From the Outside / Со Стороны

by emory989

There’s an idiomatic Russian phrase that I’ve made great use of, but haven’t quite figured how to express in English in such a concise and yet universal way: со стороны, as in взглянуть со стороны, literally “to look from the side”. One might say “to look (at something) from the outside”, or more expansively, “try to think outside the box,” or “zoom out,” but brevity is catching, and it seems the Russians are more laconic in this case.

Any half-conscious expat can tell you that life abroad is revealing in its wealth of со стороны moments – when some random event, or a local’s take on the event, makes you realize how constricted, and in a sense hereditary, your own thinking is.

One of these (rather prolonged) events has been the situation in the Ukraine. Wars are, to paraphrase Tolstoy, all alike, for those who consider them just; they are someone else’s fault, they are defensive, and they demand full-throated patriotism and decisive action on the part of the Great Leader. Usually, however, one only has the opportunity to see this burning sense of justice arise in the diaphragms of one’s own people; what is provoking of a view from the side is seeing it among another people as well.

When Yanukovich was overthrown in February, my Russian friends came bursting in on me announcing that America was sponsoring fascists and how could we, and all of their friends and relatives in the Crimea were ready to secede and were slightly afraid of the fascists in Kiev. I was a bit taken aback by the idea that America was supporting fascist coups (not that we haven’t done that before, but one tries to believe in one’s country), but I’d avoided the news like sane people avoid fast-food since my freshman year at a little philosophy school on top of a mountain in the desert.  Around the same time, I began to notice Facebook posts from an American friend who has somehow become something of an authority on Russia, which amounted to having a Ukraine-RSS ticker as my newsfeed. His view, which as far as I can tell is the American media view, was of course quite different. We’re all familiar with the American media view, so I won’t summarize it. However, because I was in Russia, I felt the enormous social pressure of people whom I love and respect repeating what is, undoubtedly, the Russian media view. I began to think “well yes, the Crimea probably by all rights shouldn’t have been let go so carelessly in 1991; and yes, Khrushchev very possibly gave it away illegally in 1954; and whatever is happening in the Ukraine, the United States should most likely try very hard not to give any reason to believe that it is involved – after all, how would we feel if Russia showed up in Cuba or Mexico?” This is not any kind of moral equivocating; this is seeing an event from the side, because the although there are clearly clashes of “facts” in this information war, the clearest outcome for me has been that the two sides are not talking to one another. What about the fact that the Crimea did legally belong to the Ukraine for 20 years with no complaints from Russia? What about the fact it is in many ways very culturally Russian, to the point that the twice-over Hero City of Sevastopol, after the annexation, joined Moscow and St. Petersburg as a Federal City of Russia? The game of what about likely continues for hours in certain Russian-American friendships.

Later, being in America when the Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down and absent the influence of a strong Russian environs, I found myself thinking fearfully about returning to Russia. Is it safe? Are they not just going crazy, shooting airliners from the sky? It’s the USSR all over again, with tanks rolling out from under the feathered floats like on the Simpsons! In Russian, this is of course yerunda, nonsense. My friends are still the same kind people (albeit with occasionally strange and unsettling beliefs), the same colleagues, and hardly sanction the shooting down of airliners. The question is in the perception of facts.

The perception of facts – or more polemically, the force-feeding of factoids – is what the media considers its business. I swallowed it voraciously in high school. In college, in the physical, temporal, and mental isolation of a classical philosophy in the classical manner in a campus without newspapers or TVs or much in the way of internet, I went on a news-fast. It took me a month for me to learn of Hurricane Katrina, and to my surprise, I was none the worse for the wear – perhaps better: saving hours of headline-trawling for the study of things worth learning, like the form of beauty, critical thinking, logic, and scientific classification, had made me a better, healthier, saner person.

I still haven’t gone back to reading the news regularly, and yet I’ve found that my general knowledge of history and ability to think critically have served me perfectly well in discussions of political events, even when I only learn of the incident upon entering the conversation. Is this a kind of political philistinism? I prefer to think of it as the view from the side, which admits the influence of our media, our friends, and our upbringing on our, if we can claim them as our own, views.

What do you think? Is it more harmful to read the news daily, to ignore it, or to skim headlines?