Ryan Morfin: Welcome to Non-Beta Alpha. I’m Ryan Morfin. On today’s episode, we have Professor Ron Suny from university of Michigan, talking to us about emerging trends in nationalism and what it means for the global order. This is Non-Beta Alpha.
Professor Suny, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining us.
Professor Ron S…: Happy to be here.
Ryan Morfin: Well, you’re one of the world’s leading experts at nationalism amongst other things. In this current political and geopolitical environment with the great powers shifting maybe an inward view, maybe you could talk a little bit about just your definition of nationalism. Maybe we can go after that, around some of the hotspots that are looking inward and projecting power outward through the lens of nationalism.
Professor Ron S…: That’s a big question, Ryan. So, let me start sort of what you asked for, which is this definition, right?
Ryan Morfin: Yep.
Professor Ron S…: So nationalism, first of all, is one of those terms like liberalism, conservatism, socialism, whatever, which has too many meanings. So, when people use the term, it can mean everything from the Russian motifs in an opera by Tchaikovsky to Hitler’s policies toward Poland and the Jews. It has this kind of grand and capacious meaning. When the thing means too many things and when it’s applied too often, it doesn’t really tell you much. It’s not very interesting.
So, when I am trying to do I’m writing a book called Forging the Nation: The Making and Faking of Nationalisms and I begin with the notion that the nation itself, the thing we think of as the nation, the thing that nationalists appeal to is a thing that is made up. It’s constructed by nationalist, politicians, poets, historians, all kinds of people, and it can mean all kinds of different things. So, if you look at the United States, what would be American nationalism? Would it be some kind of patriotic commitment to the fundamental values of the founding fathers and the constitution declaration of independence? Would it be give me your tired, your poor, you wretched of the earth, come here and breathe free, or would it be America first, close the doors I’m in?
Even though my parents were immigrants, we’re now here, born here, so we don’t want anymore. It can mean all these different things, but to be more precise at the moment in the answer to your question, naturalism, whatever it is, the idea that the nation comes first and a new kind of populist authoritarian almost nationalism, America first, Hungary first, make Russia great again, China against the world. Those kinds of nationalisms, the closing of doors, the guarding of borders, that has seen an upsurge in the last 10 years at least, and seems to be accelerating at the moment.
Ryan Morfin: We’ve just gone through a really strong secular growth, global growth period that we’ll see what happens with the pandemic, but I guess the question is, globalization has been very successful for a lot of the world. The 19th century concept of a nation had borders, had an identity. How is globalization challenging that you think? And, is there a future, I mean, from a socioeconomic evolutionary standpoint, is there a future for nations if we get back on the globalization bandwagon or do you think that’s an outdated framework today?
Professor Ron S…: No, this is a really good question. I’ve actually written about this, and it’ll probably come in the book somewhere, right, toward the end, probably, you know? So, globalization is a kind of euphemistic term for the spread of global capitalism. It means that all over the world, there are no more Soviet Unions and that capitalism is the name of the game, you know? So, there’s not a single kind of capitalism. It could be neoliberal capitalism. It could be welfare capitalism like Scandinavia. It could be state capitalism as in Russia or maybe even China to a large extent. But, everyone is in a kind of relationship, which is about markets and trade and the flow of labor. So, globalization or the spread of global capitalism seems to be good as a term. So, people then worry, “Well, what about sovereign nations who make their own decisions and their own policies within the system?”
There were a lot of predictions, some by colleagues at the University of Chicago, when you were student there, when I was teaching there, who believed that globalization is the name of the game, the nation is finished, right? It’s over. Then to everyone’s surprise after roughly 2000, 2005, the nation resurged. It’s back and it’s back with a vengeance, and it’s trying to assert itself. So, what you’ve got in the world today to put it neatly is two contradictory trends fighting each other in a way.
