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A mouth full of sand

April 1, 2014

Lewis Rothschild: People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

President Andrew Shepherd: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.

This memorable exchange was between characters played by Michael J. Fox and Michael Douglas in the 1995 movie, The American President. It comes to mind now as I ponder world events playing out on the stage of 24 hour broadcast news cycles, both East and West. I’ve been straining beyond reason to find someone I can trust, saying something I can believe… from any perspective. It’s little wonder that people don’t know the difference.

My search continues. On current events, I’ve watched CBC, BBC, CNN, and Heaven help me, on occasion, even Faux News in hopes of a glimmer of insight as to what’s going on. Jon Stewart (a favourite source of news for me) and Stephen Colbert both seem sadly unable to capture any meaningful, textured understanding of the issues at hand. But then again, these two are on the Comedy Network and that’s not their job.

I say both East and West because I also subscribe to Russian TV Channel One, direct from Moscow. I must confess that my own first reaction is to take Russian TV news with a slab of salt. After all, it’s just a mouthpiece of the state, right? Funny thing is, since western journalists were first embedded with troops in Iraq, I’ve come to view newscasters on this side of the pond in much the same light. On domestic issues, journalists have no hesitation in tearing politicians apart. On the international front, much less so… especially when the ‘evil empire’ is involved.

Truth be told, my command of the Russian language is pretty much restricted to the basic phrases one calls on when married to a Russian woman. Passably, I’m told, I can say, “I love you,” “You are beautiful,” “This is delicious,” “Enough, thank you,” “I need to work now,” “I want to sleep,” “Happy New Year,” “Come kiss me,” (Petruchio would be proud) “I’m sorry – I don’t understand Russian,” and of course, “Please pass the remote control.” Add this short list to my early Russian vocabulary, acquired back in September 1972, including: “Da, da, Canada… Nyet, nyet, Soviet” and I get by all right.

In any event, with near-simultaneous translation… and a trusty pause button, I’m up to speed on the Kremlin’s spin on the crisis du jour (and make no mistake, the spin cycle is a panoramic experience on this matter). As I say, the search continues.

One of our kids called on the weekend to pick our brains on an essay assignment he faces. His task is to explore and discuss one or more ideological symbols as they play out in the world of international politics. Pickings were slim, I’m afraid, but my immediate suggestion was that he scrape past the surface, pursuing a level down to expose the flaws and deceits of symbols as instruments of political manipulation, ideology, or dogma. That, to me, would be much more interesting, and perhaps more useful to those of us on the receiving end of symbols presented in the media.

One of the easy subjects for his essay, I suggested, would be the hammer and sickle, of interest to him since he was born in Moscow at a time when that symbol flew over the Kremlin. Everyone knows that this symbol represents the evil empire of the former Soviet Union, socialism, communism, and most everything bad in the world… well, everyone in the West knows it this way. As a symbol for us in the West, this one is singular and unmistakable. In Russia, however, it means much more. Adopted in the early 1920s, the hammer and sickle represented a partnership of industrial and agrarian society as the chosen path forward.

At the turn of the 19th century, Russia was far behind the Industrial Revolution. It had not yet arrived. The first World War saw the Imperial Russian cavalry decimated by the new mechanized German tanks. Contrasts in preparedness for war were stark and broad and deep.

Without opportunity for the steady advance of democracy, as seen in the West, much of the Russian population still lived then in serfdom, in virtual slavery. Watching the world race by, the Soviet framers opted for a centralized economy. The rest, as they say, is history, but let’s leave that story for another day.

I would contend that one’s viewpoint on any subject depends largely on where you’re standing and on what you’ve been told. In a world of fiercely competing interests, we are continually bombarded with propaganda of one sort or another. It’s nearly impossible to know what’s true or false, or mostly true or mostly false. As my wife describes, all politicians will happily vary the intensity or shading of colours they display. Some don’t even bother with such nuance in treatment of the truth, however, and are prepared to just change the colours altogether. All we can do is try to stay open on all sides, listening, probing, studying, and searching for cracks in the stories, arriving, for what it’s worth, at our own personal truth. For the record, I have yet to arrive.

