Sunday, March 23, 2014

Point of Ordure, Mr. Chairman

First we had the journalism profession up in arms because the FCC was going to assign someone to every newsroom in order to keep the hired help in line. That was good for a few larfs. Now we have the Senate and the CIA standing toe-to-toe and arguing about who has been spying on whom, and who hacked who's computers, and who has, or thinks they have, or pretends to have, oversight over whom... and so on. This is one of those cases where, quite frankly, I don't care who wins because both sides deserve to lose, and lose big. It's like what happens when two schoolyard bullies get into a fight – everyone else wants it to keep going until both of them have to be carried out on stretchers.

Another way of putting it is that the Senate (and Congress in general) and the CIA (and the intelligence community overall) deserve each other. The rise of the intel cabal to its place of preeminence in the government was aided and abetted by Congress, which has been only too happy to give up its Constitutional prerogatives, one by one, almost since the founding. It seems to have started with war powers, but has escalated more recently to the point where Congress is as ignored and left out as the proverbial wallflower at a high school dance. The Executive Branch does as it damn pleases, and the courts reverse all the hard work of Congress on any whim that strikes their fancy. In fact, one could seriously question whether we need the Legislative Branch at all – except that they do the donkey work on laws that the Executive Branch wants, because the latter have better things to do with their time. You could say that Congress is little more, on any given day, than an extension of the White House staff – and you'd be right. And I say this fully aware that we still have, allegedly, a two-party system, and that the two parties in question are at perpetual knife-points about just about everything... except that they're not. As I've pointed out before, all the debates are about trivial and marginal issues, and are staged primarily as demonstrations that the Legislative Branch is not obsolete. (And when you have to stage meaningless debates about trivia, that's the best indicator that said branch is, in fact, obsolete.)

One could ask, plaintively, at what point did legislators cease to represent the people in any meaningful way? And I guess one would have to attribute this to things like bribery, lobbies, interest groups, special pleading, etc. -- in other words to things that have been around since the day after the Constitution was ratified. But again, the trajectory has been a long, slow curve upward – correlated, roughly 100%, with the portion of our gross national product, i.e. our productivity, that was confiscated by Congress and turned to dubious uses. When tax rates were low they had less to play with, and hence were less besieged by people wanting a handout. As, over time, they took a bigger bite out of the flesh of the hapless working American, they had more to play with, and hence were the targets of more, and more irresistible, temptations – not only in the form of money per se, but even more in the form of power. Power, and glory – or, maybe power without glory. Isn't that just as good? And this actually brings us back to the intelligence complex.

You have to admit, at least the hard-core intel types aren't in it for the fame – unless you count strictly intramural reputation as fame. And they aren't even particularly in it for the money. No, it's all about power, which is, supposedly, a product of knowledge, AKA intelligence. The spy has power simply because he can find things out about other people without them knowing – i.e. it's an asymmetrical relationship. He can exploit people without them knowing they're being exploited – sort of a sophisticated, high-tech version of a peeping tom. And that seems to be enough for these characters most of the time. They are content to live – and occasionally die – in obscurity, because they hold the power... the golden keys... the combination to every lock. They are people for whom secrets are like unto pearls of great price, and for whom secrecy, and the arts and crafts thereof, comprise their highest-valued skill.

Now... certain of us are occasionally fooled and misled by the notion that the intel agencies are somehow working for the good of the American citizen, or to protect our way of life (whatever that entails these days)... that they are super-patriots, willing to sacrifice anything to keep the wolf from the door. Well, no. OK – there may be a few genuine patriots slaving away in the bowels of CIA or NSA or some other intel headquarters, but they're either deluded or in denial as to the true agenda and priorities of those for whom they slave. (And they'll never get a corner office, I guarantee you that.)