The globalizing, deborderizing, transnational tendencies of capitalism, capital flows, labor, et cetera, and the resurgence of nationalism, trying to protect your own little capitalist market from the ravages of international competition, from the ravages of migration, which seemed to threaten your local culture and it’s a real struggle. You can see it in the United States between those who so much from the Clinton administration on proposed and promoted global trade free trade NAFTA, et cetera. Those more America first types like the Trump administration, that’s going back to something more like the national market, make it in America, close off to these kinds of trades, et cetera.
There’s no predicting what’s going to happen, but I will add one more thing. Capitalism needs the nation. That is the nation still plays a big role in capitalism. There are most things are made in many countries, including the United States within that country, right? So, the two work together as well as compete with one another. So, the nation ain’t going anywhere, it’s sticking around, and it will have to adjust itself to the movements of global capitalism and international labor migration and capital flows, but it’s not going anywhere.
Ryan Morfin: To ask a bizarre question, but I think it may not be too far fetched. How does, if we become a population of space faring adventurers if Elon Musk has his way, how does the concept of nation state start to migrate if we start to shift people to the moon or Mars, like how will you see that in 100 years from now?
Professor Ron S…: My daughter, son-in-law and I just watched this program called Watchman, and it’s based on a graphic novel sometime ago, and this crazy inventor guy invents a giant squid that threatens the world so that the nuclear powers like the Soviet Union or Russia, China, United States don’t destroy each other, right? So, you could make the point that no matter what happens with space travel and the intergalactic connections that might arise, people on earth in nations, in this global interconnected capitalist system that we have need to try in various ways to solve problems that in fact are transnational. Climate problems, right? Global warming, we used to call it. We have new euphemistic terms for it now, or epidemics, pandemics. Is this a national problem?
It may have started in one wet market in China, but it’s spread at differential rates in countries that did better or worse, not mentioning any names here, on dealing with the crisis. So, nuclear proliferation, right? All these problems with energy. They are things which are in an integrated global system as we now have that need to be dealt with by nations obviously in negotiation with other nations to solve really transnational and global problems. Will people be rational? Sometimes they are more rational than others, or will they be more selfish, greedy, inward looking? Well, we’ll see. The pandemic has been such a shock to the economic system and to people’s own perceptions about things like inequality, race, the nature of the capitalist system, whether we need something more socialistic, that maybe this is a turning point. They’re calling it inflection point. I had to look that one up, but a turning point.
Ryan Morfin: Well, one question I had for you is that in the 20th century, we had a debate between socialism, communism, and capitalism. It seemed that in the late ’80s, capitalism won and there was a peace dividend. It seems like in the last 20 years or so, there’s been a resurgence, if you will, or an evolution of this kind of fusion of like you mentioned state capitalism, the China model. It seems that Russia has developed a completely different model, maybe oligarchy that has capitalism for a few, but I mean, how has socialism and communism, how has it morphed in the last 20 years and what do you call China and Russia today? Are they practicing communism at all or is it a perversion of what Lenin and Marx would have crawled over and been very upset about what they see in today’s parties?
Professor Ron S…: To begin with, the Soviet Union and Soviet style communism or state socialism or whatever we’re going to call it was one particular manifestation. I would call it a perversion of what socialism was supposed to be about, right? Socialism in Marx’s own vision and even Lenin’s vision before the revolution of 1917 was about creating the most democratic society possible. That is not only having a democratic political system, but a democratic participatory economic system. That was the goal, and the socialists or the Bolsheviks, the communists won in the most backward country in Europe. That is in Russia, largely a peasant country, and that dream of democratization and socialism of that sort morphed over time into a dictatorship, of tyranny that cost millions of lives, et cetera.
