Welp, spring is creeping up on us and wriggling its little butt, ready to pounce. The elms in my neighborhood are plumping up to bloom and I have laid in a stock of Flonase for the season. I haven’t had any blog-post-sized things to say recently, just plugging away at work and words by turns.
But today I do have an announcement. For those of you who follow me on Facebook, I’ve been posting morning photos that I take while my tea is steeping — mostly of things in my apartment or the views from my window, but spring is likely to change how much I’m outside beyond trash day. A friend remarked that she found comfort and hospitality in the photos I shared, and that clarified a thought that I’d been having for a while. Which is that I have felt very much the loss of being able to practice hospitality, both in my physical space and my mental working space.
So I have started a “newsletter,” which sounds a lot more portentous than what it is: just a daily note, with my favorite of the morning’s pics, and a snippet of thought with a link, a poem, or a piece of music. When I have long-form blog posts here, I will link them out, as well as any author news that comes down the pipeline. It’s simple, it’s free, and it’s not subject to any goddamn rent-seeking algorithms you don’t have to wait for your social media feed to show it to you. You can sign up at the landing page here, or using the form I have embedded in the sidebar. It’s an experiment, so I’m sure this little project will evolve with time.
As Gregor Vorbarra likes to say: let’s see what happens.
Sometimes I forget, after years of working with my characters and nattering about them to any friends who are willing to stand still, that all everybody else has by way of introduction to them is the cover blurb and jacket copy. So here is a brief introduction to the five characters who serve as our eyes for the story of Ryswyck.
Speir was the first character to develop a viewpoint in the embryonic story, and she is our ‘in’ to the world of Ryswyck Academy. By necessity she’s capable of reflecting on what she encounters, but given a choice, she really wants something to do. She has the fighter’s addiction to total abandon — in whatever arena she finds herself in. Her greatest strength (and greatest weakness) is her drive to set things right for people she cares about. Her motivating force is velocity.
(Disclaimer: The person in this picture is a real swordfighter and not an actor, and though I’ve been fascinated by this image ever since I first encountered it, I don’t know how much she’d appreciate being made the avatar of some rando’s original character. So I use it with cautious respect. Forgiveness, permission, &c.)
My first outline notes for “the Academy story,” to my amusement, contain the parenthetical aside: Is any of this in Douglas’s POV? It takes a while to draw him out, but once his presence unfolds, the pull of his gravity is irresistible. Continuously aware of the big picture, Douglas is not hasty to act, but when he does, it’s decisive. He loves deeply, and so can be hurt deeply. He’s not a visionary by nature, but he is a determined idealist. His motivating force is integrity.
(The image: Luigi Lucioni, Paul Cadmus, from the Brooklyn Museum.)
General Thaddeys Barklay
Ah, Barklay. In this story, everybody has an Opinion about Barklay. And nearly all of them are right. Like many visionaries, he is wilfully blind to his own compromises, and skates over the discrepancies between his visions and reality. Is he a good man who does terrible things, or a bad man who does some good things? My advice: don’t get hung up on the question. I write from his point of view because I wanted to evoke what it feels like from the inside to want to be justified, even when you know you shouldn’t be. His primary grace? He knows it’s not about him.
(The image: Hugh Bonneville, looking appropriately seedy.)
Emmerich du Rau, Lord Bernhelm
One of these days I’ll write a post about the collapsing option trees of choosing a structure. And du Rau will be at the center of it. An elusive man, du Rau is the Lord Executive of the country of Berenia, the antagonist of Ilona, the island country of my other characters. I wanted to write from his POV because I was tired of stories in which the enemy is the Other whose perspective is either given no place or depicted as evil. Forget that. Du Rau knows intimately the desperation of his water-starved people, and has leveraged all his leadership behind his plans to make Berenia stable and safe. He has more than one secret weakness, which he guards from view with the help of his wife, Lady Ingrid. In his youth he was friends with Barklay, before the war. Now he is an implacable enemy. Like every other member of the main extended cast, he is indispensable: without him, the ultimate situation would utterly deteriorate.
(The image: just imagine Diego Luna here aged up a little.)
General Eamon Inslee
In this landscape of idealists and antagonists, Inslee is just a practical man trying to run a military installation on an inhospitable rock. He views the Ryswyckian culture of courtesy with an ironic skepticism tempered by suspended judgment. Wise and (mostly) patient, he has a sneaking admiration for passionate skill, but that’s not going to stop him from doing what he has to do. His POV is there to remind us that there’s more than one valid approach to the grind of military duty, even if those approaches come into conflict. Plus, I really enjoyed writing his dry sense of humor.
(The image: it’s hard to find a good type of what my idea of Inslee looks like, but here’s Kevin McKidd doing his level best.)
So there you have it: the people whose perspectives open the world of Ryswyck to our eyes.
Once again, it’s September 11th, and the sky is that rich blue defined in its depth by the ecliptic’s changing tilt. This week there are students starting their freshman year in college who were born four years after the terrorist attack of 2001, if you can believe it. My freshman year of college was nearly 30 years ago; I’m very glad to be alive on a beautiful day like this.
