Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why Ukraine Needs Obvious American Support

A couple of days ago, my brother Nate sent me a link to Scott Beauchamp’s Baffler article about the “hawkish cabal of elites that run our foreign policy establishment” and their desire, as yet unmet, of sending weapons to Ukraine, which policy he ardently opposes, contending “no vital American interests are at stake”.

Beauchamp’s assessment of John McCain’s position as “he’s never met an international crisis that he didn’t think he could solve with bullets” is a fair summation of the Senator’s policy tendencies, and his default to a call to arms clearly isn’t a help to legitimize the Ukrainian cause (can anyone cite an international situation where McCain’s not reacted thus? I am curious.). That Pat Buchanan opposes intervention is, however, hardly a strong argument against it, particularly as Mr. Buchanan cites the often-used phrase “an area Russia has controlled since the days of Catherine the Great.”
The historical argument for present occupation is one that is thorny, to say the least—for what purpose was the land controlled, and how?—and it ultimately comes down in fact, if not in law, to the question of who can effectively occupy.  The Empress Catherine II reigned from 1762-1796.  The British, French and Spanish had controlled all settled portions of what comprises portions of the present-day United States at the beginning of her days, and much of it at the end of them, as they had for several hundred years previous. Do let us exercise our moral duty (which many groups, from retroactive monarchists to First Peoples rights organizations, can argue is considerable—after all, native Americans occupied the territory for millennia before the Europeans barged in) and return to the status quo ante. But we’ve had an operational self-governing state here for more than 200 years now, so when does the statute of limitations run out?  Ukraine’s been a free and independent state for more than 20 years, with a population that is making considerable efforts to expand the democratic qualities of its governance, from adamantly opposing corruption to allowing the voices of many disparate groups, religious and social, to be heard--an enormous contrast to the growing authoritarianism in the Russian Federation.  But yet the RF has the greater claim on the Ukrainian land?

Also, Mr. Beauchamp ignores the fact that Russia is actively sending arms and materiel to the “rebels” in Ukraine, using a hypothetical scenario where Mexican anti-American rebels were suddenly supplied by another nation-state, and the "offense" it would be to us.  But his illustration is painfully incomplete. Why, if the United States had already invaded and incorporated the Yucatan Peninsula (offering automatic American citizenship as an incentive to shift a “free plebiscite in favor of joining the US” in its favor), and was now actively sending weapons and supplies into the northern Mexican states to “arm insurgents” who wanted to see that country become part of the Yankee government, should it be at all “offended” if another country wanted to help Mexico to maintain its hard-won sovereignty?  It’s not as if the Americans or Europeans would be funneling supplies into a zone otherwise untroubled.  Russia is the aggressor here. Crimea has fallen, and Putin is actively seeking to acquire more Ukrainian territory.  Ironically, too, referencing the Mexican scenario, one could in fact argue that Ukraine is even now a more stable democratic state than Mexico is, since domestic gangs are not kidnapping ordinary people throughout provinces in Ukraine and mass graves aren’t found by grieving poor relatives several times a month in the provinces around Kiev.  Cumulatively, the Mexican gangs have brutally beheaded more people than ISIS (not that the latter, through sheer determination, won’t soon surpass them), but since they’ve no splashy internet video campaign, this has been largely ignored by their northern neighbors.
Mr. Beauchamp makes a connection between arming Ukraine and that 1980s clandestine operation recorded in Charlie Wilson’s War.  I think this comparison is both unfair and fair. It’s unfair because it’s not like the discussion of whether to send billions of dollars in arms to a ragtag crew of bearded tribalists who hated everyone, (just the invading Soviets in particular at that time), who would (gladly, as we have amply seen) turn the leftovers back on the “infidels” who supplied them, was ever played out effectively on the public stage during its pivotal years.  Too, the Afghans did not even pretend to a democratic Western system prior to the Soviet invasion.  Yes, when you supply arms to an insurgent group, you can never be sure what or who will control them long-term, but Ukraine is a country trying to defend itself based on its democratic sovereignty, the principle of self-determination; the Ukrainians are not possessed of an ideology that makes them fundamentally incompatible with American mores.  And, truth be told, Russia is not good at maintaining control of its weapons stockpile either (Beauchamp says the missile that shot down the Malaysian airliner was stolen from a Ukrainian arms depot). For years after the collapse of the Soviet state, the United States actually paid for the securing of RUSSIAN arms depots, lest they end up in even less savory hands.

