Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming”

May 5, 2022

As is typical for me with such books, I was far more engaged with the story of Michelle Obama’s early life, when she was an ordinary normal person, than with the too-familiar chronicle of her time in the spotlight.

Particularly striking was the portrayal of her mother during Michelle’s childhood, living in a tiny apartment with limited income (and a husband succumbing to illness); and eternal diligent frugality, endeavoring mightily so the family could have decent lives. For all the challenges, she managed it very well. We can fail to appreciate what a blessing even such modestly lived lives entail — the great achievement of modern civilization. And reading this understatedly heroic account of Michelle Obama’s mother in her thirties, I was cognizant this woman did wind up living in the White House.

One shocker: On page 307 Michelle explains that though residing there rent-free, they had to cover all other living expenses. “We got an itemized bill each month for every food item and roll of toilet paper.” They were charged for every guest staying overnight or sharing a meal. And since of course the White House upheld world-class standards, it was not cheap. A person of modest means, if elected president, could not afford it. This should be changed.

Michelle writes about her campaigning in Iowa during its 2008 presidential primary. Her first real taste of personal politicking. Constantly asked: how odd does it feel for a Harvard-educated Chicago Black woman talking to roomfuls of mostly white Iowans? She “bristled because the question was so antithetical to what I was experiencing and what the people I was meeting seemed to be experiencing, too.” Not racial or cultural tension but shared commonalities. She’d started out believing a Black man could not be elected president, but changed her opinion.

Reading this account, I had to remind myself it was just fourteen years ago. But it feels like she’s writing about a different planet. Sure, we had hot issues, conflicts, divisions. Yet we were a positive thinking nation of goodwill, civility, decency, even open-mindedness. Of sanity. Back then, I’d never have imagined how a single rotten person could wreck so much of that.

I recall commentator Van Jones querying, “When do the antibodies kick in?” It turns out our national immune system, protecting our civic health (as illustrated in Becoming), was compromised, perhaps ripe for the infection. We managed to survive it — barely—for the moment. Whether we ever recover to full health remains very doubtful.

I did not vote for Obama. I was proud to vote for John McCain. Remember his beautifully gracious concession speech? But there were tears in my eyes too when Obama’s victory was declared and the TV showed a middle-aged Chicago Black woman jumping up and down shouting, “God bless America! God bless America!”

Well, there is no God. We’re on our own. For two centuries the better angels of our nature were advancing. Now they’re battered, bruised, bloodied.


April 20, 2022

Trump Blames Dems, Declares Martial Law

January 22, 2025

By James Thornton, Devon Sharp,

and Julie Montalbano

Associated Press



Flames engulfed the United States Capitol building at 1:20 PM Eastern Time, just two days after President Donald J. Trump’s second inauguration. House and Senate members, with numerous staffers and employees, as well as tourists, were seen fleeing. No deaths have yet been confirmed, but fire officials expect large casualty counts to emerge once the blaze is extinguished. As of day’s end, it had not been.

Those officials also stated they cannot yet identify the conflagration’s cause. The building’s destruction appears substantial if not total. Its iconic dome has collapsed.

President Trump released a video address at 2:35 PM, calling the fire “a vicious attempt to overthrow our democratical elected American government, by evil America-hating traitor socialist crime-loving pedophile Democrats, who will be shown no mercy.” He also said the Capitol was “treated very very unfairly,” and announced a declaration of nationwide martial law, though without citing any legal or constitutional basis for that.

Questions have been raised concerning a 17-minute gap between the first alarms and the start of fire-fighting operations. They seem also to have been impeded by the massive concrete barricades surrounding the building, installed in anticipation of the huge protests that did eventuate related to the presidential election procedures unfolding therein.

Democratic nominee Pete Buttigieg had won a popular vote margin over ten million and a 307-228 electoral vote victory. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate threw out enough electoral votes to deny him a majority, based on fraud claims which (like President Trump’s in 2020 and after) had been thoroughly debunked, with the only significant 2024 electoral chicanery evident on the Republican side.

Nevertheless, pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, the voided electoral vote left it to the House of Representatives to choose the president, with each state having one vote. Twenty-seven Republican-controlled state delegations then handed Trump the presidency. Infuriated protesters were kept out by the barricades and heavy military presence, with thousands arrested. “America is finished,” said one of those, Frank Robinson, 77, of Albany, NY, a retired state administrative law judge.

In a one-page ruling issued January 19, with three dissents, the Supreme Court refused to hear a legal challenge to Trump’s election.