I’m also glad to be living in the future, where I can listen in on Dr. Timothy Snyder’s class lectures on “The Making of Modern Ukraine.” It’s never been more convenient to be an autodidact! My Duolingo Ukrainian streak is 144 days strong, speaking of convenience learning, and the current war in Ukraine is 200 days old today.
Since I last checked in at the 100-day mark, lots has happened, but some things have stayed the same. The usual suspects have continued their blandishments about the West prolonging Ukraine’s Inevitable Defeat by giving them weapons they won’t be able to use to effect. Zelenskyy had a trenchant answer for that on August 10:
(I notice that when he’s including the rest of us in his addresses to the nation, his Ukrainian gets slower and more distinct; I know this because I can actually follow it, which is not always the case when he’s talking to the folks at home.)
And then the Armed Forces of Ukraine backed him up with the royalest of royal ass-kickings in Kharkiv Oblast this week. I’ll let journalist John Sweeney sum it up:
As I mentioned in my Friday morning dispatch to the Morning Light crowd, an épée fencer can really appreciate a feint-8-take-6 attack, which is what I take the Kherson buildup to be: and the best feint attack is the one in which the feint is not just a misdirection but a composite part of the attack itself. The AFU are not exactly twiddling their thumbs down in Kherson! Every military analyst on Twitter who was pulling for Ukraine has got hearts shooting out of their eyes right now.
But even they are not as ecstatic as the towns being liberated by the Ukrainian army. Video after video of townspeople weeping, waving, hugging soldiers is sweeping social media. In nearly every one of them, someone offers the soldiers food. “We made you a hot breakfast!” someone says as they hand a soldier a garden bouquet. “There’s leftover pancakes!” says one of the women in the first link above. “Have a watermelon. Have three!”
“Slava Ukraini!” everyone says. And, “Все буде Україна” — “Everything will be Ukraine.”
Russia’s response to this rout, naturally, is to aim very expensive missiles at power plants so that Kharkiv Oblast will have to sit in the dark for a couple of hours. Petulant, criminal, and useless. A translation of Zelenskyy’s response tonight:
Even through the impenetrable darkness, Ukraine and the civilized world clearly see these terrorist acts.
Deliberate and cynical missile strikes on civilian critical infrastructure. No military facilities. Kharkiv and Donetsk regions were cut off. In Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Sumy there are partial problems with power supply.
Do you still think that we are “one people”?
Do you still think that you can scare us, break us, force us to make concessions?
Do you really not get it? Don’t you understand who we are? What we stand for? What we are all about?
Read my lips:
Without gas or without you? Without you.
Without light or without you? Without you.
Without water or without you? Without you.
Without food or without you? Without you.
Cold, hunger, darkness, and thirst are not as frightening and deadly for us as your “friendship and brotherhood.”
But history will put everything in its place. And we will be with gas, light, water, and food…and WITHOUT you!
All of this is illustrating — far better than the post I had been brewing — what it means to actually fight fascism. At the heart of the fascist is a terror of a changing world, and the fascist’s response is to tell other people who they are: to insist by force if necessary. That’s why trans people have been the canaries in the coal mine, both in 1930s Germany and today: they are the ultimate example of people getting to say who they are, and this is terrifying to the fascist. To non-fascists it is simply a discomfort which they can get over by getting to know individuals and love them. But fascists insist on telling people what their gender is, and thus what their place is, and what their nation is, and what the status of their soul is, and if that doesn’t stop people from evilly refusing to be told who they are, then the fascist will throw away politics and even war to inflict maximum damage and torture on civilians: to cast their souls to the dirt and stamp on them. It is nothing more than criminal malice in search of an ideology. And this is why I am keeping record of Ukraine’s fight on the world’s behalf.
Please do watch the Timothy Snyder video, because it is about exactly this. And watch the second one, which is about the stories that create nations. For all they are lectures to Yale students, they are remarkably jargon-free.
The proof of the pudding, for me, is that Zelenskyy published his declaration to Russia above in Ukrainian. Not Russian, which is Zelenskyy’s own first language and the language which he often used to address Russians in his speeches before. If you’re going to insist on taking people’s courtesy for weakness, you soon won’t even get that.
Like Zelenskyy himself, Ukraine is small but bold.
Someone — I can’t remember who, perhaps in a Sojourners article in the last year or so — remarked that when it comes to responsibility, what’s morally good for a society is morally terrible for an individual, and vice versa. In other words, it’s a bad sign if an individual attributes all their misfortunes to the machinations of evil structures and does not undertake to do anything about it themselves; but it’s an equally bad sign if a society blames the individual alone for whatever has befallen them and scoffs at the idea that bad structures should be addressed.
I’ve been chewing on that observation for a while, not sure what, if anything, I wanted to say about it. But then the exact meeting place of those opposing truths arrived when President Biden announced that he would use existing law to a) forgive $10k of student debt for people making under $125,000 a year b) forgive another $10k for the people in that group who received Pell Grants and c) reduce the income-based repayment cap by half, from 10% to 5%, without the burden of further interest. And both the right and the left lost their shit.
The right, of course, are incensed that bailouts should be dished out to individuals who promised to pay back a loan and have only themselves to blame if they are in difficult straits because of it. The left, meanwhile, are furious with Biden because the emancipation didn’t extend to all educational debt for every borrower.