Am I saying that this is the age of cynicism? Yes, to a great extent. The average citizen may be harboring some residual feelings of patriotism – love of country – but his leaders have grown way beyond such childish, grade-school and social-studies-class foolishness and have acquired a new respect for milking the system for all it's worth. “Intelligence” is no longer, assuming it ever was, about patriotism, any more than “defense” is about pursuing the ideals of the Founding Fathers. And again, I suppose that this is inevitable given the universal concupiscence of politicians when it comes to money and power (sex being a sub-category of power, note). Even the few with good intentions who are sent to Washington by starry-eyed supporters come down with “Potomac fever” the minute they get inside the Beltway, and never recover – nor do they want to. What, after all, is fragile human nature when confronted with that much confiscated wealth, the levers of power, the (kind of pathetic, when you think about it) “perks”? The reason power and money corrupt is that human beings are corruptible – and nothing lends itself more to this process than big government. It would be like expecting dictators to be philosopher kings; it just ain't gonna happen. Fallen human nature is against it. Thus, the folly of ever expecting the sins and offenses of big government to be cured by more government (an affliction which befalls “conservatives” from time to time). No, the idea is: Less, or none. Line up all the government agencies like ducks in a shooting gallery and start plugging away. I guarantee that the more that fall, the more refreshed and liberated and energized we will all be.

Consider, for a moment, how the omnipresent, omniscient intelligence complex came to be. It started in earnest – and by necessity, assuming the war was necessary, which Pat Buchanan questions – during World War II. For two decades up to that point, our unofficial policy when it came to other countries was: They don't bother us, we don't bother them. But all that was to change, and permanently, on that “date that will live in infamy”. So along came the intelligence agencies, and they multiplied like rabbits – internal, external, one for each armed service, overlapping missions, the occasional gap (which 9/11 was not, BTW)... and, like any other government entity created to deal with an emergency (war or otherwise), they turned out to have everlasting life. They could not be killed, because “mission creep” is always way ahead of whoever it is that doles out funding (Congress, for example). World War II was followed in close order by the Iron Curtain, and the Cold War, and all the other artificially life-extending circumstances that required us to keep armies of spies fully deployed around the globe as well as internally, because there are enemies everywhere, don't you know. Add to this our expanding economic and political empire, and you have the perfect formula for the dominance of “intelligence” over all other functions of government. We did not give up on military conquest, but preferred the economic kind – less messy, more efficient. But for economic conquest to work, one must have information, and the intimate symbiosis between the intelligence community and the business community arose quite naturally out of this necessity.

Now, I'm not saying, as some do, that the rest of the government actually works for the intelligence complex. It would be more accurate to say that they are all employees of a higher power. The intel side only seems to have more power because it keeps secrets and can get away with more. But are they running the whole show? I doubt it very much, and one reason is simply, why would they? Why bother? They have their empire – their “parallel government” -- and they don't need to waste time bossing the tools on Capitol Hill or in the White House. Those latter entities have their uses... and the appearance of separation of powers helps when they're dealing with the citizenry (not that there aren't plenty of chuckles and guffaws in Langley or Ft. Meade at their follies). One could almost say that Congress and the White House pretend to be in charge but aren't, whereas the intel agencies pretend to not be in charge, but are. But again, being in charge, I suspect, is secondary to playing the game.

And this is the real key. Intelligence is a game, and ultimately it doesn't even matter who wins or who loses. Losers can write memoirs too, after all. The appeal is that of action – of manipulation – of being in the midst of it all – of knowing what really happened and why, and who did it. Imagine spending a lazy Sunday afternoon riffling through the Top Secret/Kill Self Before Reading files in the basement of the CIA. Wouldn't you then have all the answers – about JFK, 9/11, Jimmy Hoffa... and so on? The great mysteries of our time, revealed? It's tempting to think so. But again, is the ultimate truth really what it's about? Remember, it's a game. Old CIA and KGB guys get together and reminisce over vodka and Cuban cigars: “Ah yes, those were the days. And I'm sorry about poor Percy, but he had to go, you know.” “Think nothing of it, old friend, we got back at you with Ivan, remember.” “Oh yes, I do remember – good show.” (chuckles all around) So when anyone is “eliminated” it's, basically, because they got in the way – not of national security but of the game, like some pinhead running onto the field during the Super Bowl. They get due diligence – but the game goes on. (I imagine this is a major aspect of the JFK story – he was done in by a cabal of cold warriors, intel game-playing types, plain cynics, opportunists, sociopaths, and maybe one or two genuine patriots. Sort of a dream team, if you will. But mainly, he got in the way of the game.)