That system tried to reform itself in the 1980s and 1990s. Tried to do too much, too fast and ultimately collapsed. At the moment when the Soviet style state socialisms collapsed was the moment of the triumph in the West of a particular kind of capitalism. What we call neoliberal capitalism. That is the Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher view that the market can do everything. The famous Chicago school, right? Markets are rational. Markets work perfectly well and everything will be well if we get the state out of things, if we end the kind of Keynesian and welfaristic state policies that actually did so well from 1945 into the 1970s, and we let the market work. So, the former Soviet style states-
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:13:04]
Professor Ron S…: The former Soviet style states tried also to adopt this neoliberal market centered capitalism in much of Eastern Europe and in other places, for better or for worse. Russia, of course, carried that to an extreme, sold off the former assets of the Soviet Union, which had been state owned, to what we call the oligarchs in cahoots with the Yeltsin regime, created these huge amount of wealth in the hands of these people who collaborated with the government, mostly with Yeltsin, but also now with Putin’s government. And you have a system of oligarchic capitalism with state enterprises playing an important role. Lots of corruption, obviously in such a system. That system, I don’t even know what to call it. Sort of neoliberal, state capitalism, is that possible? It seems a contradiction. It’s different from China. China, of course, kept the communist party in power. It launched, very successfully, a market system, and it became one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
And because of the hold of the communist party, this authoritarian form of capitalism and the amount of freedom they gave to entrepreneurs to do well, there was a kind of deal made. The party said to the entrepreneurs, you go make money and don’t mix in politics. We’ll do the ruling and you go make money. And I actually heard that from Chinese businessmen when I visited China in the 1990s. So that happened, and you’ve got a state capitalism with lots of market features, obviously in China that was doing so well. And it is after all the largest country in the world in terms of population and very ambitious and very well organized that it scared the hell out of the United States, which has been the dominant capitalist country and many other Western countries. And so now the United States, through various means, tariffs, accusations of all kinds of things about China, is trying to somehow contain China, which is going to be extraordinarily hard to do because it’s so big, so powerful, et cetera.
And China of course has its own clay feet. They have serious problems. Authoritarian States have to maintain police regimes and censorship, none of which is good for entrepreneurship. And they also have problems with non Han Chinese nationalities. They’re putting hundreds of thousands of people in camps, in the weaker areas of St. John. So it’s a mixed bag, but what we’re seeing is that it’s a really global struggle between the United States, which is in many ways declining as a power and the Chinese, which is rising as a power. And if you read your Thucydides’s way back when, that’s a very dangerous scenario in terms of peace and war.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah. And the book you’re mentioning, Thucydides’s Trap, I mean, not all of those 16 examples ended in war, but I think it was like 13 out of the 16 did. So the odds are not stacked in favor of a longterm successful, peaceful rise. But as it relates to socialism or communism, there still seems to be relics of the past still playing out. What would you consider Venezuela? How do you look at that framework? Are they just missing the boat? This model is dead and you need to adhere to a China model. Or how would you look at if you were advising the folks in Venezuela to look at their current practice of socialism?
Professor Ron S…: So, as I mentioned before, the word socialism means many different things, right? It can be state socialism of the authoritarian type as in the Soviet union or Mao’s China. It can be social democracy, very democratic with the most egalitarian states in the world, indeed the happiest states by many measures, the healthiest states. The people with the longest life lives are in Scandinavia, which are social welfare or social democratic states. And you have then other forms of socialism, which haven’t worked so well. I don’t know what I would call Venezuela. It’s a failed state in many ways. They can call themselves socialists if they like and they do have the support of the lower class people in that country, but they’ve messed up so badly. They’ve ruined the economy. They’ve given socialism a bad name. It’s going to happen to capitalism too, right?
Capitalism being particularly look good in the 1930s during the great depression. So, but if I were thinking about the future and if I were thinking, how can we improve the situation? And the pandemic is a good example of a moment when all the pathologies, all the contradictions, all the weakness of the kind of capital system we have, particularly in the United States have been exposed, right? Tremendous inequalities, the diseases, killing poor people, blacks, Hispanics more than affluent whites, et cetera. We see all of this and it’s an exploding in racial demonstrations and so forth in. In such a moment, when you see this, you have to ask, well, which way should this capitalist system go? Should it try to continue to rely on the markets? Should the kind of Milton Friedman views, which seem quite outdated at the moment, survive?
