29 September 2007

Kiev, Ukraine: some observations

Yes, I'm back -- having braved jet lag, weather delays, Republican-infested airport restrooms, and other such hazards of modern travel to return to Portland. My three weeks in Kiev left me with a lot to think about, but here are a few preliminary observations.

A two-language country

Ukraine is a country with two languages, but the situation is not like that of Belgium or Canada in which the linguistic division reflects two distinct rival ethnic communities. A better analogy would be Ireland, whose history parallels that of Ukraine in certain respects. Most of Ukraine has been ruled by the Russian Empire (in its Tsarist and then Soviet incarnations) for centuries, with the result that Russian has displaced Ukrainian as the native language of the population in large parts of the country. Today the east and south are solidly Russian-speaking, while in the center and west large numbers of people speak Ukrainian as their native language, though the bigger cities still tend to be more Russian-speaking; Ukrainian becomes more predominant as one moves westward. (I should add that everyone in Ukraine, as in other former Soviet republics, can speak Russian, which was a mandatory subject in Soviet schools; the distinction I'm making here refers to people's native language.) The situation thus somewhat resembles the relative positions of English and Gaelic in modern Ireland. And as in Ireland, since independence the Ukrainian government has been trying to bolster the position of the original indigenous language. Ukrainian is the sole official language of the country, even though many Ukrainians, especially in the east and south, do not understand it; and patriotic feeling leads many people to favor the use of Ukrainian regardless of which language is their own primary one.

This has led to an odd form of bilingualism. In Kiev, in every case where I could identify the language people were speaking around me in casual conversation, it was Russian. Most newspapers and magazines I saw, and most books for sale in bookstores, were in Russian. All street signs, identifying signs on public buildings, and similar "official" notices were in Ukrainian, as were the majority of business signs and advertisements. I was sometimes given store receipts and restaurant checks which were partly in Ukrainian and partly in Russian. Having stayed only in Kiev itself, I don't know firsthand how closely the situation in other parts of the country resembles this. At least, unlike English and Gaelic (which are only distantly related and are very different from each other), Russian and Ukrainian are closely-related languages and are very similar to each other, and a native speaker of one can probably make a good deal of sense out of the other, especially in written form, even if he has never studied it.

The linguistic division seems to fuel a difference in cultural and political orientation. The east and south are more conservative, more authoritarian, more dominated by a wealthy "oligarch" class on the Russian model, and more in favor of close ties with Russia; in Ukrainian political shorthand, these areas are "blue". The center and west are more reformist, more open, more accepting of Western values, and more in favor of ties with the West; they are said to be "orange". This also reflects the fact that western Ukraine spent less of its history under Russian rule -- especially the far western region of Galicia, which spent the Renaissance under Polish and Austro-Hungarian control and never fell under Russian rule until the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939. However, the geographical split is not absolute. People of either persuasion exist everywhere, just as American "red" states contain some liberals while "blue" states have some conservatives. Kiev itself is something of an anomaly; though apparently mostly Russian-speaking, it is an "orange" electoral stronghold.

(Note: the spelling "Kiev" is based on the Russian form of the city's name. "Kyiv", based on the Ukrainian form, is commonly used in English-language materials printed in Ukraine. I'm sticking with "Kiev" here purely because it's the common spelling in English.)

This land is my land

Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is a Ukrainian city. This might seem like a trite observation, but it reflects a fundamental difference between eastern and western Europe.

I've written before about the presence in most major western European cities of large Muslim minorities which subject the indigenous inhabitants to high rates of violent crime, create a general sense of menace, and constitute entrenched cells of alien culture which are resistant to assimilation and challenge the long-established native cultural character and identity of those cities (for more on this issue, see here and here, especially all the links, and of course this essential book). I saw not a trace of any such phenomenon in Kiev. The only cultural and behavioral norms apparent in Kiev are those of the indigenous Slavic society. Kiev belongs to the Ukrainians, period, in a way that Paris or London or Amsterdam can no longer be said to belong unequivocally to the French or British or Dutch.

