Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Waters of March

It rained in Astana late last week for the first time this year, but today, March 27, there is a new layer of snow as the long continental winter reasserts itself.  The clouds thickened yesterday morning.  The snow began falling heavily by noon and so continued into the night.  Such is spring on the frozen steppe nearly a week after the Vernal Equinox.  What else should one expect when one is living at the same latitude as the northern tip of Newfoundland?

Фото Robyn Alice  McCutcheon.
View Over the Frozen Esil' River on March 20

But unlike the snows of February, this new snowfall will not last.  Daytime temperatures hover near freezing now.  Bare spots had begun appearing in the blanket of white before yesterday's March surprise, and for the first time this year, birds could be heard singing in the branches of the trees in Presidential Park.  The Sun now warms the skin and is setting after 7pm in this land of perpetual daylight savings time.

Last week was the spring holiday of Nauryz.  With the Embassy closed for three days plus a couple of days' leave, I rested without guilt for a full nine days.  Winter here is tenacious and hard, and the coming months will bring long hours of work with the coming of the Astana Expo and other events that will bring many a Washington visitor.  The week of Nauryz was a time to rest up and rest forward, a time for the first long walks of 2017.

With the coming of spring also comes the first hint that my time here will be ending.  I arrived in Astana two and a half years ago today.  I remember standing on my balcony sometime after midnight after my Embassy sponsor had dropped me at my new home.  I looked out on the Akorda Presidential Palace and the Esil' River and wondered how I would survive three years in a new job in a city where I knew no one.  "May these years go quickly," I thought.

Fast forward to last September 23.  NN and I had just landed back in Astana after five weeks in the US.  I felt conflicted.  On the one hand I felt ready to call an end to the work career right then and there.  I am tired, and my new home in Maine beckons.  The policies of the new administration in Washington are at odds with my beliefs and values.  All of this tells me it's time to go.

At the same time I never want to leave.  I said to NN that day last September that for as long as there is ice and snow on the ground, my time on the frozen steppe is as eternal as the Astana winter.

And why, as tired and opposed to new Washington policies as I am, do I not want to leave?  In part it's the knowledge that this will be the end of my overseas life, over a dozen years that have seen me living in Moscow, Tashkent, Bucharest, and now Astana, the fulfillment of a lifetime dream to live and work in countries where Russian is at least a second language.  It will be the end of a time that freed me and let me at last live the life I was born to live.  But more than anything else, I don't want to leave the people I have come to know and love.  I have family here.

On that night in September 2014, my apartment seemed cold and empty, devoid of life and love.  Now I joke that it's the young women's hostel of Astana.  First there was NN whom I met in my first week.  By December she was my official member of household living in my guest bedroom.  Then there was UE, my dearest friend whom I came to trust in everything.  I didn't even realize that at some level I, like many, was in love with him until he was taken from us far too soon, leaving me and dozens of others bereft and lost.  I cried more than at any time since my Mom died ten years ago.  The day UE and I paddled a kayak up the Esil' River with NN walking along on the embankment will always shine out as my best day in this country.

My Happiest Day in Kazakhstan
And through UE there came LB, LN, MU, TN, and many others.  Through NN there came XP, who spent many a night sleeping on the living room couch.  I could go on with a list that would stretch to two dozen or more, all of whom have filled my apartment with laughter, tears, and life.

Later, just one year ago, there came LT, my young soul sister who reminds me so much of myself at her age with the difference that she has an inner strength at her age that I did not.  LT now shares the second bedroom with NN as we work to secure her future.  I have linked my life and fortune to hers.  And with LT there came her most wonderful Mom LO who could be a role model for us all in her acceptance and caring for her daughter.  Together, NN, LT, LO, and I have created a family.

During Nauryz week we took long walks, shared lazy meals, and supported LT as she prepared for the TOEFL exam.  When she took the exam last Saturday, we all went with her and were as nervous as she was.

That's why I don't want to leave.  Astana has become home, and now the coming of spring reminds me that the time to go, still some five or six months distant, will come quickly.