Or do we need, in a sense, a much more enlightened policy thinking about the common good, the public good, something like a public health system, which might have prevented or reduced the cost of this pandemic. Do we need investments in things like public goods, infrastructure in the country, ways to protect the most vulnerable people, money for mental health issues and so forth. We rely so much in this country on two institutions, to patrol and police a system that’s deeply flawed. One is the police, who have to do everything from mental health to dealing with the drug crisis to real crime, and two have the educational system. Which we use almost as a policing device or disciplining device to keep young people in their place. And education in particularly is underfunded. And yet we require it to do so much in its own weakened condition. So we need to think of ways in which the state works with the economic system and the private sector, et cetera, to move things in a way that some of these crises and some of these problems, which are shared by the whole population can be dealt with more systematically, more effectively, more rationally.
Ryan Morfin: Well, as we’re talking about different kind of social constructs, the European union is another one that’s gone through a lot of change in the last few years. What are your thoughts about Brexit, UK exiting the EU and what are your thoughts on the future of this European experiment? Can they create a European nationalism or do you think it’s going to be too tough with the history there to really solidify a new identity?
Professor Ron S…: So, and I should first confess that I’m an anti nationalist. That is, I’m not a nationalist. I am probably what people would call an internationalist or a globalist or something like that. You can throw those terms around. That is I see nationalism is generally fairly pathological, but fairly dangerous, particularly in a world that is so transnational, so global, et cetera. Where these grand problems that cross borders need to be solved. But that being said, I celebrate and would celebrate, as a historian and political scientist, any effort like the European union, which tried to go beyond these kinds of antagonistic nationalism that led in the 20th century to two world wars. Since 1945, we haven’t had that. We have a divided Europe, we had the cold war, but the European union and its Alliance structures and all have prevented that from happening again. So I would definitely say that Brexit was a disaster, a terrible error.
They’re going to pay a price for that. And now that Angela Merkel and others have realized, whoa, there’s problems within this union. We’ve got countries like Hungary and Poland and others who are becoming terribly nationalist and anti-democratic, et cetera. They’re trying to save this experiment. It’s delicate, it’s fragile, but it’s very worth trying to save. In the same way that when the American colonies first tried, Oh, we’ll join together in some kind of Confederation, that didn’t work. They needed a tighter union. And then they created the most successful economic and political experiment in history, probably with the constitution. So the other part of your question that was so interesting, Ryan, was could there be a European identity that would be like a national identity? That’s hard, that’s hard, but it has happened. That is a civic identity that we’re Europeans, even more than we’re French or Dutch or Albanian or whatever. Because of history, because of the importance of local cultures, differences of language, experiences that they’ve had through history, it’s harder to overcome those more local listic national identities and create some kind of civic European identity.
But there’s no reason why people can’t have several identities at once. I can be an Armenian. My parents were Armenian. My mother was born here, my father over there. I can be an American. I can even be an internationalist and think about humanity. And so maybe something like that will work, but I regret that some of the great experiments like the Soviet union, which had its faults, of course, ultimately exploded into 15 different nation states. Many of them, very nationalistic and authoritarian at the moment, rather than through some more gentle process to evolve into more democratic, maybe social democratic union.
Ryan Morfin: Well, and so Russia has taken a very proactive approach, recently. You see that now in Ukraine, now with Belarus, to go back and maybe reclaim maybe some ethnic Slavic, ethnic Russian territories that were broken up post the USSR. What are your thoughts on that? And I mean, what are your thoughts on the invasion from Russia to Ukraine? I mean, as a Russia expert, how did you look at that playing out? And is that just a telling sign of things to come?
