Category Archives: Ukraine

If I were inclined to be a pessimist, here’s what I’d worry about

I hope Gary Larson doesn’t sue me for using this. I just saw it on Pinterest, and thought it a way better illustration for this post than the boring shot of Putin I originally put here.

Well, these are some of the things I’d worry about. Not all are even near the top of the list. These are just things that were in the news today — actually, all three were in one of the several papers to which I subscribe — so they’re on my mind at the moment.

So worry away, folks…

  1. Classic American tragedy — The headline was “Teen sought in Amber Alert dies in shootout after running toward deputies.” Basically, a 15-year-old girl that authorities were seeking to rescue from her armed-and-crazy, murderous father is now dead — shot by, well, authorities. So your initial reaction is, there go the stupid cops again. But then, if you care at all, you actually read about what happened. And you see it’s not so simple. What happened (so far as know at this point) was, shots were fired near a school. The school is placed briefly on lockdown. Then cops find a woman with multiple gunshot wounds, who is pronounced dead at a hospital. The call goes out to look for the husband, Anthony Graziano, and the couple’s young daughter, Savannah. Graziano’s Nissan is spotted, and pursued. He starts shooting, putting several rounds through a police car windshield. With bullets still flying both ways, someone, “wearing protective equipment, including a tactical helmet, emerged from the passenger side of the vehicle, ran toward sheriff’s deputies and then fell amid the gunfire.” When it’s all over, it’s discovered that someone is Savannah, and she and her father are both dead. What do you think should be done to prevent such things? This is very much like what happened to Breonna Taylor — someone with the victim starts shooting at police, and the victim is killed in the crossfire — but since she was black, a lot of people simplified it to “racism.” With Savannah being white, one is tempted to simplify by saying, “guns.” For instance, since I watch at LOT of British cop shows, I think, why can’t our cops go unarmed, like them? But of course that ignores the fact that there are 393 million guns in private hands in this country, and a lot of those hands belong to people who like to shoot first, like Graziano. So no, I don’t know that answer, but I’m pretty sure it can’t be summed up in one word.
  2. A big AI advance — I often sneer at artificial intelligence, noting that it may be artificial, but it certainly isn’t intelligent. Well, something like this makes me take a step back, and have “Matrix” thoughts. See that block of images below. None was taken by a camera. And they were generated not by hours of work by a CGI artist, but by “the artificial intelligence text-to-image generator DALL-E.” The one at the upper right came into being in response to the phrase, ““A woman in a red coat looking up at the sky in the middle of Times Square.” The only human input for the one at bottom left was, “Red and yellow bell peppers in a bowl with a floral pattern on a green rug photo.” I don’t know what the prompt was for the boy in black-and-white, but this is scary. Note that I say, “the phrase,” “input,” and “prompt.” Each time, I almost wrote “command,” but dare we speak of issuing orders to our future digital overlords?
  3. Ukraine dilemma — If you don’t spend too much time thinking about it, you can conclude that the thing to do is simply cheer for Ukraine to win, and Putin to lose. And I do. But I also worry. As I have since the start. Those of you who think Brad is just this wild warmonger — because I would sometimes use military force when you would not — may have been taken aback by the way I worried when all this started. I was running about like Neville Chamberlain, wringing my hands — sort of, anyway. Once it started, I continued to worry, while following the above formula. But while I rooted for Ukraine, and was pleased by that country’s recent successes, I continued worrying about the big picture, which goes like this: Putin needs to be humiliated, so he stops doing this. He didn’t pay a price in Georgia, or for his early moves on Ukraine. This has to stop. He needs to go. But he’s got all those nukes, and what will he do with them on his way out the door? Anyway, I urge you to read this piece, “Putin is limping toward an endgame in Ukraine. Should the West go along?” Read the whole thing, if you can. It basically asks, if fixing “elections” so he can save some face by annexing part of Ukraine — again — should we let him do this disgusting thing, to prevent a nuclear holocaust? My gut, of course, says the hell with him. But I don’t want nuclear hell unleashed on the rest of us, either. What’s the right move?

The first and the third problems are very similar. Any intelligent, or merely satisfying, response to either has enormous barriers in front of it. Get rid of those 393 million guns (the only thing that would really fix the problem)? Good luck. And imagine Joe Biden, in this poisonous political environment, trying to steer a course that does something enormously sickening to all sides, in order to avoid Armageddon. Forget about the consequences in the midterms — would it even be possible to do it?

Maybe we should stop worrying about 1 and 3, and let 2 happen, so the algorithms can make the decisions.