I see more similarities between Ukraine now and Britain during the early air battles of the Second World War and South Korea during the fateful summer of 1950 than commonalities with Afghanistan (at any time). Mr. Beauchamp says that “no vital American interests are at stake” in Ukraine. In this, he is absolutely wrong. The most fundamental American interest is at stake, but it is not the economic interest that has been amply criticized for inspiring our last several Middle Eastern wars.  This interest is the defense of extant democracy and the honor of the American state’s promise to assure the territorial integrity of a state that voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons (to the very country which is now at war with it).  If we do not honor that commitment when it is tried, on what basis will any other state have reason to trust us as we discourage nuclear proliferation?  By not “offending” another great nuclear power, we will have made nuclear arms an even more attractive object for smaller nations.

Ukraine needs a Lend-Lease Act.  The Americans were not directly militarily involved in withstanding the Nazis for two years after the invasion of Poland; the British alone were able to hold out against the Axis, displaying incredible bravery and endurance.  The American provision of physical aid to the UK under Lend-Lease was a vital contribution to their success—not only did the aid itself keep the island strong, the encouragement of knowing they were not entirely alone in the world when the days seemed darkest was a buttress for morale.  I am pleased to hear that the British are actually sending troops to Ukraine, if the Kiev Post article is accurate. I hope that even if the United States limits itself militarily, making the excuse that Russia hasn’t physically threatened our homeland, that it will provide the material support to this beacon of light on the edge of Europe, so that they will know our democracy stands with theirs.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

If You Build It (Well, In FL)

Oh, how lovely it was to be in Florida this past weekend!  My mother and I went with my brother-in-law, niece and nephew to LEGOLAND (for some reason, Blogger keeps capitalizing the entirety of the name and I can't get it to undo), which was thoroughly enjoyable, not least because they've wisely preserved the heart of the old Cypress Gardens as part of the park, and I got to see a banyan tree and a sausage tree among other beautifully-landscaped foliage. That was also Rita's favorite section (she was very sad about the loss of the greenhouse near the entrance), though she admitted the whole experience was a good one. Brad could have spent the whole day staring at the pirate ship model section, which was certainly pretty cool.  In a huge contrast to Disneyworld (ptoo, I spit upon its grave), although the park was full, the stress level was low, and we and pretty much everyone else seemed to be having a good time. We never waited more than 20 minutes for a ride (I hope and pray I didn't damage my neck going on two rollercoasters with small relatives--one does things one normally wouldn't for beloved children!), and there were plenty of things to appeal to both small fry and adults, from live shows (good use of water--little kids love getting splashed) to real-world and fantasy Lego models. And the employees were all nice, and most seemed to be actually enjoying themselves (Brad was thrilled when one young man spotted him in his newly-purchased knightly getup--Rita went for a photo souvenir, while her brother wanted something more tangible--and bowed, saying "My liege!").

I escaped DC right before snow and sub-freezing temperatures descended, but there was not the remarkable warming as I drove south that I had anticipated. When I had gone north, every stop for gas or breaks was noticeably cooler, requiring more layers; when I got back to Augusta late last Thursday, it seemed to be almost the same temperature as the Bethesda I'd left that morning.  It wasn't until Mums and I reached Orlando on Sunday that I was able to take off my coat and keep comfortable (there were people in shorts and t-shirts at LEGOLAND, but I was happy in long sleeves and jeans). Reading the weather forecasts for this week sent shivers down to my toes, and I felt sorry for my Massachusetts and Rhode Island family members--dealing with negative thermometer readings, before the wind chill is factored, is no joke. The photos from snow-buried New England are astounding, with accumulations preventing people from exiting through first-floor doors, and mountains of frozen water looming over increasingly-narrow roads. The tourism department's website for a town in upstate New York is redirecting its visitors to that of Key West (CNN noted there was no financial or other exchange made to prompt this--it's just so miserable in the northeast that everyone is dreaming of the beach).  It's cold here in Georgia, but sunny and snowless, and I am grateful. 

Last month was my best yet at the consignment store, but as of last Friday morning, my antique mall booth had yet to sell a single item. I'm disgusted. I hope things pick up--I've got a ton of lamps there, plus larger pieces and artwork, and I've no room or inclination to bring them back home again. I may go back up to DC this coming week to work more estate sales; so long as gas prices remain relatively low, I can make money doing this super-long-distance commute.  A friend of mine who lives in Prague has suggested my coming there for several months to take a CELTA course--with the in-class component and the Cambridge connection, it carries more weight than my online experience. I am seriously considering it. Thus far, employment-wise, Augusta is a dead end, nor have I heard back from the software company which initially offered me a job (!) in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. That would have been cool--Pirogov's body is on display there, and I'd have a moral obligation to write what would have been my dissertation in my off-hours. 