Sounds like he hit it about right, then.
Great lashing waves of sound and fury have been lapping upon the shores of my social media feeds, and I find myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with most of it. Yes, it’s pure hypocrisy to accept forgiveness of a PPP loan taken out during the pandemic and then turn around to scarify individuals who’ve been paying back on the standard plan for years and owe more now than when they started. No, no one held a gun to people’s heads and made them go to college. Yes, the academy is fucked six ways from Sunday and serves neither its faculty nor its students nor the market in which its graduates are expected to participate nor anyone else except perhaps the administrators and the offices of what is so benignly called “Development.” No, this is not just a problem affecting people fool enough to get a liberal arts degree. Yes, a real civilized society would want to make it easier for people to get the kind of education that suits their interests and not have to thread a political needle with a camel to make it happen. No, it is not bad faith that Biden didn’t use a bigger camel.
Political risk as it may be, President Biden’s action (supported by the policy positions of Vice-President Harris) is a structural action: it is aimed at groups of people whose disadvantages due to socio-economic and/or minority status made getting a post-secondary degree an undue burden. It strikes at the reason why tuition stopped being free and began an exponential climb, which is this: that the practical function of a college education in this country is to provide a gatekeeping hurdle to class mobility, racial equality, and gender parity.
Clearing that gate is the reason why many people go to college. It’s also the reason why many people want to withhold debt relief — I’ve seen at least two conservative people complain where other people can see them that this will suppress military enlistment. Withholding debt relief, like withholding modern healthcare and a host of other social benefits, is a mechanism for them to escape having to stoop to negotiate with their inferiors.
The thing is, though — the academy sucks as a gate. It neither holds a monopoly on knowledge nor offers a real entrance to social elevation. If you were not a person of means when you walked in, the odds are against you being a person of means after you walk out.
But I didn’t care, because that’s not what I wanted out of my education. I wanted to leave home. I wanted to take classes that didn’t bore me to the pitch of rage. I wanted to live in a community with people my age in like-minded pursuits. I wanted to interact with mentors and read things I’d never heard of and play music and argue in a common room at 1 a.m. and earn my stripes as a writer. And that’s what I got. It was worth every penny I took out to pay for it. I’m morally, spiritually, and intellectually a better person than I would have been if I hadn’t done it.
So, the system is stupid. Granted. But I didn’t mind undertaking the difficulty of paying back loans. What I minded was being vulnerable to people who would spit on those difficulties by turning them into impossibilities. I dreaded putting my trust in the United States Congress, that wise and august body, to avoid doing things like excluding educational loans from bankruptcy protection, or setting the yearly interest rate so that it would add to the balance faster than you could pay it down. (Did the United States Congress, in fact, avoid doing those things? Did they hell.)
As a fellow taxpayer who’s been a contributing member of society for a while now, I don’t mind owning a responsibility like educational debt. I consider all the years of misery and underemployment and paperwork and this and that to be my business. Forgive my loans? Just don’t actively shit on my efforts to pay them. And maybe exclude them not from bankruptcy protection but from credit scoring.
Debt relief of any amount is an amazing boon. And as it happens, I stand to benefit from a), b), and c) of the president’s plan. It represents a huge relief and will make it much easier for me to do what I intended to do in this stage of my life. But it’s not something that was owed to me personally. It’s just that there are a lot of people like me (and really, don’t you smell a rat when so many millions of ordinary folks are just running to stand still on educational debt? that’s not just a neighborhood but the population of Florida full of irresponsible people not worth knowing, if you’re that cynical), and doing this is, as I said, a calculated, structural way to address several decades’ worth of compounded inequality.
Because the meeting point of an individual’s responsibility and a society’s responsibility hinges on two questions: Who do you want to be? and What are you going to do?
I know the answer to those questions for myself. And I know how I want the society I live in to answer those questions. You can’t always do what’s fair. But sometimes you can do what’s right.
If you don’t know who Jason Kander is, he ran for president “for a minute,” as he says, and has served my state as a legislator and secretary of state, where he worked hard at fighting voter suppression before that term was in the mainstream. He was to Missouri much as Stacey Abrams is to Georgia: a determined champion of democracy with a lot of star power fueled by a well-harnessed supernova of anger.
Then he pulled the emergency parking brake on his career to get treatment for PTSD.
This is the book* that tells the story of how his experiences in the army in Afghanistan led to a decade of maniacal effort to outrun, suppress, atone for, and deny the trauma he sustained. PTSD hijacked all his stellar qualities — his work ethic, his desire to help others, his patriotism — turned them into fun-house mirror versions of themselves, and drove him to the brink of suicide before he quit politics to get treatment at the VA.
I’ve been following Kander for a while, particularly since he challenged Roy Blunt for his Senate seat in 2016. Counting the time I lived in southwest Missouri, I’ve been represented by Blunt since 2002, and I really wanted not to be. After what I still call “that goddamn election,” Kander wrote pretty much the only political blast email I ever thought worth reading, urging us not to dwell on what we couldn’t control, but to focus on what we could, and “get to work.” In this book, we get the backstage story of that email, and a lot more than that.