Some historians saw in today’s Capitol fire an eerie echo of Berlin’s 1933 Reichstag fire, just weeks after Hitler came to power. The Reichstag was Germany’s parliament. Hitler blamed the fire on Communists and used it as a pretext to expel them all from parliament, giving Nazis a majority, and to unleash an iron boot. Most observers believe the Nazis likely set the fire themselves, for that very purpose. (Goering supposedly boasted of doing it.) Germany’s parliament was never restored during Hitler’s twelve-year rule.

“The True” — Machine Politics and Sex

April 12, 2022

February 1977 — Dan O’Connell is finally dead. So begins Sharr White’s play, The True, performed at Capital Rep, directed by its leader Maggie Cahill. (Runs through April 24.)

O’Connell, 91, was still boss of the political machine he’d built more than half a century earlier. I had to see the play, having authored Albany’s O’Connell Machine — now nearing its own half century mark.

The play’s focus is Polly Noonan, “confidante” of Erastus Corning, whom O’Connell had installed as Albany’s mayor in 1941. Polly had been Corning’s secretary when he was a young state senator, and they’d been very close ever since, with Polly as a behind-the-scenes political operative. (Her granddaughter is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.)

O’Connell’s death occasions something of a power struggle over both the mayoralty and the party chairmanship. But the play is really more about the personal dynamic among Corning, Polly, and her husband Peter Noonan, also a Corning buddy.

It was much better than I expected. Antoinette LaVecchia’s portrayal of Polly was so forceful and compelling, perhaps the play should simply have been titled “Polly.” (“The True” refers to people who are true in their loyalties.)

Audience advisory: the play includes much strong language. Polly Noonan was renowned for her uninhibited tongue.

Particularly riveting was her scene with Jimmy Ryan, an old O’Connell henchman, battling Corning for control. Ryan looks like a slob, in his underwear (?) — but what a powerful personality, another great performance (by Kevin McGuire).

I never met Polly, nor Jimmy Ryan. I did meet Corning several times, interviewing him for my book (he was very gracious), and recall his gratuitously badmouthing Jimmy Ryan as a drunk (in 1972). I also went to Dan O’Connell’s home for an interview, but didn’t get much, he was already very frail. And actually, young fool that I was, I did those interviews before knowing what tough questions to ask.

Michael Pemberton played Corning as a hard-drinking stereotypical old pol. With none of the patrician manner so evident in life.

However, somewhat ironically given its title, the play isn’t presented as all true. Some liberties are taken. Corning’s relationship with Polly is of course central, but there is much talk of his wife; he is told several times to “go home to Betty.” As far as I’m aware, there had been no home with Betty for decades. Corning’s “family life” was entirely with the Noonans.

Not with his own children either. I actually spent time with Erastus Junior, on “numismatic tours” of Russia in the ’90s which he led; and it was strangely evident that his father (by then deceased) was totally a non-person to him.

Late in the play, with Polly hashing things out with Erastus in his living room, Betty finally appears. A ghostly flapper-like figure lurking offstage. Silence. Will she proceed to enter the room? That’s the play’s greatest moment of dramatic tension. Eventually Betty wordlessly exits upstairs.

So — were they ever fucking? Polly and Erastus? The question isn’t skirted, in fact it’s central to the dynamic. Everyone assumed they were. With O’Connell’s death putting Corning under new political pressure, he feels a need to distance himself from Polly. She takes that rather badly.

But the answer to the question was an emphatic “no” — according to Polly. Husband Peter believes her — well, maybe 85% of him does. The question was explored in Paul Grondahl’s magisterial Corning biography, and he came to the same conclusion.

Sex is important. But it’s not everything.

Ukraine: The War for Civilization

April 5, 2022

This is huge. Our most fundamental values are on the line. Russia must lose, and be seen to lose. No plausible pretense of victory. No ambiguity.

Ukraine is heroically bearing the brunt of the fight for us. And pretty effectively so far. Putin has a powerful tank army, but tank technology has been outstripped by tank-killing technology. Russian casualties are horrendous. Still, their military resources remain immense, amply capable of continuing destruction and slaughter. We’re just learning the extent of Russia’s outright mass murder of Ukrainian civilians.

Meantime a big chunk of Ukraine’s army is much endangered by Russian encirclement in the east near the Donbas conflict region. Russia might still wind up expanding those separatist-controlled territories, and taking Mariupol to create a land bridge to Crimea. Putin could call that a victory, albeit at ghastly cost.

We must prevent that. Doing so would be a seminal triumph for peace and democracy, boding well for the whole future of civilization. Otherwise we’re back to an ugly past with brutal wars of conquest like this the norm.