But there is also hope.  Before yesterday's snow, we had already seen the first light rain of this year.  The waters of March and April are coming and bring a promise of joy and continuation.  As it was with Bucharest, I have put down roots here that I will nurture and cherish in the years to come.  I will be coming back.  More than that, I am seeing to it that part of my Astana life goes with me and puts down roots in the US.

My last winter in Astana has ended, but the seedlings tended through the long winter will soon bear fruit.  Spring, summer, and the future beckon.  The love goes on.
* * * * * * * * * *

The Waters of March, written my Antonio Carlos Jobim and performed here by him with Elis Regina, is my favorite Brazilian song.  "The waters of March close the season and bring the promise of life in your heart."

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Yes, We Can!

On January 21 I felt hope and optimism for the first time since November 9.  Like many liberal, progressive Democrats, I had been complacent in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.  Whether we elected Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, I would have been happy and content.  (For personal reasons, I supported Hillary and still consider her one of the greatest women I have known and, in my professional role, worked for.  A European socialist at heart, I loved Bernie's call to the progressive Left.)  What was absolutely clear was that a narcissistic demagogue with an authoritarian streak could not possibly become President of the United States.  Love does trump hate, and we could not elect as our President a man who denigrates women and call out all the worst traits from the dark reaches of the soul.

Except we did.  As I have already written and as many a better observer has written more eloquently, we awoke on November 8 to find out faith in an inclusive, progressive America shaken to the core.  Getting a grip on ourselves in the midst of our shock, I and others wrote that Resistance Is Not Futile!  Over the coming weeks we grasped at straws, hoping against hope that the Electoral College would deny the Presidency to a demagogue.  We watched as the hours separating us from the fate we wanted to deny dwindled to a precious few.  We had tears in our eyes as we listened to President Obama's farewell speech and heard his call not to lose faith in the power of working together to achieve a future to believe in.  Then it happened,  On January 20 at noon, our country turned a page and swore in as President a man who is the antithesis of all I and, as witnessed in the popular vote, over half of the voting public believe in.

January 20, Waiting at Checkpoint
January 20 found me in line at 7:30am to pass through the 7th and C Street, NW, checkpoint to join the one permitted protest along the inauguration parade route.  It took over four and a half hours to inch forward and pass through the checkpoint.  I made friends with my line neighbors.  The young woman next to me had flown in from California for the protest and gave me her second sign to carry.  We broke into chants and cheers, drowning out the few Trump supporters who, likely not knowing that this was the main checkpoint for protesters, were also in the line.  Once in, I met up with a friend from a sister agency and her partner.  We sat in the raw weather under occasional drizzle, using a transgender flag to warm ourselves.  Sometime between 3 and 4pm, we moved as close to Pennsylvania Ave. as we could and jeered and taunted  loudly as the Presidential motorcade passed by.  Then we turned and went home.  Our protest may not have changed anything, but at least we had shown up.  Sometimes “just showing up” to make a statement is important.  This was one of those times.

The next day was different.  I felt the difference as soon as I arrived at the New Carrollton Metro station.  The line for fare cards extended out of the station into the kiss-and-ride area.  Even those of us who already had fare cards had to wait patiently in line to pass through the turnstiles.  The train was full, and pink and red pussy hats were in evidence everywhere.  At each stop, more and more women and many men joined us.

I got off at Eastern Market.  I still had a walk to the Hirschorn, the designated meeting point for the marchers from my home state of Maine, but I wanted to get a feel for the day.  The streets were already heavy with foot traffic, everyone headed for the Mall, people saying “Hello!” and waving to each other.  Smiles were everywhere, people asking each other where they were from.  By the time I got to the Mall, it was clear the women's march was going to be the largest protest event I had ever participated in.  Then I saw the Hirschorn and a woman in blaze orange, the chosen color for marchers from Maine, on the corner giving directions.  I joined the group behind our banner as we cheered the Maine motto Dirigo! We Lead!  The group leader called the roll call of Maine counties, and I proudly shouted out when Penobscot was called.  Then we marched as a group to the rally site.