Professor Ron S…: Almost everything we know about Russia in the United States is wrong. I’ll say very boldly. We have such a demonic view of Russia and of Putin, that everything is reduced to Putin being a KGB agent and Russia being a bad actor, et cetera. Russia is in many ways a normal state, but it’s a state that was once a great power that’s now a far weaker power. The first thing to know about Russia is that it’s relatively weak, economically and militarily vis-a-vis the United States and the West. It spends less than 10% of what we spend on defense. And I’m not even counting NATO. So it’s relatively weak, globally. At the same time, it’s relatively strong compared to its neighbors. Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic countries, they’re now in NATO. We’ll see what happens if something happens there. So that’s the first thing to realize. That doesn’t mean that because the state is weak, it can’t be mischievous and it can’t make trouble for the world and Russia can make trouble for the world. But what is Russia really want? And what do you think its goals are? I would say that-
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Professor Ron S…: What do you think its goals are? I would say this. I’m going to put this in a big picture. The world today is a struggle between Russia, which is a relatively weak power that wants to be a regional hegemon, it wants to dominate its region, the former Soviet union, and it has trouble doing that. It lost the Ukraine. The Ukraine went toward the West and Putin acted quite precipitously, quite brashly and seized Crimea, which only made the situation in Russia worse because of the sanctions, et cetera. Russia wants to dominate that area, but isn’t doing it so well. It does it to some degree with Central Asian powers, but it’s been reduced in its influence because of its own weaknesses.
Russia, as a regional hegemon, is trying to dominate its region faces a very ambitious and quite powerful global hegemon. That is the United States. The United States actually seeks or at least influences much of the globe. It wants to be powerful in the Middle East, in Central Asia, in Afghanistan, in the South China Sea, in every part of the world, Latin America, Africa or whatever. We are not doing that so well. We’ve got ourselves involved in two wars that are going on for decades in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Middle East. And also the United States has been guilty or at least is now paying the price for what you can call imperial overreach. It’s gone too far. It can’t do all of these things. And the American public is reluctant. Indeed the current president is also reluctant to put the resources to spend what the liberal foreign policy established would like, which is to continue our efforts in all of these different parts of the world.
Russia is playing a very shrewd game and it’s doing it rather well with a weekend in places like Syria, where they back the winner, the Assad regime, terrible ruthless regime, but Putin is a shrewd realist. He said, “These are the guys that are going to win. I’m going to be on their side.” And they basically reduced the American role. The Americans, in a shameful way, exploited the Kurdish population of Syria, and then abandoned them and allowed the Turks to move in and destroy their enclave Rojava in that area. And Russia did well by backing the winner. It didn’t do so well in Libya. They backed the central government and the Turks have backed who were doing better there. Be careful, Russia. You may also be with your limited resources engaging in Imperial overreach, and you don’t have the resources that the United States has.
Ryan Morfin: Well, you brought up Turkey and I’m glad you did. I mean, they’re a NATO member. There’s talk of war between them and Greece. They’ve been playing in Syria as well. Libya, you mentioned. What is going on in Turkey? I mean, they just went from a secular nation to maybe an Islamic nation. Maybe they’ve always been an Islamic nation, but were trying to appease the West to get into the EU NATO. What are your thoughts about Turkey today?
Professor Ron S…: Turkey is a sad case, a tragic case. I love Turkey. I’m an Armenian. We suffered from the genocide of the Ottoman government in 1915, but I love being there. I have lots of connections with Turkey. I I’ve taught there and I’ve written a book about the genocide that explores that terrible tragic episode. But Turkey is sad and in a tragic situation. They were effectively under the first and early Erdogan government at the turn of this new century. They were moving in a democratic way. They were moving more closer to the West. They were trying to make a deal with the Kurds. Think of it. The Kurds are about 15 to 20% of the population in Turkey. They’re not allowed to study in their own language. A Kurdish child at six or seven when he goes to school, speaking Kurdish at home. Has to start day one in school speaking Turkish and only Turkish. This is a colonial situation with the Kurds.
But Erdogan was moving in a really interesting way. We were free to discuss the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey, et cetera, roughly up to 2011. Then he began to move toward a more authoritarian position. He ended the negotiations with the Kurd. He put the leaders of the Kurdish party, the most democratic party, it’s called the HDP, in prison. He put hundreds of journalists in prison. He defeated the army, and he’s on his way to becoming a really authoritarian dictator, but not an effective one. The cities are against him. In the last election, Ancora, Istanbul, Izmir, the three biggest cities voted against his party. Istanbul now has a mayor of the Kemalists party, which is against Erdogan’s party. So he’s in a difficult situation, and the economic situation is not good as well.