We’d thought that was finally behind us. True, we’d seen Russia’s prior villainies in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Donbas, Crimea. And Russia is not the only transgressor. But the Ukraine atrocity differs, in scale if nothing else; not dismissible as a one-off aberration. Mariupol was a city of 430,000, reduced to a terrorized remnant of maybe 100,000 struggling to survive in rubble.

So the stakes are exceedingly high. The West has risen to the challenge more strongly, with more unity, than might have been expected. Germany in particular has done a sharp U-turn, ending its longtime policy of smooging Russia.

And yet our response is still insufficient. Which The Economist calls “a reprehensible failure of strategic vision.” This fight should be given, militarily, everything we’ve got. We spent trillions building the strongest military ever — what for, if not this? But we’re squeamishly splitting hairs over what might provoke Putin. How ridiculous. His claims of provocation, to justify this war, were already a sham. And for him, this was always really a war against the West, America, the EU, and NATO. So what if we help Ukraine with less restraint?

Yet we agonize, rule out sending troops, or a no-fly zone; send anti-tank weapons but not tanks; and cavilled even at facilitating Poland’s giving Ukraine jets. And while we’ve provided lots of drones, they’re not actually our best drones, Alexander Vindman said in his latest zoom briefing. Oddly enough, the really lethal drones are a Turkish product, that Turkey is going all-out to manufacture for Ukraine.

Turkey and Poland are no poster boys for democracy. But they have reasons to hate the Russians.

I’ve written how the Putinist Russian ideology traduces human values. The Economist too recently gave a scary picture of this crazed blood-soaked cultural messianism.* Too many Russian people bray with it — eerily evocative of Nazi Germany. And for all its self-worship as against the “decadent” West, Russia and its regime are gigantically corrupt. Covering that up, says Alexei Navalny, requires quite a lot of ideology.

Which would be fed by even a partial success in Ukraine. Whereas failure would likely, eventually, move Russia “to solve its problems by reform at home rather than adventures abroad,” opines The Economist. Making this an historic opportunity to lance one of the great boils afflicting the neck of civilization. And while the risks of escalating conflict may be real, the risks to the world of a Russian success are also very real, and worth taking some risks to prevent.


1619, Critical Race Theory, and America’s Story

April 1, 2022

(This appeared recently as a commentary in the Albany Times-Union)

The “1619 Project” aims to highlight a key aspect of history — 1619 being when slavery arrived here — that is, at America’s very beginnings. As if born in sin. And “Critical Race Theory” puts race at the center of everything.

Both are politicized targets for the right; and both, perhaps typically for our febrile times, do go overboard. For example, 1619ers say 1776 was really about preserving slavery, supposedly against British abolitionism — which in fact hardly even existed yet.

That said, slavery and race do figure hugely in America’s story. Surely schoolkids need to learn about this. Not to make them feel bad, but so they’ll understand their world.

And while slavery was a horror, I’m proud of my country for the ideals that have propelled progress. Election of a black president seemingly relegated racism to America’s dark corners. But then a white backlash jelled, with a newfound anxiety over loss of caste dominance.

Trump could never have been elected absent a Black predecessor, and that underlying race factor continues to bedevil our politics. Many of his supporters won’t admit it to themselves, bristling at the “racist” label; but nobody would have stormed the Capitol on January 6 for the sake of economic concerns alone.

Jeannette Wilkerson’s 2020 book Caste quotes historian Taylor Branch querying how many Americans, given a choice between democracy and whiteness, would choose the latter? And she wonders whether the country will adhere to majority rule if the majority looks different. January 6 was a partial answer.

All this is a continuing legacy of slavery, definitive in America’s story.

I see history as full of contingency — nothing is ever inevitable. While many other societies had slavery, plenty never did. Ours was a peculiarity of Southern agriculture and its plantation system. Yet agriculture was successfully conducted on different models in numerous other places over millennia without slavery. Why then did it take hold here? Contingency factors that might have played out differently. Maybe importing those first slaves in 1619 did prove decisive.

And without our slavery history, today’s America would look very different. Whatever Black population we’d have would have arrived by normal immigration. True, some immigrant groups, like Irish and Jews, suffered discrimination, but it lessened as they assimilated. That could well have happened with Black immigrants.

Instead, Black Americans still earn less on average than Whites, their wealth a small fraction. Why didn’t they rise as far as immigrant groups? Because discrimination loomed much larger. The South’s sharecropper system, which dominated for most years since the Civil War, was engineered to keep Blacks down. Educational opportunities were far more limited, and still are. Housing segregation. Disproportionate incarceration. Et cetera. Blacks have been racially disadvantaged in uncountable ways.

