Thoughts on Life, Love, Politics, Hypocrisy and Coming Out in Mid-Life
Saturday, April 16, 2022
Russia's Dangerous Sense of Exceptionalism
In recent weeks, many analysts — especially those trying to find a logical justification for the Russian war in Ukraine — have argued that the Kremlin was reacting to a perceived threat from NATO encroachment and the Western alliance’s push into Russia’s sphere of influence.
While that may be so, such explanations miss an important point. The Russian conservative elites currently in power supported war because they see Western power as decadent and declining. This image of the West allows Russia to feel strong and invincible.
In his sermon approximately two weeks into the war, on March 6, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church justified the invasion of Ukraine as necessary to defend Orthodox Christians against Western values and gay pride parades. On March 24, during a meeting with young artists, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained about cancel culture, arguing that much as J.K. Rowling had been criticized for her opposition to transgender rights, the West was now “trying to cancel a whole 1,000-year culture, our people … Russian writers and books are now canceled.”
Russia presents itself as being at the forefront of the global culture wars, leading the resistance to liberal values. Russian anti-Westernism has religious implications: According to its own narrative, Russia is guarding true Christian faith, as embodied in the Eastern Orthodox church, from Western attempts to distort it, whether through Marxism in the 20th century or liberalism in the 21st.
Ukraine plays an important role in this story. It is depicted as part of the “Russian world,” the cradle of Russian civilization, which for many centuries was centered not around Moscow but around Kyiv, capital of today’s Ukraine. Ukraine’s choice to orient itself toward the West and reconcile a Slavic Orthodox identity with liberal democratic values is thus dangerous to this Russian vision of itself.
The arguments about gender freedoms and cancel culture that we hear today from Patriarch Kirill and Putin are nothing genuinely Russian. They derive from a global Christian right ideology, which Russian conservatives learned about in the 1990s.
Right after the end of the Cold War, Christian right activists, especially from the United States, flocked into Russia; among them were Focus on the Family, CoMission and the World Congress of Families. From the 1990s onward, Russian conservatives have argued that the frustrations of their society falling apart result from painful liberal socioeconomic reforms.
Today’s Russian discourse on traditional values is a hybrid of Christian right ideas from the global culture wars and nostalgia about Russia’s great Soviet and even greater imperial and Orthodox Christian past.
This type of Russian cultural conservatism was marginal until around 2010, when it started to migrate to the center of Russian political life — decisively so during Putin’s third term as president. For Putin, the traditional values discourse was a good pretext for political repression — exemplified in the treatment of Pussy Riot — and a shield against rising opposition, which demanded more freedoms.
Traditional values and the defense of Christianity were a suitable foundation for the new Russian foreign policy mission: becoming the leader of those countries and actors that were not, were no longer or had never wanted to be “liberal.”
Russian conservatives not only defined their national identity in relation to a global Christian conservatism, but also acquired a precise vision of the West as spiritually hollow and failing. Christian conservatives flocking to Russia conveyed an image of the West that was torn, weak and doomed, because it no longer had children, no longer had values, and did not even distinguish between men and women.
This account of the West helped give birth to a new Russian triumphalism. Russian media filled with TV shows and “documentaries” on “Gayropa” and “Sodom.” These shows conjured up a caricature of weak “gayish” Western males and women who lost their femininity by competing with men in spheres where they could achieve nothing serious.
Russian media frequently stressed the oddity that many Western democracies nominated women as defense ministers, as if that was the ultimate proof that the West has lost its ability to defend itself. In this collective image of a weak West, Russia depicted itself (to the inside and outside) as the country of strength, the bulwark of traditional families: with strong men, fertile women and children properly guarded against subversive homosexual propaganda.
This image is without any empirical foundation, but that was not important. It resulted in an internal perception of Russia as world messiah and a force preventing the world from sliding into the chaos of evil, with a special mission of saving the world from liberal depravities. The Patriarch’s March 6 sermon expressed precisely that worldview.
Fascinated by this flattering vision of Russia, elites, it seems, overestimated the nation’s strength and underestimated Ukraine’s. The Kremlin also appears to have underestimated the strength and unity of the collective West, which appears not as corrupted and not as weak as Russia imagined.
