The Linguistic Rift in Ukraine

In a fascinating article at the Washington Post, Max Fisher explains how much of what is happening in Ukraine is about culture and language as much as politics. Two maps that illustrate the rift.

The electoral division of the country into pro- and anti-Yanukovich regions:


And into predominantly Ukrainian-speaking and predominantly Russian-speaking ones:


In other words, in the European-facing half of Ukraine, the orange half, the protests are even more widespread and severe than you might have gathered from watching the media coverage. But it’s important to keep in mind that the other half of the country, the blue half, is much quieter.


You may be wondering, then, why there is such a consistent and deep divide between these two halves of Ukraine. Here’s the really crucial thing to understand about Ukraine: A whole lot of the country speaks Russian, rather than Ukrainian. This map shows the country’s linguistic divide, which you may notice lines up just about perfectly with its political divide.


…Heavily Russian-speaking regions can tend to be more sympathetic (or at least less hostile) to policies that bring their country closer to Russia, as Yanukovych has been doing. But the Ukrainian-speaking regions have historically sought a Ukrainian national identity that is less Russia-facing and more European. So this is about politics, yes, but it’s also about identity, about the question of what it means to be Ukrainian.

(H/T: Andrew Sullivan)



Australia Day Press Wrap Up


Australia Day is a good opportunity to reflect on what Australia is, and where it is going. Here is what some major papers and thinkers/commentators had to say:

Australian of the Year, footballer Adam Goodes, an indigenous Andyamathanha man, does not see the day, which marks the arrival of English colonists in 1788 and their subsequent seizure of aboriginal land with the establishment of the colony of New South Wales, as predominantly one of national celebration:

because of the sadness and mourning and the sorrow of our people and a culture that unfortunately has been lost to me through generations…We are still here, we’ve got a lot to celebrate about being here and that we have one of the longest-serving cultures still alive and kicking.’

Tim Soutphommasane, in the Age, argues that pride and patriotism should be embraced, but tied to a notion of civic membership which eschews blind loyalty or chauvinism:

In the words of one patriot, ”My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Wendy Harmer, in the Sydney Morning Herald, asked her casually racist butcher, grateful immigrant fruit shop owner, and star struck fridge repair man what they thought about the nation:

On Australia Day I’ll raise a toast to Spooks, Sue, Poe, Shamal and everyone who calls this place home or dreams of a better life here. And I’ll also think about all those who seek to exploit our differences and misunderstandings to divide us. Who can understand their motivations?

Mick Dodson writes that the date of Australia Day needs to be reconsidered, and indigenous Australians formally recognised in the constitution:

Australians would never declare that we should “just get over it” when it comes to the commemoration of the Anzacs. Why, then, should that demand be made of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians about the events of a century before that and all that followed? Both should be commemorated, each as surely as the other.

Noel Pearson also writes, in the Australian, about the need for recognition, but only if it is tied to a change in how Australia deals with  policy relating to indigenous affairs:

Without demonstrable traction on the practical agenda, the symbolic reform will face sceptical Australians, black and white. A narrative that explains the relationship between the symbolic and the practical will be needed.

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, yesterday publicly came out in favour of formally recognising indigenous Australians in the constitution.

And, bringing up the rear, Andrew Bolt, at the Herald Sun, is appalled at the choice of Adam Goodes as Australian of the Year, and has written a piece titled ‘Man Honoured After Yelling at 13-year-old Girl’, in which he supportively cites a reader who rails at the ‘racism industry’:

Only by reducing two individuals to racial caricatures – a repentant 13-year-old girl into a white racist and 34-year-old champion footballer into a black victim – could you see in that public shaming a “ magnificent demonstration of character and compassion” worthy of an Australian of the Year. (I do note, however, Goodes was honored for more than this incident alone.)

Reading over this list, it strikes me that only one of the people I have cited is a woman. I went back to several news and commentary sites to find more op-eds and columns written by women about Australia Day, but came up with nothing. I’d be very happy to amend the above if anyone can point me to something worth reading, but for now this post can perhaps serve as an overview of thinking about Australian identity as well as (unintentionally) highlighting the extent to which the Australian media view serious commentary about national affairs as the preserve of men.

