatory text is attached.

For example, Image 2 shows a scene of some young people marking off private property – or at least a desire to claim a piece of land as private property.

To use this to suggest that the desire for private ownership and the need to mark claims of property are a form of Russian corruption and not an outcome of the neo-liberalization imposed on the country after the fall of the Berlin Wall is ahistorical and frankly downright ignorance.

The USA is a country where people like John C. Malone, who owns over 2.2 million acres of land, or Ted Turner, who owns just under 2.1 million acres, are considered role models and exemplars of “free enterprise” and “free markets.” This is a country where the need to mark off private space is so strong that it led to George Zimmerman calmly shooting an African American boy for walking on the wrong side of the private gated community’s hallowed asphalt.

We then move on to this image with text that suggests an uncomfortable, corrupt dalliance between those in political power and those with private investment interests.

But is this dalliance between private and political interests unique to Russia? The fact that the Bush administration was called possibly the most corrupt in American political history should give us some pause as we read the caption of the image above. A range of people have investigated the close relationship between corporations like Halliburton Bechtel and various oil companies and political leaders like Dick Cheney, George Schultz, and Donald Rumsfeld, to name just a few.

And what about the incestuous relationships with private Wall Street investment banks and the US Treasury Department? [Matt Taibbi, “Another Hidden Bailout: Helping Wall Street Collect Your Rent,” Rolling Stone, March 19, 2022]. Given the hundreds of trillions of dollars that have been doled out to save these banks – banks and bankers that should have been charged with crimes and given long sentences in jail, and how our government has protected all of them, it is incredible to think that cronyism is a Russian genetic problem. [Glenn Greenwald, “The Untouchables: How the Obama administration protected Wall Street from prosecutions,” The Guardian, January 23, 2013].

We then see this image of apparently a young Russian beating up a young woman while officials look on. Why would that surprise an American, given the extent of violence against women in the USA? Is domestic violence and violence against women unique to Russia? The statistics for domestic violence in the USA are staggering to read [See National Coalition Against Domestic Violence statistics].

I am still reeling from the discovery that hundreds of American women soldiers have come forward to participate in a lawsuit that claims that they had been raped by their fellow soldiers while in uniform. As one of the claimants, Maricella Guzman, says…the officials just looked on, and I quote:

“It was eight years before I was able to say the word that describes what happened to me. I hadn’t even been in the Navy a month. I was so young. I tried to report it. But instead of being taken seriously, I was forced to do push-ups.” [Lucy Broadbent, “Rape in the US military: America’s dirty little secret,” The Guardian, December 9, 2011].

Then there is this image that suggests that the political leadership’s private property is for sale to the highest renter

But would it surprise us to learn that President Obama’s former winter home is rentable? [Morgan Brennan, President Obama’s Former ‘Winter White House’ For Rent,” Forbes, December 13, 2011]. Or if we remind ourselves that the Clintons were shilling the Lincoln Bedroom to their campaign donors some years ago? [James Bennet, Lincoln Bedroom, Still Open,” New York Times, July 19, 1998].

Then we see these images, where a policeman is shown monitoring traffic and a statement about the (unique) corruption of the state police.

Ironically, it was only a day earlier that we read about the massive levels of corruption amongst US police – from perjury to falsifying evidence, to false arrests to meet quotas and so on. [Michelle Alexander, “Why Police Lie Under Oath,” New York Times, February 2, 2013]. And we have plenty of regular stories of policemen being caught in gun running scams, ticketing scams and whatnot. There is a Wikipedia page on New York City police corruption and scandals alone!

We then move to the next image and see a lovely photograph that is used to speak about the use of prison camps in the 1930s – the gulags.

I suppose it will sound only silly if I remind Jesse Newman that we, the United States of America, today operate a large number of gulags where men are imprisoned indefinitely without charge, where they are tortured, and where many have died. Perhaps Jesse missed the Abu Ghraib fiasco or isn’t aware of a place called Guantanamo or even Bagram. And these are only the most visible parts of a massive, systemic system of incarceration and torture that operates across several different countries. I will say nothing about the enormous prison system within the USA for its domestic ‘trouble makers’, imprisoning the largest population of prisoners in the world.

The reading list about the US prison-industrial complex is vast: see for example, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America by Naomi Murakawa, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr. to list just a few of the many fine writings on this question. How does genetics come into play?

And finally (thank you for indulging me), we see this image about environmental pollution…

The USA is a country that poisoned its own in Flint, Michigan, for the sake of some profit. Its political leadership is complicit in the death and poisoning of the very citizens they were meant to serve. Do we need to be reminded of the Gulf oil spill, the shale gas ventures, the explorations of the Alaskan fields, and so on? The list of environmental disasters, disregard and intentional destruction is just too extensive to list.

Jesse Newman’s statement offers continuing blindness to our failings, a willingness to spray others with specious conclusions, and a lazy resort to bigoted cliches we reserve for certain people. It relies on an idealization of the self and a blindness to the self. It holds us here in the West as exemplary and outsources common social, economic and political pathologies to the Russians as if they have a unique penchant for them. This is Eurocentricity and US exceptionality at its worst.

Undoubtedly, Russia has serious social, economic, and political issues. Friedman’s investigations are fascinating and insightful. But perhaps rather than resorting to genetics, the editors and writers at the New York Times may want to stick to economics, sociology, history, anthropology, politics or just plain human common sense.