Anyway, as I said, if I were inclined to be pessimistic about life, the universe and everything, I’d spend all my time thinking about things such as these…

The upper-right was generated by “A woman in a red coat looking up at the sky in the middle of Times Square.”

OK, I’m completely on board with ‘Kyiv’ now…

The least we can do is include both his Ys.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yeah, it’s been awhile. I’ve been busy with various things — great stuff like having grandchildren stay with us while their parents were on a trip, less-great stuff like seeing doctors about post-COVID stuff (I’ve got another such appointment in the morning). And one of the things that happens when it’s been awhile is that I won’t let myself do quick, easy posts, thinking that I should come back with something big. Which is stupid. Anyway, here’s something semi-quick-and-easy.

When I saw this column this morning (at least, it was “this morning” when I started this piece a couple of days ago now), I jumped on it right away. It was my kind of thing — a story that actually explains why the names of things, and places, and people change. It was headlined, “Kyiv vs. Kiev, Zelensky vs. Zelenskyy, and the immense meaning of ‘the’.

I appreciated it, although I sort of wish it hadn’t stopped with “the Ukraine” or “Zelensky” or “Kiev.” Those, by the way, are the names that are now out. I mean, I certainly knew about “the Ukraine,” and sort of understood why there was no “the” any more, although I’d be hard-pressed to explain it.

I mean there’s no particular rule I know of that explains why it is that people who live in Lebanon or Crimea or wherever feel a loss of sovereignty and self-determination when there’s a the, but I get the connotation. “The” means you’re not a country (unless you’re the United States, but we have kind of a weird country name anyway — although I love it). It suggests you’re just a region in another country, owned by somebody else. It doesn’t say it; it just suggests it.

But since this all happened recently enough (although you kids won’t think so), I understand that we dropped the “the” when the Soviet Union went kablooey, as a way of embracing Ukraine as a separate country. And there are important reasons right now for remembering that.

I was less clear on Kyiv. In fact, since I don’t do broadcast news much (not even NPR, lately), I’m not entirely sure how I’m supposed to say it to distinguish it from the more familiar “Kiev.” But this piece makes the why very clear: “Kyiv is the appropriate transliteration of the Ukrainian name of the country’s capital, whereas Kiev is the name of the city in Russian.” OK, I’m on board. I’ll do my best to say “Kyiv,” and pronounce it correctly. And if I write it the wrong way here, y’all call me on it.

How about whether the name of the Ukrainian president is “Zelensky” or “Zelenskyy.” Well, even though the latter looks like a typo, that’s the Ukrainian way. The single y is more Russian. So Zelenskyy it is, I suppose.

Even though I’m sure it would make my head hurt to have it explained more fully how we get such a fine distinction in English when, you know, we don’t do Cyrillic. I’m just not going to ask.

But sometimes I do wonder about such things. Which brings up the one that’s driven me nuts for decades, mainly because no one has ever given me a good reason that I can remember. And that’s why I said above that I wish Benjamin Dreyer, the copy editor who wrote the above piece, had gone beyond place names particular to Ukraine. (Although I know why he didn’t, because I understand the concept of a “news peg.”)

I mean the mystery of how “Peking” became “Beijing.” Even though I’ve read explanations a number of times over the years, I have to confess I don’t get it yet. I mean, all “Peking” was trying to do is represent phonetically what it sounds like when people who speak a language that doesn’t use anything like those letters say the name of their capital city. So why would it change, and change so dramatically?

So, before I wrote this, I went and read the Wikipedia article on it, and sort of understood what happened — as well as anyone who does not speak Mandarin can understand both the language, and the ins and outs of Red China’s efforts to control how it is spoken and represented.

Which brings me to why I’ve always been creeped out by the very idea of the names of things being changed for political reasons — even reasons that seem quite benign to me. So it is that I fully understand why “Mount McKinley,” which I had learned as a kid was the highest peak in the United States, had disappeared, and “Denali” had appeared in its place. But it still worries me a little.

I think it’s because I read Orwell’s 1984 at such a young age — and then reread it repeatedly over my lifetime, appreciating it more and more each time (sort of the way I do with “His Girl Friday,” only without the laughs). For those of you who have not spent your time that way, one of the most horrifying and indelible ideas is the diminution of the English language to the point where people are unable to even think in ways that would free them from that oppressive dystopia.

It’s not exactly the same thing, but I’ve always thought of it when I’ve considered such things as the Soviets renaming St. Petersburg (or, briefly, Petrograd) “Leningrad.” And it causes me to look at any such change with suspicion.

