The Perception of a Crisis

The economy of the US recovered from the global economic crisis of 2007-9 brilliantly. Unemployment rates dropped off a cliff, Western Europe is enviously eyeing “the American economic miracle,” the most underdeveloped regions of the US have gone back to full-scale constructions, expensive chic restaurants started mushrooming even in our small town in the middle of nowhere, job recruitment agencies are overworked and overwhelmed, etc.

However, the American people don’t seem to be happy. They went to the polls two weeks ago to show their discontent to the president who walked the country out of a crisis that is still ravaging other developed countries. There are constant reports that the general public believes we are still in a recession and does not notice any improvements in the economy.

Are the American people simply stupid? Can they not see how different today’s economy is from what we were all experiencing in 2008 and 2009?

No, of course, they are not stupid. The American people have a deep-seated and completely justified suspicion that the old world order is gone for good. The economic crisis of the 2008 is gone in terms of the economy but it is still very much here in every other sense. The Great Recession coincided with the moment in time when it became completely clear to everybody that there was a massive transformation underway of both the global world order and the structure of the nation-state. Since there is no public discussion of this enormous tectonic shift, people are verbalizing their preoccupation through the familiar language of recession and unbalanced budgets. 

The conscience of crisis remains even after the unemployment rates have climbed down. This would be a great time to talk about what is really going on and why we feel like the crisis is only beginning. However, what is the likelihood that anybody will put aside the comforting party slogans to look for new terminology that will be relevant to the new reality?

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Research in Class

For the first time in my life, I spoke about my research in class. This means that instead of delivering the simplified, watered-down version, I actually spoke in my “research voice” and at the level at which I conduct the research. I wasn’t planning to do it but then students started asking really profound questions, and I couldn’t resist.

This was a strangely exhilarating experience. Since this class, I have already received emails of gratitude from 3 different students. Usually, nobody thanks me for specific lectures, so this is a first. One student told me that this was the best lecture he ever heard in his life.

This is a singular occurrence because there is always the issue of linguistic competence which stands as a barrier between me and the possibility to deliver such material more often. And, of course, there is the issue of students expecting lists of things they can memorize. My lectures are always exciting and informative (seriously, you should read my student evaluations) but they are never actually at the level of the research I conduct. Because the research cannot be reduced to a bullet-point list.

The only other time I tried teaching at the level of my research was in a graduate course back at Cornell. That single lecture led 23 students out of 29 to drop the course instantly. So I never repeated the experiment.

Maybe I need to talk to this group about the nation-state before the semester ends and I never get such another opportunity.

“Job” Opportunities

My colleagues constantly send me “job” opportunities for students. These “jobs” are unpaid, “resume-building” activities. I never share these opportunities with students, however.

I understand that they are adults who can make their own decisions as to whether they want to donate their labor for free. However, I’m also an adult who is entitled to make my own decision. And it is my decision not to participate in this form of exploitative labor practices. 

In the same vein, it has been suggested to me that I can “employ” several unpaid research assistants alongside with my one paid RA. I refused because I’ll be damned if I ever exploit a worker in this way. The way it was explained to me is that spending time with me and learning about my research is already so valuable that students don’t need to be paid for helping me with my research. The good news is that I’m not deluded and self-centered enough to take this approach.


The Kansas Debacle

Government employees produce nothing. They’re a net consumer. And you got that cost forever and ever and ever because they’re on the KPERS (pension) plan, they’re on all the government insurance and everything,” Merrick said. “That is employment to Democrats. Hire more (government employees). And that was Kathleen; she’d brag about her employment number, ‘Oh, I got a lot of people employed.’ Yeah, you got a lot more government employees employed. That doesn’t stimulate the economy.”

I wonder how such an uneducated and embarrassingly stupid person could have been hired to represent the interests of the people. Maybe this government employee who produces nothing but stupid and pompous speeches should be fired.

West Goes East

In Ukraine and now Romania, voters in Eastern Europe are choosing leaders on the basis of their desire to move their countries closer to the West. Is anybody in the West paying attention?

No, nobody is because the West itself wants to move as far away as possible from the West (or what the idea of “the West” represents for Ukrainian and Romanian voters.) I have a feeling that “the West” is geographically shifting to the East.


I have temporarily stopped accessing the media of Russian dissidents and of Ukrainian journalists and bloggers. It is painful to see their desperate attempts to massage what happened at the G20 summit into demonstrating that the West is finally going to do something about Putin. Soon, the realization that nobody will do anything whatsoever and that nobody cares will sink in, and that will not be pretty. But for now, they want to keep the hope alive.

Stalin’s Biographies

Every biography of Stalin needs to answer several foundational questions:

1. Was Stalin a sincere believer in the cause of word revolution? Or was he an opportunist who used Marxism to get power?

