Sunday, February 27, 2022

Further Comments on the Situation in Ukraine

1. Kyiv still stands.

For however much longer, at whatever cost, Kyiv remains in Ukrainian hands, unconquered by invaders. It remains under brutal assault from a dictator determined to destroy democracy and reimpose Soviet control over free land, and how this ends has become far more unpredictable than anyone thought possible. The odds are still heavily against the Ukrainians. But for now Kyiv still stands, a thumb in the eye of Vladimir Putin.

2. Wars create martyrs and that’s just one of the things that happens in wartime I suppose. While there is now some question about their ultimate fate, it appears that the thirteen border guards of tiny Snake Island have probably joined those ranks. If you’ve not heard the recordings – which have been verified by the Ukrainian government as authentic – they’re chilling. First you hear a Russian warship demanding that they surrender or face bombardment. After a short pause in which you hear the Ukrainians briefly confer, their response comes across clearly: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” Perhaps not the most eloquent of responses, but – like General Anthony McAuliffe’s “Nuts!” when the Nazis demanded the surrender of US troops at the Battle of the Bulge – it gets the point across well enough.

3. It has become something of a rallying cry, in fact.

4. It’s even begun showing up on the highways. First as satire:

And then, apparently, in reality:

Because really, it’s just about the most appropriate response to this.

5. Or, possibly this, from an old woman who marched up to a Russian soldier in the streets. There is no way I can hope to paraphrase this any better than the transcription so here you go:

Though somebody did turn it into art. Don’t fuck with old women and don’t fuck with Ukrainians.

6. They will fuck back.

7. Ukraine has proven a far tougher challenge than Vladimir Putin anticipated, which says something about a tyrant who fancied himself a historian. He forgot a few things. For one thing, throughout the Soviet era, Ukrainians were widely considered the best soldiers in the Soviet army. And for another, they hate the Russians and have for generations, to the point where when the Nazis invaded in 1941 they were initially greeted as liberators. That’s what happens when millions of Ukrainians were murdered in Stalinist purges or deliberately starved to death in the Holodomor (look it up, kids) during the 1930s. Take it from a guy who’s been teaching history for three decades now – Americans as a group live in a historical window that is roughly thirty minutes wide, but not everyone else forgets the past so easily.

8. If you want to know what leadership in a crisis should look like, look no further than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This probably came as a great surprise to Putin. It certainly came as a surprise to most observers. Zelensky was an actor and a comedian before being elected to the presidency, and his popularity prior to the Russian assault on his country was low and dropping. But when the shit hit the fan, Zelensky rose to the challenge. He has been consistent, sharp, and above all courageous. He has stayed in Kyiv, shared its concerns, and boosted its morale even though he knows – we all know – that he is Putin’s biggest target and likely would not survive contact with Russian forces. When the US offered to evacuate him, his response was epic: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” This isn’t the shrill posturing of the sunshine patriot covered in flag decals and thrift-shop camo – this is a man who has bitten off more than he could chew and is now chewing it anyway, putting his life on the line for the greater good of the people he represents. Whatever else he may be, he is a leader.

9. You can also look at Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion who is now the mayor of Kyiv. He could have retired anywhere in the world. He could have headed off somewhere safe. Instead he is there with the people he represents. When the leaders are like this, the people will follow. And when the people follow, they are hard to put down.

10. Putin needed this war to be quick. He needed to get in, crush Ukraine, install his puppet government, and present the world with accomplished fact before they could respond. Every day that Ukrainians fight him to a standstill is a day the rest of the world can get its act together and turn Russia into a pariah state.

There are demonstrations across the world.

There are demonstrations in Russia – a brave thing. Ordinary Russians have spoken out, and even some of Russia’s elite have as well. The head of the Russian delegation to a climate change conference yesterday publicly apologized for the crimes of his country in invading Ukraine. I suspect he won’t be going home after that.

The Pope went to the Russian Embassy in Rome and spoke sharply the ambassador there, "an unprecedented departure from diplomatic protocol" (according to Reuters) that probably hasn't happened since the Renaissance.

Hell, rumor has it that PornHub has gotten into the act, something I very much want to be true. When the porn stars are against you there is nothing for you to do but run.

There are economic sanctions in place, and they’re already hurting Russia’s economy – not enough to stop anything, but enough in concert with everything else to give people pause. Most western nations have closed their air space to Russian planes. It’s a start. It’s what we can do.

