Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Power of the Powerless

I had an interesting conversation last night. Strangely enough it put things in a rather different perspective for me. It is true that my work and ideas are largely excluded from orthodox academia. A google scholar search shows that the only other scholar to refer to the special settlement regime as an apartheid system is Galina Ivanova. But, Russian scholarship in the 1990s was considerably more diverse than the reigning orthodoxy in the US today on Soviet nationality policies established by people like Francine Hirsch. It was certainly far, far more critical of the Soviet regime. It is also true that this exclusion gets reinforced on the Internet where most academics refuse to even consider the application of negative terms such as racism, apartheid, colonialism, and genocide to any action ever taken by the government of the USSR. But, it is precisely because much of American academia strives towards a totalitarian model that my marginalization may be less than the total dismissal that I had previously thought.

The argument is that the less room that a regime makes for dissenting ideas the more dangerous it perceives any dissenting ideas. Hence the spectacle of the Soviet and other dictatorships arresting and persecuting people for rather innocuous opposition activities. Now American academia is not anywhere near that level of ideological control, but it is far less diverse than American society as a whole in terms of the acceptance of unorthodox ideas.  So just as the presence of graffiti calling for the overthrow of an authoritarian regime has more meaning than political graffiti in a truly liberal and tolerant society, my dissent has some meaning by the very fact that there is a reigning academic orthodoxy enforced through hiring practices and peer review. Although I have found that it is still possible to surmount this last instrument of control, it has gotten ideologically much tighter in the last couple of years.  However, just like political graffiti in the capital of an authoritarian regime my writing on this blog does indicate that there is not complete overt consent and compliance with the ruling dogma. In a completely open system it is meaningless. But, the more the system attempts to shut out or even just ignore alternative ideas the more potential such graffiti has to be an ideological irritant to the people who enforce the ruling orthodoxy. This is the gist of the argument I got from the person I was debating last night. I initially had a lot of doubts about its veracity. I would have thought that the more closed the system became the easier it was for everybody to completely ignore me. I am guessing that 99.9% of historians in the US teaching Soviet history have never heard of me or read any of my published works. However, I did like his optimism. So from now on I am going to act as if my words might very well serve the same type of function as opposition graffiti in an illiberal state. It greatly increases my status from being a complete nobody.

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