The Ukrainian crisis before us now presents one more such conundrum. The other night, on, my wife and I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on ‘The danger of a single story.’ At less than 20 minutes, it’s an excellent presentation on the risks of hearing only one story. I recommend it.

Let me say from the start that I’m not a fan of Vladimir Putin. He doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. While that’s not his job, I’ll add that I don’t trust him. There’s something ‘off’ about him as I watch and listen. I think it’s in the calculating eyes, but that’s hard to say with any certainty. What portion of my impression comes from press coverage of the man in western media, I can’t say. In itself, that’s an important first step in consideration of the man, his words, and his actions. Knowing that what you’re told is from just one perspective is critical.

My own first impression of the Russian people was formed in September 1972 when Canada’s best hockey players faced off against the Soviets, many of whom were members of the Red Army team. In this eight-game series, I found it remarkable that, while Canadian goals came with jumping and shouting and group hugs among the players, the Soviet players, upon scoring, seemed (in relative terms) to just turn around and skate back to centre for the next faceoff. They were, in my observation, inexpressive… emotionless. They were, quite literally, the ‘icemen.’ I failed to discount this observation with the fact that these were soldiers and that this was, as Canadian co-captain Phil Esposito put it, a ‘war.’

Young and impressionable as I was, this was my perception of the Russian people… until I married a Russian, that is… and then another. Just hold and think about that for a moment. Suffice to say that I have learned my lesson: Russians are not inexpressive and certainly not free of emotion.

So goes the danger of the single story. From Adichie, “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become” … until you see the other side, that is.

As I listen to the western media on Vladimir Putin, I find the presentation virtually bereft of the Cherokee proverb, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” (I am partial to the corollary that says, “wait until you’ve walked that mile… then you can judge, ‘cause now you’re a mile away and what’s more, you have his shoes”) When somebody does something I don’t like or can’t understand, a good place to start is always to ask, ‘What is he thinking? What does he see? What does he really want?’ We seem repeatedly, and I think mistakenly, to return to the cold war paradigm in every interpretation of current events. We assume that Putin is just trying to re-create the Soviet empire. He’s preparing to march into Ukraine, and the Baltics, and anywhere else that leads to a re-constitution of the Soviet Union.

In the words of Robert De Niro to John Travolta at the end of the 2013 movie, Killing Season, “the war is over.” Tell that to those who profit from military spending. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be winding down (the jury is still out), where will the Military Industrial Complex find/create its business?

I remember the wonderfully satirical 1995 movie, Canadian Bacon, starring John Candy and Alan Alda. As the American president, Alda’s character was floundering in the popularity polls and found himself unable to convince the Russians to re-start the cold war. Canada was set up as a ‘safe’ enemy for a new cold war, in hopes to ‘change the subject.’ Changing the subject seems to be the order of the day in our world, doesn’t it? In times of economic downturn, every government seems intent on changing the subject. Mobilize public opinion against a common enemy and wait out the storm.

I don’t ‘know’ much, but this is what I see:

All is not as it seems, in spite of all the media cheerleading. When did the media get this cheerleading assignment? I wonder what really happened to ‘fair and balanced.’

I’m more than a little surprised to hear the new government in Kiev described on CBC as ‘legitimate,’ after an undeniable coup, while the duly elected parliament in Crimea is labelled as ‘dubious.’ Am I a supporter of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych? No, I am not. But… like him or not, he was elected president. Was he a puppet of the Kremlin? Perhaps. I don’t know. Was he supported by the Kremlin? No doubt of it, but no more than his ouster (reportedly an impeachment without quorum) was supported, if not sponsored by other foreign interests.

I hear Putin being compared, by a number of commentators, to a megalomaniacal Hitler in the 1930s. At the same time, we don’t hear in the western press about the neo-Nazi, so-called Right Sector in Kiev, posting signs on front doors declaring, “Russians live here.” Much more than Putin, this makes me think of Germany in the 1930s. We don’t hear in western media about the gang beatings of native-speaking Russians in Kiev, just for speaking Russian in a public place. Reports have Jews now petitioning Israel on a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Kiev. There’s much more to this story than meets the eye.

