Crimea River

There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

— Sting, “Russians”

The post-911 world is some sort of demented wonderland populated by Muslim extremists, increasingly unpredictable and dangerously weird North Korean dictators, and petty despots so determined to cling to power that they would rather commit genocide with poison gas and barrel bombs than risk even the slightest whiff of democracy in their countries. And let us not forget the rise of “moderates” in Iran who appear finally to be ready to negotiate a reduction in its nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions. In this topsy-turvy new world order, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Russian troops into the Crimea is an almost refreshing return to the geopolitics of the Cold War.

Putin has made no secret of his desire to restore Russia to the level of international power it held before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the post-Soviet era he has been adept in using “soft power” in the form of Russia’s huge energy reserves and bribes barely disguised as loans to keep the former Soviet republics in the Russian orbit and beyond the influence of the West. Indeed, even the most powerful member of the European Union, Germany, can only push Russia so far, as it too is dependent upon Russian natural gas to power its economy.

For its part, the United States has few cards to play in this crisis. With a nation weary of and bloodied by thirteen years of war, and a Congress unable to agree upon the day of the week, President Obama is not about to commit military forces to moving Putin out of the Crimea. So instead, he must rely upon diplomacy and threats to freeze visas and assets of Russian individuals. Putin undoubtedly knew that he had the stronger position than his American counterpart; and this emboldened him to invade the Crimea.

Putin has been careful to describe his move into the Crimea as a defensive action to protect the lives and interests of the Russian-speaking minority in the region; and he has assured anyone who will listen that he has no designs upon the rest of Ukraine. But make no mistake: Putin is sending a strong signal to Ukraine and its newly-installed and terribly weak government in Kiev. Like Glenn Close’s unforgettable Alex Forrest in the 1987 film “Fatal Attraction,” Putin wants Ukraine to know that Russia will not be ignored.

It is incredibly fortunate that thus far there have been no violent altercations between Russian and Ukrainian troops in the Crimea. It would, however, be foolish to rely upon the continued good sense of commanders on the ground to avoid disaster. While it is true that no one is worried that the current crisis will escalate into a nuclear confrontation, we should not forget that a century ago, a devastating global war ignited from what began as a regional conflict (which also happened to involve Russia).

Reagan, Thatcher, and the other great Cold Warriors of the West are now gone; and one would be hard-pressed to find any current president or prime minister of their stature who can oppose Putin and assert the leadership that could inspire the people in struggling democracies like that of Ukraine, and remind tyrants everywhere that their days are numbered.

Barack Obama may have won the Nobel Peace Prize; but in the global game of chess with Vladimir Putin, he is being schooled by a true Grandmaster.

Advertisements

Running on Empty

“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace, that two become a law firm, and that three or more become a congress.” — John Adams

There are two enduring images from my childhood. The first is my grandfather’s description of the end of the world as a fiery catastrophe revealed to us in the Bible. The second is the infamous Doomsday Clock that counted the minutes until nuclear annihilation. Honestly, growing up as a Black Baptist in the shadow of the Cold War, I cannot say which outcome was more frightening to me then. Yet as luck would have it, Communism collapsed, taking with it the threat of mutually-assured destruction; and the Biblical apocalypse so vividly described from the pulpit of my neighborhood church assumed its place alongside other cultural myths shelved in my mind.

Having thus fallen out of the habit of thinking about the END OF TIME (except for the Zombie Apocalypse, I desperately want a Zombie Apocalypse), I was more than a little surprised to see a return of cataclysmic visions and predictions arising from the Federal Government shutdown and unsuccessful (to date) negotiations over raising the debt ceiling.

Now I am the first to admit that I am not an expert in the intricacies of the Federal budget and the politics behind it. That said, it is perfectly clear even to an Ivy League poseur like me that people are suffering and that both the power and image of the United States are in serious jeopardy. To be sure, there is plenty of blame to go around for this deplorable situation; but the House Republicans have achieved savant status in the art of self-destruction.

As a Republican, I agree with the desire to control spending and reform entitlement programs. I can even understand the urge to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. (In my view, the effort to do so, however, was a waste of precious time and goodwill.) But I am simply stunned that the Party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan seems content to bring about fiscal ruin under the guise of “upholding principle.” Make no mistake. If our financial house collapses, the GOP will be MUD.

At the risk of summoning the ire of my fellow Republicans, I lay the blame for this calamity at the feet of one person: Speaker John Boehner. Call me Old School, but I fervently believe that if “Tip” O’Neill were still alive and Speaker of the House, there would be no “Tea Party Overlords.” (Thank you, Harry Reid, for one of the best phrases of 2013.) The Tea Party would be just another caucus of House members with a particular agenda. We would have a deal — and not one that would expire in a mere six weeks. And perhaps most importantly, the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States would appear together on camera to announce that they had reached an agreement. The American people and the world would see and understand that the Republic had emerged even stronger for having endured tough but fair negotiations.

But alas, Tip, the Gipper, and the great deal-makers of Congresses past are gone. Our nation is now being run by petulant children for whom compromise is as odious as castor oil.

The fiscal doomsday clock ticks on. Yes, there is still time to avoid, in the words of a classic R.E.M. song, “the end of the world as we know it.” But our so-called leaders should be ashamed that their endless bickering has brought us all to the brink of oblivion – again. We the People deserve better.