11. And it needs to be done. If you think Putin would have stopped in Ukraine, let me introduce you to a gentleman named Neville Chamberlain and a place called the Sudetenland. The Great Powers of the world appeased one dictator then and it cost them dearly. One hopes that lesson was learned.

12. I have no illusions that my little blog post will change anything in the world. But it is my platform and my place to take whatever stand I wish to take. There are people I follow on social media who are in Ukraine right now and mostly what they want – aside from big things like ending the war and kicking the invaders out of their country – is for the rest of the world to remember them and support them. And here I do so. You do what you can until such time as you can do more.

13. Once more, for the record: as of this writing, Kyiv still stands.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Thoughts on Ukraine

When the Napoleonic Wars came to an end in 1815, the Great Powers of Europe got together and said, in effect, “Nope. Uh-uh. We ain’t gon’ do that again.” Years of unrelenting warfare had bled Europe dry, shattering empires and bankrupting kingdoms, as armies had swept across the continent destroying whatever was unfortunate enough to lay in their paths, and this had to stop.

At the Congress of Vienna the Great Powers basically sat down and tried to figure out how to do this, and the end result was called the Metternich System, after its principal architect and leading figure, Klemens von Metternich. Von Metternich, an Austrian statesman, was a howling authoritarian reactionary who spent an inordinate amount of time singing close harmony with his ego – he once said, “There is a wide sweep about my mind. I am always above and beyond the preoccupation of most public men; I cover a ground much vaster than they can see. I cannot keep myself from saying about twenty times a day, ‘How right I am, and how wrong they are’ ” – but to be fair, he was good at his job.

The Metternich System, like most substantial diplomatic achievements, was a complex and nuanced thing but at its most basic level it amounted to putting a lid on Europe – turning back the clock to a predetermined point where things seemed to be stable and prosperous (which for von Metternich meant the age of absolutist monarchs) and then locking that into place so that it could never change again.

The Great Powers basically took all of the pieces of territory that had been fought over, annexed, conquered, reconquered, divvied out, taken back, and otherwise bounced around like a hummingbird in a hurricane and divided them out so that everyone would have Enough but not Too Much. Enough to be secure in their own borders, basically, but not so much as to present a threat to their neighbors. And then they said, “That’s it. The borders of Europe are no longer subject to change by war.”

To guarantee this, they instituted a flexible system of alliances among the Great Powers that effectively declared that if one kingdom decided to start anything with its neighbors the rest of them would swing by and pound it back into line.

This worked for about forty years, which was good from a “no actual continent-wide war” sort of perspective, but not really so great from a “liberal democracy and progress” viewpoint. Win some, lose some.

You start to see cracks in it during the Revolutions of 1848 which convulsed much of Europe, but the final nail in the coffin of the Metternich System was the Crimean War of the early 1850s. The Crimean War was a fuzzy and puzzling conflict that even now defies easy explanation – basically the French and the Turks got into a fight over who would control Jerusalem so naturally the British ended up invading what was then Russia but which is now Ukraine (the recent illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia notwithstanding) – but the end result of it was that the Metternich System collapsed, and for the next fifteen or twenty years there was no lid on Europe and the borders were subject to change by war.

This did not end well.

War they got. It was war that united Italy in 1861. It was war that united Germany in 1871 and war that erupted between Germany and France at about the same time. And when the Great Power of Europe decided they needed to fill the Metternich-shaped hole in their diplomatic system with something, it ended up taking them into World War I.

You can draw a pretty straight line from the collapse of the Metternich System to the outbreak of World War I. You can also make a decent argument that World War I and World War II were simply two phases of one large continent-wide war – a Second Thirty Years War – the very thing that von Metternich had tried so hard to prevent.

After World War II there was another, somewhat less formalized, attempt to put a lid on Europe, one that included such things as the Cold War, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, Mutually Assured Destruction, the Helsinki Accords, and so on, but which basically said that the borders of Europe were no longer subject to change by war.

The World War II Settlement lasted nearly eighty years, almost twice as long as the Metternich System. It survived the Cold War. It survived the breakup of the Soviet Union. It survived active attempts to sabotage it from both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

And, like the Metternich System, it died in Ukraine.

This will not end well.