For four hours we stood.  It was already clear that far more people had turned out than anyone had expected.  I could not hear the speakers where I stood, but we could see them on the projection screen.  I could see Gloria Steinem, Michael Moore, Janet Mock, and the many other heroines and heroes who had come to speak to and join us.  (Later I listened to many of the speeches on YouTube.)

Around 2:00 pm the crowd began to move.  We marched at a snail's pace across the Mall, holding our signs high and chanting.

“We're the popular vote!”

“What does democracy look like?  This is what democracy looks like!”

“We're not going away.  Welcome to your first day!”

“We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter!”

“This land is your land, this land is my land!”

“No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!”

The mood was at once defiant and joyous.  We were the popular vote majority of the U.S. population who had rejected hate, and we had found our voice in a sea of pink and red pussy hats, the newly minted symbol of our progressive revolution.  As we passed the Old Post Office, now a Trump hotel, we raised our fists and yelled “Shame!”  Our voices reverberated off the buildings surrounding Freedom Square.  Never will Pennsylvania Ave. look the same to me after that day.  I doubt it will look the same to anyone who was there that day.  Together we made history.

I now sit in a United flight ready to take off for Europe.  In a week, after visiting friends in Romania, I'll be back on the job in Astana.  But life has changed.  I am now with Mainers for Accountable Leadership and began my day with calls to the offices of Representative Poliquin and Senators Collins and King.  Complacency is over.  My life as an activist has begun.

As President Obama said, “Yes, we can!”  And so we will.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

What Would George Kennan Say?

The attention being paid to possible Russian efforts to influence the results of the 2016 U.S. election brings me back to an earlier time.  It was 1946, and much of post-war Europe lay in ruins.  The war alliance between the US, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union was unraveling as one Eastern European country after another fell under Soviet domination.  Free, fair elections, and self-determination were giving way to an order dictated by Moscow, the iron curtain coming down fully with the suicide/murder of Jan Masaryk and the Communist coups d'état in Czechoslovakia in 1958.

Washington was slow to react.  It is the job of diplomats to report on political developments, but years of cables written by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow were getting scant notice.  Then, in 1946, the Embassy received a cable from Washington in which it was asked, in effect, to "tell us what, after all, Moscow, is after."  Ambassador Averell Harriman was away, leaving his deputy George Kennan as chargé d'affaires ad interim.  The very question from Washington must have frustrated Kennan, demonstrating as it did that the Embassy's reporting had been largely ignored.  Kennan, sick in bed with the flu, nevertheless set to dictating his reply in what became famous as the 5500 word long telegram.

George Kennan (1904-2005)
Kennan's long telegram fell on fertile ears.  The response from Washington was swift.  Within days Kennan was ordered home to brief top decision makers who were trying to decide how the US should respond to expanding Soviet dominance in Europe.  Kennan's career was made.  He became both a diplomatic celebrity and one of America's top foreign policy analysts.  He became the State Department's first Director of Policy and Planning.  After retirement, he went to a distinguished career as elder statesman and historian, dying only in 2005 at the age of 101.

So what did Kennan say in his long telegram and in his subsequent 1947 Mr. X article in the journal Foreign Affairs?  Kennan's main points included:
  • Moscow is "committed fanatically to the belief that with the United States there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted." 
  • Moscow will therefore exploit all opportunities to foment disunity in Western nations, to generate conditions under which “poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents, etc.” 
  • Moscow “does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, . . . it is highly sensitive to logic of force. . . .”  
  • Soviet expansion can be thwarted if the United States and other Western democracies act with “cohesion, firmness, and vigor,” making use of “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force” to oppose Soviet expansionism and pressure against “the free institutions of the Western world.” 
  • “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” 
I have myself spent years in the Soviet Union, Russia, and in post-Soviet space.  I first visited the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years, was there during the time of glasnost' under Gorbachev, returned during the optimism and frustration of the Yeltsin years, and have spent most of the past dozen years in post-Soviet space.  I can speak only for myself, not as a State Department representative, but in that private capacity I can say I do see similarities between Russia-West relations today and post-war Soviet-West relations.  The difference is that today there are methods in the foreign policy toolkit that are much easier to deploy.  Influencing elections and policies in the West via disinformation is much cheaper than deploying an army.  It just could be the biggest bang for the buck for anyone or any government seeking to achieve its ends at minimal cost.  And it can be quite effective.

