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March 13, 2006 by AK

To live, don’t let live

Russians who have lived in the Anglophone West often report an unpleasant finding: the prevalence of “report your neighbor” as a type of citizen activism.

You think some people in your neighborhood have ugly front yards? You suspect the family next door is dumping hazardous waste in their back yard? That guy has bought a house too good for a modest government employee? The couple across the street might, just might, be underreporting their income? Their neighbor might not be actually sleeping with his immigrant wife? Your office buddy has porn on his drive? Or, much worse, visits “racist” forums? The answer is the same: report them to the relevant authority, governmental or corporate.

Some Russians have come to believe that “report your neighbor” is the cornerstone of Western civil society, and spying on one’s neighbor is a signature civic virtue of the West. (Although the same activities have been widespread in both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, “snitching” has always been seen as despicable, and informers as little better than vermin.) Not surprisingly, they wonder whether Russian society should move in this direction.

This view of civil society is obviously based on exaggeration yet I have not found simple and convincing arguments to counter it.


10 comments »

  1. Thomas Wicker says:

    Hi, Alexei,

    Interesting question — and I’m always fascinated by the differences in viewpoints betw. the West and Russia.

    If you’re looking for arguments to counter it, I think you’ll need to look to the fact that, to a certain extent, the “snitch” factor is correct — we are encouraged to “snitch.” If we see a crime, we’re supposed to report it. We call — then — to get it taken care of. And we expect others to do the same.

    We do this because we expect that, if we tell, the police will be professional, the judges will be professional, and anyone who has to go to court will be able to have legal representation. And, if we tell about something that’s *not* actually an issue, there will be civil Hell to pay — neighbors will shun you, the police will ignore you, and you may get slapped with a civil suit.

    At least here in the U.S., it’s the strong court system that allows us to feel comfortable with it. If my neighbor is dumping waste, it’s *my* problem — because I might be affected by it. And I know it will be properly handled by the proper authorities.

    Just my $0.02.

    — Thomas

  2. Thomas Wicker says:

    And, then, upon returning to your blog somewhat later, I re-read — and remembered — your posting about “The Russian Federation as a failed state” — with a lack of trust in law enforcement agencies, living in fear of the police, a lack of protection against the abuse, and not feeling able to count on the courts to protect their rights.

    In other words, the very things that are required for “snitching” to be a civic duty (trust that the system will work for justice, not just for a personal vendetta) are not present, according to that opinion poll, in Russia.

    At that point, it’s the people v. the police — instead of the police working for the people.

    So … if you want to explain it, you may have to say, “Imagine, for a moment, that you trust the police, the courts, and the various parts of the law enforcement agencies … “

    Yours,
    Thomas

  3. Timo Timonen says:

    When is snitching just that and when does it become a civic responsibility? The lates trend in policing is to make it as much a community based co-operative endevor as possible. This is propably due to the limited financial resourses that are facing the most municipalities, and also due to fact that hundred eyes are better than two.

  4. j. cassian says:

    “The Argentine, unlike the Americans of the North and almost all Europeans, does not identify with the State. This is attributable to the circumstance that governments in this country tend to be awful, or to the general fact that the State is an inconceivable abstraction. One thing is certain: the Argentine is an individual, not a citizen. Aphorisms such as Hegel’s ‘The State is the reality of the moral idea’ strike him as sinister jokes. Films made in Hollywood often hold up for admiration the case of a man (usually a journalist) who seeks out the friendship of a criminal in order to hand him over to the police; the Argentine, for whom friendship is a passion and the police a mafia, feels that this ‘hero’ is an incomprehensible swine.”

    Borges: “Our Poor Individualism”

  5. Alex(ei) says:

    Let me try to answer all your comments with one. “There is an immutable scale of values,” said Osip Mandelstam, and on the ideal Russian’s scale, Timo’s question makes no more sense than wondering if public masturbation can be a civic duty. In other words, whether our ideal Russian is at home or abroad (where he trusts the courts and the police), whether he understands the workings of the society around him or not, some actions will remain outside the pale for him. To deal with the wrongdoer — if need be — he would try to talk to him directly, perhaps twice or thrice or indefinitely. If that fails, he would think of appealing to a third party, even the police. Dead end.

    Borges must have been joking about the American — I would say the conservative American identifies more with the community that with the state. The ideal Russian of the previous paragraph observes that to govern itself, a community (unless, perhaps, it is extremely homogenous) has to require unethical behavior from its members. On the other hand, he would not mind if Hegel’s concept held true but he suspects it never does.

    (Hollywood has become more sophisticated since: now the journalist will try to persuade the criminal to surrender. If successful, the former will emerge a moral hero; if not, his preaching will give the police enough time to shoot down the bad guy.)

  6. Mitch says:

    Alexei, I wonder just where your friends were. This kind of behavior is not acceptable in New England, where we have a long tradition of keeping our noses out of other people’s business.

  7. Alex(ei) says:

    Mitch, these are opinions not only of friends but also of people I do know in person. Some may actually live in Boston or Cambridge, MA. Most, I suspect, live elsewhere.

  8. W. Shedd says:

    I am surprised that Russians would feel that Americans report on each other. Then again, if your Russian friends are like many that I know, they are probably having a party much too loudly and too late and surprised to find that the neighbors called the cops to ask them to quiet down.

    That would be pretty normal, even in “good fences make good neighbors” New England.

    As for the idea that conservative Americans don’t identify with the state – don’t be silly. First, all that conservative “small government” rhetoric from Republicans is only that – rhetoric. In my lifetime, Republicans have consistently expanded government, its spending and its authority much much more than Democrats. And if you think that conservative Americans won’t stand up and put their hand over their heart during the national anthem at the start of a baseball game – then you are on drugs. Conservative Americans are joining the US military in droves – again indentifying with the state. The original premise of the Republican party after all, was a strong federal government (US Civil War was basically federal government vs. conderate states). It would be much more likely that a liberal American would reject the state and governments authority (dude! Drafts suck, they got no right to do that, dude!). The exception being perhaps far-right loonies like Timothy McVeigh.

  9. Alex(ei) says:

    No, my informants are not drink-loving students.

    Let us distinguish between the conservative American and the Republican party. Both parties are very good at manipulating its constituencies through well-chosen slogans. The fact that the Republican party is big on small-government rhetoric seems to support my claim that small-government values are dear to the heart of the conservative voter. His saluting the flag can be interpreted as a tribute to the nation — a political community — rather than the state. His kids’ joining the Army could be explained by an influence of Bushist rhetoric centered around liberty (which Bish wilfully misinterprets), a desire for being part of an hierarchy with a strong moral code, or a lack of opportunities for the lower middle class not eligible for AA. But his anti-government instinct expresses itself the most strongly in his desire to own arms.

    This is not to say that liberals are state-worshippers. Sure, left libertarians are alive and well.

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