Of course, this is partly because Ukraine is poorer than western Europe and thus less attractive to Muslim (or other Third World) immigrants. Yet even if this were not the case, it is difficult to imagine Ukrainians or most other eastern Europeans tolerating an indigestible and aggressive minority bullying and threatening them on their own turf. In contrast to western Europe, where resistance to Muslim intimidation has usually been stymied by the sniveling and tremulous political correctness which dominates elite opinion, Ukraine shows evidence of a robust and unabashed patriotism more resembling that of (most of) the United States. Ukrainian cultural and military heroes of the past are proudly remembered with large public monuments and with portraits on the national currency; the country's independence in 1991 is commemorated with an exuberantly gigantic monument in what is now called Independence Square, the heart of Kiev, dwarfing the other structures there (I was also told that each year's party-like independence day celebration lasts a full week); people wearing clothing with the distinctive blue-and-gold colors of the national flag were common enough to be noticeable. I saw nothing at all reminiscent of the sickly western European tendency to downplay national heroes, symbols, and identity out of fear that they might "offend" someone.

The beautiful people

One of the things that struck me most strongly about Kiev was the great physical attractiveness of the young people, especially the women. Part of the reason for this was straightforward. As one can confirm by looking around any crowded street or mall here, the majority of Americans are overweight, many very seriously so; even among people under 30, the number who are overweight is quite substantial. I saw hardly anyone under 30 in Kiev who was overweight at all; a remarkably high percentage of the young women had the kind of figure we have come to think of as almost impossibly perfect because it is relatively rarely seen any more in our own country.

And yet there was more to it than a simple matter of not being fat. Stunningly-pretty faces were everywhere, as if I had happened to arrive in town at the same time as a models' convention. I've been to many different places around the world, but have never seen a place where such a high percentage of the population seemed so well-favored in looks. I can think of no obvious explanation for this. Perhaps Ukraine simply got lucky with the random global distribution of genes.

Sadly, beauty proves fleeting. With advancing age, the country's meat-heavy diet and shocking rates of smoking and alcohol consumption take their toll; among middle-aged people, excess weight becomes more common, and people over 40 generally look less healthy than their American counterparts. We know from our own experience that smoking and drinking can be curtailed over time with vigorous public-health campaigns, but in these respects Ukraine has a long road ahead of it. I often saw people drinking beer in public as early as 7:00 AM, and these were not derelicts, but ordinary citizens. Stronger drink is also routinely consumed in eye-popping quantities. Smoking is also much commoner than in the West, and does not appear to be nearly as stigmatized. These things are true of most Slavic-speaking cultures, not only Ukraine. And, tragically, the people pay for these habits, not only with the loss of looks and health, but with life expectancies among the shortest in the developed world.

Forgive us, for we knew not what we did

One place I visited in Kiev was an open-air museum displaying Soviet military hardware used in the war in Afghanistan, complete with a memorial to the soldiers from Ukraine who died in that war (Ukraine, of course, was part of the Soviet Union at that time). To me, as an American, this memorial aroused complex feelings. At the time of that war, the United States supported the Afghans against our superpower rival, the Soviet Union. The logic of doing so at the time was obvious, yet I could not help remembering the wise words of Oriana Fallaci, who reminded us that it was actually the Soviet Union that was on the side of civilization in that conflict, fighting against something dark and medieval and barbaric which by its very nature presented an existential threat to everything non-Muslim, including the West. We found out, much later, just how right she was. If we had sat on our hands and let Afghanistan be absorbed into the Soviet Empire instead of lapsing back into the chaos that allowed the Taliban to transform it into a jihadist haven, would September 11 ever have happened?

The Soviet system needed to be overthrown. If it had not been, Ukraine itself would not be an independent and democratic nation today. But in the Soviet case the problem was only a matter of the political system; there is nothing inherent in Slavic culture that makes it hostile to our own. Being in Ukraine, I could see how much we have in common with people like the Ukrainians and Russians -- in contrast to those whom we helped fight against them in Afghanistan.

Other points

-- Ukraine is one of the most welcoming countries for American visitors. An American staying for less than three months does not even need a visa. Passport control and customs at Kiev's Boryspil Airport were the fastest and simplest I have ever been through in any country. Crime is much lower than in other eastern European countries, partly due to an intensive campaign to reduce it. In marked contrast to western Europe, I never ran into any anti-American hostility.

-- One unnerving thing about walking around Kiev is the fact that cars routinely park on the sidewalk. Kiev was never designed to cope with the sheer numbers of cars which swarm through it today, and the supply of normal parking is pitifully inadequate. The sidewalks, however, are invitingly wide (the sidewalks of Khreshchatik, Kiev's main street, must be fifty or sixty feet wide). Not only are sidewalks all over the place choked with parked cars, but it is common to see a car pull out of traffic, mount the curb, and cruise slowly along the sidewalk among the pedestrians, looking for a free spot to park. This is not as dangerous as it sounds, but it takes some getting used to.