Friday, April 15, 2022
Republicans Are Turning the Mid-Terms Into A Culture War
The conventional wisdom on how to run a midterm campaign if your opponent controls the White House is pretty simple: ride the wave, stay focused on your most popular talking points, and don’t do anything to give the opposing party the chance to turn the election into something other than a referendum on the president, especially if said president is unpopular. The textbook target in a midterm election is the so-called median voter, typically a centrist who isn’t necessarily that focused on politics and definitely doesn’t belong to either party’s base. If there is any issue of great concern to said median voter that won’t lead to conflicted reactions, then talk about it again and again, emphatically.
Translated into the context of the 2022 midterms, Republicans have all the ingredients for a simple midterm message: an unpopular president, a discouraged Democratic base, and a simple economic issue that gives Democrats a lot of problems they cannot solve (inflation).
But are Republicans campaigning that way? So far, by and large, no. Instead, to a remarkable extent, Republican candidates and elected officials are going whole hog into culture-war topics. They’re pushing near-total bans on abortion, making law-and-order demands for a crackdown on crime, and railing against the alleged “woke indoctrination” of public-school students on matters of gender, sexuality, and race.
So what’s going on? Are Republicans incapable of message discipline or out of touch with an electorate that’s relatively progressive on cultural issues? Are they consumed with “base mobilization”? Or maybe they’re just mirroring Donald Trump’s self-destructive tendencies?
The most obvious reason Republican politicians are serving up culture-war fare is that their party base is dominated by conservative Christians who are more concerned about the supposed deterioration of traditional values than just about any other political topic. Indeed, there is some evidence that such voters are in a counterrevolutionary state of mind, anxious to use a Republican resurgence to roll back recent progressive gains on a wide range of issues, and free of any inhibitions about displaying their religious motivations.
These are not people willing to accept LGBTQ+ rights and same-sex marriage as just part of the contemporary landscape. . . . key elements of the GOP base are not inclined to hide their light under a bushel at present, even if conventional political thinkers in their party wish they’d keep a lower profile. And because of the importance of turnout in non-presidential elections, Republicans by and large don’t want to do anything to dampen base enthusiasm, even if it flows from theocratic yearnings that will be difficult to satisfy down the road.
And an ancient, religion-based hostility to public education (a.k.a. “government schools”) has found new energy in concerns about COVID-19 lockdowns and the power of teachers unions, which bleeds over into “parental rights” agendas long set by homeschoolers and others wanting public subsidies for private education. . . . In other words, a variety of circumstances have made right-wing culture-war politics something of a flavor of the month beyond the fever swamps in which it typically festers.
For many of these people, the 2022 midterms are not an opportunity to deny Democrats power or even seize more power for themselves; they’re an opportunity to aggressively govern in a culturally conservative manner without much fear of voter backlash. With the wind at their backs, Republicans are doing what they and their voters want, which is to redirect a culture perceived as godless and disordered back into its customary channels.
Trumpism means never having to moderate and never retreating. Worse yet for the country, when Republicans fail electorally, Trumpism tells them they should double down on base-exciting extremism. Don’t expect them to retreat.
The question remains, however, as to whether this is a smart strategy regardless of the demands of the Christofacists and ignorance and hate embracing evangelicals. Culture war issues may excite the GOP base, but they also have the potential to excite those who do not want Christofascist dictated social norms and standards. The column in the Washington Post suggest those opposed to the GOP religious based agenda are likely the majority of Americans - something Democrats need to capitalize on and stress the Christofascist threat:
To hear Republicans tell it, fed-up citizens are standing up to leftist teachers and school administrators who have been infecting little ones’ minds with unpatriotic historical revisionism and outré social theories.
But what if most Americans don’t actually believe that? A new poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research suggests a genuine silent majority of people who think what’s happening in schools is just fine — and many of them believe there should be more discussion of race and sexuality.
These are not people we hear much from at the moment, when conservatives have successfully whipped up a very loud moral panic over how race and sex are discussed in schools. But consider some of the poll’s findings:
- By 58 percent to 12 percent, Americans oppose “prohibiting books about divisive topics from being taught in schools.” (The rest are undecided.)
- By 53 percent to 21 percent, they oppose “prohibiting teachers from teaching about sex and sexuality in schools.”
