I blame Twitter.
And Facebook. Social networking sites have invested us with the belief that our every thought, emotion, and action; the self-centred minutiae of our little lives – at the same time different from everyone else and monotonously the same – must be shared with the world. Moreover, that everything we do is the subject of consuming interest by our peers. Consequently we are inundated with a tidal wave of nonsensical pablum on a daily basis that would try the patience of a saint, were some of us not unaccountably fascinated with it. Like any other form of entertainment scripted to satisfy preconceived notions, it would die quickly without an audience.
Witness to the existence of such an audience, a few days ago I was forwarded yet another Miriam Elder piece (special thanks to Jon Hellevig) from The Guardian, which appears to be circling the bowl as a newspaper. It really speaks to the desperate state of British journalism that this kind of reporting continues to get column inches, or centimeters, or whatever. On the bright side, thousands of parrots can look forward to wall-to-wall carpeting for their cages, while one of the most celebrated fields of honest British endeavor – Britain’s fish and chip shops – speaks glowingly of The Guardian‘s insulating properties and the vinegar-resistant quality of its ink.
What, then, are we to make of this narcissistic catharsis? Obviously from the fact that it is published in a newspaper, it is intended to be read and to excite discussion, incredible as that may sound. But what sort of discussion could one expect to inspire with a high-school-confidential about being driven to tears by the stress associated with dropping off and picking up one’s dry cleaning in Moscow? And what sort of emotional roller-coaster must a reporter be on if such an experience is too much for their fragile reserves? This can only result from the highwire tension and double-nought danger of edgy reporting in Putin’s playground of crooks, thieves and murderers!
All right, enough unseemly snickering. Let’s take a look at it, and see if we may have missed something, if not momentous and insightful, at least sensible on the first run-through. Let’s see….opens with traumatized reporter weeping in the bedroom of her host, at a dinner party. Segue jerkily to the cosmopolitan facade of Moscow, beneath which lurk the same old pretensions to grandeur of the coarse and ignorant peasantry. For some reason, Ms. Elder keeps encountering goons who bark rudely at her when she enters their place of business, like a never-ceasing carousel of crudity: “Girl!! What do you want??” Maybe things have gone terribly downhill since I was last in Russia, but I never saw anything like that. Well, I’m not a girl, but you know what I mean.
It seems particularly odd in light of statistical information supplied by The Economist – one of the least likely places to find positive coverage of anything in Russia. There’s a catch, of course: The Economist is using the data to argue that Russians are far too well-off and happy now to put up with the incompetent fool of a leader who made them that way, and are going to rise up and throw him out any day now. Motivation notwithstanding, The Economist provides us an interesting snapshot of middle class progress under Putin. The middle class has grown as a percentage of the population by 10%, and to nearly 40% of the workforce. Spending on luxury goods (in dollars per person) has grown from less than 5% to more than 42%, and per-capita GDP has more than doubled.
And yet this resurgent middle class, with its newly-discovered purchasing-power clout, is going to put up with being snapped at like shoplifters when they enter a store to do business? Why would they be different in Russia than they are anywhere else in the world? Tourist travel abroad more than doubled between 2000 and 2009, and internet penetration increased by a factor of more than 40 – people know they don’t have to put up with rudeness.
Cut to the dry cleaner’s, where Ms. Elder’s garments are meticulously examined to verify their condition before being cleaned; that all buttons are present, the garments do not show visible snags or holes and are not so stained prior to cleaning that cleaning is unlikely to be successful. That any cleaner would go to such trouble in this day and age, never mind accept liability by presenting a signed, stamped receipt recording the condition of your clothes – which you have an opportunity to dispute before you even hand them over – before the cleaner does anything to them is little short of a miracle considering the shenanigans that go on elsewhere, pages and pages of anguish over ruined clothes for which the cleaner accepts no responsibility whatsoever. Among the Ten Things Your Dry Cleaner Will Not Tell You in the USA, according to the Wall Street Journal, is the sad fact that if a dry cleaner loses one or more of your articles and will not acknowledge it, you will have to take the matter to court; no regulatory body or professional oversight applies to dry cleaners. Except for the Fair Claims Guide, which says the best you are ever likely to get is 40% of the value. And you have to prove the damage was the cleaner’s fault, which customers were successful in doing only 11% of the time. The organization that publishes the Fair Claims Guide is funded by….dry cleaners. Women often get charged more for the same type of garments, sometimes double. The cleaner sometimes jacks up the price after you have dropped off your clothes, based on an assessment by the cleaner of what the clothes are used for.