For people living with the fallout of trauma, anger can be — if not comforting, exactly — a handy emotion. Other feelings happen to you: anger is a feeling you can use. In certain of its aspects, that is. In its aspect as depression, not so much; in its aspect as directionless rage, it can be destructive rather than useful. But when you are confronted with a great offence deserving of great anger, your only option is to choose which aspect of it you tap into. Stacey Abrams has said as much: she talks about turning her anger over into work rather than venting it on useless criticisms of things she could not change. Anger is an excellent kickstarter emotion. But it’s not something that sustains you; you need something else.
Kander found that out the hard way.
You don’t have to be a fan of Democratic politics in general or Missouri politics in particular — or even be a veteran — to get the full value of this book. (If nothing else, Covid has ensured that trauma will be a relevant topic for many, many people for the foreseeable future.) Being the kind of person he is, Kander wants to turn his experiences into something useful for anyone dealing with PTSD, especially those who are undiagnosed and don’t know that what he calls “post-traumatic growth” is a real thing, and eminently achievable with help and the right treatment. In a snappy, wisecracking, economical style, Kander draws together a tissue of anecdotes to illustrate his hard-won insights, without jargon and without falling into the trap of condemning himself for his anger and his resistance to getting help. Best of all, his spouse Diana interpolates some insights of her own, helping Kander tell the story by showing another dimension of what was happening outside her husband’s POV; the secondary PTSD she developed after Kander returned is an important part of the story of their family’s transformation.
So this is an unreserved recommendation for Invisible Storm, not just because of its therapeutic testaments, but also because it offers lasting food for thought. Kander describes at one point a therapy session in which his therapist shows him that the human response to trauma has its own internal logic. PTSD makes you feel broken: but what creates PTSD is not dysfunction but function, transferred to a context where it no longer helps but harms. Recovery from PTSD is, to borrow language from Marie Kondo, a matter of thanking your human instrument for protecting you, and convincing it to let go now. Not necessarily easy: but rewarding.
This book is proof of that.
*NB: Kander is donating the revenue from this book to the Veterans Community Project, the non-profit that helped him, and that he now works for.
Welp, I wish I was updating here with better news, but that is not the case. Today, as anticipated, the US Supreme Court has declared my humanity to be conditional only, predicated on what the state I live in thinks about it. What the state I live in thinks about it is pretty grim.
I’ve been thinking about this since the impending decision was leaked. There is a seemingly infinite number of takes on what’s to be done or what it all means: “She has an accomplice, you know — women don’t get pregnant by themselves!” “Time to nuke the filibuster/alter the Court/impeach the dishonest unelected justices….” “We can thank [insert villain/activist/centrist/Hillary Clinton] for this….” “A young man wanting to get a gun should be subjected to the same invasive and delaying hurdles as a young woman needing an abortion….” “They’re coming for birth control next.” “We need paid maternity leave and childcare — we can’t have all these children without support for them!”
Some of this is a more intense form of recreational complaining, snark vented for relief. Some of this is even true. A lot of it is stuff that people want to see done by fiat; I’m guessing they haven’t been paying attention for the last twenty years or so to the long game the confederascists have been playing. This event only seems like the work of a day; reclaiming our human rights won’t be the work of a day either.
I’m forty-six. That’s not very old. When I was sixteen, my mother took me to the bank in our small town and had me open a savings account with the money from my first summer job. I did not know then that the sixteen years I’d been alive was almost the sum total of time that American women had had the legal right to open an account or a line of credit without having to get a father or husband to co-sign for access. If I had known this, I might have been less sullen about this boring adulting thing my mother was making me do.
Thirty years later, I have more wisdom but fewer acknowledged rights.
In sifting these reactions, I’ve seen one issue surface in multiple ideological circles: the issue of guns. The mass shootings are becoming almost clockwork, followed by recriminations as predictable as they are useless. People from all perspectives point out what looks like an inconsistency in their opponents’ stance on guns vs. abortion — “You want to ban guns even though people will obtain them anyway, but you want to keep abortion legal even though women will obtain them anyway? Hypocrite.” or, “It’s insane that the Court says the states can’t forbid unfettered gun ownership, but the states definitely can ban abortion care even if a woman will die without it.” But when it comes down to it, the inconsistency is a mirage. There is a common link to this kill-don’t kill dichotomy that makes them perfectly consistent.
That common link is men.
Oh, I don’t mean men as individuals [insert tired hashtag here]. I mean men (particularly white ones) as a demographic that our homegrown fascists want to set above everyone else in the country. They want all of the responsibilities of our society to be fastened upon us, and all of the authority to be awarded to them.
They want the power of life and death to be in the hands of (white) men at all times.
To them, the very idea that a woman has the practical ability to thwart a man’s decision to beget life upon her body is an abomination so vile they call it murder for want of a more shocking word. Indeed, murder itself is a mere peccadillo in comparison. That is why they call the Pill, or IUDs, or any other form of self-administered birth control to be “abortifacient” even though scientifically speaking that’s ridiculous. It puts life in the hands of the person with the womb, and that is a thing to be destroyed and salted with fire. For a woman to escape from subjection is a mortal sin.