So the intelligence cabal was partly created (by the Executive Branch and Congress) and partly self-created. It grew and multiplied like the brooms in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. And because it dealt in secrets, everything about it had to be secret as well – budget, staffing, operations, influence on foreign governments, and so on. And... now this is where it gets weird (or pathetic)... Congress is, allegedly, charged with “oversight” when it comes to intelligence operations. Well, who charged it? Itself, of course. So every once in a while a few intel bigwigs trek up Capitol Hill in order to provide a briefing, behind closed doors, to one or more Congressional committees – but how do those committees know that the intel guys aren't just blowing smoke up their butts? They don't, obviously – how could they? What are they going to do, go up to Langley or Ft. Meade in a motorcade with flashing lights to see if the intel guys were telling the truth? “Trust but verify?” How about “Don't trust, and afraid to verify.” Even if they were shown all the secrets down to the third sub-basement, what about the fourth and fifth sub-basements? If someone tells you they've told you all there is to know, how do you know? So it's really impossible. Add to this that the intel agencies have secret budgets (all approved, sight unseen of course, by Congress), and probably take a good chunk out of other budgets as well. How about a personnel count? You've got people on the books, people off the books, contractors, informants, deep-cover operatives, moles, rats, stool pigeons... every species, from high fliers to bottom feeders. “Oversight”? It's a total joke. And yet Congress, in its infinite narcissism, insists on keeping up the pretense, and all is well until they get too close for comfort, and then you have the current situation, with the very people who created the monster now in high dudgeon because said monster is galumphing through the formal garden.

And what's most delicious about the current hostilities is that it's largely Democrat members of the Senate who are feeling victimized -- yes, the same people who will use any means at their disposal to increase the size of government and the extent of its reach into the lives of private citizens – but their own hallowed halls are to be kept sacrosanct, right? Sorry guys, that's not the way it works. Cookie Monster want more cookies, and it doesn't care where it gets them.

What do I recommend? Well, it's too late to get rid of the intel cabal – might as well try to get rid of an inoperable tumor once it's taken over every organ system. It would actually be easier – and more fun – to get rid of Congress, but since they apparently have their uses even in the midst of appearing useless, that seems unlikely as well (not to mention that it would require some minor modifications to the Constitution – but it's widely ignored anyway, so I don't see that as as a major issue). No, I really do think that there is no solution short of waiting for the system to collapse of its own weight – but that could take many more lifetimes even though the process seems to be accelerating. Better to focus one's serious attentions elsewhere, and just let these sorts of controversies serve as comic relief.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Guttering Torch

What does Vladimir Putin have in common with Richard Nixon? (pause) Give up? Well, they caused exactly opposite reactions from American liberals, but over the same issue – or, the same general issue, historically speaking. Taking Nixon first, he earned everlasting hatred, rage, and condemnation from American liberals for his “outing” of Alger Hiss. All of the subsequent hostility – over Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate, etc. was – albeit there were some intrinsic justifications – based on that singular event years earlier. He exposed Hiss for what he was – not only a traitor but a member of the Eastern elite Ivy League establishment... a person of privilege whose dream it was to enslave the masses and establish himself as their ruler (or one of their rulers). And if he couldn't do it here (at least not right away) he'd help the Soviets do it in Eastern Europe.

And nothing could have been more of a contrast than the smooth, elegant Hiss versus the awkward, overly-serious guy from the boonies of California with the ski nose and the five o'clock shadow that set in around noon. Culturally and in terms of pedigree, it was David vs. Goliath... and Goliath was brought down, but the damage had been done, and he became a martyr for the left right up to the present day.

Hiss did, in fact, exemplify the dream of communists of the elite or “theoretician” sort as it always has been; everything else they promote, advocate, and fight for is a means to that end – total, crushing control. And this, in turn, is based on their self-created aura of superiority and entitlement. They pretend to love “the masses” and “the people” but, in fact, they despise them and want nothing more than to thwart their ambitions, dreams, and individuality, and make them march in lock step into the brave new world. And not a small part of this is their utter alienation from normalcy and willful lack of understanding of what makes regular people tick. What they find, much to their chagrin, when -- on rare occasions -- they go slumming and wade among the unwashed masses they pretend to worship is that most people are not “idea people”. They are much more likely to be committed to the old ways and the old values – you know, things like family, religion, ethnic group, and, yes, race. They typically conform to the standards and customs of their group, but have little interest in becoming “international” or “global”. And it's this attitude that offends collectivists and totalitarians of all sorts, and it's this which they go to great lengths to stamp out – offering, in its place, contrived entertainments and bogus “diversity”, on a foundation of unrelenting propaganda churned out by the media.