And why, exactly, have they in particular suffered such severe and long-lasting discrimination? The answer is again rooted in slavery. It necessitated belief in Black racial inferiority. Slaveholders weren’t fooled by their propaganda painting the system as benevolent. They knew its brutality. And they could stomach this, shirking guilt for crimes against humanity, only by convincing themselves the victims weren’t really human. Not as human as them, anyway.

There was, indeed, a vast effort to prove it scientifically. Many otherwise upstanding men of science spiraled down this rat hole, torturing evidence. Only later did proper science refute all notions of racial superiority or inferiority.

Yet they’re still a deeply entrenched socio-cultural legacy. Depicting Blacks as lazy, louche, lawless, etc., helped justify enslavement, and persists. Ill-treatment and discrimination make people appear degraded; living in poor conditions causes social pathologies. Treat people like dirt and they’ll look dirty, putting the negative stereotypes on a feedback loop. While whites fancy themselves superior. Of course such racialism is a familiar syndrome worldwide. But our slavery history surely gave it a uniquely powerful impetus. Still casting an ugly shadow upon America.

Lincoln spoke of “a new birth of freedom.” But the story isn’t over. Slavery may have planted a time bomb of race antagonism that will yet blow up our democracy.

My Greatest Celebrity Sighting Ever!

March 30, 2022

I’m in an elevator in New York with several others. One a tallish woman, in dark glasses, and some kind of concealing headgear. Yet I detect something vaguely familiar. Careful scrutiny produces recognition. I catch her eye and give her a look that says, “You’re Jackie O.”

And, with a trace of a smile, she gives me back a look that silently says, “Yes. Let it be our secret.”

Then the elevator opens and she’s gone. I say to myself, “Wow! But wait — didn’t Jackie O die ages ago? . . . Maybe I’m mis-remembering that.”

Then I think, I should write this up for my blog! Title it “My Greatest Celebrity Sighting Ever!”

Then I wake up from the dream and laugh.

(Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died 28 years before.)

Ketanji Brown Jackson versus the Republican Slime Squad

March 26, 2022

Republican senators in the Jackson confirmation hearings were an abominable disgrace. I am shocked, shocked.

An Exceptional Merit award goes to Lindsay Graham. The guy who, during the 2016 primaries, denounced Trump as a monster. Who then became a Trump lover. Until January 6, when he re-denounced Trump, declaring himself all done with him. Until a few days later when he was back in Trump’s pocket.

Graham in the hearings spit fire over Democrats’ past treatment of Republican Supreme Court nominees. Especially beer-loving Brett Kavanaugh, credibly accused of sexual assault. Graham apparently thinks that should never have been brought up. Nor the issue of Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament, after his deranged partisan rant calling the opposition to his nomination a Clintonian revenge conspiracy.

Yet Kavanaugh was, after all, confirmed. Strangely (or not) Graham never mentioned how Republicans treated Merrick Garland in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Oh, wait. They never gave him a hearing at all.

But mainly the Jackson hearings showcased Republicans’ grand project of confabulating an alternate reality. Where they’re fighting to save America from destruction by evil Democrats. Mirroring Putin’s alternate reality where the “special military operation” is to save Ukrainians from Nazis, and protect righteous Russia from the wicked West. Here, it’s Judge Jackson as some sort of extremist left-wing woke “critical race theory” radical. Her color was all Republicans needed; it was off to the races (pun intended).

Reality check: Judge Jackson is an upstanding model of mainstream centrist responsible judicial professionalism. Almost colorless, you might say.

“Soft on crime” was another key theme. When I hear those words “soft on crime,” I gag at the cynical bullshit. Antipathy toward criminality is baked deeply into all normal human brains. No reasonable person is “soft on crime.” It’s always questions of what really serves justice and society’s true interests, which can be very tricky. “Soft on crime” accusations don’t help.

And Republicans are thoroughgoing hypocrites on this, because a huge part of America’s crime problem is guns, and Republicans have for decades warred against all sensible gun regulation. If anyone’s “soft on crime,” it’s them.

And they’ve been notably soft on America’s premier criminal — Donald J. Trump.

As for Judge Brown, they tried to paint her as soft on child porn in particular, by raking over her sentencing record. (Though sentencing isn’t a Supreme Court function, but never mind that.) Sentencing — trying to do proper justice with a flesh-and-blood human being before you — is always problematic.* From the hearings, it seemed Judge Jackson acted much in line with how most judges act. Her sentences were typically lower than what prosecutors advocated, but it’s their job to go for the max. Hardly shocking if a judge is more moderate.

