Monday, February 28, 2022

Words of Wisdom

My mantra of late has been this aphorism that's been kicking around for several decades:

Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

Those words are often attributed to John Lennon as he used the line in a song from his final album.

But I always had my doubts that they were his as Lennon is more known for clever word play and cheeky witticisms than for life lessons sounding like they can be found in the pages of Readers Digest, written by older people with a lifetime of experience behind them. Lennon of course, never got the chance to grow old as he was killed by a deranged "fan" when he was only forty, which makes the line in the song Beautiful Boy, released just a month before his death, all the more poignant.

Like many such thoughts commenting on the human condition, the general theme here, i.e.: TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED, has been around well, practically forever. The first known appearance of this particular phrase appeared where else, in an issue of Readers Digest in 1957, written by Allen Saunders.

The phrase took on special meaning for me this past November as my elderly mother had a bad fall and broke both her hip and shoulder. Her life has changed inexorably since then, going from living independently, to being almost entirely dependent on the help of others. My mom, a woman who is obsessed with making plans, had several of them dashed last November. First, she was planning to receive cortisone shots in her knees the following week to help alleviate the pain and weakness in her legs that very likely contributed to her accident. Later she was planning on hosting Thanksgiving as is her custom, returning to her beloved holiday entertaining after a year's hiatus due to the lockdown. Obviously, none of that came to pass and much, much worse, she will never be able to return to life as she knew it before the fall. 

I dreaded the possibility of my mother suffering a serious fall for years, but as is my custom, I put the painful thought way back in the recesses of my mind until that fateful day. 

Naturally I should have seen it coming and been more prepared, but as the adage goes, I had other plans.

The same can be said about what may potentially turn into the greatest global crisis those of us younger than my mother have witnessed in our lives.  

We should have seen this one coming as well.

Vladimir Putin never made any secret his belief that the single greatest tragedy in world history was the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the twentieth century. Much of his twenty-plus-year reign as president/dictator of Russia, has been directed at rectifying that event.

If you ask Ukrainian people in the know about the war against their country that Putin "started" last week, they will correct you by saying the war has been ongoing since 2014 when Putin annexed a portion of their sovereign nation, Crimea.

Ukraine is not the only former member of the Soviet Union whose national sovereignty was violated by Putin's Russia.

In 2008, Russia invaded the nation of Georgia. As the western powers at the time were loath to confront the single greatest nuclear threat (in terms of numbers of armed nuclear warheads) in the world, little was done about it, in some eyes, creating the "Green Light" which emboldened Putin to wage his later incursions into Ukraine.

In 2020, the president/dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, the only European leader who has more years of tight-fisted control over his country than Putin, asked his Russian counterpart to intervene on his behalf, to quell protests in his country over a disputed election in which Lukashenko declared himself the winner. Putin obliged, sending in a "peace keeping" force that "brutally thwarted" Lukashenko's opposition. Since that point, the two countries have been joined at the hip so to say. As we saw in the past week, Belarus was the launching pad for several of the forces that invaded Ukraine.

Putin's rise to power was defined by his waging of the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000. The North Caucus region of Chechnya, declared its independence from the Soviet Union after the latter's dissolution in 1991. This resulted in the First Chechen War which ended in 1996 when then Russian president Boris Yeltsin declared a cease-fire after Russian forces were unable to capture Chechen capital Grozny from rebel forces. The result was an uneasy de facto independence for Chechnya and humiliation for Russia and its military. 

In September of 1999, a series of explosions destroyed a number of apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities, killing about 300 civilians. Russian authorities immediately and without evidence, blamed Chechen rebels for the bombings, leading to the Second Chechen War which this time was won by the Russians. Credit for that victory was given to then Prime Minister Putin who was soon to be named president by departing President Yeltsin in exchange for Putin's assurance that he would stop all investigations into Yeltsin's massive corruption. 

To this day, nobody knows for sure who actually carried out the apartment building bombings, but it seems unlikely that it was the Chechens. Many people believe the real culprit was the Kremlin and the FSB, the successor of the KGB, and that trail leads directly to Putin. The theory is that the government, needing a distraction from the crippling state of the Russian economy at the time, carried out the bombings as a pretext to rekindle the war with Chechnya.

If you've been paying any attention at all to the news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine last week, that should sound familiar.

The problem with getting to the bottom of the apartment bombings is that most of the people who have any information on the attacks have mysteriously found themselves dead.  

Oh well, none of us can live forever. 

Putin claimed that the story about the bombings being an inside job is preposterous, that no red-blooded FSB (KGB) agent would ever harm a fellow Russian, especially for such a deceitful purpose.