Sound familiar? Well, liberals in our time are infected with the same ailment, although they may not be as obvious about it as the old-time Bolsheviks. Someone has commented that “communism is socialism with balls”, and it's absolutely true. There is not a single socialist or liberal or “progressive” program that, taken to its logical conclusion, would not be an essential part of a communist regime, past or present. The problem, over the years (and we're talking close to a century now), is that bright ideas that filter down from academia by way of political activists tend to cause a bit of pushback when they start to impinge on regular people; seek no further than the recent vote against unionization on the part of VW workers in Tennessee. Oh sure, the masses (working class, “labor”, etc.) may enjoy some of the benefits of socialism, but they eventually find out there's a price to be paid, and that's when the deal goes sour. We have in our time the disorienting (to liberals) phenomenon of regular people up in arms (figuratively – so far) about big government and all its pomps and works. These are the same people who would have been on the bandwagon during the New Deal (possibly out of sheer desperation more than being enamored of the ideas). But suddenly the working class is biting the hand that pretends to feed them – even to the extent of joining forces with the always-hated middle class, AKA bourgeoisie, in protesting against government meddling in their everyday lives. So activists (union organizers in particular) in our time are starting to feel mightily thwarted – and they're getting downright paranoid (like, it's all the Koch brothers' fault, or Fox News, etc.).

Liberals in our time cannot come out and be “pure” socialists, let alone pure communists. They have to pull their punches a bit (though not always, as witness Obama's frontal attack on Catholic institutions re: the provision of “family planning” services). But their ideals – their ultimate goals – remain as always. All one has to do is apply a bit of logic and historical perspective to any given case. The ObamaCare program, for example, clearly has as its ultimate goal the elimination of any form of private health insurance, and its takeover by the government. They won't admit this in so many words, but that's clearly what they have in mind. But this has to be accomplished in small steps – the frog in the hot water thing again – or they might encounter too much resistance. And once you eliminate private health insurance, it's only logical to eliminate private health care, and have that taken over (not merely regulated, as now) by the government as well. Nationalized, in other words – but they will avoid that term and deny that's what they have in mind. (In fact, note that there are no longer any such people as “liberals”; they are all “progressives” now. Word magic!)

Sometimes the line between regulation and nationalization is so thin and ambiguous that it might as well not be there as well – the mortgage industry and rail transportation come to mind. (And forget about the post office!) But again, these are all temporary stages; everywhere you look the squeeze is on. What it adds up to is that liberals are in a perpetually-compromised position – their ideas vs. the reality – and so it's no surprise that they seem to go around with a permanent attitude of frustration and hostility. If their ideal is total control, and their means to that end is class warfare, then it's small wonder they never seem to relax. They never have a nice day, because there's always another battle to be fought and another outrage against “fairness” to be dealt with.

Let's turn the clock back a bit and adopt a historical perspective, because this process has been going on for decades... lifetimes, in fact. But in the midst of all this struggle – this frustration – over the years, there was always at least one shining light, glimmering in the distance... one thing with which to identify and validate one's ideals... one thing to pin one's hopes on. And that thing was the Soviet Union, and the “New Soviet Man” that had been created out of the dust of the earth to engage in the perpetual struggle against ideas of race, religion, and class... and to aspire to a society that would have “fairness” as its highest value. “Fairness”, or “social justice”, is the everyman's version of “reason”, which was enshrined by the French Revolution and has been trickling down from academia and intellectuals in various forms ever since. “Science” -- especially “political science” (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) -- has always been on the side of the greater good of man, right?

So how to create the New Soviet Man out of the fractious and skeptical working classes of America? First through propaganda, and then through some political and material gains – some short-term, some illusory, but enough to get everyone to sign onto the program in perpetuity. Witness the working-class people here in Pittsburgh who wouldn't vote Republican if their lives depended on it, because they're a “union family”, and besides, they promised their father on his deathbed – you know, the guy who fought in the Battle of Homestead. And never mind the fact that union bosses and politicans are getting fat off their hard-earned union dues, and when doubts do arise they are quickly squelched through social pressure and hypocritical appeals to loyalty. Problem is, the same people, and party, that was a “friend to labor” in the old days is now attacking their families, their values... even their church. This great schism seems to have begun, like everything else, in the 1960s – and we now have phenomena like that rarest of rare political animals, the “pro-life Democrat”. The thing is, the regular folks – the “cultural Democrats” -- simply don't have what it takes to fight in this new war, so they turn on the TV, pop another beer, and try to pretend everything's OK. And these are the people, by the way, who never wanted anything to do with the Soviet Union (especially if they came from one of its oppressed minorities, which many in this area did); that romance was left up to the union leadership.