Hawley on Jan 6

One key case concerned 18-year-old Wesley Hawkins, sentenced to three months. Republicans like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley called this scandalous leniency. Now, child porn is a vicious crime — by those who produce it. But this teenager did not create the porn, just downloaded it. True, it would not exist without an audience for it. And it was described as sadomasochistic, very disturbing, I can’t fathom anyone getting off on that. Nevertheless, a kid of 18 merely accessing something readily available on any computer doesn’t seem a heinous criminal. Just being put through a trial was surely punishment aplenty. Jackson moderated justice with mercy and humanity. I myself might well have given him no jail time.

It’s those holier-than-thou Republican moralists, baying for the blood of a misguided kid, who are truly depraved. Not fit to lick the shoes of Ketanji Brown Jackson.

They tied themselves in knots trying to avoid the appearance of outright racism while cynically playing the race card in pandering to their white nationalist peanut gallery. And in that regard President Biden handed them an unfortunate gift by having promised to appoint a Black woman. So unnecessary a pledge. I wish he’d just nominated Judge Jackson without it. Thus she could’ve been seen as the best possible person all around. Not implausible considering her very great merits. But Biden’s advance pledge served to relegate Jackson to being merely the pick of the limited crop of Black women lawyers. A diminishment of her.

Blacks are key supporters of the Democratic party, and Democrats should be responsive to their concerns and interests. But there’s a good way, and a not-so-good way. The good way is to pursue policies that benefit our society as a whole, making sure that’s done as inclusively as possible, so Blacks get their full share. Appointing Judge Jackson fit with that. The other way is epitomized by Biden’s promising to appoint a Black woman. Making Democrats seem unduly obsessed with identity politics.

The Economist recently reviewed Michael Kazin’s book, What It Took to Win, a history of the Democratic party. The review is tellingly titled, “Tail Wags Donkey.” From the 1930s to the ’60s, Democrats were politically dominant, by following the good way, emphasizing economic policies beneficial to the broadest possible swathe of voters. But since then the party has often seemed bedazzled by culture issues (like gay rights) and, especially, identity politics — which a lot of voters see as disrespecting them, coddling minorities, and divisive rather than uniting. Something Republicans have exploited maximally — and yet more divisively. While the great irony is that though Democrats are criticized for stressing culture issues, for Republicans (as the Jackson hearings showed) it’s all culture issues, they have no economic policies at all; certainly not any that cater to the mass of their voters.

* The night I learned of my own appointment as a judge, I had a harrowing dream, of a road lined by people hanging. “Don’t you remember?” I was told. “You sentenced them.” But fortunately mine was not that kind of judgeship.

Ukraine versus Russia versus the West

March 17, 2022

Issues are not usually black and white but shades of grey; not good versus evil. Not so with Russia’s Ukraine atrocity. There’s talk of the International Criminal Court investigating war crimes. Investigating? “War crimes?” The entire thing is a crime. What’s to investigate?

Putin labels it a “special military operation,” and any Russian calling it “invasion” or “war” is subject to arrest. Yet paradoxically he purports to justify doing what he denies doing on the lie that Ukraine is run by crazed Nazis. Saying it’s not a legitimate country, traditionally belonging to “Great Russia.”

That’s the real gravamen, supplying at least a pretense of appealing to human aspiration. Claiming Russian civilization’s inherent natural greatness, its consequent proper world historical status, and its strong traditional values as against the alleged corruption, decadence, and weakness of the West.

Which has supposedly humiliated Russia. This “humiliation” trope is a powerful driver in human psychology. We see it too in Muslim attitudes toward the West. And in China, carrying a big chip of truculent nationalism on its shoulder, to redress past humiliation. Though Mao harmed China far more than the West ever did. Xi Jinping’s talk of “The Chinese Dream” doesn’t mirror “The American Dream” of individual human fulfillment; Xi’s is about swaggering on the global stage. Just like Putin’s Russian greatness dream.

Russia’s “humiliation” was the loss of the cold war, of empire as the Soviet Union broke apart (many nations freed, including Ukraine), and the economic travails of the transition out of communism (which was never going to be easy). Blaming it all on a supposedly craven West rather than any failings in Russia’s national character and its inglorious record. In fact we tried to help them overcome that legacy and build back better. Though I felt we could have done more. But Putin took Russia down a different road. And if Russia was humiliated, it had only itself to blame.