As of last night, my brother Bob is staying with me for five weeks, while he does an internship with a local primary-care physician in South Carolina. He said that much of the work seems to consist of trying in vain to refer patients to specialists, none of whom will take their insurance, and then sending them, as a last resort, to the ER. If anything, the American healthcare system seems more screwed up than it was a few years ago.  He remarked that one of the nurses had gotten so fed up with the situation this morning that she asked the recalcitrant party on the other end of the phone if she should wait until after the patient had died to discuss the case. It was hilarious listening to him summarize his first day for my sister, who is having to commute an hour one-way along the icy RI roads. He said it's shocking how casual the mostly-diabetic clientele are about amputations--for many, getting another toe removed, or even having their leg taken off below the knee, is as matter of course as getting a rotten tooth pulled.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

DC Working Trip

I think the major thing (besides income) I have missed about being employed is the absence of story-fodder. Doing estate sales in the national capital region always provides plenty of raw material, which I miss staying in what to these Beltway dwellers is a provincial backwater (albeit one which many of them have visited at least once to attend a certain PGA golf tournament).

I drove up on Wednesday to assist with a sale at a 12,000-square foot (not counting the guest house and garage) former ambassador's residence. My boss had saved me the library to price. I organized it Wednesday night (I went directly to the house on coming to town and started working), and I managed to price it all in 5.5 hours Thursday--thank God for multi-volume series!  We were slammed, with ongoing lines, all three days--I knew I couldn't get to church and thence to work on time Sunday, so I didn't try. Tanya, the girl who took over jewelry responsibilities from me after I moved away, did a phenomenal job--she's hyper-organized, and both costume and fine pieces sold like the proverbial warm pastries.

The sale was a dramatic illustration of how vastly moneyed and connected people are hereabouts, and how relatively poor and uninfluential folks are in my hometown. Not just the size of the house (not a McMansion, but an old palatial dwelling from Vanderbilt days), but the exceptional quality of the contents was immediately apparent: handmadr rugs throughout, eighteenth and nineteenth-century museum-worthy oil paintings. A 12-foot diameter dining room table, chairs upholstered in Scalamandre fabric, hand-carved details on the sideboards and cabinets, leatherbound gold-embossed books, White House knicknacks gifted by former POTUSes, and a kitchen larger than many entire apartments filled with Villeroy & Boch and Mackenzie-Childs.  And there were entitlement attitudes among some of the customers which rivaled the dimension of the kitchen.  Thankfully, most people were pleasant and civil, but there were a few stinkers--all rich white people who apparently were used to having their way in all things and not at all used to having to wait in line with the plebians.  So what if you know that famous person or are the Congressman's cousin or had dinner with the Vice President last week, or have a whole school at one of the local universities named after you?! I hate the entitlement attitude, and yet I know I've got at least shreds of it left. But gosh, I now understand why there were revolutions against the aristocracy. That sort of "I exist, have money and power and beauty and thus you should lick my boots" behavior is totally galling. I don't care whether you are spending $10,000 or $10, you ought to respect others, not march right by like the rules don't apply to you. I was verbally abused by one of these young lords, whom I made return outdoors after he swept grandly past several women who'd been patiently waiting their turn. What an ass. He castigated me for my rudeness as if I were a scullery maid. I shook for half an hour after the encounter until God gave me peace.

Speaking of peace, the former coworker with whom I'd had my own prideful conflict with (recorded in the post "Bossy Non Boss") and I are entirely reconciled. It felt really good to know that all is well! I hate having lingering ill-will with colleagues!

Dex took me out to a fabulous Russian-Uzbek restaraunt  in Ballston Friday night. It was home-cooked yumminess from appetizer to dessert. We shared six dishes and two slices of cake.  My tummy was full and happy.

I have to return to GA on Thursday because Mums and I are to go down to Grandmommy's on Friday and thence to Florida (to see my niece and nephew, who are on vacation there) on Saturday, but I am trying to work as much as possible beforehand. Monday, I joined a team preparing the sale of the house contents of a former Vice President's mistress, who was a friend of Emily Post and other notables. There's a signed Andy Warhol print snd more than 40 lbs of sterling silver, including two mint julep cups personally inscribed to the lady and her husband on their wedding day from President Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson.  Cool stuff, but I will be glad to be back in the normal world soon!