So Erdogan has turned like Putin in some ways toward nationalism, towards seeing the rest of the world as hostile to it and to imperial adventures. Invading Syria, playing in Libya, threatening Greece, poking its finger in the eye of the United States even. Though Erdogan has gotten a buddy buddy relationship with Trump who has given into him repeatedly. So maybe he thinks he can play the president.
Ryan Morfin: You mentioned Erdogan is going more towards a Putin like posture going forward, but it doesn’t seem that Russia and Turkey have a good bilateral relationship. Is that accurate?
Professor Ron S…: That’s correct. That’s correct. Erdogan and Turkey have mutual interests. They have many things they would like to do. Mainly, particularly Putin of course, would like the United States to be weaker, would like the United States to come to make some deals with Russia, not to be as hostile to Russia. That hasn’t worked out, though he thought he could get a good deal from the current president. Erdogan also would like to see the Turks be more dominant in that region, Middle East, and have the Americans less influential there. They bought weapons from the Russians, again, poking their fingers in the eyes of the Americans.
But at the same time, they don’t see eye to eye on a lot of questions. The area you might keep an eye on is what we used to call Trans-Caucasia which is now called usually the South Caucasus. That is the countries that are between Russia and Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Turks are allies of the Azerbaijanis. They see themselves as enemies of the Armenians. Armenia and Azerbaijan have an ongoing conflict in that region. Recently, there was some shooting there. The Turks declared their firm support for Azerbaijan.
Russia is interested, I think, this is hard often to gauge, is to keep hostilities down. This is their backyard. They don’t want a lot of trouble there, and they have actually armed both Azerbaijan and the Armenians. Armenians are more of a loyal ally of Russia. Though I can say having followed it pretty closely that Armenians are less content with Russia than they had been in former years. Armenia is the one area, one country in that area that recently had a democratic revolution. Very popular revolution, brought a guy named Pashinyan to power and is fighting corruption. The Russians are keeping a wary eye on that to see what’s going on in that country. The situation is volatile. It could be a place of conflict. It’s worrisome. We’ll see what Russia and Turkey do if conflict breaks out.
Ryan Morfin: Going back to China, so there’s talk right now a new Cold War emerging, technology war, currency war, economic war. Do you see us slipping into a similar type of socioeconomic competition with the Chinese model in the next five years, 10 years?
Professor Ron S…: The Chinese model has been remarkably successful. Now it has its limitations because it gives rise to corruption. It doesn’t allow the kind of freedom that entrepreneurs and startups and others might enjoy in the West, but it’s been one camp quarrel with success. The United States under the current administration seems determined, because of certain advisors in the White House, to try to limit China’s further growth. And it’s very interesting the rhetoric that’s been used. They talk about China as communists. They talk about the communist party and they’re raising a lot of these old Cold War images about China. Well, they worked well in the past, but people don’t seem to be buying it.
After the success of Bernie Sanders and many of the young women and others of color who have been elected to Congress, socialism in America, whatever it means, it means something quite weak, I think. But social democratic welfaristic policies, efforts to end the great polarization of wealth and poverty in the country. That kind of movement has had great success among young people. People aren’t frightened by the word socialism in the way they were when you and I were in Chicago. They seem to be much more willing to think about ways that capitalism can be made to work better, perhaps by taking more, paying more attention to the weaker, the more vulnerable, the less well off.
Ryan Morfin: I mean, it seems to me that if we start to move our supply chains back from China and the economic capacity that entails, it should have a wealth effect on the emerging middle class, the working class. I’m wondering if that is a solution that is going to be a byproduct of this, what I’ll call economic confrontation that I see on the horizon. But you bring up a good point about the movement around Bernie Sanders and now he’s two elections for two elections. I mean, he showed some pretty impressive numbers in terms of just volume of support. I don’t know how many more elections he has in him, but you see an emerging political class, I don’t know if it’s AOC or people like that, on the horizon that really will put a permanent socialist party here in the United States in the future?