And if she does it anyway, well, there’s always the guns.
Life and death. The confederascists like to make sad mouth noises, but I suspect the worst among them actually rejoice over mass shootings. The more of them they allow, the more the rest of us will creep around in public, running errands like prey animals at the waterhole. Normal men who actually like and respect their relatives and coworkers; children rattling their lunchboxes on the way to school; the barista supporting her family on a pittance; the married same-sex couple swinging their daughter on a tire at the park.
To annul state laws against unlicensed concealed guns is to say: “Let the lynchings begin.”
Of course none of this is news to Black men and women. In fact, seizing the means of production, as it were, of children, and nationalizing it, is a largely white supremacist project. It’s not just that womb-carriers were meant to be disposable (and how dare they get ideas above their station); it’s that white women in particular need to be requisitioned for rebuilding the white population and staving off the minority majority. Of course, this project incurs a good deal of collateral damage — after all, more Black children will be born to women who can’t get around the laws, and the occasional elementary school classroom will have its share of unrecognizable white children’s corpses. But it’s all worthwhile in service of restoring the power of life and death to the hands it belongs in.
My lifetime. Forty-six years. Think about all the money earned by women that men couldn’t touch. Think about all that real property they’ve bought. All the businesses they’ve started, all the investments they’ve made, all the patents and achievements that have accrued to their own names. All the children born to women who were not obliged to identify them by their father’s surname. Forty-six years of riches, modest perhaps in proportion to the generations of white men’s wealth, but not insignificant. Forty-six years of dynastic property maddeningly held out of reach of their “rightful” owners.
They had no right to it. But they want it back.
So we have One Job: organize. I’ll talk more about this later; but if you’ve been reading earlier numbers of this intermittent gazette, you know that I have been following the Ukrainian resistance to the ruscist invasion as a mountaintop bonfire for the resurgence of democracy — actual democracy, not the democracy the coupsters were yelling about on January 6, 2021 while smearing their own shit on the walls of the United States Capitol. Not coincidentally, Russia is the last white patriarchy of any size or significance left in the Old World; also not coincidentally, Russia has been attacking us under the radar for at least a decade, at the same time as they were invading Ukraine the first time for daring to muster a democratic wave and oust the pro-Russian government Putin had installed. Ukraine has been at this for close on a decade, and they’ve done it by continuing to tell one another their story of a dream of freedom at least a century in the making.
Notice what Ukraine did first: they pulled together a coalition and voted out the Russian assets in their government. Then: they spent some years rooting out, or working around, the remaining spores of moldy corruption in their state, a work that is still in progress. They developed an identity of citizenship that pitches in with the minimum of fuss, since waiting for the government to invent that citizenship for them was an obvious nonstarter. They did most of this while being invaded by a nuclear power on their eastern border — the first time.
We are at their Step One. We are not giving Ukraine weapons and money because we have something to teach them about democracy. We are giving Ukraine weapons and money because they have something to teach us about democracy, and we want them to live to teach it.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, known to us then in the US mostly as the untried people’s-choice president whom The Former Guy had tried to extort for manufactured dirt against Joe Biden (and escaped conviction in the Senate for it), took to social media with a firm reassurance:
One hundred days later, President Zelenskyy posted his latest nightly address thanking President Joe Biden for the US’s continued material support for Ukraine’s defense of their sovereignty:
Between Night One and Night One Hundred Zelenskyy was put through a public crucible of leadership. When the US offered to airlift him to safety, Zelenskyy’s retort — “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride” — signaled to us the quality of independence we’ve come to recognize as a Ukrainian passion; but it also signaled to Ukraine that unlike previous presidents, he wasn’t going to cut and run. It was time to stand and fight back. Ukraine has taken his cue, counted the cost, and decided it was worth paying.
The rest of us are still counting.
While we were counting, Ukrainians fought the might of Russia inch by inch away from Kyiv. The latest address above is recorded in the presidential palace proper, with the lights on: but this is recent. Most of Zelenskyy’s evening addresses were recorded in a bunker, in dim light, in moments snatched during his sleepless slog from emergency to emergency. Nor did he only speak to Ukraine. He gave address after address to every governing body within Zoom’s reach: in one early teleconference with EU leaders, he said, “This might be the last time you see me alive”; later, he crafted appeals to every country’s parliament, legislature, and council with analogies to their own history. But the core appeals to each were nearly identical.
He wanted the world to acknowledge, explicitly and on record, that Ukraine is a sovereign nation with the right to exist independently of Russia. And he wanted “ammunition”; weapons to fight Goliath off their homeland and put a stop to the indiscriminate carnage being inflicted on his people.
Goliath, meanwhile, was demonstrating that they were both inept and cruel in the prosecution of their illegal war. As the Ukrainians drove them back, they saw what Russia had left behind. Zelenskyy, visiting Bucha after its liberation, was captured on camera with his face an open depth of rage and grief.
I recommend this 60 Minutes interview with Zelenskyy for its portrait of the things I am talking about here. It’s the end that stayed with me: Scott Pelley finishes the interview with, “Mr. President, we wish you all the luck in the world.” Zelenskyy switches from Ukrainian to a halting English and says with a painful smile: “I need half of it. Even half would be enough.”