Almost Everything in ‘Dr Strangelove’ was True

dr strangelove

Eric Schlosser previews his new book about nuclear weapons in the New Yorker. It turns out that Dr Strangelove was pretty much on the money:

A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.

If It Quacks Like a Duck: Golden Dawn Nazis Exposed

Golden Dawn pictures

The economic crisis in Greece has led to the rise of Golden Dawn, a far-right political movement, which says and does pretty much everything one would expect from that description.

Their earlier denials of being fascists or Nazi sympathisers were spectacularly blown apart by the revelation last week of thousands of pictures of members, some armed, giving the Nazi salute, and brandishing SS banners.

“What this confirms, without a shadow of doubt, is that Golden Dawn is not only a Nazi group but a criminal organisation that operated as a paramilitary structure,” said Dimitris Psarras, the country’s leading authority on the party.

“We are literally talking about thousands of pictures,” he told the Guardian. “And many are highly incriminating, portraying well known members receiving armed training in summer camps.”

The British National Party’s Nick Griffin has defended the group, who he called his ‘patriot comrades.’

The seriousness of this kind of thing should not be underestimated in a country with a history of dictatorship, and a continent where Nazism is a living memory for many.

They have also set up an Australian chapter, in Melbourne.


Click Bait Media: Australians Who Read our Work are Dumb

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 2.13.49 PM

Generalisations about whole nations are meaningless. People, let alone masses of population millions strong, are far more complicated than to be able to be summarised by a handful of perceived common attributes. Yet the genre of national character sketch persists and, in Australia, tends to be particularly cherished by progressive writers using it to argue that their compatriots are stupid, ill-informed racists, more interested in reality TV than politics.

This piece, by comedian and writer Corinne Grant, has been doing the rounds recently, cited approvingly as an accurate snapshot of Australia and Australians. In brief, Grant argues that we are more interested in celebrity gossip than serious politics. The repeated violation of Indonesian territorial waters by the Australian Navy in its attempts to turn back refugee boats is said to get less interest than Cameron Diaz’s views on Brazilian waxing. The conclusion:

The Murdoch media and politicians have told us ‘boat people’ are stealing from us and we’re stupid enough to fall for it. We genuinely believe that a few thousand people are responsible for traffic congestion and hospital queues instead of years and years of government inaction on public transport, roads and health. We accept that we’re ‘at war’ with asylum seekers without questioning the ludicrousness of the statement or the secrecy and abuse it’s used to justify. We hate to think but we love to hate.

Leaving aside the fact that Grant’s piece was published by a commentary website whose lead story today was titled ‘Oh, High Heels, Must We Break Up?’ (pic above), it seems perverse to diagnose the problem as low quality media and then conclude that its sufferers must themselves be stupid.

The uncomfortable reality for media commentators is that most people simply do not have the time to spend informing themselves from several media sources about contemporary politics. Getting up, taking your kids to school, working until 5 or 6 (often later), commuting home, sorting out dinner, and taking a few minutes to relax before heading to bed leaves very little time for the kind of balanced analysis Grant seems to assume is a prerequisite for not deserving to be the target of her opprobrium.

Australia has some of the least diverse media ownership in the world. Two newspaper owners (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp; Fairfax) were responsible for 86% of newspaper circulation in the country in 2011. Online news and commentary have changed this picture somewhat, but it is still the case that legacy media determines the daily political narrative.

More media diversity is part of the solution, and it is great to see, most recently, the emergence of a new quality weekend broadsheet. But progressive thinkers have to try harder to communicate in ways that are not dripping with contempt for those whose opinions they hope to change, and not simply vacate the field, as Labor did, for example, on refugees in the wake of the 2001 Tampa affair, when it all gets too difficult.

Not giving in to the easy pleasure of proclaiming that everybody who disagrees with you ‘loves stayin’ dumb’ is a good place to start.

Francois ‘Niemandshand’ Hollande

Some comedy to start 2014: French President Francois Hollande failing at handshakes.

The bottom right is my favourite.



Via Dutch paper Volkskrant. (H/T @ollybarratt)


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