The brutal, unprovoked assault on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia that was launched this week will succeed in the short term. The Ukrainians are no match for the Russian military, and the US and NATO are not going to put troops on the ground to stop it. Even if we did it wouldn’t change anything. There will be economic sanctions because We Gotta Do Something, and they’ll hurt Russia but they won’t solve the big problem. Not in the short term.

Ukraine is not a pushover, though. They are a large and proud nation with enough nationalistic fervor and weaponry to sustain a serious campaign of attrition once the old-school tank battles are over. They may well become Russia’s second Afghanistan, a quagmire that slowly destroys their military and bankrupts their government. One can hope, anyway.

This is the first step in Putin’s campaign to destroy democracy as an idea and it will not be the last. The next blow will fall somewhere else, probably sometime soon as he has nothing left but conquest to sustain his power. If it happens in the Baltics then NATO will be obligated to respond and all bets are off at that point. The world has much more powerful weapons now than it did in the 19th century. We’re far more interconnected. We can do much more damage to many more people in a shorter amount of time, just as we could, if we chose, help them more effectively too.

Ukraine is being destroyed by a dictator who no longer cares to hide who he is or what he wants.

There is opposition. Much of the West has united in condemning this outrage, though the American right has been, shall we say, somewhat less than unanimous in this (and fuck them sideways with a Buick for their inerrant ability to side with the callous and the cruel). Perhaps more importantly, there is opposition in Russia. Popular protests have broken out in the streets, a brave move in a country that routinely brutalizes people who do such things. Members of the (essentially powerless) Russian legislature have spoken out, a rare thing. Russian public figures have also spoken out.

The stakes are high.

Blood is flowing.

And how it will end is yet to be determined.

But if there is justice and morality in the world it will see an end to this barbaric assault and a return of sovereignty and peace to the people and nation of Ukraine.

Saturday, February 19, 2022


Kim and I went out to dinner last night to celebrate Valentines Day, since celebrating on a Monday didn’t really seem like anything we wanted to do. The Movable Feast Tradition simplifies life a great deal that way. It was a good meal and a lovely time, and a nice, quiet way to celebrate the holiday.

With omicron caseloads dropping and vaccine rates being respectable around here, we thought we’d take the chance eating in the main dining room of this place, and it was fairly crowded with people who agreed with us. There were all sorts of people there, happily enjoying their dinners.

There was one part of it that wasn’t quiet, though.

To understand this, you need to know two things.

First, the evening was cold but clear when we drove out there, but the Weather Folks were warning us of “snow squalls” that might complicate things as time went by.

From this I have learned, by the way, that nobody in Wisconsin has any idea what a “squall” is. My social media feeds this morning were filled with plaintive cries and odd little memes all on the general theme of having to look up this mysterious and unknown word and seriously, where have these people been hiding all their lives? Is this just something that doesn’t happen in the midwest? I remember this as a fairly common meteorological term growing up in the mid-Atlantic, but maybe it’s new here.

It must be new here, because the Weather Folks certainly reacted to the possibility of this happening with all of the grace and restraint of a housecat confronted by a cucumber.

Second, we live in an age of immediate connectivity. Everyone carries a cell phone. Small children carry cell phones. Great-grandparents carry cell phones. The only people who don’t have cell phones on them are the sorts of people who go out of their way to tell you they don’t have cell phones on them. They probably brew their own IPAs.

One of the more interesting things that has happened with cell phones recently is that they have become emergency beacons. Not only do people use them to take photos or surf the web or text (nobody actually uses them as telephones – don’t be silly), but also they are now set up to emit ear-splitting blasts of noise every time some Vague Government Agency decides there is an emergency you need an Alert for. Missing persons! Tornadoes! 50% Off At Walmart! Whatever.

This includes snow squalls now.

So there we are, peaceably enjoying our meal among the other diners, when suddenly there is this cascading din of Alerts that ripples through the room as first one cell phone then the next is alerted to the fact that it might actually be snowing outside. In Wisconsin! In February! I KNOW!

Eventually everyone in the room had to pull out their phones and do whatever it is one does to make the alert stop blaring – it varies by phone, I suppose – and for an odd little moment we all kind of stared at each other in shared bewilderment. It was kind of a bonding moment, really.

And then we went back to eating.

There were some big snow squalls, in fact, and driving home through them was Not Fun At All, so perhaps the alerts weren’t so odd.