Professor Ron S…: We’re not going to have a socialist party, but we might have a more progressive, more social democratic democratic party. Now, the problem is the current front runner in the democratic party is a moderate, a centrist, a liberal, and he’s wary of the left wing of his own party. He’s made some gestures and concessions, but you can look in the next week to see who he actually chooses for his vice-presidential choice. If he chooses Elizabeth Warren, then he’s saying I’m opening to the left. I’m opening to the progressives. We really got to move in a different direction. I would suspect that that’s not going to happen. It may be someone more centrist, more like Kamala Harris or my own governor here in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer.
Ryan Morfin: Well, he just announced. He just announced while we were on the show.
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Professor Ron S…: But-
Ryan Morfin: Well, he just announced. He just announced while we were on the show.
Professor Ron S…: Oh.
Ryan Morfin: It’s Kamala Harris.
Professor Ron S…: Oh, really? Regrettable-
Ryan Morfin: So-
Professor Ron S…: … my view, but …
Ryan Morfin: Regrettable.
Professor Ron S…: It was a kind of particular conjuncture. It was Black Lives Matter, the killing of George Floyd, the people in the streets, and it became almost impossible to go any other way. Kamala Harris and Joe Biden is a very centrist regime or ticket. It’s going to be hard to attack them as radicals and Marxists and flame throwers and anarchists and so forth. The Republican Party will have to think of something new.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah. It’s going to make for a much tighter election. I think she’s a moderate, Biden’s a moderate. Not to make a call, but what do you think’s going to happen in November? Do you think Biden runs away with it, or is Trump the maestro of pulling things from way behind and surprising people?
Professor Ron S…: It could be one or the other. That is, I think Trump is a kind of magician. I think Trump is … He’s a wonderful snake oil salesman. He’s very effective in these kinds of things. He has learned how to use social media and the media to dominate it. He seems a little bit confused at the moment, almost to be decomposing in front of our eyes in recent interviews and so forth. And the pandemic has obviously damaged him seriously.
It will very much depend on how in the next two months or so things work out with the pandemic, whether people can be mobilized, young people and people of color and women in the suburbs, against Trump, or whether the Trump coalition, his base so to speak, holds together. I wouldn’t make a prediction. I’ll go out and vote, though. By mail.
Ryan Morfin: Were you surprised in 2016 that he pulled it out?
Professor Ron S…: I worried about it. I seriously worried about it. We had such an extraordinary candidate in Hillary Clinton. She was certainly the most competent person ever to run for the presidency in the last half century since Franklin Roosevelt. But she was so brutally treated and so brutalized. That is, if you look at the recent documentaries about Hillary, it’s amazing what a job they did on her. So they created this monster, and she wasn’t Bill Clinton, she didn’t have the same charisma, et cetera.
And ultimately, she did win the popular vote, let’s not forget, but they played badly at the end. And by 11,000 votes in Michigan, less than 11,000 votes, they took the state of Michigan. So it was quite surprising to people. Even Trump didn’t realize that he would be elected. He certainly wasn’t prepared for it, and he’s continued to be unprepared for it.
Ryan Morfin: Well, we’re going back into the school season, and I wanted to just hear your thoughts about, as a professor, what are your thoughts about students coming back to campus? What are your thoughts about teaching coursework? Do you think younger kids should go back to school? What are some of your thoughts around the decisions a lot of parents are having to that?
Professor Ron S…: We have so much evidence that if you try to normalize things too soon, you’re going to have another spike in this virus. They’re about to bring 35,000 students back to our little town of Ann Arbor. I think this is delusional. I think it won’t work, and maybe by October we’ll have to close down again. I’m teaching only online, both of my courses. Many of my colleagues are upset that the administration is bringing back people. I know it’s a hardship.