So we had this phenomenon, starting, basically, with the Cold War, where people at the top of the cultural and intellectual totem pole were still starry-eyed in their regard for the Soviets. But the farther down said totem pole you went, the more skepticism and realism you encountered, until the guys at the bottom could hardly have cared less, except for the few oddball misfits like Woody Guthrie. But it's the cultural elite that frame the debate and write the history books, so when Tricky Dick (see, I'm finally getting back to him) came along, even though his exertions might have been applauded – possibly in secret – by the average American, the elite were appalled. In fact, now that I think about it, this might have been the very thing that set off the culture wars of the 1960s, or at least an imporant factor. The battle had been joined. Now, this culture war was fought on many fronts, but certainly far from the least was that of politics – not just the usual domestic debates but the much bigger, broader picture. What sort of country, or society, do we want to be? Apparently that question was still being asked nearly 200 years after the founding (as it still is today). We thought we had the answer during the Progressive Era, but that seemed to run out of steam after (perhaps because of) World War I. But then came the New Deal, and that was – at long last! -- the answer, or at least an answer. We found that we were on the same path as the Soviets – just a few decades behind due to cowardice, hesitation, and inertia – clinging to old-fashioned ideas. It's hard to imagine these days, but there was a time when socialism of some sort was accepted as not only the wave of the future, but really the only thing that made any sense. And we had two models to choose from – the Soviets and the Nazis. Apparently this was not a difficult choice to make, and it would be in bad taste to argue that the two systems had more similarities than differences. World War II, of course, only served to confirm the correctness of our choice, and all was well until this thing called the Cold War got started – and please remember that the American left was, by and large, on the other side all during the Cold War. They weren't all providing direct aid and comfort to the enemy, but they were certainly rooting from the sidelines, and not always sotto voce. Their efforts were muted a bit during the Korean conflict, because it wasn't crystal clear that the North Koreans enjoyed moral superiority... but there was no such hesitation when it came to China, as there had been none with regard to Russia. Now communism was the wave of the future, and we were just retarded – but a few guitar strums and folk songs would awaken the sleeping masses, surely.

Now, I know that the foregoing might seem like a rant, and terribly unfair, etc. Well, it is a rant – and didn't many of the communists and hard-core socialists have good intentions, even if they were somewhat na├»ve about human nature, etc.? I'm not saying this is impossible, but in my encounters with communists (“small c” at least) and serious socialists, I have yet to encounter any with unadulterated good intentions. Behind that humanistic mask there always lurks, on some level, a “class warfare face”... some resentment... some sense of personal hurt or affront. “Somebody did something to someone – usually me – and that's why I feel this way.” And frankly, the communists and socialists I knew in college – a veritable hatchery for political liberal activism – were, by and large, operating on a quite infantile level. They hadn't yet learned to make their viewpoints even mildly palatable, so were reduced to throwing tantrums much of the time. Hey, I can only speak from my own experience, OK?

Plus, I think what we're seeing now, in American politics, is not even some species of socialism in pure form, but a combination of cynicism and power-madness. It's enough to make one nostalgic for the likes of the recently-departed Pete Seeger. You see what a man (or woman) is truly made of, morally and politically, when they acquire some power... and when I look out across the political landscape all I see is a cynical ruling elite and the people who've sold out to them. And what this means to me is that pure socialism can neither stand the light of day nor avoid being co-opted... which means that's it's a weak, unsustainable system, and only kept alive by people's infinite capacity for delusion and wishful thinking.

(The best thing I can say about the left is that they have always had better music, posters, art, and movies. They are geniuses at packaging, in other words; what's in the package is another matter.)

OK, back to Nixon (as the fool returneth to his folly) – his great crime was that he outed Alger Hiss, and in the process exposed many of the less savory aspects of communism in general, and the American version in particular. And for this he earned the eternal reprobation of the American left, socialists, liberals, Democrats... just about everyone to the left of William Buckley, which means just about everyone. The love affair between the cultural elite and the Soviets continued, of course, but it was carried on in a somewhat more muted form, because now there was a “witch hunt” on, thanks to Nixon and Joe McCarthy... with “blacklists” and all the rest of it. (Of course, there are never witch hunts or blacklists in communist countries, oh no.) And the left, once they got rid of McCarthy, remained vigilant with regard to Nixon... ready to pounce, and when Watergate came along, pounce they did. Finally! At last, the guilty party has been hunted down and brought to justice, like some octogenarian concentration camp guard.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the people's Utopia. The Soviet Union broke up, and great was the wailing and gnashing of teeth – and the accusations directed at people like Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II that they weren't being fair... that it all would have worked if only we'd given it a chance, and not given in to “hate” and paranoia, etc. -- as if the Cold War was all in our fevered imaginings.