The Long Telegram (Source:  Truman Library)
For Americans living in countries where Russian media dominates, looking at state-controlled Russian news is a dose of alternative reality.  The US is backing fascists in Ukraine, and Russian soldiers are heroes in Syria.  Most people believe what they see and hear.  For them, this is reality.  Once my cosmetologist, while getting ready to inject my face with a needle, asked me, "Why is the US waging war in Ukraine?"  That is just one of many such examples of how people whom I count as friends see the US.  Our own media presence is minimal and consists of re-runs of old U.S. sitcoms and goodwill tours by American performing artists.  The contest in the information wars isn't even close.

Knowing the line between my official role and my life as a private citizen, I will stop here.  Suffice it to say that George Kennan figured large in my decision to join the Foreign Service, and I offer his words, penned in 1946-47, for consideration today.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Petlura at the Gates

Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second.  Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars:  the shepherds' star, eventide Venus; and Mars - quivering, red.
But in days of blood as in days of peace the years fly like an arrow and the thick frost of a hoary white December, season of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, joy and glittering snow, overtook the young Turbins unawares. . . .
Those are the opening lines of Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard in the translation of Michael Glenny.  It was December 1918, and Petlura stood at the gates of Kyiv.  

Kyiv in 1918-19.  I don't recall how many times the city changed hands, but it was at least a dozen times or more.  For many of the educated Russian elite who escaped there from Moscow and Petrograd, Kyiv seemed to offer an oasis, the hope of a non-Bolshevik future.  First there was the German occupation under Hetman Skoropadsky that, had Germany prevailed in World War I, might have continued for years if not decades.  Then there was Petlura.  Then the Bolsheviks.  Then the White Army under General Denikin in its drive na Moskvu to restore a Great Russia.  Then the Bolsheviks again, with many of the educated elite fleeing together with the Whites for Crimea and a final, doomed stand against the Bolsheviks.

13 Alekseevsky spusk, Kyiv
With the world churning around them, the Turbin family huddled together in their home on Alekseevsky Spusk No. 13 in Kyiv.  It was a holiday season saddened by the loss of their mother and by the uncertainties of what 1919 would bring.  As best they could, they laughed, sang, and made light of their fears, writing graffiti on their tiled Dutch stove to poke fun at the competing political movements and revolutions that would destroy them.

Bulgakov Museum, Kyiv; the Dutch Stove
I've been thinking of the Turbins at the end of this year.  In 1918 Symon Petlura, a Ukrainian nationalist, perhaps even a populist, stood at the gates of Kyiv, leader of the first of a series of political and military movements that would destroy the way of life that the Turbins and others in the educated elite had taken for granted.  As 2017 dawns, many of us fear what the new Trumpist revolution will bring and what it will mean for the liberal democracy that we thought would last forever.  Like the Turbins, we have found comfort in family and friends this Christmas-New Year week.  For one week we can push away the reality that is standing at our gates.

Symon Petlura
2017 also marks the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Great October Soviet Socialist Revolution.  One could say that it was the November Surprise of Russian political life that year.  (Since Russia was still using the Julian calendar, the October Revolution actually took place in November.)  A ruinous war had demoralized the country, and both the army and the broad masses of workers and peasants were fertile ground for the Bolshevik rallying cry of Peace, Land, Bread!  Few had any presentiment that those same workers and, in particular, the peasants would have the most to lose in decades of Communism, Stalinism, collectivization of agriculture, and five year plans.  I wonder how Moscow will choose to note this 100th anniversary?  