-- Aside from World-War-II-era monuments, the main relic of the Soviet system is a very erratic grasp of the concept of customer service. Restaurants seem to have done best at moving away from such habits, and eating out was always a pleasant experience; at the post office on Volodimirska Street where I went to buy stamps, on the other hand, I was treated with rudeness worthy of the most arrogant tinpot bureaucrat to be found in any Third World backwater.

-- People do not smile much. This is simply a cultural habit and does not reflect unfriendliness, but it's something that visitors need to be aware of lest they misinterpret it.

-- I want to say thanks to "Wali" from Donetsk for taking me around the Pechersk area, talking me into trying vodka, and everything else you did, even though I know there's not a chance in Hell you'll ever read this.

So there you have it. I'll be posting more over the next few days, and will of course also be watching the outcome of the Ukrainian parliamentary election tomorrow.


24 September 2007

Two of a kind?

China finally cracks down.....

.....on exported toxic toys (link sent by Mendip).


18 September 2007

A quick hello again

Still having a fascinating time here in Kiev -- I don't have the regular private access to the internet I was expecting, but frankly I don't miss it too much. There are plenty of internet-by-the-hour places I can stop in at when I feel like it (very cheap, too). In two weeks of wandering around the city, I have run into precisely one leftover statue of Lenin (in the center divider of a boulevard choked with a traffic jam worthy of Los Angeles) and two examples of the abysmal customer-service standards characteristic of societies which are still getting the hang of a competitive free-market economy. Aside from that, there's essentially nothing about this colorful, vibrant city to remind me that it was part of the dreary Soviet Union until just sixteen years ago.

I'll be back in the US in a little over a week and will have plenty of more detailed observations then.

The Infidel


06 September 2007

Privet iz Ukraini!

Hello from Ukraine, home of the Orange Revolution, Chernobyl, and Verka Serduchka! Just a quick posting for now -- my regular internet access isn't available yet, and there are lots of other things to do besides sit at a computer! More later,
The Infidel


04 September 2007

The Infidel is [OUT]

I'm on vacation for most of the rest of this month. I will probably have internet access, but I don't know whether I'll have the time or inclination to post regularly. I'll be back home towards the end of September.

The respect gambit

Is there an obligation to respect religious beliefs? See my new posting on the subject at Enter the Jabberwock.


03 September 2007

A "suffocating veil of sanctimony"

The hypocrisy of the fundamentalist-Republican axis of preachy moralism has been much in the news lately, but it is not a new phenomenon (remember Jimmy Swaggart?) -- indeed, it dates back at least to the emergence of the Christian Right as a major political force with the 1980 election. This essay argues that the jig is up and the public's patience with this arrogant cabal is at an end. Our "faith-based" Republican politicians would do well to heed its message -- that is, if they can spare enough time from playing with diapers, sending sexual e-mails to minors, and engaging in sordid antics in public toilets to listen.

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Europe's anti-Americanism in decline?

So reports Newsweek -- though in fact it's something of a mixed bag: "Remarkably, the continent's political elites are embracing pro-Americanism at a time when people on the street are as anti-American as they've been since Coalition forces rolled across Iraq." A much more important point to which the essay gives only sporadic attention is that such anti-American feeling is and has been pervasive only in western Europe; the poorer but smarter peoples to the east, freed from Communism only a decade and a half ago, have never embraced it.

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More Republican hypocrisy

How "don't ask, don't tell" in the military really works.

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One bench, one day

This is kind of fun. Someone set up a camera facing one ordinary park bench and took pictures throughout the day, recording the variety of people as they came and went (a few apparently noticed the camera).


The party of God

The following is a weird little episode which happened in late 1995 or early 1996, when I was 35 years old and living in Emeryville, California. I actually wrote this description shortly after the fact. The subject happened to come up recently in this thread, and I was inspired to post this here now.

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I had accepted a dinner-party invitation from M-, a Christian woman whom I'd known for several months since she hired me to help her with her English (she was Chinese). I'd known all along of her religious belief, which came up in conversation at the oddest times -- she more than once asserted that "the Lord" had guided me to cross paths with her because he knew she needed help with the language. Still, she'd never been pushy about it. She knew I wasn't a Christian and she accepted that.