- 71 percent say their local school system is either focusing too little on racism or focusing the right amount, while just 27 percent say it is focusing on it too much.
- 71 percent also say teachers in their local schools are either discussing issues related to sex and sexuality the right amount or not enough. Only 23 percent say teachers are discussing sex and sexuality too much.
But isn’t the anger we’re seeing explode at school board meetings real? Yes, in the sense that a political phenomenon can be simultaneously organic and manufactured. There are some genuinely angry parents, but the school panic has been planned and promoted by powerful right-wing interests and media outlets.
That effort has borne significant fruit in the form of state legislation aimed at silencing and intimidating teachers and school officials. But it doesn’t seem to have convinced most Americans that there’s much left-wing indoctrination on race and sex going on in their schools.
Which is why it’s so important that Democrats not just try to change the subject when Republicans promote their moral panics, but actively push back on them. Not only would it be the right thing to do, but it could also be an extremely effective midterm election strategy, both to convince independent voters that giving Republicans more power is dangerous, and to motivate Democratic voters to get to the polls.
Yet that’s not happening.
Thursday, April 14, 2022
Ukraine: A Critical Moment America Must Get Right
The relatively brief but bloody war in Ukraine is entering its fourth phase. In the first, Russia tried to depose Volodymyr Zelensky’s government and sweep the country into its embrace in a three-day campaign; in the second, it attempted to conquer Ukraine—or at least its eastern half, including the capital, Kyiv—with armored assaults; in the third, defeated in the north, Russia withdrew its battered forces, massing instead in the southeastern and southern areas for the conquest of those parts of Ukraine. Now the fourth, and possibly decisive, phase is about to begin.
For those of us born after World War II, this is the most consequential war of our lifetime. Upon its outcome rests the future of European stability and prosperity. If Ukraine succeeds in preserving its freedom and territorial integrity, a diminished Russia will be contained; if it fails, the chances of war between NATO and Russia go up, as does the prospect of Russian intervention in other areas on its western and southern peripheries. A Russian win would encourage a China coolly observing and assessing Western mettle and military capacity; a Russian defeat would induce a salutary caution in Beijing. Russia’s sheer brutality and utterly unwarranted aggression, compounded by lies at once sinister and ludicrous, have endangered what remains of the global order and the norms of interstate conduct. If such behavior leads to humiliation on the battlefield and economic chaos at home, those norms may be rebuilt to some degree; if Vladimir Putin’s government gets away with it, restoring them will take a generation or longer.
There will be time enough for recriminations. Germany long claimed that it was extending the hand of reconciliation to Russia when in fact it chose to pursue a policy based on greed and naivete. It was not alone in delusion and hypocrisy. For more than a decade, American leadership proved inept, complete with red lines that melted and indifference to the rending of nations in Europe and the leveling of cities and gassing of civilians in Syria.
In the years to come, culpable politicians will attempt to excuse these follies and historians will acidly dissect them. What matters now is that we judge the present moment correctly. And here, again, the West faces potential failure. Those who talk of a stalemate on the battlefield, perhaps lasting years, are likely making as big of an error as when they dismissed the possibility of effective Ukrainian resistance two months ago. Decisive action is urgently required to tip the balance between a costly success and a calamity.
In most intense conflicts of this kind, armies engage in a kind of competitive collapse, victory going to the side that can hold out longer. The Ukrainians have kept their own losses and exhaustion well-guarded secrets, as they should, but outgunned as they are, and seeing their civilians slaughtered and tortured, they have to feel the strain. As fighting shifts to open areas where guerrilla tactics and handheld anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles will no longer be as effective, they face daunting, if not impossible, odds. . . . they are not supermen, and they desperately need all that the arsenals of the West can provide them.
The Russian military—revealed as inept at tactics, unimaginative in operational design, obtuse in strategy, and incompetent at basic logistics and maintenance—can do only two things well: vomit out massive amounts of firepower and brutalize civilians. It has been bloodied very badly indeed.
Why, then, the impending escalation of the war in the east and the south? What explains the desperate throw of the dice by the Russian high command? One may assume that neither Putin, nor his senior advisers, nor even senior subordinate commanders have an accurate picture of the situation on the ground. They know that they have been humiliated, but they do not have a feel of the battlefield. As stewards of a military that cannot adequately care for its wounded and that abandons its dead, they don’t care about the human price they are paying.