Days of the Turbins, Stage Production
Another image from my university years comes to mind, that of U.Va. history professor Walter Sablinsky telling us that when the Russian Empire collapsed, it went down with its flags flying and trumpets sounding.  The Romanovs had just celebrated their tricentennial.  Their order and that of the European continent seemed permanent.  War in Europe was unthinkable, yet World War I and revolution were about to sweep it all away. 

So how will we look back 100 years from now?  Will the Trumpist ascendancy fizzle out and mainstream politics reassert themselves?  Or, like Russia in 2017, are we destined for an authoritarian future and just don't know the outlines yet?  Is the post-World War II order coming to an end?

All I can offer today for those of us who supported Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is the same comfort that the Turbins found at the end of 1918.  Like the Turbins, we can look for sardonic humor, posting it to our Facebook pages, the Dutch stoves of our times.  And may we, unlike the Turbins, look back a year from now and not find that events have forced us to wipe those stoves clean as censorship and self-censorship become the norm of a new age.  

So for the moment let's find comfort, joy, and solace in our family and friends.  It's still 2016.  Petlura is only at the gates of the city, not yet inside.  



1) Many who read The White Guard come to it after reading Bulgakov's more famous novel Master and Margarita, but I came to it in a different way.  While a history student at the University of Virginia in the 1970s, I read George Kennan's The Decision To Intervene about the U.S. decision to intervene in the Russian Civil War that followed the revolutions of 1917.  Kennan began his historical account by quoting these opening lines from The White Guard, which he referred to as an out-of-print novel by a nearly forgotten author.  Ironically, Stalin liked The Days of the Turbins, the stage production of The White Guard at the Moscow Art Theater in the 1920s.  Nevertheless, Stalin slammed the doors shut on Bulgakov's literary career.  When Bulgakov wrote Master and Margarita in the 1930s, he wrote it for the desk, knowing it would not be published in his lifetime.  When Kennan wrote The Decision To Intervene in the 1950s, Bulgakov was indeed nearly unknown outside the Soviet Union.  Only when Master and Margarita was published posthumously in the 1960s did Bulgakov become recognized as one of the Russian literary greats of the twentieth century.

2) A very Soviet, 1976 film version of Days of the Turbins can be found on YouTube in two parts:  Part 1 and Part 2 .

3) A serialized film version of The White Guard premiered on Russian television in 2012.  Brilliantly filmed and acted, this 2012 version contains a subtext, comparing the situation in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union with that in 1918.

Trotsky, French Novels, and Us

Leon Trotsky, The Prophet in the biographical trilogy by Isaac Deutscher, is not someone most of us think about on a regular basis.  Since the U.S. election in November, however, he's been on my mind.  More precisely, my mind has been conjuring up a particular image, that of Trotsky reading French novels as his political life was crashing down.

Leon Trotsky (1924)
No one, least of all Trotsky, could envision that Stalin, the grey blur with the functional position of General Secretary, would destroy all opposition in the Bolshevik Party through intrigue, deft use of wedge issues and personality differences among his opponents, and outright terror.  Trotsky's reaction as the noose tightened around his political neck in 1924-27 is one that still surprises and astounds biographers and historians:  he withdrew.  As Neal Ascheson writes in his review of Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy:
This passivity remains the mystery of his life.  After that Congress [XIV Party Congress of December 1925], his fate and that of the opposition were sealed; events moved slowly towards his exclusion, his deportation to Alma Ata in 1927 and his expulsion to Istanbul in 1929.  In that crucial period of 1924-27, one of the most forceful, restless personalities in history behaved like a Hamlet.  Why?  A sort of pathological disconnection, perhaps, which distanced him from political intrigues he found revolting?  Or intellectual arrogance:  the refusal to compete against people he secretly considered his inferiors?  He was certainly arrogant; to take a comic example, he probably had no idea of the resentment he caused by reading French novels during Central Committee sessions. 
Trotsky reading French novels.  I wonder if some, perhaps most, of the U.S. electorate that voted for Donald Trump doesn't view supporters of the Democratic Party in the same way, as divorced from reality, arrogantly reading French novels that they see as having little relationship to their lives?