Anyway, there was no obvious reason to turn down the invitation; I thought it might make a nice change. M- had implied that only four or five people would be present. In fact, there were at least twenty, many of them teenagers. Spotting a new person in the midst of what was obviously a long-established social group, one of these kids asked me, "Are you a Christian?" It struck me as an odd and none-too-polite question, but I simply said "No." Instant dead silence. A man said, "Not yet." I decided to accept this as a joke and leave it at that. Conversation resumed.

At dinner, I ended up sitting across from an articulate Ethiopian lady who at first made a very positive impression on me due to the great fluency of her English -- a trait which always impresses me in a foreigner, since I've studied several languages and know that such ability takes much effort to acquire. Since everyone else's conversation focused almost entirely on their shared religion, it was hardly possible for me to just avoid the subject. The Ethiopian lady increasingly focused on me, as the sole infidel present, and as time passed her remarks evolved into increasingly agitated, strident preaching. Feeling under attack, I defended myself, explaining the reasons for my disbelief in Christianity, while repeatedly affirming that I had no interest in "converting" anyone present to atheism. Needless to say, this merely turned up the heat on her evangelical fervor. Eventually I got irritated enough to point out that she was being quite rude to preach at me in this fashion in what was supposed to be a relaxed social setting, and that it was making me uncomfortable. I assumed this would at least get her to stop, at the price of some awkwardness (silence, even awkward silence, would have been a relief at this point). No such luck. The preaching continued until the end of dinner afforded me the chance to wander off to another room.

After dinner a number of people, who must have overheard at least parts of the previous exchange, approached me on various pretexts. No matter how determinedly I tried to talk about other topics, Christianity kept coming up. It would be wearisome to describe these conversations verbatim even if I could remember them in detail. One otherwise most appealing-seeming young lady responded to my statement that I wasn't a Christian with "Well, Jesus loves you anyway." I told her a total of three or four times that I didn't feel like hearing any more about religion that day, and each time she refused to change the subject. Finally the original Ethiopian lady tracked me down and started in again. When I told her I didn't want to be preached at any more, she made one of those tired analogies they always make, about having a duty to save a person in a burning building even if the person refuses to believe the building is on fire. I pointed out that while Christians claim to "love" everyone, in reality they did not even seem able to summon up the minimal respect for other human beings which is necessary for normal social interaction -- the minimal respect of showing basic courtesy to others and accepting that their beliefs are their own business. She responded with a story of having prayed for her sick sister even though the sister had specifically told her not to. In the end she dropped all pretense of saying anything other than that Christians have the right and duty to preach at and convert unbelievers whether the latter like it or not.

At this point the time came for the party to end, and M- called everyone together to stand in a circle for a final prayer. Even then, one man had the nerve to invite me to join in! I declined and wandered off to another room, figuring I could wait for a minute or so while they did their praying, after which I'd finally be out of there without having to commit the rudeness to M- of leaving before the party was over.

Fifteen minutes later they were still at it. The chanting, in English and some Mandarin -- so loud that it must have been very clearly audible in adjacent apartments -- took on the quality of something eerie and almost inhuman, a sort of deliberate drowning of human consciousness in the mindless emotionalism of formulaic recital. The content had an aggressive edge to it, as well. "O Lord, how can we deny you! Give us the strength [pause] to evangelize!! Give us America! Give us China!" I'm not exaggerating when I say that the tone of controlled hysteria would not have seemed too out of place at a Nazi rally, or in a lynch mob whipping itself up. After ffiteen minutes of listening to this, I realized that they might well keep it up for another hour for all I knew, and I decided to get out of there, rudeness or not. I returned to the main room, where the Christians were so wrapped up in their pod-people routine as to give no sign of noticing I was there. I grabbed my jacket and left.

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In hindsight it's obvious that this party, or at least the invitation to me to attend it, was nothing but a pretext to get me into the cross-hairs of a high-intensity conversion effort. But even though I had experienced the fanaticism (and rudeness) of hard-core Christians on several occasions before that, I had never been subjected to it in such intense and concentrated form. If faced with a similar situation today, I would simply leave as soon as it became clear what the game was. At the time, I was almost in a state of disbelief that people could actually behave like that.


The plague we don't speak of

We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere "understanding". Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritansm; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

-- a demon character in CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters

If I believed in demons, I would certainly see signs everywhere that they are using the Screwtape strategy in our society today, to considerable effect. Moralists rail against unconventional sexual behavior and sexual content in the media -- in what remains the most absurdly sexually-puritanical nation in the Western world. Political correctness urges vigilance against any manifestation of "Islamophobia" -- while Islamists openly preach and plot the annihilation of our civilization. And we fret endlessly about anorexia and sneer at people we judge to be "too" thin -- in the midst of the most massive (in more senses than one) obesity epidemic in world history.