I heard someone analyze it this way: In the end it doesn't matter if the bombings were carried out by terrorists or by Putin. In either case, the end result for the people of Russia is fear, and fear is the engine that drives totalitarian regimes. 

Closer to home, last week's invasion of Ukraine puts Putin's interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election into much clearer perspective, not only in the man he supported in the election, but the division and acrimony in this country that he cultivated. The fact that we can't unify ourselves over an issue that should be as clear as day, is testimony to the fact that Putin has much of the United States unwittingly wrapped around his finger.

As for the man he supported, Donald Trump who perhaps more than anyone else is wittingly wrapped around Putin's fat little finger, it is more obvious than ever that the exPOTUS's public dissing of the democratically elected leaders of NATO nations was done at Putin's behest.

One of Vladimir Putin's pretexts for escalating this war is that his nation's security would be threatened if Ukraine were to join The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), founded after WWII as a defense alliance of western European nations, and the United States and Canada, formed to protect the group in the case of attack. Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty states that if any of the member countries is attacked, all the other members will come to its aid. The addition of Germany to its ranks of members in 1955 led to the creation of the Warsaw Pact, the collective of nations under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. 

It is true that many of the former Warsaw Pact nations joined NATO after the breakup of the Soviet Union, much to Putin's dismay. They did so because the people of Poland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, the Baltic States and several others, wanted to be aligned with the west and not with Russia. As he's proven time and again, Putin is not a big fan of democracy (to put it mildly).

But does Putin have a legitimate claim that the security of Russia is at all threatened by the expansion of NATO? 

In a word, no. Since its inception, NATO has never launched an unprovoked attack against a sovereign nation. NATO forces did become involved in the devastating conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and in the War in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The Soviet Union on the other hand, invaded Hungary unprovoked in 1956, Czechoslovakia unprovoked in 1968, and as we saw above, under Putin, Russia invaded nations that became sovereign after the breakup of the Soviet Union, also unprovoked. 

The only legitimate fear Putin has of NATO is that it might interfere with his plans of invading other nations.

Furthermore, there is no indication that Ukraine was on the brink of joining NATO in the first place.

Another pretext of Putin's is that Ukraine is not a real nation at all, that the distinction is purely artificial and that the Ukrainian people and the Russian people are really one in the same. That's a little like saying that the distinction between the United States and Canada does not exist and the two countries are really one. I used the term "a little" because in fact the United States and Canada (with the exception of Quebec), have far more in common culturally, linguistically, (and all the other factors that define nationhood) with each other than do Russia and Ukraine. Yet I've never heard anyone, ever, say that the U.S. and Canada are one entity. What's more, the United States and Canada do not have a brutally contentious historical relationship as do Russia and Ukraine.

Putin claimed that the main reason he invaded Ukraine is because many people in the eastern part of that nation who identified themselves as Russian, were being brutally repressed by the Ukrainians. Putin went so far as to use the term "de-nazification" as his motive to start this war.

That's interesting because his preliminary act last week of recognizing the independence of two breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine is reminiscent of Hitler's prelude to war, his incursion into the Sudatenland, the western part of Czechoslovakia in the months preceding WWII, in order so he said, to protect the German nationals living there. Needless to say, Putin's full-scale invasion later in the week is painfully reminiscent of Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939, the act that triggered the deadliest war in human history.

It should be noted that Putin's claims of the mistreatment of Russian nationals in Ukraine are baseless. 

So why is Putin doing this? Your guess is as good as mine. Up until the moment of the invasion last week, despite the dire warnings of U.S. intelligence, most of the experts I read and heard talking about what would happen, said that Putin was bluffing, that no way would he be foolish enough to invade Ukraine. 

Once he takes Ukraine and installs his puppet regime, a task proving far more complicated and costly than he anticipated, but given the vast superiority in numbers of the Russian military, almost a certainty, what will he do next? He wouldn't possibly dare continue westward and invade Poland or Slovakia or any other NATO member, risking direct military conflict with NATO member nations including the U.S. and Canada, or in the words of President Biden: "a world war". 

Or would he? 

Just yesterday Putin announced to the world that he gave the order to "put the deterrence forces of the Russian army into a special mode of combat service.” By that he means his nuclear arsenal.

And he made this ominous comment the other day:

Anyone who tries to get in our way, let alone tries to threaten us and our people, should know that Russia’s answer will be immediate, and it will lead to consequences of the sort that you have not faced ever in your history.