On February 21st, Yanukovych signed an agreement with the opposition, witnessed by high level diplomats from France and Germany and Poland. In this agreement, he agreed to leave office with the upcoming election on May 25th. The opposition, in turn, agreed to make peace in the streets, and to the formation of a national unity government, constitutional reforms, early elections, and the surrender of arms. Agreement in hand, the next day, the opposition threw out the constitution, impeached Yanukovych, and declared itself the new government. Pushed by the Right Sector, it also voted immediately to repeal protection of access to the Russian language in the courts, schools, and government offices in regions where greater than 10% of the population was Russian speaking. This would have affected 13 of the country's 27 regions, where Russian had been declared an official language. On February 28, the acting president wisely vetoed this repeal.

Some estimates have Russian as the native language for 24% of the Ukrainian population, and 17% of Ukrainian citizens (8.3 million) are classified as ethnic Russians. The nationalist Right Sector gangs have physically broken into buildings, closing down Russian language broadcasters. There’s even talk from this far-right group about withdrawing Ukrainian citizenship from those whose native tongue is Russian. Where is this in the western media? The language police in Quebec must be smiling to see such a comrade on the world stage. No doubt, they will take strength and comfort from any success on the part of Right Sector nationalists in Ukraine.

Comprising 58% of the local population, ethnic Russians in the Crimean peninsula feel threatened by the infiltration of the Right Sector into government circles in Kiev. Those born more than 23 years ago will say that they were born in the U.S.S.R. Ukraine was one of fifteen Soviet republics, not an independent state. Other than for the four-year period leading up to the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922, Ukraine did not exist as a fully independent nation until 1991. Since 1991, along with minority Russians throughout the other former republics,  many have seen themselves as people without a country. Remember here – I’m not speaking in favour of the former Soviet Union and I’m not making a case for supporting any position on this conflict. I don’t have a position and don’t know enough to make any declarations of value. I’m simply making the case for a fuller picture of what’s going on. Paternalistic, ‘this is what we think you need to know’ journalism may work for some… not for me. Tell me everything. I can take it. In the end, I’ll decide for myself, thank you very much.

Considering again that walk in the other man’s shoes, I do wonder how the Crimeans could be imagined to do anything other than vote in favour of the recent referendum for independence from Ukraine. I ask myself: What would I have done?

Putin has now declared three official languages for the Crimean peninsula (Ukrainian, Russian, and Tatar). Hopefully, this is more than just good theatre on his part. Time will judge.

It appears to me that the nationalist Right Sector in Ukraine is actively trying to poke the Russian bear, in hopes of drawing NATO forces in for support. I have no doubt that there are agitators who would like very much to provoke a war in Ukraine.

Everyone has an agenda. Trust no one, I say.

I have no doubt that Putin is motivated by a wish to put a wedge between Kiev and the European Union, and certainly between Kiev and what he sees as a creeping and creepy NATO. I have no doubt that NATO would like nothing more than to establish a presence (military or otherwise) in Ukraine, as already done in Poland. Be assured that Putin considers this possibility as no less of a threat than the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962. I say so only as part of an exercise to imagine what the man is thinking. Maybe De Niro’s character was wrong. Maybe the war is not over.

I have no doubt that politicians and commercial players in Ukraine are prepared to sell access to the highest bidder. Witness the U.S. Air Force base in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the smallest (in GDP) of the former republics. Operating there since 2001, this base is set to close in July of this year. For as long as it’s been open, the Russians have fought to have it shut down. Word is they’ve finally outbid the Americans in a country of store-bought politicians. On the corruption index, among 175 listed countries, Kyrgyzstan ranks 150th, only slightly below Ukraine, at 144th. Assorted other rankings include: Somalia – tied for 175th; Russia – 127th; Indonesia, moving up in the world at 114th; South Africa – 72nd; the U.S.A. – 19th; and Canada – 9th. Top ranking goes to a tie between Denmark and New Zealand, followed by Finland, Sweden, and Norway. I guess we can trust the Scandinavians and the Kiwis.