Morehouse Man In The Mirror

Now, if you’re blue
And you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where fashion sits
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Different types who wear a daycoat
Pants with stripes and cutaway coat
Perfect fits
Puttin’ on the Ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Super-duper

Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers
Walk with sticks or umberellas
In their mitts
Puttin’ on the Ritz

      — Irving Berlin, “Puttin’ On The Ritz”

Morehouse College, one of the flagship HBCUs in the country and the alma mater of generations of prominent African-American males, including Martin Luther King, recently conjured up some controversy by establishing a dress code on campus.  The new policy prohibits do-rags, hats, sunglasses, hoods or offensive clothing in class.   It also bans such items as “decorative orthodontic appliances” (A white female friend who is much more “Black” than I am tells me that these things are known, in the vernacular, as “grillz.”), pajamas, sagging pants, and bare feet.

However, the part of the policy that has drawn the most attention from the media — including a certain Philadelphia Negro — states “No wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.”

Some believe, and I think that they are correct, that this policy is a not-so-subtle attempt by the College administration to control homosexuality and transgender identification on campus.  Homosexuality is one of the most sensitive issues in the so-called Black community; and it is an open secret that Morehouse has a large population of gay men.  For the record, I do not believe that Morehouse is atypical in this regard.  College is (or should be) a place of experimentation and exploring boundaries.  If we expect intellectual awakenings on a college campus, why should we be surprised that sexual awakenings occur there, as well?  Given the generally conservative orientation of Black society, the freedom of expression generally associated with the college campus can be even more powerful for young Black men who do not define themselves — openly or otherwise — as heterosexual. 

By choosing to implement a dress code that at least appears to target a specific population of the College community, Morehouse is treading on difficult ground: the fault line between individual expression expected in an academic setting and the culture of conformity — including the “rules” of what it means to be a Black man.   Though I have certainly ranted against the extreme informality of undergraduate dress and — in my angrier moods — have even advocated a dress code, I find that ultimately, I cannot support this kind of regulation.   While being a “Morehouse man” does carry a certain mystique — in more ways than some would care to admit — attending Morehouse is not, or should not be, like joining the military.   The latter needs to engender conformity in order to prepare its members to undertake the serious business of killing people.   (The armed services can talk all they wish about education and training opportunities; but the bottom line is that they train people to inflict harm upon our enemies as quickly and efficiently as possible.)   Like other institutions of higher learning, Morehouse should encourage the creativity and diversity of its students — even if it means that a few of them look rather stunning in a nice frock.    

Each day I am more conscious of the fact that I am from a different time than the one I share with my students.  I wear button-downs and khakis, and whistle Mozart and Cole Porter.  I voted for Ronald Reagan.  The Establishment works for me.  I like it.   Would I prefer more “conservative” apparel on campus?   Yes.   But fighting for this is a waste of powder.   Morehouse would be wise to invest its resources in the development of young men of character and not the regulation of cravats.    

Ultimately, the late Bart Giamatti said it best when he chose to call his book about the purpose of the university Free and Ordered Spaces.   He believed that on a college campus (and everywhere else), freedom should not be subordinate to intolerance disguised as discipline.   He was right.

Little Barry Gets A Gold Star

That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it

Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free

Now that ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it

Lemme tell ya, them guys ain’t dumb

Maybe get a blister on your little finger

Maybe get a blister on your thumb

— Dire Straits, “Money For Nothing”

I would like to thank the Nobel Committee for forcing me out of my long hiatus from my duties as a blogger.  I could not have imagined a greater gift that its decision to award the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace to President Barack Obama.  H. L. Mencken is most assuredly spinning in his grave.

I must have missed something in the last nine months of the Obama presidency.  Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended?  Have the Israelis and Palestinians committed themselves to peaceful coexistence?  Have Iran and North Korea given up their ambitions to become (overtly, at least) nuclear states?  Has the genocide in Darfur ceased?  No?  Then why did Obama win what is arguably the most important and recognizable prize in the world?

My liberal friends and other Obama sycophants insist that the President’s actual achievements in the area of world peace are far less important than his potential to do good.  (I wish I could get my credit card company to accept that logic: surely my potential to pay my bill means more to them than getting a silly check from me every month.)

Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I was under the impression that the Nobel Prize was awarded to people who had actually done something in the area for which they were being recognized.  Some of Obama’s predecessors in the Oval Office have amassed an impressive record for peace–and they did not get the Nobel Prize for their efforts.  For instance, Jimmy Carter brought Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to the negotiating table. (Sadat and Begin won the 1978 Prize.  Carter eventually won the Prize in 2002.)  Ronald Reagan restarted nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviets and pushed Mikhail Gorbachev to unleash democracy in the former Soviet Union and its satellites.  (Gorbachev won the 1990 Prize.)  Bill Clinton hammered out peace in Northern Ireland and got Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands on the White House lawn.  (Arafat, Rabin, and Shimon Peres won the 1994 Prize.  Bill is, I am sure, actively campaigning to get the Prize before Hillary does.)  Even Presidential also-ran Al Gore managed to finally win something: the 2007 Prize.

To be sure, achieving peace anywhere in the world–or even down the block–is an elusive and frustrating goal; and prior Administrations could not and did not accomplish everything that they might have desired.  And President Obama faces challenges that his predecessors could not have imagined in their worst nightmares of global Armageddon.  Be that as it may, he has not yet met what should be a very high standard to join such exclusive company.

Awarding Obama the Nobel Prize for his potential as a peacemaker is disturbingly similar to the current practice of giving children prizes, certificates, etc. for just about anything that they do.  (I mean, how ridiculous is kindergarten graduation?)  Greater minds than mine have proposed that this ready availability of praise cheapens its value and creates an expectation that merely showing up merits getting an award.  Hard work, sacrifice, and determination are dismissed as unnecessary or even foolish.  Obama, of course, could not have achieved such amazing success before reaching age 50 had he subscribed to this point of view.  But accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace now ironically contradicts the amazing and (I admit) inspiring narrative of his life.

President Obama should do the right thing and refuse the Nobel Prize for Peace.  I am pretty sure that he will get another crack at it.