We wish you all the luck in the world.
I only need half.
Not too long after that, I downloaded the Duolingo app and started to learn Ukrainian. Going over these videos now, I can actually pick out words, though after only 44 days of the curriculum I’m not quite at the point of fully grasping everything that’s being said. This is a country that has a deep, mordantly funny, stubborn character. Ground between the millstones of empires for centuries like the wheat grown in their fields bound for parts elsewhere, they’ve been fighting for their independence (and their unity) for almost as long as we’ve had ours. They understand their own peril; they understand they are standing in the gap for everyone else’s democracy. I’m not sure we really understand either of those things, but I know whose example I want to follow.
This war isn’t new — Russia started the process in 2014 after Ukraine got fed up with Russia’s meddling and swept in a new government not beholden to Putin and his encroachments. There’s a picture somewhere of a fight that broke out in the Ukrainian parliament during these troubles; I thought it very quaint, then, to see political disagreements reduced to fisticuffs. I did not know it was the first manifestation of a malice that would finally show itself in our country with The Former Guy and the January 6 insurrection. Nobody died in the Verkhovna Rada as they did in our capital: but Ukrainians are certainly dying now. Our whole country has turned into Bleeding Kansas. The war isn’t new.
Zelenskyy was new, though. But one can only admire how quickly he understood his assignment. He became the avatar of his country to us, and a mirror for the Ukrainians themselves. He pushes Ukraine’s asks aggressively with one hand (“He has the list,” Zelenskyy said of Biden when Scott Pelley asked him what weapons he wanted sent), and dishes out sincere gratitude with the other:
He throws shade on Russia not as a slam line looking for applause, but as if he expects any Ukrainian sitting in his seat would employ the same devastating skill:
And I believe they would! After all, the Snake Island soldier’s defiance is now a Ukrainian postage stamp, and the Moscow — that very Russian warship he told to go fuck itself — has been promoted to submarine in the Black Sea fleet.
Zelenskyy knows how to use his art, too. Here he is (in a two-parter; do watch them both) juxtaposing the May 9 Victory Day with the slogan “Never Again”:
And the next day, rallying Ukraine to envision its future victory:
There is one benefit of war to set against its evils: it can be a rough but effective sieve for our priorities. And I think our first priority is to stop talking about, thinking about, and revolving about other people who are doing it wrong. They might be! Who cares? Find someone who’s doing it right, and imitate them. To the hilt.
This year I have resolved to say nothing about what is or isn’t being done in political circles if I do not have something I am doing to put next to it. Seriously, it just darkens counsel. I wonder what would happen if for 24 hours nobody in this country could post anything to social media, no “what he said!” or “can you believe this?” or anything. Would we be able to peer through the cloud of dust and see who we are?
Likewise, if your plans for Bleeding Kansas this year involve trying to make some individual or group feel ashamed of themselves for whatever they’re doing: you’re gonna need to make another plan. Like Russia at the Olympics, this year’s bad actors live in the conviction that shame is something that happens to other people. No plan depending on any of them having a change of heart or making an honest agreement is a plan that will work. Even those people who can be reached — is this really the best use of our time? I don’t think we have as much of that commodity as it seems. Be like Ukraine: surmount what you can, and when you can’t, trade space for time and fight smarter, not harder.
There are lots of op-eds proliferating in mainstream media right now, warning us that supporting Ukraine is going to get “complicated” and that we had better get used to the idea of letting Russia have its way at least in part if we want to save lives. Whose lives? Not the Ukrainians, a population destined for liquidation for the sin of refusing to think of themselves as “Little Russians.” They don’t want us to do their fighting for them. In all the ways that matter, they are doing our fighting for us.
I can think of lots of ways we could be less lost, less unfocused, than we are now. But I shudder to think of where we’d be without Ukraine, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, its willing avatar, to raise the standard.
I have some more serious thoughts about our slow-rolling world war sitch, but they will keep. Here instead is a gallery of shots from recent mornings and walks.
I have hung some orange halves in the hope of attracting orioles, but my expectations are extremely moderate. But to my joy, the white-throated sparrows are back. I haven’t so much as glimpsed one in the years I’ve been here, but ever since I found out who sings their sweet song, I’ve listened out for them in the spring and fall.
Meanwhile I’ve cleared off my deck in preparation for this year’s garden. I wonder if there are blue and yellow flowers that will grow in shade?
Last week I posted about the despicable aims of authoritarians both at home and abroad, and how our definition of “The Bad Guys” has to recalibrate for a new age. Since then, I’ve discovered more about what that means. Yes, it’s a new age, and old terms are not a perfect fit. But the past is prologue to the story we’re in now.
This week in the war in Ukraine:
These conscripts dug trenches in the Red Forest of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and probably got their lifetime rads, and then some, within the hour. Some reports say they didn’t even know what the Chernobyl complex was when they occupied it. What a boneheaded move, one might say. What terrible tactics. And how can you not know what Chernobyl was?