The term "epidemic" is not inappropriate. It’s like living in the middle of some terrible plague that no one else seems to notice. Most Americans are overweight, a significant fraction -- casual observation suggests 15% to 20% if not more -- grotesquely so. And there’s no doubt that all this excess fat is doing people a wide range of different kinds of harm. Besides the well-known risks of clogged arteries and heart trouble, excess weight increases the risk of cancer, has worse overall health effects than smoking or heavy drinking (with predicatble effects on health costs), and is even associated with a decline in mental function, probably due to its effects on blood vessels within the brain. It's increasingly clear that even a small amount of excess weight is bad for health and longevity.

While an individual’s degree of vulnerability to obesity is to some extent influenced by his capacity for self-restraint (political correctness notwithstanding), it would be wrong to view excess weight as a sign of some moral failing. The urge to eat, after all, is natural and healthy; indeed, it’s essential for survival. Evolution designed us to like and seek out tastes such as meat or sweetness which were the mark of energy-rich food. For hunter-gatherers, eating too much is rarely an issue. A day when you can get enough to eat is a good day. Today we have abundant food available at all times -- a situation unprecedented in our evolutionary history. Pleasurable tastes can be artificially concentrated and intensified in quasi-foods such as candy. Meat, a rare energy-rich treat for our ancestors or for our chimpanzee cousins today, can now be had in unlimited quantities by almost everyone. And while primitive humans led strenuous lives out of necessity, our technology encourages an almost sedentary existence. It’s not surprising what is now happening to us as a result.

If it is rightly considered improper to personally attack people for being fat, no such taboo seems to apply to the frankly bizarre habit some people have developed of insulting and sneering at anyone they perceive to be too thin. The exact nature of the psychology behind this escapes me, though a number of obvious possibilities suggest themselves. For some reason, though the individuals who spew such insults can be of either gender, the targets are almost always slender women, rarely men.

The fact is, the preponderance of overweight people in our population is distorting our sense of what the human body is supposed to look like. What is biologically healthy or unhealthy remains healthy or unhealthy regardless of how social attitudes change. Let me use myself as an example. I’m half an inch under six feet tall, and for most of the last few years I’ve weighed very close to 200 pounds. This is actually 20 pounds above the point where my weight starts to shorten my statistical life expectancy; yet at my previous job, on two separate occasions, I overheard people referring to me as "skinny". If I hadn’t set out to educate myself on the subject -- and pushed a less-than-eager doctor to give me a frank assessment -- I could easily be totally unaware that I have a weight problem. (Over the last month or so I’ve gotten it down to 195.)

Some people who suffer from being overweight have committed themselves to the changes in diet and exercise necessary to regain their health -- a course all the more admirable for its extreme difficulty. Many more want to lose weight but have no idea how to start, or are misled by the countless fads and gimmicks on offer. Some honestly don’t realize there is anything wrong. What is truly despicable, however, is the "fat acceptance" movement, which actively works to de-motivate people from the hard work needed to overcome a deadly-dangerous syndrome. Try to imagine how much blood a similar "smoking acceptance" movement would have accumulated on its hands over the last couple of decades, and you’ll have some idea of what these people have to answer for.

In the end, I suppose, technology will alleviate this problem as it has so many others; low-calorie foods for a broad range of tastes are already proliferating, and demand will encourage this trend (though I don’t see how technology can substitute for exercise, which remains a necessity for true well-being). In the meantime, we need to be fully aware that our country is in the grip of a vast, lethal epidemic which few of us have entirely escaped -- and we need to support, not denigrate, those among us who are struggling to become or remain healthy.

02 September 2007

The castle by the sea

Poisonous hatred

I'm generally sympathetic to some of the goals of the animal-rights movement, but this is terrorism by any reasonable definition. And like any form of terrorism, it can achieve nothing but to enrage people against the cause on whose behalf it is committed.


Arguing religion

Forbidden comics (2)

Here's the second of the two Opus strips shunned by many newspapers as "offensive to Muslims".

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The march of the bullies

Examples of how the Putin regime in Russia intimidates its perceived opponents, foreign and domestic.


01 September 2007

The architecture of madness

Bumbling central planners? Vodka-addled construction workers? Architects who learned their trade from Escher drawings? Whatever the cause, these buildings have some, er, interesting features.

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