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In which John Green discusses the Russian Reversal and other transpositions.

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. 

So when I was a kid there was a popular joke construction called the "Russian reversal". The first time I heard a Russian reversal was in a Miller Lite commercial in 1985 where the comedian Yakov Smirnoff said, "In America you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, party always finds you." 

But the joke is actually much older than that. It was used in a 1938 Cole Porter musical and in a 1960s episode of the show Laugh-In where the joke was: "In America everybody watches television. In the old country, television watches you." Hah! That's funny, everyone said before television started gathering reams of information about our viewing habits. Be careful who you laugh at friends, for in time, you may become them. 

But right, Russian reversal jokes were basically low-level xenophobic weapons of the Cold War trying to get Americans to believe that their country, where you could always find a party and watch television was perfect in purported contrast to life in the Soviet Union. 

There were of course also American reversal jokes. My favorite being, "In the Soviet Union, people sometimes rob banks. In capitalist America, bank robs you." And there were jokes that refuted both ideologies, like this one from Moldovan-American educator Emil Vrabie: "Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's the other way around."

Of course these days the Russian reversal has been memed to near-extinction like so much else on the internet, but I still find the joke construction really really interesting because it starts out with you having agency over something, and then ends up with that something having agency over you. 

Like in a way Michael Pollan's famous observation about corn is a Russian reversal joke. He pointed out that while it's true that corn has adapted to our human interests, if you look at it from corn's perspective, we have adapted a lot to corn's interests. Like we've changed our habitats and our diets and our travel patterns to make corn more plentiful, and when you look at it that way, corn kind of becomes the farmer, and we kind of become the crop. 

And when you start looking for these jokes, you see them everywhere. Like for starters, in Shakespeare. In Richard the Second, the king says, "I wasted time, and now time doth waste me." There's a Winnie-the-Pooh story where Piglet says he's so small that he doesn't fly a kite, so much as the kite flies him. And in the Oscar-nominated feature film Boss Baby, the titular character says, "Either you run the day, or the day runs you." Slightly off topic, but the book that movie is adapted from is excellent. 

Anyway, I use this construction a lot in my book Turtles All the Way Down: "You're the story teller, but you're also the story told," "You think you're spending money, but the money's spending you," et cetera. Because the book is about what happens when you feel like you're not captaining the ship of your so-called self.

And I think what I love most about Russian reversals, is that they can reveal how weak we are before the forces of time, and the wind, and money, and everything else. And in general I find it helpful to take a kind of Russian-reversal-style look at any big force in our lives. Like, take the social internet's algorithms, for instance. Are they informing us, or are we informing them? Or free markets, do markets exist to make human lives better and more efficient, or do human lives exist to make markets better and more efficient? 

Of course, the Russian reversal can create a false dichotomy: you can waste time and be wasted by time, and as we all know now, you can watch television and be watched by your television. And maybe there's no tension at all in some reversals. Like I guess it's possible that whatever makes markets more efficient is good for human lives, and whatever is good for human lives makes markets more efficient.

But in my experience, anyway, that kind of ideological rigidity rarely holds up to careful scrutiny, and I like the Russian reversal because it asks us to consider where the power is really centered in our discourse. Sometimes the answer is obvious, the humans who plant the corn have much more power than the corn that gets planted. But sometimes it isn't, is the real power with the Twitter user who chooses what they tweet and who they follow, or with the algorithm that decides which tweets the user actually sees? And is the real power with the people who make markets work, or with the markets that make people work? 

I don't think those questions have easy answers, but I do think that looking at them backwards has a way of telling us truths we otherwise might miss. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.