But it turns out that it’s really quite simple. The Russian command simply does not regard the safety or support of its rank and file, and this is, I am told, a longstanding posture going back to the USSR. They throw bodies at their theatres of war until they win — or founder. According to President Zelensky, he tried to get Russian command to collect their dead from the streets of contested cities; they wouldn’t.
Surely this can’t be true — it’s too horrifying. But the evidence piles up in independent reports and social media uploads; and the treatment of cities like Mariupol, a testament of rubble to undeniable war crimes, confirms the logic. These conscripts are trained in trauma that apparently makes Full Metal Jacket look like a stroll in the park; shoved across the border with armor and provisions that are the crumbs left over from grift; and bid to pay forward as much cruelty as they can. And many of them do.
To be honest, though I consider myself as a writer to have a fairly robust invention of horrors, I had simply never conceived this. Cruelties toward the enemy, I could imagine; but not a corresponding abyss of disrespect for one’s own troops. Even in Ann Leckie’s Justice trilogy, the Radch empire’s ancillaries are fed into the maw of war only after being converted from human POWs to ships’ apparatus.
But there is one aspect of those books that illuminates this real-world enormity. Early in Ancillary Justice, two officers are talking about ancillaries and the imperial project. One officer, who is of a much higher caste than the other, says: “Here’s the truth: luxury always comes at someone else’s expense….When you grow up knowing that you deserve to be on top, that the lesser houses exist to serve your house’s glorious destiny, you take such things for granted. You’re born assuming that someone else is paying the cost of your life. It’s just the way things are.” The way things are is a statement with religious overtones in Radch society; it is pious to believe that both luxury and misery are wholly deserved by the people who experience them.
This has a direct correspondence in real life to the idea of the mudsill people, an analogy devised by a South Carolina senator to not only justify but celebrate the institution of slavery. The mudsill, the lowest foundation of a building that keeps it stable and protected from the elements below, is essential to the stability of the building; as southern landowners saw it, some groups of people had a divinely ordained destiny to be the sill plate for their metaphorical houses. Slaves were slaves because they deserved it as inherent inferiors to the people who lived on their backs.
Thus while many arguments in democratic societies center around how to develop the economic and social infrastructure to eliminate reliance on groups as mudsills — sweatshops, migrant fruit pickers, miners, factory and food service workers, to name a few — authoritarians are infuriated to see anyone escaping mudsill status and are determined by any means possible to undo all safety nets, all acknowledgments of minority rights, and all the operational structures that make people freer.
If your very sense of self depends on having people set below you and degraded for your benefit and convenience, then no doubt the flourishing existence of healthy democracy is an existential threat. If you regard a sovereign nation as neither sovereign nor a nation, no doubt you will do colossally stupid things like invade it with a picked-over force and camp out in a nuclear exclusion zone of your predecessors’ own creation. But just because it’s colossally stupid doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. And just because it’s not our cities being shelled doesn’t mean we’re not in it up to the eyeballs. We might equip and train our army better, but we’re fighting mudsill malevolence just as much here as Ukrainians are there.
We have less to fear than the mudsiller authoritarians. But we also have more to lose. Look to your sovereignty, and watch your neighbor’s back.
A few days ago, in my trawls for reliable bits of Ukraine news on Twitter (I manage to stay off Twitter for weeks at a time, and then the obsession returns like a fit), I ran across this comment on a clip from one of Putin’s speeches:
Yes, that’s Mike Godwin, of “Godwin’s Law” fame. If you need a refresher, Godwin’s Law refers to the end stage of an argument on the internet, when someone brings up Hitler or Nazis or the Holocaust, out of all proportion to the topic being discussed. At the dawn of the public internet, in the late 80s and early 90s, that was a meaningful observation: the Soviet empire was on its way out, and totalitarian movements were (we thought, at least in the West) a disproportionately evil memory, a bugaboo for whiners to invoke when they don’t get their way.
Godwin’s Law, like the post-Cold War era, now has an end date on its tombstone.
When we thought Nazism and fascism were dusted and in the past, invoking them became a way of administering a moral shock to someone whose behavior we were opposing. Everybody knows Nazis are the quintessential bad guys, after all! By degrees, the word’s meaning eroded: at its most specific, it came to mean “someone who fought for Germany in World War II” or “undirected anti-semite.” At its least specific, it meant “bad guy.” And in Putinist Russia, apparently, it means “someone who hates Russia.” The whole Third Reich, apparently, is defined by its attacks against the Soviet state. Jewish people apparently don’t signify much in this definition, which is why some Russians apparently see no problem with calling Volodymyr Zelensky, a scion of Holocaust survivors, a “Nazi” leader.
Thus one instance of the death of Godwin’s Law. The other is here at home.
People still object to being called “Nazi.” But it is now impossible to shame those people who espouse what Nazism actually stood for. They’re not ashamed of it. They’re not ashamed of the idea of suppressing queer communities, not ashamed of treating women like so many milling cattle, not ashamed of rounding up undesirables and deliberately insulting their humanity, not ashamed of training police to deliver white wrongdoers to the inside of a courtroom and black wrongdoers to a grave, not ashamed of randomly accusing people of being pedophiles so as to stigmatize whatever aspect of the person’s identity draws their contempt. They’re not ashamed of putting barbed wire around ballot boxes, not ashamed of looting the public weal on the grounds that they deserve to take and have, not ashamed of being cruel to people in public; not ashamed of sabotaging public health if it’s likely to lead to the deaths of people they hate.