XIV Party Congress, December 1925
Since the election I have been forcing myself to listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other conservative talk show hosts and Fox News broadcasts.  They make for difficult, painful listening.  If Bernie Sanders and other Democratic Party politicians talk about trying to find common ground on issues such as rebuilding U.S. infrastructure, this is not what I am hearing on conservative talk shows.  Rather, elation at victory over the liberal establishment and charges that those opposed to the incoming administration are hysterical are louder than what mainstream media had led me to believe before the election.

Joseph Stalin (1920s)
If there is a lesson from the life of Trotsky, it is that those of us being charged with liberal hysteria need to put away our French novels.  As post-election maps have shown, we are a nation that is deeply split both culturally and politically.  We move in our own groups with almost no communication, almost no exposure to each other.  If I can give myself an undeserved pat on the shoulder, it's that I unwittingly find myself as a blue homesteader in a red district, having moved to rural Maine in 2009.  (I may just be the only Hillary Clinton voter in my small town.)  As such, I know the pain of small town Mainers who saw their lives upended when NAFTA resulted in closed factories and as mills closed up shop.  The median income in my town is a tad below $12,000 with jobs becoming scarcer all the time.  The cost of higher education has put it out of reach for most.  Is it any surprise that the natural beauty that attracted me to Maine belies a growing drug problem for a population that sees a life that is increasingly without hope?  Is it any surprise that my neighbors would vote for someone who promises to smash the existing Washington system?  Is it any surprise that they would view the Democratic Party or even the mainstream Republican Party as divorced from their reality?

The Democratic Party is indeed going through a time of tumult as it attempts to grasp the post-election reality that promises to sweep away much of the legacy of past eight years.  Yet the need to continue U.S. leadership in climate change remains.  So does support for human rights in all of its dimensions both within and outside the US.  And this is not a time for a dramatic shift in our alliances and relations with other major powers.  

Another lesson from the Soviet Union from the Stalin period is that Stalin was wildly popular among the common population.  In his way he may even have been a populist.  That popularity endured throughout his authoritarian rule and has never faded away despite attempts by Khrushchev and others to publicize the crimes against humanity during his rule.  Only those directly affected by Stalinist terror came to understand the nature of his rule, often only after being arrested, convicted, and sent to the Gulag or, in the case of many, just as the executioner's bullet entered their brains.  Stalin distrusted the educated elite that he viewed as a source of opposition, and this elite suffered more than many other groups as Stalinist terror rolled across the country in repeated waves.  Even at the height of the Great Terror in 1936-38, the average person likely saw the accused as rightly convicted and sentenced, in the words of prosecutor Andrey Vyshinsky, to be shot "like the mad dogs they are."  To many, the removal of a Western educated specialist meant an opportunity for a worker, a Red specialist, to move up in the world.

I do not wish to imply any equivalence between the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 30s with the United States of today.  There is none.  Trotsky was a major player in creating the system that allowed Stalin to destroy him.  Nor do I view Trotsky as romantic or heroic.  Had he lived, he may have been more ideologically pure but just as bloody to his opponents as Stalin.  Yet as someone who has spent much of her life studying Russian and Soviet history, I believe there is a lesson to be drawn from Trotsky's downfall.  

For those of us who voted for Hillary Clinton or, during the primaries, for Bernie Sanders, it is time to work harder than ever to communicate what we believe in as core principles:  protection of human and civil rights for all both at home and abroad, saving this planet for posterity, promoting equality for all, and advancing the interests and equality of the working and middle classes.  It is a time to organize, to write letters to our elected representatives, calling on them to oppose cabinet nominations or policy changes that we consider dangerous.  It's time to donate and commit time to non-governmental organizations whose programs we support.  It's no longer sufficient for those committed to liberal principles just to vote.  