Nuclear war unthinkable? Absurd? Absolutely. But so was invading Ukraine. 

Perhaps it's time to start making new plans.

Or dare I say to make none at all except...

... keeping the people of Ukraine in our hearts, our minds and if you believe in such things, our prayers.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

What Is Race Anyway?

Whoopi Goldberg, celebrity co-host of the daytime talk show The View, got herself into a heap of trouble last week after a comment she made about the Holocaust. The comment which could best be described as "clueless", set my incredulity meter to the highest point it's been since 1976 when I heard President Gerald Ford tell the world during a televised presidential debate, that Poland at the time, was not under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. His opponent, Jimmy Carter, appearing as shocked by the comment as my livid, staunchly anti-communist Czech father, responded something to the effect of: "try telling that to the Poles." Ford's blunder was very likely the pivotal moment of that election which stamped the then Governor of Georgia's ticket to the White House. 

Goldberg's remarks didn't shock me so much because of their inaccuracy or insensitivity, I've heard much worse. But like the former President of the United States, the 66-year-old public figure and professional broadcaster with many years of experience behind her, should have known better. What on earth I thought, could have convinced her that it was a good idea to tell the world that the "Holocaust was not about race?" If that weren't bad enough, she added that one of the most heinous criminal acts in human history was a dispute between two groups of white people.

Beyond the nonsense of those statements, shouldn't she know by this late date that any public, "outside the box" comment about the Holocaust is virtual career suicide and should be avoided at all costs? 

Why would she go there and what the hell was she thinking?

That question was answered when I watched the full exchange between Goldberg and her co-hosts of The View, rather than just soundbites of the comments in question.

The topic of the conversation was the recent trend in Conservative states to ban books in schools. Much of the focus on this subject has been the red state obsession with so called "Critical Race Theory", and how teaching the not-so-pleasant parts of American history, especially those regarding the treatment of black people, is frowned upon in some circles because it supposedly makes little white children feel uncomfortable. 

Most recently a particular furor has arisen over a rural Tennessee school district banning a series of books called Maus, graphic novels about the Holocaust. According to the burghers of the McMinn County school board, the ban was unanimously approved because the books include images of nudity (despite all the characters in the book being depicted as animals), and foul language. Goldberg logically pointed out the irony of a school board being upset by animal nudity and language, but not the point of the story, millions of people sent to death camps by the Nazis. 

She then tried to make the point that not only are they banning books about race relations in the U.S., but they're banning other books as well.

Unfortunately in making her point, Goldberg blurted out that, as opposed to books such as To Kill a Mockingbird (which has also been banned in some school districts), the subject of Maus wasn't about race. When confronted by her co-hosts, rather than rephrasing her statement redirecting it back toward the banning of books, Goldberg doubled down by focusing on the Holocaust, leading the conversation down a rabbit hole nobody on Team View, least of all Goldberg expected or wanted. 

Then later in the day, Goldberg went on the Stephen Colbert Show to try to do some damage control but only dug herself deeper by saying something to the effect that race is something you can see with your own eyes. Elaborating on that theme she said she knows someone is either black or white, simply by looking at them, which is something you can't do with Jews who cannot be visually differentiated from other white people. That performance only gave fodder to the trolls over at Fox who had a field day with it, using Goldberg's comments as an illustration of the myopic vision of the Left when it comes to race. 

The following day on her show, a leader of the Anti-Defamation League appeared and explained what every fifth grader should know, that the Nazis were obsessed with race, promoting the idea that the so called "Aryan race" to which many Germans supposedly belong, was (for whatever reason) a superior race, while people of other "races" including Blacks, Slavs, Gypsies and especially Jews, were inferior. The Final Solution which resulted in the Holocaust, was the Nazis' very effective attempt to eradicate the world of these "inferior races" as a means to create one "master race". 

Therefore, at least in the eyes of the perpetrators, the Holocaust was unequivocally about race, case closed.

It was then that Whoopi Goldberg publicly learned her lesson,  ate crow, offered a dozen mea culpas, and much to her credit, apologized. 

Watching the scene in its proper context as it played out, (which is always a good idea), I now understand that Whoopi Goldberg was not trying to compare the Holocaust to the Black American Experience, nor intent on diminishing it in any way. And from everything I observed, I have no evidence to believe that Whoopi Goldberg is the least bit anti-Semetic. If Goldberg is guilty of anything, it is not choosing her words wisely. She'll have some time to think about that as she's been given a two-week time out by her bosses at ABC News. 