2. Did he collaborate with the secret police of the tsarist regime?

3. What was his relationship with Lenin like? Did he hasten Lenin’s death?

4. Was Stalin stupid? Or was he bright?

5. How did Stalin manage to push much more brilliant revolutionaries out of power?

6. Was Stalin paranoid?

7. Was Stalin planning to attack Hitler’s Germany in 1941?

8. Was Stalin preparing World War III?

9. Did Stalin kill his wife?

10. Was Stalin an anti-Semite?

11. Was Stalin murdered?

I’m still reading Stalin’s biography by Kotkin, and there haven’t been any surprises so far. I’m somewhat of a Stalin’s biography buff, so it’s hard to tell me something crucially new. Kotkin’s is a good book but, to be honest, I’ve seen better. The greatest problem I’m seeing so far is Kotkin’s tendency to drown in trivia. He is incapable of letting go of any part of his research and makes a point of mentioning the name of every single person Stalin ever met and every single woman Stalin is rumored to have had sex with. I love long books but not when their message is too watered down. Kotkin provides a ton of historic context for Stalin’s life, which is great for readers who are not very familiar with the European history of the XIXth century. I have not encountered any bloopers in his coverage of the Russian Empire, except for the obnoxious tendency to refer to Ukrainians as “Little Russians (Ukrainians).” Obviously, this doesn’t make the book any shorter either. 

Kotkin has read everything there is to read about Stalin. Sometimes, it works to his detriment, like in an episode where he retells, almost verbatim, Stalin’s account of his own life in Solzhenitsyn’s novel In the First Circle. The problem with this approach is that the novel is a work of fiction, and Stalin’s long indirect free style narrative in the novel serves artistic and not scholarly purposes. Solzhenitsyn wasn’t doing research. He was writing a novel. Of course, his narrative powers are such that it is hard not to allow the writer’s artistic genius to overshadow our impressions of the historic persona who shares his name with Solzhenitsyn’s character.

I will gradually provide Kotkin’s answers to the above-listed questions and offer both my own comments and the general consensus of Stalin’s biographers on these issues. If you have questions about Stalin that are not on the list, do leave them in the comments.

Narcissim Test for Teachers

In order to be a successful teacher, you need to have a fairly strong narcissistic component. (This, of course, goes only for teachers who enjoy teaching and not for those who have to teach but don’t derive much pleasure from the activity.) However, there is an enormous difference between a normal teacher’s narcissistic component and narcissism as a pathology or a personality disorder.

So here is how you can easily check whether your narcissism is healthy:

Imagine a situation when you make a mistake in class, and a student corrects you. Do you feel:

A. pain, anger, fear

B. indifference

C. joy

Now imagine a situation when a student asks a question (e.g. “Professor, what is the Spanish for ostrich?”) and you don’t know the answer. Do you:

A. invent an answer (e.g. “Ostrich in Spanish is ostra.”)

B. pretend you didn’t hear the question

C. say, “I have absolutely no idea. Let’s Google it (look it up in a textbook, ask somebody, call a librarian, etc.) together.”

And here is the answer key:

A – you have a problem and need to start addressing your narcissistic wounds because if this condition is left untreated, you will cause damage to yourself and others.

C – you are a teacher. Everything is perfectly fine with you.

B – you are not a narcissist but neither are you a teacher. What are you doing in this profession?

Language Learning and Narcissism

Narcissists cannot learn foreign languages. If you put a narcissist in a situation where foreign language learning is inevitable, you will exacerbate the narcissism and provoke some serious narcissistic rage.

Learning a language involves constantly choosing to place yourself in situations where you will be at an obvious disadvantage. The moment you open your mouth, you resign yourself to making mistakes, being imperfect, and having your ego wounded. If there is an underlying narcissistic wound, it will not react well to being poked.

The slogan of language teachers everywhere, “it’s OK to make mistakes!”, is deathly to a narcissist. In no other area of learning are the mistakes one makes as public and inevitable. Language learning comes easily only to people who are not fearing the inescapable damage to their ego.

The Fireplace

People expressed a wish for more posts on my personal life, and I’m happy to oblige. Remember that you asked for it before you complain.

When we were looking for a house to buy, N’s only criterion was that the house should have a wood-burning fireplace. He drove the real estate agent nuts because his only response to absolutely any communication from the agent, be it written or oral, was “All I need is a wood-burning fireplace.”

“Yes. Got it,” the agent would respond. “You made your wishes very clear and I wouldn’t even consider showing you a house without a wood-burning fireplace. Now, I have a couple of questions. Is a one-car garage an absolute deal-breaker for you or would you consider it if everything else was great?”

“I need a wood-burning fireplace,” N would respond.

“Yes. I understand. A wood-burning fireplace,” the agent would patiently repeat. “But what about the garage? Some people refuse even to look at houses if they don’t have a two-car garage. How do you feel about that?”

“I need a wood-burning fireplace!” N would exclaim. “That’s all I need!”

And the conversation would continue in this vein for as long as it took me to get bored and interfere.

So now we’ve been living in a house with a wood-burning fireplace for months but a fire has never been lit.

“When are we going to use the fireplace?” I kept asking. “I thought you loved sitting in front of a fireplace and looking at the fire.”

“Let’s wait until it gets cold,” N kept saying.

So it got bitterly cold, it snowed, then it snowed some more.

“Are we finally going to use the fireplace?” I asked. “It’s cold already.”

“N-n-no,” N said, with his teeth chattering from the cold. “It’s still not that cold.”

I know him well, so I had an explanation.

“Are you afraid that if your dream of sitting in front of the fire comes true you will not be able to deal with so much happiness?” I asked.

“Yes. . .” he said.

So I bought some firewood and scheduled a therapeutic lighting of the fire for tonight.