The Tale of Two Romneys

We don't know which is running: the moderate from Massachusetts, or the conservative philosophically

The question going into the general election is: who is the real Mitt Romney? We don't really know which of them is running, the moderate from Massachusetts, as Newt Gingrich never tired of saying, or the conservative mantle bearer who is philosophically to the right of Ayn Rand.

Now that Rick Santorum, the social conservative, has suspended his presidential bid, Romney can rejigger his campaign for the general election. That usually means a candidate turns his attention to the wide middle ground where the coveted independents are awaiting his charms.

Romney isn't doing that. In fact, as a recent appearance at a conference of the National Rifle Association suggests, he is banking to the right even more on issues like immigration, abortion and gun rights. He even endorsed US Rep. Paul Ryan's draconian federal budget, which calls, in effect, for gutting Medicare.

Bob Moser of the American Prospect calls this the Santorum Effect:

 ... [Santorum] helped push Romney to the right of the average general-election voter ... Romney cannot "course-correct" back to the centre — except in completely symbolic ways — with hardcore conservatives warily watching for any hints of apostasy.

This of course depends on the sound memory of the media. As it did with President Obama's hope to implement a new tax on millionaires, the media is beginning to forget all those arch-conservative things Romney had to say to get arch-conservatives to believe he was just as arch a conservative as Santorum. You know, like bombing Iran, repealing health care reform laws and eliminating the Education Department.

Now that the GOP nomination process is essentially over (though former House Speaker Gingrich and US Rep. Ron Paul are still in the running), pundits are now reverting to calling Romney a moderate, mostly because that's what he was during the time of his governorship of Massachusetts and because that's what his genuinely conservative rivals kept calling him.

But is it true? Yeah, probably. Romney works too hard to sound conservative but appears at ease when talking about things like the safety net and the embattled middle class (conservatives never say "safety net" or "class"). Romney also seems to think of himself as a competent manager more than a fire-breathing ideologue. He was, after all, the head of a private-equity firm that made money by cleaning up other people's messes.

Such an attitude toward government has roots in American liberalism and neoconservatism (which is like liberalism sans hope). Such theories generally call for the solving of social problems by identifying and applying the right fix. Politics is more puzzle than worldview. Take away the idea that society is perfectible, and you might have the moderate that Mitt might be.

That, of course, assumes he's not going to enact all those conservative things he says he's going to enact as president. But saying isn't being -- and conservatives know this better than most. Noam Scheiber of the New Republic argues that Mitt is too moderate to beat Obama, only because the GOP's base is going to be second-guessing him from now till November, just as it did with Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008. Romney isn't like George W Bush, whose conservative bona fide were unquestioned that he could talk about the poor and without sounding like a candy-ass liberal.

I buy it. You sell conservatives on gays, guns and God, not on rational public policy. If you do, you can't rely on their vote. Romney doesn't have to worry about appealing to independents. He has to worry about his base.
 

Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney talk to members of the media aboard his campaign plane on March 6, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.