So there was a regime change in the now-downsized former Soviet Union, and even though the American media had treated Gorbachev like a rock star, there was a certain ambivalence, like, he just sort of let it all slip away, didn't he? Gave up without a fight. That just didn't seem right somehow. It should at least have been more spectacular, like something out of Wagner, with a funeral pyre and stuff. How could our role models have just wimped out like that? Very disturbing. And yet... this aura of the hopes of yesteryear, of having fought the good fight... clung to Russia even through its struggles with privatization, corruption, and so on – right up to the present. They were all about “hope and change” once; could they be yet again? And they were keeping up the propaganda from their side as well, occasionally referring to their former subjects as “fascists” or (following our lead) “Islamofascists”. (This is a semantic gift from World War II that just keeps on giving.) And anyone who calls anyone else a “fascist” is automatically a friend of ours, right? No questions asked. Besides, who did the left have, um, left to call their own in the world? China had long since gone down the road of communism with a capitalist face... or vice versa. Vietnam had become a trading partner. North Korea – too crazy. And that left... Cuba? Really? Nowhere else? Just Cuba, with all those cool old 1950s American cars and great music? Well OK – better than nothing, I guess. (I would include Venezuela, but you know those places, it could go back to military uniforms, gold braid, a chest full of medals, and big hats at any time.)

So Russia was a disappointment, but not enough of one to end the romance. And then came Vlady, and Ukraine, and the Crimea, and... well, what's a good socialist president to do? I mean, there was a time when Stalin could do no wrong – including that awkward treaty he made with Hitler. If you're anti-American, which so many of our politicians in Washington seem to be, don't you have to be for something? Or at least appear to be? It's no wonder there's so much nostalgia for the Cold War – and it's not just on the conservative side, or among the military. At least back then it was clear-cut, and one could take sides. So faced with Putin's antics on his southern border, the left is caught flat-footed because they've never adjusted to the way things are now. In their own way, they're just as bound by nostalgia as those on the right. Do they let Russia do its thing with impunity because Russia used to be right in the old days? Or do they decide (for the first time ever) that American conservatives are right about something? But that might call into question everything else the left has ever done in the last 70-odd years. It really is quite awkward... and, let's admit, it's great fun to see them wriggle and squirm. How they manage to resolve it, who knows? My guess, though, is that it won't have anything to do with historical perspective or principles.


Friday, March 7, 2014

Showdown at the Not-OK Corral

I guess it was only a matter of time. We passed (or failed, depending on one's point of view) the first test, which was Georgia... then passed/failed the second test, which was Syria... then there was a period of truce for the Olympics... and now Putin is putting pressure on Ukraine, which threatens to wander off the post-Soviet reservation, and we're passing/failing that test as well. So, basically, he took the measure of Obama, his administration, and U.S. “resolve” in general, and decided that he had nothing to lose, and a lot to gain, by showing the flag in the Crimea and at least intimidating the new EU-friendly administration of Ukraine as well as its military. And his excuse is that there are Russians in Ukraine, and they're in danger of being treated like second-class citizens. Well yeah, that's what happens when people are caught on the wrong side of a new (or old) national border. It's happened time and time again in history, and this is no exception. And it's largely Stalin's fault, because he's the one who decided that the best way to handle all the various “nationalities” in the Soviet Union was to ship half of them to the Gulag and then settle a bunch of loyal Russians in each territory in order to run things and keep an eye on the rest. So when the Soviet Union broke up – basically into pieces defined by the various Soviet republics, and in some cases by earlier borders dating from World War I, all these places wound up with Russian minorities. Too bad, so sad. So suddenly the people who had been throwing their weight around in those territories since World War II (at least) were not so secure any longer. They were, in a way, in the same position as the Carpetbaggers who invaded the South after the Civil War -- “large and in charge” until the natives asserted themselves.

