For years, America has lacked a true constitutive “other”—the sort of competing entity that can represent everything we are not and thus help us agree on what we are. Yes, the Muslim world has played the role of Enemy of the State for the past decade, but the varied, decentralized and complex nature of that entity has prevented anything approaching a consensus among the American populace. What we have missed is the simple (and, of course, oversimplified) Soviet—a militarized, soulless Ivan Drago to our informal, scrappy Rocky Balboa. And while that pre-millenial foil is gone forever, the Sochi Olympics has brought us something perhaps even better. The unending string of hilarious #SochiProblems and daily stories of government gluttony filling our Facebook feeds have positioned Russia not so much as America’s polar opposite, but instead as a sort of shadow version of the American Way of Life.
In putting on the Sochi winter games, Russia has expended an absurd amount of resources—about $50 billion worth—with the expectation of fundamentally repositioning the country’s place in the global imagination. And although much of the media coverage surrounding Sochi has focused on the tremendous amount of graft and waste it took to ring up such a bill, the Russian government is unlikely to view the event as anything but a success. Above all, President Vladimir Putin wanted to use the Sochi spotlight to disrupt the unipolar, American-centric geopolitical map that has emerged since the fall of the Soviet Union. And in some small way he has. It takes a terribly powerful man to waste such a terrible sum of money. The cost may have been surrealistically high, but for Putin it was a one-time-only opportunity to demonstrate that he has the surplus of power and the utter lack of conscience one needs to make a play for international hegemony.
The United States, however, has gotten a much better deal, at least in terms of buying an improved sense of national identity. Russia, in no small part due to Sochi, no longer embodies a set of virtues—extreme discipline, ideological orthodoxy, etc—that we choose to reject. Instead it has come to stand in for all of those vices that we fear we may have but would rather not face. No longer Drago, Russia has become America’s drunken Uncle Paulie, a bumbling, wasteful reminder of what we could become but never will. Whenever Rocky is down, he can always look to Paulie’s blubbery ineptitude and realize he’s not in such bad shape. And now, whenever Americans fear their government may be dolling out favors to corporations or spending money on all the wrong things, well, at least we don’t build Dadaist toilets when the whole world is watching.
This narrative received a wholly unexpected boost last Sunday with Michael Sam, a mid-level professional football prospect, announced that he is gay. The reaction from the National Football League has been predictably tepid, with nearly every team echoing the standard neo-liberal take on gay rights. Discrimination cannot be tolerated if it is going to get in the way of profits or, in the case of an NFL team, winning football games. Of course, America in general and its sports culture in specific still have a long way it to go when it comes to eliminating discrimination over sexuality. The discussion should be less the sports media’s preferred “where will Sam be drafted?” and more “why does only one player feel safe enough to be open about being gay?” However, in comparison to our Other Russia, America looks positively enlightened. When faced with the medieval anti-gay laws and mockable public statements (“We don’t have [gays] in our town”) on display in Sochi, it’s easy to give America a pass. Russia’s backwardness on the issue provides the perfect backdrop against which to avoid asking truly tough questions about ourselves.
The Washington Post’s Max Fisher has called for Americans to avoid the temptation of Russophobia when engaging in discourse about Russia. It can be all too easy to mock a population that has long been the target of so many stereotypes and Internet memes. In general this is good advice. However, it by no means suggests that we should hesitate to condemn the authoritarianism and corruption that Putin’s Russia has put on display in its effort to make the world it seriously. Just as important, however, is that we use the opportunity as a means of interrogating the weaknesses of our society, not as an excuse to ignore them.