Just as with “The Chinese Dream,” what is conspicuously missing from the “Russian Greatness” trope is any nod to real human values, serving people’s wellbeing not just as parts of a collective but as individuals. As with Ukraine’s resistance to Russia — they have something truly worth fighting for. What Russian Greatness ideology aims to provide instead is (at best) a form of pride, puffing people up (even if their lives are crap) as part of something (supposedly) great.

Strength is a key element, also psychologically potent. Even if not exactly believing might makes right, people are attracted by strength per se contrasted against weakness. That’s what Putin is selling. It even attracts some in the Western right devoid of actual principles, fools like Fox’s *ucker Carlson, and of course Trump. But what is the strength used for? Surely it’s a perverse sort of pride in strength when used for bombing cities and slaughtering innocents. No “greatness” there.

At least communism as an ideology purported to offer a path (however mistaken) to better lives for individual people. Putin’s Russian Greatness idea doesn’t even try.

And of course calling the West corrupt is a cruel joke. Russia itself being endemically shot through with corruption. Putin hardly pretends to battle it, kleptocracy an organizing principle of his regime. (In China too corruption is a deeply entrenched way of life.) While in fact the West is the least corrupt civilization ever — because of rule of law, which Russia lacks. A nation where people inconvenient to the regime are simply murdered calls the West “corrupt?”

Its permissiveness Putin calls decadence. This too points up the difference in mindset. We are indeed permissive — to allow as many people as possible to flourish and enjoy their lives in their own individual ways.

The “traditional values” that Russia is said to stand for are antithetical to that, repressing people, imposing upon them not values they themselves choose but rather values chosen by others (often based on totally false scripture). And Russia today is among the most repressive nations on Earth — become one big prison. Crushing, not serving, human values.

At the heart of this difference between our values (and Ukraine’s) and Russia’s (and China’s) is democracy. Nothing more fundamental, giving everyone a voice, elevating their individual human dignity. If Putin really believed Ukrainians are blood-bound brethren, he might simply have asked them. But he knew the answer. They see Russia for what it is, and voted against that — and continue doing so, with Stingers and Javelins and Molotov cocktails.

In his Wednesday speech to Congress, Ukraine’s President Zelensky proposed creating a “Union of Responsible Countries,” to combat evils like Russia’s. I’ve written similarly of a league of democracies, to do what the United Nations was conceived to do but cannot (blocked mainly by Russian and Chinese vetoes). Such a league would have the moral authority to fill that void and promote true human values throughout the world.

I attended two zoom briefings by Alexander Vindman. The National Security Council official fired by Trump for testifying truthfully in the first impeachment; now working on Ukraine issues. The big take-away is that Russia can’t win. Regarding a no-fly zone, Vindman thought it wouldn’t mean WWIII, questioning whether Russia would take the huge risks of shooting at NATO aircraft. But anyway, he said the West seems to be giving Ukraine enough weaponry to defend its skies itself. Though the fear is that Russia, otherwise stymied, would escalate to chemical or even nuclear weapons.

Ukraine should agree to whatever it takes (short of ceding territory) to give Putin a fig leaf to claim victory and withdraw. And once Russian troops are out, Ukraine should ignore that agreement. It owes Russia no good faith on anything agreed under criminal duress.

Especially after Russia violated its own 1993 commitment to honor Ukraine’s borders in exchange for giving up its nukes. If Russia remonstrates, the answer should be . . . .

Ukraine – The Nuclear Option

March 8, 2022

I’ve written about the power imbalance between good and evil. It’s because the good are constrained by moral scruples, while the evil are not. I was writing mainly about U.S. politics, but Ukraine exemplifies the principle.

This will get worse, because there is no moral restraint on the Russian side. Is Putin a madman? Maybe not exactly, but he seems messianic about restoring Russia’s greatness (even as he destroys any goodness in it; compounding the vast Ukraine crime with a spiraling crackdown against Russia’s own civil society). And Putin conflates Russia with himself, making the stakes existential for him. He will do anything — anything — to avoid losing. Hence his nuclear threat should not be dismissed as mere bluster.

Already his original plan is faltering, so he’s gone to Plan B. Russia’s invading forces have performed worse than expected, while Ukrainian defense is much stronger. So rather than overrunning and occupying cities, Plan B is to annihilate them. The morale gap between the sides being obviated by use of devastating weaponry.

And yes, that could include nuclear, if all else fails. Having gone this far, smashing through other guardrails, why would Putin stop at the nuclear taboo? He sees this as the strong against the weak; literally, might making right. Exploiting that power imbalance between good and evil. Out-crazying his opponents.