So, it takes a bit of self-persuasion to accept such changes as “Ukraine” without the “the,” and “Kyiv.” But I do.

But as for “Beijing,” well, in looking it up, I ran across this anecdote that was very, very Orwellian to my mind:

In the English, “Peking” was the preferred and dominant form through the 1970s. Beginning in 1979, the Chinese government encouraged replacement of the Wade-Giles romanisation system for written Chinese with the pinyin romanisation system. The New York Times adopted “Beijing” in 1986, with all major US media soon following. Elsewhere in the Anglosphere, the BBC switched in 1990. The Times of London used “Peking” until 1997, “when, according to The Irish Times, its correspondent in China was summoned to the Foreign Ministry [of the People’s Republic of China] and told co-operation would be withdrawn if the Times didn’t stop using ‘Peking’. It surrendered.”

I don’t know exactly why this is so important to the folks who run the former “Peking,” but an anecdote like that bothers me a lot…

Welcome to 1939. (Or is it more 1938, with worse to come?)

For weeks now, I’ve been wondering: Is this Ukraine business just something that will pass (just bluffing and maneuvering), to the point that a year from now we’ll hardly remember it? Or is this what it was like to live in 1939? Of course, I’ve fervently hoped it was the former.

So much for my fervent hopes on this front.

Oh, by the way, before I continue: All of you who hasten to jump on what you consider to be misguided historical allusions, just calm down. No, I don’t think Putin (or for that matter, Trump) is Hitler. I don’t think the MAGA phenomenon equals the Nazi party. I don’t for a moment consider the forces leading to this moment to be precisely the same as those that led Europe into its second conflagration in a lifetime. Nor do I know what will happen next.

You see, I actually am a student of history. I study it. I am constantly perplexed by it. Almost daily, I am stunned by something I didn’t know about it, and should have known. And I think about this, a lot.

What I’m talking about here is less about explaining this moment in a neat bumper-sticker encapsulisation. It’s really more about me still trying to understand 1939.

It’s always puzzled me. I grew up in the years in which the course of the 1930s and 40s were plain, and fixed, and obvious. I marveled at things: How was it possible that after the events of 1939, the vast majority of Americans believed this was something we could stay out of? I applauded FDR’s foresight and courage with the Lend-Lease Act and all the other ways he tried to keep Britain free until our own blindness ended. Which stunningly, did not happen until Japan, for its own complex reasons, attacked us and Hitler, demonstrating his madness to anyone who had not yet perceived it, declared war on us. It was one of history’s more remarkable turnarounds. On Dec. 12, 1941, Congress was planning on interrogating the director a film regarded as a bit too supportive of Britain’s war effort. The sentiment motivating that vanished in a flash in the days before the scheduled hearing.

But that wasn’t about just the American brand of isolation, not entirely. Britain had been just as attached to magical thinking in 1938, when it applauded Neville Chamberlain for bringing home such an awesome deal from Munich. During my lifetime, poor Chamberlain has been condemned as the ultimate appeaser. But he was doing exactly what the folks back home wanted. Britain had understandably had enough of war on the continent from 1914-18, and wanted to avoid any more of that sort of thing at pretty much any cost. A lot would have to happen before the voters wanted to exchange Chamberlain for that war-monger Churchill.

Oh, speaking of war mongers, there goes that Brad saying that what needs to be done in 2022 is just as obvious as what should have been done in 1938 would be 20 years later!

Nope. Try to keep up, folks. I don’t know what to do right now. I think my man Joe Biden has been doing fine, doing and saying the right things, even though so far we’ve seen that there is no “right thing” that will dissuade Putin from doing what every fiber of his being urges him to do. And I certainly don’t think we need to dig up George Patton and have him sweep in there with the Third Army posthaste. Even if we could.

It is precisely because I’m so uncertain about how to solve the problem that makes me think, “So this is what 1939 was like.” Those people, lacking omniscience, were also clueless. I’ve wondered all these years how they could have been so clueless, and now I’m getting a little insight into it.

Hence my headline.

I choose 1939 for obvious reasons, most notably I suppose the invasion of Poland. But what if what is happening is more of a prelude, more like the Anschluss than Poland? I got to thinking that reading Robert Kagan’s piece this morning, “What we can expect after Putin’s conquest of Ukraine.

After. As in, the Baltics. Assuming we can know the future. Which we can’t. But it was an interesting piece.

It’s hard enough to know the present. Oh, some things seem obvious enough. When The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Putin wanted “muscle Moscow back to the superpower table,” I was all dismissively omniscient on Twitter, which of course is what Twitter is for:

Oh, I am so smart.