In a system built on lies and corruption, they receive or pass on falsely optimistic information. Having sought to upend the notion of truth in the West, they now fall victim to their own pervasive untruths.
And so Putin will order offensives that, if confronted by a well-resourced Ukrainian foe, can effectively destroy his own army. The challenge for the West is to ensure that this is its fate.
The Europeans have been, unsurprisingly, far from uniform in their reactions: Within Germany, the foreign minister from the Green Party is staunch; the chancellor is erratic; some members of his own party are timid. Britain is splendidly assertive. Poland and the Baltic states are positively heroic, while Hungary, Austria, and a few others are ambivalent or worse.
The United States is doing many of the right things. It has provided a lot of portable missiles, as well as drones and nonlethal gear. It has facilitated the transfer of heavier equipment, such as Slovak S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which it backfilled with Patriot systems. President Joe Biden and some of his key aides have said the right things about Ukraine’s right to freely exist within its rightful borders. But in other respects, America has failed.
In Washington, the metronome of war ticks too slowly. The administration has not taken advantage of the near-unanimous support for Ukraine in Congress—a marvel of bipartisanship in this contentious period of American politics—to press for much larger sums (in the tens of billions of dollars) for the Ukrainian military. It has moved slowly to procure for Ukraine the heavier kinds of weapons that it knows are needed.
And multinational corporations have not yet been confronted with a simple ultimatum: You can do business in the United States or in Russia, but not in both.
The United States has failed to take many of the symbolic actions that matter in wartime. . . . If other countries can reopen embassies in Ukraine, so can the United States, which never should have closed its own. Instead of treating Zelensky’s pleas to Congress as a singular event, the U.S. should find ways, on a daily basis, to celebrate his courage and that of his people, and to continually remind the American people what is at stake here. Part of wartime leadership is theater, and the administration should embrace it.
The United States has been unwilling to take some steps because of its own self-deterring beliefs about Russian behavior. It should accept that the Ukrainians are now the world’s experts in fighting Russians—not us. They have proved by their skill and success that they can handle much more than we give them credit for. So rather than questioning whether they need fixed-wing aircraft or can use Western military hardware, the U.S. should err on the side of generosity. And if American expertise is needed, it can be provided without the U.S. entering the war directly.
If the Soviet Union could deploy thousands of advisers to North Vietnam in the middle of the Vietnam War without triggering a nuclear conflict, the U.S. can deploy advisers to western Ukraine, or at least to Poland, to train Ukrainian soldiers. Instead, we ship Ukrainian troops to Biloxi, Mississippi . . . .
The war may get worse. If the Russians use chemical weapons, the United States should rethink its unwillingness to introduce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. . . . . The use of chemical weapons opens up the path to the massacre of civilians on a scale that is indeed genocidal. If it happens, the free world must stop it.
Upon what the United States and its allies do in the next few weeks hangs more than the American people realize. The evidence suggests that Russia’s armies can, if met by a well-equipped Ukrainian force, be thoroughly wrecked and defeated. While Russia itself will likely remain a paranoid and isolated dictatorship after this war, it can be defanged, even as its own folly reduces it to the ranks of a third-rate power. But war is war, and the future is always uncertain. All that is clear right now is that a failure to adequately support Ukraine will have terrible consequences, and not just for that heroic and suffering nation.
Wednesday, April 13, 2022
The Baltics Are Next If Putin Isn't Stopped
I was with President George W. Bush when he visited Lithuania in 2002, just after the Baltic states had been offered membership in NATO. Bush had been one of the strongest advocates for the inclusion of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia in the alliance, which would establish the obligation of mutual defense.
At the celebration ceremony, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus presented Bush with the Cross of the Order of Vytautas the Great, his country’s highest honor. . . . But Bush’s speech that day (which I helped produce) highlighted a greater gift: “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy,” he said, “has also made an enemy of the United States of America. In the face of aggression, the brave people of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will never again stand alone.”