And they measure the rest of us by their own crooked beam, and assume that we would do the same to them and worse.
A lot of us think that this rank outgrowth of evil is due to a lack of education. And it’s true that there’s some staggering ignorance in some of the things these terrible people say. By all means let us upgrade the education of as many people as possible; but it’s my conviction that other people is the education we’re looking for. I recommend Tara Westover’s Educated, and point out for those who’ve read it that it wasn’t Westover’s curriculum that changed and liberated her, it was the influence of reality in the form of the new people she met. The curriculum hardly made a dent until the people in her life gave her the capacity to grasp it. It is not the capacity to understand a treatise that makes the difference. Stupid people are not naturally cruel. I know one young man who has never so much as spoken a word and will be under basic needs care for the rest of his life; yet what capacity he has for trust and concord, he says yes to, in Hammarskjold’s phrase. The most ignorant tweet was written by a person smarter than he is; but they have refused the education of other people that leads to a welcome for reality.
I know that coalitions suck. I know that the best that can be said of some of us is that we’re Not The Bad Guys. I know that we crave a protagonist person or group to rally around. In that sense Ukraine has done the world a massive favor by demonstrating their willingness to fight to the death for their own independence. They are literally on the front lines of democracy. And what is democracy but the education of other people translated into the rule of law?
This, in my view, is the only potent antidote to the cynicism and cruelty the bad guys would tempt us with. It’s the reality that we must constantly set against the fog of lies. The bad guys are not ashamed of themselves: but they sure as hell resent that we think they should be. The Great Litany of the Book of Common Prayer contains a petition to God — “that it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts”; all of which is work for the Almighty. It is not fit for us, and we are not fit for it. We can’t make the enemies of democracy ashamed of themselves; they are not in their present state capable of it. We can, however, fight for reality and truth against delusions and lies. Glory to the heroes.
The thing about the impossible, is that it continues being impossible right up until it isn’t anymore.
That goes for many kinds of things, and it cuts in more than one direction. But right now I’m mostly thinking about world events. There are tipping points accumulating in all sorts of places, and suddenly I don’t think we’re fighting a rearguard action against fascism, cruelty, and cynicism. I think we have a potential for a rout on our hands. But we have to build up the possible.
When an online friend asked his audience, “What do you think you can do, right now?” — he was crowdsourcing answers to get a full perspective on the current state of the possible. I thought of what another friend has been saying about the videos of songs and performances coming from within Ukraine and outside of it: that music is resistance. Every platoon has its ditty; every arena has its chant; every polity has its anthem, to be sung in times of joy and times of anger. Lift every voice and sing — or if you have to, lift every chair and swing!
So what I’m focusing on is art, as nourishment of the possible. I’m thinking of ways to mobilize the art at my hands — whether that’s buying it, playing it, displaying it, or writing it — to continue compiling substance toward that tipping point. And if this idea speaks to you, I encourage you to do it too. Or — if you have a different idea of how you would build up the possible: do that.
If this idea coalesces into something more organized, I’ll update here. Watch this space.
Happy Mardi Gras to all who celebrate, and may your Lent bring you a blessing. Lent, in its original incarnation, was the time set aside for those preparing for baptism into the Church; since I spent most of Epiphany season preparing for a medical procedure, Lent’s arrival doesn’t feel like an ambush to me this year. My house is clean, my larder stocked, I did my errands (carefully), avoided covid exposure, and took lots of “prehab” walks. Now the procedure is in the rearview and so far, the prep work has been paying off.
Something else is different about Lent this year: I’ve come out of the pandemic with a changed perspective. Not a change in beliefs or opinions, really — but a re-saturated perspective on what it means to take on penitence.
In Dante’s Purgatorio, the first thing Dante is bid to do is wash his face with dew, reflecting a doctrine that we don’t really subscribe to anymore: the doctrine that the first duty of a penitent is to be cheerful. It’s always seemed so weird to me that the gospel for Ash Wednesday is the one from Matthew about not making a big production about it when you are fasting or giving alms — as we have ash crosses drawn on our foreheads and put the kneelers to extra use and play hymns in a minor key.
But shouldn’t we be sorry for our sins? I hear the reproach. Why, certainly — but isn’t it so relieving to get started tidying up, to begin pointing one’s feet toward home! Shouldn’t we remember that we are but dust? Yes, but why the long face about it? I just watched a TikTok video of a young Ukrainian girl demonstrating how to start, drive, and make off with a Russian tank. I bet she remembers she is but dust: and the video was funny as hell.
In a time when some people are demonstrating how unrepentantly wicked they’ve chosen to be, I think it is imperative that any penitence we undertake is purposeful, to the point, and above all cheerful. We are good. People are good. We might feel broken from time to time, but nobody is broken on a fundamental level. I escaped thinking that about myself, and I am determined to free the other prisoners.
Pancakes today, fasting tomorrow: and a smile for both.