But I know so little about the complexities of what motivates Putin and the base he plays to, and about a thousand other relevant things. Sure, I think I understand the destructive power of a great nation that has been humiliated. It eats at Putin, just as it ate at those who lined up behind Hitler in the 20s and 30s.

But of course, it’s always more complicated than that, isn’t it? When I finally got around to reading The Guns of August several years ago, I was startled to read about the long-standing ideas that pushed Germany into war, and how much they read like something Hitler would have written 20 years later. The Germans had been into this master-race stuff for awhile.

And just this week, I ran into something that mentioned the West’s hero of the Cold War, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. OK, so he was kind of a cranky, back-and-forth hero, hard for us to always understand, but we applauded when he condemned communism exposed the gulag. Anyway, as so often happens, running across his name made me want to look up something about him, so I went to Wikipedia, where I found:

According to William Harrison, Solzhenitsyn was an “arch-reactionary”, who argued that the Soviet State “suppressed” traditional Russian and Ukrainian culture, called for the creation of a united Slavic state encompassing Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and who was a fierce opponent of Ukrainian independence

Of course, this Harrison guy also accused the author of “hankering after an idealized Tsarist era,” which doesn’t really seem consistent with his writings. So maybe we shouldn’t believe all Harrison tells us.

But it underlines how little I know about how Russians and for that matter Ukrainians think and feel about their own respective national identities, and what that might motivate them to do. Basically, I’m so ignorant I don’t know whether that Harrison guy is full of crap or not.

I need to read and study and think about this a lot more. Which seems like kind of a self-indulgent luxury right now, with Russian boots on the ground…

‘Everybody’ is not to blame. Just the Democrats and Republicans

There’s a column on The State‘s op-ed page today from an unfamiliar (as in, not a regular) writer: Dick Meyer, chief Washington correspondent for Scripps.

The headline is, “Who’s to blame for Trump’s rise? Everybody.

Dick Meyer

Dick Meyer

Well, that’s misleading. In fact, the column only blames Republicans and Democrats. And of course, they richly deserve it. The rest of us — the great plurality of us, according to a recent Gallup Poll — are let off the hook. (I sent Cindi a note this morning complaining about the hed, but then I saw that the hed probably came with the column — The Commercial Appeal, the Scripps paper where I started my career as a copy boy, ran the piece with the very same headline.)

That poll shows 43 percent of us identifying as independent, 30 percent as Democratic and 26 percent as Republican.

Of course, there are are a lot of folks — such as Republicans, Democrats, the conflict-obsessed media and all those interest groups that fund themselves by goading us all to hate each other — who go out of their way to debunk those numbers. (And indeed, for us in South Carolina especially, it’s hard to imagine that America is only 26 percent Republican.)

Indeed, when you Google “percentage of electorate that is independent,” the first three links you get are headlined something like “The myth of the independent voter.” Basically, those essays break down the group identifying as “independent” and show most as leaning one way or the other, in terms of voting habits. These doubters say as little as 5 percent of us are truly hardcore independent.

That is in turn misleading. Of course independents vote for Democrats and Republicans; most of the time they aren’t offered anything else — and when they are, those “independents” are even more blindly ideological than the Dems and Repubs (say, Libertarians).

And if they vote more often for members of one party or the other, that can often be no more than an accident of geography. For instance, I vote mostly Republican. Why? Because I live in Lexington County. If I want any say at all in local or state government, I have to vote in the Republican primary. In fact, I think I’ve only voted in one Democratic primary since I moved to my current residence in 1997 — and that was the presidential primary in 2004, when there was no Republican alternative. I cast that vote proudly for Joe Lieberman. I knew he was going to get creamed here, and I wanted him to have my vote at least.

You will seldom see, especially out of the partisan cauldron of Washington, anyone giving us independents any respect. When they’re not debunking us, they’re insulting us. They think we fail to pick a side between the two rabid, snarling packs because we are apathetic and don’t bother to be informed. They completely miss the fact that many of us are independent precisely because we do pay attention and do think, and therefore do not buy our opinions prepackaged off a shelf.

But Washington journalists — who like to keep the options down to two extremes, because that makes it easier to cover politics like sports — generally ignore us. Our existence is inconvenient to their simple paradigm. Thus, they refer to Republicans and Democrats as “everybody.”

All of that said, and passionately believed, I wonder if it isn’t in the end true that “everybody” is to blame, including us.

I mean, say we independents do make up 43 percent of the electorate. What have we done to stop these whack jobs in the two parties from making a complete hash of our country’s politics?

Must give us pause.