But that moment certainly was.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Observations on the Winter Olympics

1. The money quote of this Winter Olympics goes to Nils Van der Poel, the Swedish speedskater who won the gold medals in the 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter events while setting the Olympic record in the former and the world record in the latter. He has won every race he has entered in the last year, often by five or ten seconds – an eternity in a sport where races are routinely decided by hundredths of seconds. He is, by common consent, the best long distance speedskater in human history.

He is also a quote machine.

When you are a professional athlete in a sport that sucks as much as speedskating sucks, you’ve got to find a way to make it suck a little less. And whatever you can get inspired by, you need to find that. … If you can find the answer to that, perhaps you can win the Olympics.

There’s also this:

Athletes are clowns and dancers. We’re entertainers and role models. That’s the only reasonable explanation I can find to do sports.

I mean, he’s not wrong.

2. I enjoyed watching the American team win the mixed-double snow-cross or whatever it is they call that event (it looks like motocross, except instead of minibikes they’re riding snowboards that sound like jet engines as they scrape across the ice) since they were – by at least a decade – the oldest people competing in the competition. He was the oldest American to win an Olympic medal since 1948, apparently. Three cheers for the olds!

3. The other evening I spent a fascinating couple of hours watching the short track speedskating events, which are a strange combination of strength, grace, suicidal tendencies, and litigation. Every race goes like this: five or so athletes line up on one side of a hockey rink. The starting gun sounds and they go around counterclockwise several times – four and half times for the five-hundred meter event, nine times for the thousand – at speeds approaching three hundred miles an hour while riding on yard-long razorblades and separated by maybe half an inch in a sport where contact is illegal. Much of their time is spent going around curves while leaning at a 30-degree angle. The rink is surrounded by four-foot-high foam pads to catch the ones who slide off (blades up to avoid damaging the pads, apparently, though what that means for unfortunate racers nearby is an interesting question – next year their suits will be made entirely of Kevlar and I am not making that up). Once the survivors are done there is an extended period of review to determine whether any of them should be cast into darkness and removed from the standings – a process that can take up to half the known age of the universe and involves microscopic examination of replays and the application of rules that I strongly suspect are made up on the spot. And then they do it again. This gets even more complicated in the relay events, where two or three other full slates of similarly-kitted-out racers are rotating around the interior of the rink trying to align themselves just so in order to switch in. The old skaters shove them forward by the butt. Greater entertainment on a February evening you will never find.

4. What lutefisk-snorting Scandinavian killjoy forced the Norwegian men’s curling team to wear black pants? I’d been looking forward to their quadrennial display of pants that could be seen from space with the naked eye and suddenly – BOOM! – boring. Bring back the outfits that would embarrass a 1970s-era golf pro!

5. We’re streaming the Olympics on Peacock, which we have instead of NBC in order to get Premier League soccer. This means we get fewer commercial breaks with a much narrower range of commercials. But three cheers for US Bank and their “Crochet Guy” ad, which I’ve seen maybe eleventy-billion times now and which still makes me laugh. “I made my wife a bathing suit!” “Oh, did Linda like it?” “She did not.” “Ohhh.” The comic timing in that exchange is just priceless. The fact that it seems to be pissing off the crocheting community online is just a bonus – I’ve dealt with them before online and they’re meaner than Redditors, so the hell with them. I will never bank with US Bank, but I do appreciate art.

6. Also, Walter the Cat is the best character on the air these days. While the odds of me purchasing a pickup truck are slightly worse than me ever handing money voluntarily to US Bank, I do love the ad – especially the long version with the mailman. “No no no no no no! Walter! He’s a civil servant!” I would watch a sitcom with him as the star.

7. Maybe having the NHL pull its players from the Olympics was a good thing. The US men’s team certainly seems to be playing more cohesively with its last-minute group of college kids than it ever did with the all-star collection that the NHL would provide. I’ve seen their games with Canada and Germany and they looked like they were a real team out there. The level of play across the board certainly has not suffered.

8. What marketing genius decided that the women’s one-person bobsled event would be called “Monobob”? That sounds like a lot of things but a sporting event is not one of them.

9. The end of the Cold War has meant a genuine improvement in Olympic commentary now that the announcers don’t seem to feel obligated to promote political viewpoints. I’m old enough to remember when the Olympics, like everything else, was a Good Guys vs Bad Guys event and you weren’t supposed to cheer for anyone on the other side of the Iron Curtain even if they were, objectively, better at their sport than anyone else. It’s refreshing to hear announcers discuss things from a more positive place.