You could almost hear three nations exhale in relief. The Baltics have the misfortune of sitting at a bloody geopolitical crossroads, and their last two occupations were particularly horrifying. Nazi German “killing units” murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews. The Soviet Union deported half a million Baltic citizens to gulags or Siberia. The Soviets also imported ethnic Russians to change the ethnic composition of these conquered nations.
The United States never recognized Soviet Russia’s illegal occupation of the Baltics. But its and NATO’s commitment to prevent any future occupation engendered some controversy. Experts such as George Kennan thought that NATO membership for a former constitutive republic of the U.S.S.R. would needlessly provoke the Russians.
The argument over the NATO-ization of the Baltics was a prelude to disputes over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Ukraine and beyond. . . . Mearsheimer contended that Russian leaders “would not stand by while their strategically important neighbor turned into a Western bastion.”
In this view, Putin is primarily the defender of the Russian homeland. His soldiers might have the moral restraint of drunken Cossacks, but he is resisting the hubristic expansion of a hostile military alliance.
This conviction, no doubt, is widely shared among Russians, and easily exploitable by their leader. Putin has portrayed his unprovoked attack on Ukraine as another reaction to fascist aggression from the West. His deception runs along well-worn historical grooves. Over the centuries, Russia has faced invasions from across the vast, flat plain reaching from Germany to the heart of Mother Russia. For many older Russians, memories of World War II consist mainly of Western perfidy and Russian indomitability.
The Putin-NATO divide might not rise to the level of ideological conflict, but it does involve a serious argument about the future of Europe.
Most recent U.S. presidents have maintained that NATO expansion is the natural outcome of a rules-based international order. European countries that meet defined standards on good governance, economic freedom and civilian control of the military can be admitted. This has helped consolidate several democratic transitions in Eastern Europe. It has also helped rectify the terrible wrong of the Yalta agreements, which formally cut Europe into areas of dominance and threw a number of vulnerable nations to the wolves.
Putin’s contrasting goal, says former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Russia Alexander Vershbow, is “to pressure the West into accepting some sort of Yalta 2, a Europe divided into spheres of influence with limited sovereignty for everyone but Russia.” This would allow him to restore Russian hegemony over its “near abroad.”
Why is this conflict between rules and spheres so important? . . . if Putin is attempting to reconstruct the Russian sphere of influence in Europe, his success in Ukraine would pave the way for future horrors. The logic that led to Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine — no NATO in the Russian sphere — would almost certainly lead toward the Baltics.
The lesson? Ukraine, with aggressive help from NATO, must defeat Russian forces, or the United States might soon face the question: Do we really fight for Lithuania? Though we are obligated, the decision and task would not be easy. Helping draw a NATO redline at Ukraine could help the United States preserve itself from impossible choices of the future.
Tuesday, April 12, 2022
War Crimes Were Always Part of Russia's Plan
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that the war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine were part of President Vladimir Putin’s master plan for the invasion.
“We, in fact, before the war began declassified intelligence and presented it,” Sullivan said on ABC’s “This Week,” “indicating that there was a plan from the highest levels of the Russian government to target civilians who oppose the invasion, to cause violence against them, to organize efforts to brutalize them in order to try to terrorize the population and subjugate it. So this is something that was planned.”
Russia’s recent retreat from areas near Kyiv left behind massive evidence of atrocities, particularly in Bucha, where civilians who had been executed, many with their hands tied behind their backs, were found through the area.
On top of that, Russia has targeted civilian sites throughout the war, with airstrikes on hospitals and places where refugees have congregated.
“The images that we’ve seen out of Bucha and other cities have been tragic, they’ve been horrifying,” Sullivan told host Jonathan Karl. “They’ve been downright shocking, but they have not been surprising.”
Sullivan did say that it was possible that some acts of brutality were spontaneous, suggesting that Russian soldiers who were frustrated by how poorly the invasion was going turned on Ukraine’s civilians.
“They had been told they were going to have a glorious victory,” Sullivan said of the Russian troops, “and just ride into Kyiv without any opposition with Ukrainians welcoming them and when that didn’t happen, I do think some of these units engaged in these acts of brutality, these atrocities, these war crimes even without direction from above.”
“But make no mistake, the larger issue of broad-scale war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine lies at the feet of the Kremlin and lies at the feet of the Russian president,” he added.