Meantime we have gone to our own version of the nuclear option — in terms of sanctions. Far beyond what anyone ever envisioned. Previous sanctions Russia could laugh at. But not these, a wrecking ball to its economy. Western nations are unexpectedly willing to take some pain to their own. Though stopping short of blocking Russia’s crucial oil sales. And even that extreme step may come soon.

Putin was not expecting sanctions so severe, just as he wasn’t expecting Ukrainians to put up such a fight. But neither factor is stopping him. Instead, pushing him to the next level, raising the stakes. Having now already paid such a big price for his Ukraine adventure, that’s all the more reason to do whatever it takes.

Meantime, it’s been a worry that Russia’s absorption of Ukraine would embolden China vis-a-vis Taiwan. Xi Jinping does share some Putinistic messianism. However, perhaps the nightmare Ukraine has become for Russia itself will deter Xi.

For us, in a way it makes sense to use economic weapons rather than the military kind. But on the other hand, we’ve spent trillions over decades building the strongest military machine in world history. For use against — what? If not this? The biggest threat to global peace, to civilization itself, in our lifetimes.

In hindsight, when we saw Russia’s massive buildup surrounding Ukraine, clearly presaging invasion, we ought to have organized a coordinated inoculation of that country with Western troops. A coalition like the one that reversed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Yes, Putin would have gone ballistic, considering that a heinous provocation. But what would he have done? Anything worse than what he’s doing now? Which we might actually have headed off. Would Putin have invaded knowing it would mean actually battling U.S. forces? He went ahead because he saw us as weak. And by relying only on non-military means, we conveyed weakness, encouraging him.

But people in the West feel done with war, a psychology of pacifism become so pervasive that we couldn’t even really believe it when an actual war was staring us in the face. Nobody was advocating sending defensive troops into Ukraine. And that pacifism actually brought on the war. As a Roman general said, if you want peace, prepare for war.

Yet even now we’re still ruling out combat engagement. Ruling out a no-fly zone, which could have us shooting down Russian planes. The fear of escalation might be rational, except that Russia is escalating anyway. If we do shoot down their planes, what more could Putin do, that he’s not doing already? Launch attacks outside Ukraine? — which would certainly incur an equivalent military response. It’s tempting to say, bring it on. Though the nuclear threat is indeed extremely scary. But it’s hard to see how, exactly, Putin can now be deterred from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, if that’s what it takes to enable him to claim victory — however hollow.

Maybe if we’d now declare that any nuking in Ukraine would bring the same on Russia — would that finally deter Putin? Would we have the balls to say it? To do it? Would it be moral?

Or will sane elements in the Kremlin, staring into the abyss, remove Putin, to save their own skins? Easier said than done. The personal risks of any such plotting would seem prohibitive. Those around Stalin were in constant danger from his murderous whims, but that very terror paralyzed any would-be plotters — even when Stalin lay helpless and dying. Putin too is a killer.

He pretends to justify his invasion by ridiculously calling Ukrainian leaders Nazis. Of course, it’s Putin’s own conduct resembling nothing so much as Hitler’s in WWII. After conquering Poland, he went on to subjugate most of the rest of Europe. If not stopped in Ukraine, what nations will Putin threaten next?

Our choice may eventually come down to watching that horror unfold — and with it our ideals for a better global order, which America worked so long and hard to build — versus major military engagement after all. But many Americans seem more worried about gas prices than about the fate of civilization.


March 5, 2022

My blog, “The Rational Optimist,” was started in 2008 while writing my book The Case for Rational Optimism. That now seems long ago, in far-away galaxy.

I have argued that a species capable of living in the Sahara and the Arctic could cope with climate change. But also that while we must do everything reasonably possible to curb greenhouse gas emissions, even reducing them to zero (impossible) would not stop temperatures rising. So we must also work on defensive preparations, and ways to cool the planet. Yet climate warriors seem to wage an anti-industrial jihad, fixated solely on emission reduction. Even there, nuclear power should play a big role; but many oppose that too. And the recent global climate conference, COP26, was pretty much a cop-out.

So our climate action is too little, too late, and global warming looms faster and more severe and harmful than once thought. Humanity may still be resourceful enough to cope, though at great cost. Yet there’s danger of a tipping point to runaway warming that feeds on itself. Earth’s climate has always naturally cycled through warmer and colder periods, but that could be thrown off-kilter by human activity, a significant new factor.

Venus shows what a runaway greenhouse effect can do. Reaching a permanently toasty temperature — high enough to melt metal. Something no life can survive.