I feel bad for the freshman class. They want their freshmen experience. They want to come to campus and learn all the things that you learn your freshman year about drugs and drink and sex and all of those things, as well as some other learning goes on as well. But still, this is not the moment for that. This is not the moment for that.
We should be much more circumspect, much more careful. Why not do that in January, when we learn what’s going on with this pandemic, when maybe there’ll be some effective vaccine? So I’m very much against the normalization in the short term.
Ryan Morfin: You have a new book coming out, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s called Stalin: Passage to Revolution. Do you mind sharing a little bit about the synopsis of the book and what you’re writing about?
Professor Ron S…: About 35 years ago, maybe when you were a twinkle still, Ryan, I decided I was going to write a biography of the young Stalin, of Stalin up to the Revolution, because I had done a number of books on Georgia and Caucasia and so forth, and I was interested in this evolution. And so I started, and then I realized after a while, wait a minute, Gorbachev is opening the archives. I went ahead and learned Georgian, the language he spoke as a young person. And finally, when all the archives opened and so forth, I wrote this book.
And what the book attempts to do is tell us a story of how the poor son of an alcoholic carpenter managed somehow. He was as a boy, a young fellow with a beautiful voice. He was called Bulbuli, Nightingale. He loved singing. He was a romantic poet. He was a nationalist. How that creature, how that person became the Machiavellian, tyrannical, despotic person that we know as Stalin. So this book tries to show how that movement developed, how it created people like Stalin, who ultimately came to power. That’s the story I’m …
Ryan Morfin: Well, that’s out in October, and we’ll make sure we hyperlink it to this episode for our viewers. What are any silver linings you see in the geopolitical world today? I mean, it seems that we’re in a very dangerous place. There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fault lines emerging. But are there any silver linings or things we should be worried about?
Professor Ron S…: Ryan, maybe you remember from our days at Chicago, Self, Culture, and Society, no matter how dire the situation might be, and when you study history, you see catastrophe after catastrophe. Think about the 20th century, right? Two World Wars, the Great Depression, all of these things. When you think about that, and you’re teaching young people, you never leave them with a pessimistic or cynical outlook. Pessimism leads to the right. Cynicism leads to a conservative position.
I try to leave them with a much more optimistic view. That is, because history is really strange. I end many of my courses with, “Don’t mistake the present for the future.” Particularly young people. Anything can happen. And a lot will depend … You mentioned the election. If Trump wins, we’re going to move in one direction. If Biden wins, we’re going to move in another direction. Maybe not as far as I would wish, but certainly things will be different.
So what are the bright sides? The bright side’s that people have been mobilized. People have been in the streets. I’m not talking about the ones who were doing looting or the kinds of negative things that have occurred, but imagine people, Black, white, Hispanic, all kinds of people out demonstrating against racism, against police brutality, against the indifference of the current regime, towards something better in their lives. That seems to me amazing.
And the second bright light I would see, the silver lining or golden lining, is all those heroes. All those people who have been risking their own life to help people in hospitals, in nursing homes. It’s extraordinary. We can talk about people as greedy, as selfish, as out for themselves, and yet when you’re in trouble and you’re in a hospital or a nursing home or in a school with educators, you realize how wonderful people can be, how self-sacrificing people can be, how they find meaning and fulfillment in their life precisely from helping others. That’s why I’m still teaching. And I’m almost 80.
Ryan Morfin: Well, you’ve got tremendous amounts of energy. And by the looks of that book stack back there, you’ve been plowing through a lot of new books. No one loves books more than you do, and I’m a close second, but … Well, Professor Suny, I love the fact that you were able to come and share some of your thoughts, and I really appreciate you coming on the show today. So thank you so much, Professor Ron Suny from University of Michigan.
Professor Ron S…: And I enjoyed it and seeing you, Ryan. So come again.
Ryan Morfin: Absolutely. Thank you, sir.
Thanks for watching our episode today. And before we go, please remember to like and subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or our YouTube channel. This is Non-Beta Alpha, and now you know.
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PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [00:50:47]
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