Money stands behind all politicians, and behind all international conflict. Knowing where the money is hiding is key to understanding the landscape in full living colour.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – and I should say up front that I don’t like or trust him, either – paid a visit to Ukraine this week, denouncing Russian aggression and pledging support to the new so-called ‘legitimate’ government of Ukraine. Why did he do that, I ask? Well, there are more than 1.2 million Ukrainians living in Canada. With a total population of some 35 million, Canada holds the world’s third-largest Ukrainian population (Wikipedia), behind only Ukraine and Russia. That’s a lot of voters to line up for next year’s federal election. Notably, and also according to Wikipedia, there are only 0.5 million Russians living in Canada. Simple electoral math. Trust no one in politics.

As a Canadian, I can readily empathize with the Ukrainian viewpoint. When you are a mouse living next to an elephant, you sleep with one eye open. Eighty per cent of the Ukrainian economy is linked to Russia. The same is true for Canada with respect to its southern neighbour. Where one goes, the other follows.

If ties are severed between Ukraine and Russia, as the Right Sector nationalists promise, the already staggering Ukrainian economy will fully collapse, face down in the dust. Guess who will be blamed.

If sanctions against Russia are tightened, Europe also will suffer. China will be the key beneficiary. Do you think they won’t buy all surpluses in Russian oil and gas? Be careful what you ask for.

Don’t be surprised, as the dust settles, if there appears a new western-based military installation in Ukraine. Everything happens for a reason.

Choose your friends very carefully, I say. When we live by: The enemy of my enemy is my friend, the outcome is too often not a happy place. Life is not so simple as this dictum might suggest. Arming and training Osama Bin Laden and the forerunner of al Qaeda in the 1980s came back to bite in a delicate place. The same can be said for support of Manuel Noriega, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarek. If labelling Russia as an enemy puts us in bed with neo-Nazi nationalists in Ukraine, I am convinced that we are heading down a very dangerous path… again.

I say again, I don’t like or trust Vladimir Putin. This said, I frown to hear and see the one-dimensional presentation of this man and his motivations on the part of the western media. When Putin declared recently that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the twentieth century, too many in the media were quick to judge that Putin is bent on re-establishing the Soviet Union. I don’t believe this to be so. He’s not a stupid man. The Soviet Union is dead, never to be revived. I do believe that Putin is intent on Russia regaining its lost standing in the world and I do believe that pride-in-country is a key factor in any support he currently enjoys. The tragedy he’s speaking of, however, is beyond the understanding of most westerners, certainly those who have never visited Russia or any of the former republics of the U.S.S.R.

I have visited both Russia (in the old days) and more recently one of poorest of the former Soviet republics. During Soviet times, these were much stronger economies than they are now. Education was at a level to be envied, including by those of us in North America. Health care, the same. When it all fell apart… when Boris Yeltsin transferred much of the state’s wealth to the oligarchs, people in the streets didn’t care so much that they were now free of communism. Such broad sweeping political terms are important mostly to those not directly affected by them. To common Russians after the dissolution, putting food on the table became the new and pressing challenge. Health care and education suffered, and a new class of poor was created just as quickly as the Mercedes and BMWs arrived in Moscow.

There is much nuance to the world stage these days. The more we try to simplify it… the more we attach inappropriate and one-dimensional labels to key players… the less we encourage real and productive dialogue… the further we travel away from peaceful resolution of conflicts that may arise.

Perhaps my favourite Russian story is of the visit to Moscow in late December, 1983. We were being entertained by a young family in their small apartment. They had never met us, yet clearly made meaningful sacrifices to lay out the feast. Cobbling together three tiny tables for dinner, we enjoyed delicacies that may have been everyday fare back home, but were uncommon in the home of our hosts.

Misha was a bridge engineer. He spoke broken English. My Russian was (and remains) almost non-existent. We exchanged conversation, though, and got by just fine. He played guitar with great emotion and sang for us about life, about love, about a woman. This man was far from inexpressive. His daughters entertained us after dinner with dancing and a piano recital. In short, it was one of the most entertaining evenings of my life. I was touched by the obvious sacrifice made on our behalf.

Close to midnight, Misha escorted us down from the apartment, into the cold open air to hail a cab. To my surprise, Misha embraced me fully, and looked me in the eyes. “Kevin,” he said, “tonight, we have built a bridge. I wish in my heart that the leaders of the East and the leaders of the West could spend such an evening and build such a bridge.”

What more is there to say?


With respect,

Kevin Graham

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