Now frankly, if I were an ethnic Russian I might almost prefer to be part of a minority in, say, Estonia than in the majority in Russia – I'm talking in terms of economics and personal freedom now. But ethnic loyalties usually triumph abstract concepts of “rights”, and even economics; no self-respecting Russian wants to be ruled by Estonians, or Kazakhs, or whoever. Things have to be pretty bad for someone to renounce their homeland once and for all, the way the Cuban exiles did. Even some of the countless “illegals” from Latin America go back to their home country eventually – provided they managed to save up enough money in the U.S. And who hasn't met a displaced Californian who longs to go back to the land of their birth? And so on. “Ideas”, and internationalism, are fine things if you're a person with no national or ethnic loyalties, but most people are not rootless cosmopolitans; they will always long to go home, even if “home” is a place they've never seen. (Witness the “right of return” which is a key concept for Jews vis-a-vis Israel, for instance.)

And one can say, but isn't the migration of peoples the rule rather than the exception, historically? At any given time, doesn't a large portion of the human race find themselves strangers in a strange land? And the answer is yes. Go back to the Israelites in Egypt. People go where they have to go in order to survive, and they tend to stay there unless things become intolerable. And every once in a while, a minority becomes a majority – as it clearly did in this country the minute the colonists outnumbered the Native Americans. So whose country is it anyway? It all depends on which slice of history you want to take. Recall the trouble Serbia had (and continues to have) giving up Kosovo – because although it was populated largely by Albanians it had great historical significance for the Serbs. Everyone wants self-determination, but what that is depends on one's point of view – the group with which one identifies. Washington, DC prided itself on being “Chocolate City” a few decades back, even though it has enclaves of rich white folks; New Orleans was supposed to become even more “chocolate” after Katrina, although I'm not sure how that's working out. Mexico is reclaiming, through sheer force of numbers, territory that it lost to the U.S. right up through the Gadsden Purchase. And the number of racial/religious/ethnic groups that have a claim of some sort on Israel/the West Bank/Jerusalem is too high to count.

So what we're seeing now in Ukraine is just another example of a process of give-and-take that has characterized just about any place you can name throughout history. And the funny thing is, we have always had this notion that, in a sense, history is over with when it comes to borders. The way things were at the close of World War II is pretty much the way they ought to be, and ought to stay – as if there were some cosmic map that dictated everything once all the blank spaces were colored in. Of course we did make an exception for Israel, but in general we find shifting borders terribly upsetting – unless it's in our favor, like the reunification of Germany or the breakup of the Soviet Union. But remember how hard we fought to keep Korea and Vietnam split in half? It just raises all kinds of issues with geography textbooks when things keep shifting around. South Sudan? What the heck is that? Most Americans would have a hard time finding Argentina on a world map. So quit bothering us with all these new places. (And don't get me started on Nunavut!)

So to get back to the Ukraine kerfuffle – I'm not going to belabor the argument zipping around the Internet re: the moral equivalence of Russia in Ukraine vs. the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Actually, the Russians have a better argument. We invaded Iraq because some Saudis from Afghanistan attacked us (allegedly) on 9-11. OK, that made a lot of sense. And we invaded Afghanistan because they had provided aid and comfort to said Saudis – as if the planning for the attacks couldn't have been carried out in any Moslem country (or in any number of neighborhoods in Paris, etc.). Russia, on the other hand, has deep historic, ethnic, linguistic, etc. ties to Ukraine, not to mention they share a common border (without even 90 miles of water in between, like us and Cuba). Now, this is not to say that Ukraine isn't “diverse” in its own way, as shown here:

We can see that some people wound up, after World War I and/or II, on the wrong side of the border. But again, that's the rule rather than the exception.

So am I saying that Russia ought to be huffing and puffing, and throwing its weight around Ukraine? Ideally, no. But ideally, any minority in any country ought to be allowed to live in peace without having to cry out to some other country (especially a big and powerful one) to save it. And common sense should apply as well. Who, in Iraq, asked us to invade Iraq? Ditto Afghanistan. So if we're talking aggression here... well, hopefully you get my point.