Ms. Elder would not likely have been brought to the edge of hysterical weeping had she not lost her receipt, and the concurrent events of the week are irrelevant: Ms. Elder did not run for president. She is not a riot policeman, or a military truck driver. While the protests doubtless excited her, she has no business involving herself in protests herself as she is not a citizen, and presumably she did not. None of these are excuses for losing her dry-cleaning receipt, and I would have thought she’d have taken better care of it considering the anguish she claims it caused her to obtain it. If the cleaner had carelessly given her clothes away to someone else rather than carefully establishing her identity, Ms. Elder would have lost her mind and it would have been grounds for another tirade which would have “Soviet something-or-other” at its bottom.
But somewhere around this point in the piece, you begin to realize this is not really about dry cleaning at all, but a springboard for another rant against the “Soviet Bureaucracy”. If Ms. Elder’s time is really so valuable – although her articles look like she wrote them in about 30 minutes – foreign dry-cleaners are plentiful in Moscow, many of them pickup and delivery service. California Cleaners is at Tverskaya 9/17; that doesn’t sound very Russian. There are a couple of German dry cleaners, also offering door-to-door service, at Chayanova 16 and Bolshaya Pereyaslavskaya 11: nothing like the Germans for brisk efficiency, what? Do I have to think of everything?
I agree it is a pity that Russia has not yet invented ATM’s that recognize you as you approach, greet you by name, give you the amount you were thinking of and buff your shoes to a glossy sheen, all without you having to do anything. But I’m afraid that “pushing a half-dozen buttons” is pretty much de rigueur anywhere you go. Don’t think so? Walk through the steps in this handy “How to Use an ATM” guide. How many times do you have to select “next” between “Start” and “Don’t forget to take your cash”? Six. Where I went to school, that’s half a dozen.
No good concerts in Moscow? Horseshit. Unless your taste runs to obscure Outback massed didgeridoo ensembles, there’s something for everyone in Moscow. Was Ms. Elder asleep throughout 2011, when The Wall featuring Roger Waters, Slayer, Megadeth, Enrique Iglesias, Shakira, The Scorpions, Sting, System of a Down, Slipknot, Sum 41, Dream Theatre, Good Charlotte, Sade, Elton John, Alice Cooper, Michael Bolton and Maroon Five all played Moscow? Try not to sleep through this year, when Keane, Madonna, Judas Priest, Korn, The Scorpions, Chris Rea, Rammstein, Christian McBride, Anthrax, Guns n’ Roses, Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson and Motley Crue all play Moscow.
Ms. Elder’s propensity for exaggeration often spins out of control. In her Guardian article, she reported she paid the equivalent of $49.37 USD, at today’s exchange rate, for cleaning of 6 items. First, that is not “insanely expensive”, even if it was the 5 items mentioned in the later interview rather than 6. However, there’s more. In the even loopier transcript of the interview, Ms. Elder claims to have handed over “half her salary”. Either swanking about as the Guardian‘s Moscow Correspondent pays a proportionally niggardly $100.00 a week (maybe even a month!!!), or there were a fairly significant number of trouble-free dry cleaning experiences we did not hear about.
By now just pulling stuff out of the air, perhaps believing she is being funny, Ms. Elder claims dry cleaners in the USA take only 5 minutes, and that it is a lot cheaper for her to fly to the USA with her dry cleaning.
Perhaps sensing she may have gone too far with the Russia-bashing in the Guardian article, Ms. Elder rattles off a few things she really likes about living in Moscow. Only one could fairly be interpreted as praise; the rest are merely riffing on the bountiful opportunities to giggle at the bizarre fashion sense exhibited by some Russians in this “sea of absurdity”, a hitting-yourself-in-the-head-with-a-hammer-because-it-feels-so-good-when-you-stop jab at the weather (in which spring is so cherished because the winter was so dreadful) and adopting the mantle of a frustrated punker with yet one more plug for ski-mask-wearing “musical group” Pussy Riot.
Speaking of a sea of absurdity, here’s fashionista J. Crew’s offering for the Spring Collection in the New York Fashion Week 2012 show. I don’t think you could get too many Russian girls to go out in public dressed like this.
And The Guardian pays her to write a regular column. The mind reels. I suppose we can be thankful the UK did not name her Ambassador to Russia.