10. Although I could do without the ambush interviews of athletes who have just bombed out of this or that event. Seriously – give them some space.

11. Also, not surprised by the doping scandal in figure skating. It’s a shame – that particular skater was really quite something to watch. But I can’t say that a team already competing under an assumed name because of a widespread government-sponsored doping scandal is going to shock me when it happens again.

12. Still think the last event of the Olympics should be athletes competing in sports other than their own. Gold medal winners get to judge.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022


So, yeah, once again, I’m watching the Olympics.

Well not right now, of course. Now I’m typing. But I have been watching the Olympics and I will once again be watching the Olympics when I’m done with this, even though I have Other Things To Do.

Because that’s how it works.

I enjoy the Olympics. I know this is a terribly unpopular thing to say these days, and I even understand why. They’re being held in a nation whose human rights record is even worse than most these days, where political dissent is a crime and where an autocratic ruling elite is currently allied with the guy threatening to start Europe’s land war in three quarters of a century. They’re coated in a thick layer of sleaze composed mostly of bribery, doping, and exploitation with a smattering of other crimes large and small. They never make the cities where they are held better for having held them. I get it.

I also understand that the human rights record of most countries (including the US) is not something that gives people much ground to criticize others, that we have our own autocratic wannabe dictator here in my country (currently sending threatening messages to the insufficiently worshipful from his hideout in Florida), and so on.

But all of that is beside the point, really. The abuses of the world will continue whether I watch the Olympics or not, and I am perfectly capable of separating out those abuses from the athletic achievements on display. This may come as a surprise to a lot of people, but the world is a big, bright, colorful place and viewing everything in black and white means you miss a lot.

So yes, there are issues.

But yes, there are the athletes. And that’s why I watch.

I tend to enjoy the sliding sports like luge, bobsled, skeleton, curling, and hockey and the weird sports like slopestyle, halfpipe, speedskating, and the aptly named and totally bizarre Big Air event more than I enjoy things like figure skating or downhill skiing, but even so I’ll watch them all.

Because the athletes make the games interesting.

I like how the weird sports athletes haven’t absorbed the cut-throat attitudes of the more traditional sports like figure skating – how they genuinely seem to cheer for each other, and mostly they look like they’re having fun. I like how the curlers are such a motley crew of people who couldn’t possibly be competitors in anything else – you know that, like curlers everywhere, they probably sat down for cards and beverages after each match. That’s how curling works. I like how the luge and skeleton athletes seem like they have already distributed their worldly possessions to their heirs and will be mildly surprised to have to retrieve them if they make it back home after their events.  I like hockey in general.

The Olympics don’t come around very often, and given climate change I suspect that the Winter Olympics in particular are not long for the world.

So, yeah, I’m watching.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Illegitimate Political Discourse

Fuck these people.

Seriously. Fuck them sideways with a Buick.

The Republican Party has now officially declared that the treasonous insurrection of January 6, 2021 – designed, said its main inciter and beneficiary explicitly, to “overturn” the election of 2020 and install him into power against the will of the American people – was a form of “legitimate political discourse.”

Think about that.

Violent rebellion against the freely elected government of the United States has now been declared normal politics by the Republican Party.

Abraham Lincoln would have had the lot of them hauled off in chains. How a party forged by four years of stamping out exactly this kind of treason has swung full circle to openly advocating it would be an interesting political question if it weren’t so infuriatingly grotesque and such a direct threat to Constitutional order.

For the record, let’s remind ourselves of what “legitimate political discourse” looks like, according to the Republican Party.

Seven people died as a direct result this assault on the United States, according to a bipartisan Senate report released in June 2021. Over a hundred police officers were injured during the insurrection, which doesn’t seem to have impressed the usual “blue lives matter” crowd that was responsible for it. The United States Capitol suffered over a million dollars of damage.

Evidence now clearly shows that this was a coup attempt, orchestrated at the highest levels of the Trump administration.

“Legitimate political discourse,” according to the Republican Party.

The Republican Party is the single greatest threat to the survival of the American republic, a cancer upon the nation, and an openly subversive group of power-mad authoritarians. American patriots, liberal and conservative, must come together and treat them accordingly.

Treason has a price.

It is time that price was paid.