As offensive as her comments were to many, especially those who didn't hear them in context, she did bring up an interesting point which is this: what exactly is race? Goldberg's comment on the Colbert show reflects Justice Potter Stewart's 1964 written opinion in an obscenity case:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. 
"I know it when I see it" is by no stretch of the imagination is a useful definition of anything, but sometimes, it's the best we can come up with. 

Whoopi Goldberg does not see Jewish people as belonging to their own race. Is she wrong and were the Nazis right?

The following is the list from the website of the U.S. Census Bureau listing the five races they officially recognize and asks Americans every ten years to identify with:

White – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

Black or African American – A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.

American Indian or Alaska Native – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.

Asian – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.
Where do Jewish people fit on this list? I think it's fair to say that like Whoopi Goldberg, most Jews would identify themselves as "white", at least as it is defined by the Census Bureau.

But the Jewish diaspora spreads far and wide. The definition of what constitutes a Jew according to the Jewish community is anyone born to a Jewish mother, regardless of the ethnicity, race or religion of the father. Furthermore, anyone can convert into the Jewish religion, so a Jewish person can identify as any of the above races. 

We humans love to categorize things into nice, tidy packages but as we can see, when it comes to race and perhaps to a lesser extent, ethnicity, it's complicated.
It might be noted here that in the majority of the acts of genocide committed during the twentieth century, the perpetrators of those crimes, going by the U.S. Census Bureau standards, were of the same race as their victims*, inspiring the most Orwellian of terms to describe the mass killing of human beings: "ethnic cleansing."

The Census Bureau website then goes on to clarify their distinctions of race:

The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. In addition, it is recognized that the categories of the race item include racial and national origin or sociocultural groups.

In other words, race is a purely subjective construct, not something that has universally defined parameters. 

That statement is important because it reflects contemporary thought on the subject of race. It was once assumed by biologists, anthropologists, geneticists, as well as the general public, that people of different races had evolved significantly enough after long periods of isolation, to be empirically categorized into different subspecies of the main species, Homo sapeiens, to which all human beings belong. 

That idea has in the past 100 years or so, been categorically rejected by the scientific community.

There are no extant subspecies of Homo sapiens. The physical differences, or traits of people of different races are purely superficial, we all have in our DNA far more in common with one another (about 99.9 percent) than we have differences. We are all of the of same species, period. 

I know this comparison is going to rattle some feathers, but race is more akin to the selective breeding of domesticated animals, where generations of subjects bred in isolation from the general population leads to the predominance of certain characteristics or traits in the offspring. It takes several generations to create a breed but only a handful of generations of interbreeding with the general population to dilute or completely lose those unique traits. 

Same with humans. There is no such thing as a white, black or Asian gene any more than there is a poodle or  cocker spaniel gene.

Despite that, race remains a tremendously significant factor in our society. Why? Because we have deemed it to be so, much to the detriment of society. 

From time immemorial, humans have used race and ethnicity (another subjective construct), as an excuse to divide people, to conquer people, to enslave people, to slaughter people, and mostly to hate people, all under the discredited notion that "the others" are somehow less human than we are.  

Yet even though we know better today, this shit continues.

Given the ponderous nature of all that, it seems to me anyway, pointless to debate ticky-tack distinctions between race and ethnicity. Likewise it seems futile to get our panties all in a bunch (or knickers in a twist if you prefer), over misguided comments made by public figures. That's especially true if those comments can be turned into learning opportunities.

After all, the one and only way to change our misguided ways is through education, honest education that is, that pulls no punches, in order to give our children the chance to avoid making the same mistakes that we have made for eons. 

To educate means to challenge, and challenge is by definition, uncomfortable. Selecting curriculum based upon what we think will not make our children uncomfortable is the opposite of education; it is indoctrination. They're not only banning books in some parts of the country, they're burning books, and anyone with an accurate knowledge of history knows where that leads.

In my book, one of the most valuable lessons we can teach our children about race, is that biologically speaking at least, there is no such thing, that our differences are literally only skin deep. 

Does that mean we should all learn to ignore our differences and become a "color blind" society as some people suggest?


I wrote a post on that very subject a few months ago, you can read it here.

To summarize as I did in that post, we'd be going a long way if instead of being threatened by our differences as is typical human nature going back eons, we accept our differences, then respect them, embrace them, and ultimately cherish them.

Until we can all do that, well what can I say, same shit, different day.

*The major exceptions being the two examples on the list, whose circumstances are noted as "Imperialism." Of course if we were to go back before the Twentieth Century, we'd find many more such examples of genocide by Imperialism, including the genocide of the indigenous population of the Americas.