Then there's the question, what should we “do” about it – if anything? Sarah Palin was ready to start a war with Russia over Georgia. Obama – who couldn't be further from Palin on the political spectrum – was all ready to invade Syria until Putin looked him in the eye and said “unh-unh”. The paleocon/libertarian position is that it's none of our damn business. But our leaders are all a-tizzy, making all sorts of threats, most of which are pathetic, frankly. It would be more respectable to just stand up and say, we're over here and they're over there, and the twain are not going to meet. We're not cops, and the world is not our beat. Besides, we're bankrupt. Et cetera. But of course, no one's going to say that because it would violate our “core values”, and be an admission that the American Era is over with – or at least fading fast. I mean, imagine leaving world affairs to the tender mercies of Russia and China – scandalous! Humiliating! Demeaning! Et cetera. So it's better to spit and hiss and wring our hands – much more respectable, ahem. (Oh, and by the way, people are already starting to talk about a “domino effect”, like if we let Putin get away with this, who's next? Lithuania? One of the “stans”? Who knew there was this much Cold War nostaliga floating around? Heck, there's even a decent amount of Stalin nostalgia in Russia.)

It's been remarked that “Putin plays chess, and Obama plays basketball”. In other words, the typical Russian strategy is to make a move, see what happens, make another move, etc. In chess it's called a gambit – and the result may appear to be a setback, but it's part of a larger plan. What's required, above all, is patience, and being able to operate below the surface of things. The long run is what counts – and no one is more of expert in this than the Chinese, but the Russians aren't far behind. After all, didn't Uncle Joe wait patiently all through the 1920s, 1930s, and World War II before he made his move to establish the Iron Curtain and the Warsaw Pact? The Soviets could have moved into Europe at any time after the end of World War II, but they didn't; in fact they allowed some areas that had been part of the old empire, like the Baltic States, to declare independence. But once the opportunity arose – aided, in no small part, by Uncle Joe's friends in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, they made their move... and, again, there wasn't a whole lot we could do about it.

The basketball strategy, on the other hand is, basically, you charge ahead and if you get knocked on your ass you get up and charge ahead some more. Subtle it ain't (at least as far as I can tell). A perfect metaphor for American foreign policy in our time. (And in fact, we aren't even that good at passing the ball – not that anyone else is interested in it... )

I see our helplessness as just another earmark of a waning empire. But again, as with national borders, our dominance on the world stage was meant to last forever – unlike that of all the empires and pretenders up to now – because we have ideas, and principles, and are the shining city on a hill, etc. Yeah, well, if that's true why has so much of the world failed to sign on? I mean, OK, our economy is linked to nearly all other national economies in a way that would have been inconceivable up until recently; even the British Empire could never have claimed the interdependency that exists now. Our culture – such as it is – has spread far and wide. National leaders world-wide are wearing suits and ties now. People are eating Big Macs. And so on. In some senses we really have taken over the world. But in other ways we have no more influence than ever – less in some cases (militant Islam, e.g.). People in sub-Saharan Africa who wear Nikes and “Hard Rock Cafe” T-shirts still engage in the same primitve, brutal tribal warfare that they have for millennia. The only serious resistance to American cultural influence comes from fundamentalist Islamic countries – and they still use cell phones and laptops. So we have “conquered” the way the European powers once conquered much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America – everyone speaks English, they all use our gadgetry and dress in our clothes, but below that superficial level the age-old beliefs, habits, memes, etc. are alive and well. Once again, things that people can identify with – the age-old truisms – tend to, in the long run, trump ideas. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then home and hearth are more powerful than either one.

But in another sense, the “American Empire” isn't American at all – assuming it ever was. It has been absorbed into a larger empire – that which I call the Regime or Cabal – headquartered in Europe. We still do the heavy lifting – we're the cannon fodder – but we're taking orders from people way above Obama's pay grade; all he does it pass them on. Now, the EU is the most prominent overt manifestation of this Regime, and we have seen the loving care with which it beggars less-solvent economies (the so-called PIIGS) and then takes them over. And this is the entity that half of Ukraine wants to join? Even knowing that it will be next in line? On the other hand, the attraction of Russia has to be somewhat tarnished given that Stalin & Co. tried, within living memory, to exterminate Ukraine – or at least the Ukrainians – in one of the great genocides of the 20th Century. The Ukrainians call it the Holodomor, which was, for them, the equivalent of the Holocaust. This alone would give anyone pause when it comes to cozying up to Russia.

So, as so often happens, the little guy (even though Ukraine is a fairly large country) finds itself caught between two larger entities, both of which may have evil intent. Poland experienced it in World War II, and now it's Ukraine's turn. One can only hope and pray.