Recently I listened to a 2017 public debate, by serious scholars, on “Is democracy committing suicide?” Suicide may not be quite the right word, but the proposition was that democracy does have characteristics dooming it. Those so arguing had much scary fodder to invoke. The other side said things like Brexit and Trump’s election actually show democracy working. Considering it, at least in advanced countries like America, deeply resilient, its institutions strong enough to withstand challenges.

Note was made of Trump’s ominous 2016 refusal to say he’d accept the election outcome. What if, one debater queried, in 2020 he loses but calls on his supporters to reject that result? Well, it happened. Our democracy survived — but just by the skin of its teeth.

Numerous examples tell us a democracy is just one dumb vote away from autocracy. In America it might take two. A recent poll showed Trump defeating Biden.

Our species’ entire progress, from its beginnings, has been achieved through reason. We are very smart, but not smart enough to avoid many pitfalls of irrationality. Rejecting reality is the essence of irrationality. And that’s Trumpism, rejecting the reality of the 2020 election; of his rotten character; of his party whitewashing January 6. The reality of making America not great again, but shredding what makes it great. Yet some voters are turning against Democrats because of . . . mask mandates. Returning Trump to power would slap rationality in the face.

Democracy was so ascendant in the late 20th Century because it fulfills a basic human thirst for recognition of one’s individual dignity and value, as Francis Fukuyama argued in The End of History. And its debate defenders were right that people won’t knowingly give it up — though actually polls show increasing numbers saying democracy is not that important, and they’d be fine with military rule.

Too many fall for the idea of a strongman, to fix everything. (Strongmen never do, one debater observed; instead they find scapegoats.)

And they never come in saying, “No more democracy.” Indeed, democracy has become so entrenched as a fundamental human value that even the worst regimes pretend to honor it. The world’s autocrats, after being caught flat-footed for a time by democracy’s rise, eventually perfected techniques for manipulating it — giving it the death of a thousand cuts — and then to prevent its resurrection. Thus Venezuela’s regime is impregnable despite crashing GDP by 75%; Russians cannot get rid of Putin even as he drives them to catastrophe.

The paragon is China — it too insists it’s “democratic” — taking the surveillance state to heights beyond Orwellian, making life impossible for anyone not the regime’s obedient toady. The picture of the world’s 1984 future?

Even before 2016, I kept saying America’s democracy is not ordained by God, and could not be forever sustained without a citizenry deeply internalizing its values, understanding what it’s all about. Which was already crumbling. Democracy is not just a matter of elections; more importantly it’s a culture. Of which a key aspect is pluralism — accepting people unlike you having a legitimate role, even having power. That ethos is stomped down in today’s America.

The debate questioned whether democracy is its own worst enemy, allowing people to make bad choices. But an enemy at least as dangerous is guns. However strong people’s democratic feelings may be, guns can be stronger, especially when wielded by regimes without scruples. Look at Myanmar’s army, at war with the entire populace. Too many countries have militaries that are good for nothing — nothing — except using force upon their own populations, to entrench their power and privileges. Guns and democracy don’t mix. That’s why America’s ever growing gun infatuation bodes ill.

An important basis for my 2008 optimism was the post-WWII rules-based world order, evolving into the post-cold war Pax Americana. While guns did continue wreaking havoc within countries, at least major advanced nations were no longer using them against each other. That has now changed. Russia’s monstrous crime against Ukraine is another assault on human rationality. And a huge test, whose outcome will be enormously consequential. If Russia, however bloodied, is seen to ultimately prevail, subjugating Ukraine, we’ll be living in a different and uglier world. While if Russia is bloodied and thwarted, the lesson will be salutary. So much hangs on Ukrainians’ strength and courage.

For the moment at least, those inspiring Ukrainians, and a stronger global response than expected, are antidotes to pessimism. On the other hand, it’s always depressing how many dupes will dance to a tune like Putin’s.

And it’s another weakness of democracy that a lot of people “don’t care about politics.” Thus being oblivious when the thousand cuts begin. Disengagement from politics — not having to worry about it — is actually a luxury of living in a stable democracy, under rule of law, cosseting people (as it should). Inhabitants of Myanmar don’t have that luxury.

Yet broadly speaking, it’s true that politics is not everything. Science, technology, and commerce should continue improving quality of life. And America and its people (even most Trumpers) have many great virtues of which democracy is only one. Without it maybe the rest can endure. Even under a Trump dictatorship, most of ordinary daily life might go merrily along. At least half a loaf. I’ve promised my wife we won’t move to Canada unless truly necessary.

The “yes” side won that debate. I once dreamed of living to see a news headline about the ouster of “The World’s Last Dictator.” Now I wonder if it will be the end of “The World’s Last Democracy.”