Let's not allow the November 2016 election be our equivalent of the Soviet XIV Party Congress.  We need to put away our French novels, not acquiesce to passivity, and get to work.  The consequences of not doing so are too frightful to contemplate.

Resistance Is Not Futile

The morning of November 9 found me in Copenhagen.  As I awoke that morning, the Trump victory was not yet a foregone conclusion.  Hillary could still pull it out, I felt sure as I headed out the door of my hotel.  Surely she will pull it out.  But by the time I reached the conference on environmental and related issues for which I had come to Denmark, it was over.  I spent the day in numbed shock, feeling I must still be asleep in a nightmare from which I would surely wake.  Then came Wednesday night and the following days.  The reality sank in.  The age of endarkenment seemingly had spread across my country.  Would it ever be the same?  Would any of us?

At some level I had seen this coming.  Over a year ago, when it came time for me to bid on my post-Kazakhstan posting in 2017, I had a choice of staying overseas or returning to Washington.  I chose the latter, largely for personal reasons but also because I knew the pattern of presidential races has been for any party that has been in power for two terms to be voted out.  The odds were good that the Republican Party would regain the presidency, and I did not want to be overseas in a position where I would have to defend policies with which I fundamentally disagree.  By going back to a largely non-political job in Washington, I would not have to say words in public that would make me turn red with embarrassment and cause me to retch when I would get back to the privacy of my own quarters.

That was a year ago.  Still, as the presidential campaign wore on, the hope inside me grew that I was wrong.  Donald Trump's campaign based on populist say whatever the current crowd wants to hear with its racist overtones could not possibly succeed.  His appeal to the most base emotions with scarcely a shred of real policy proposals was doomed to fail.  No educated person could stomach him for long.

But it has come to pass.  Donald Trump, like it or not, has been anointed, largely by white men who long for a return of the 1950s when a white man could buy a car, buy a house, and support a family while working a high-paying factory job.  Industry in Germany, the UK, France, Japan, and the Soviet Union had been leveled by World War II.  Only the US stood unscathed, and we ruled the world.  Life was good . . .

Unless one was black, female, LGBT, an immigrant, or member of some other minority group that could easily be ignored by privileged white males.  That began to change in the 1950s with the civil rights movement, followed closely thereupon by the anti-war movement and women's liberation.  Then came Nixon and Watergate and disillusionment that led first to the election of Jimmy Carter and then . . . to Reagan!

It was with the election of Reagan in 1980 that I first sensed I was out of touch with that large segment of the U.S. population that had elected him.  Having grown up in New York City, having been educated at leading East Coast public and private universities, and having a deep knowledge of at least one foreign country together with its language and culture, I had become what much of the country despises:  a member of the educated, cosmopolitan elite.  

Therein lies the tragedy of the Democratic Party:  we lost touch with the working classes that in the past had been at the center of labor activism that supported progressive policies.  Unions were allowed to fail, and little was done to oppose Republican policies that hastened the unraveling of what unions had fought so hard to achieve.  Of all our failures, the greatest was to allow the cost of higher education to climb to the skies at the same time that the quality of secondary education was falling.  The divide between the working class and the educated class widened.  Workers with only high school educations found themselves at service jobs for minimum wage and looked enviously at the educated class even as many members of that class were far from being in the top 1% of the moneyed elite.  

Is it any surprise that a populist message, even when that appealed to angry racist instincts, would appeal to those who felt left out in this modern global economy?  Sound bites and tweets took the place of well-reasoned dialog that a large portion of the U.S. population had lost the ability to engage in.  The coming of a man like Donald Trump is something we should have seen coming but, hoping against hope and talking only to ourselves, did not.

I worry to the depths over what the incoming Trump administration will do to the country, to the progressive social fabric that had moved inexorably forward through most of my life, and to the planet.  Most of all I fear what will happen to the Paris Agreement on climate change that has been at the center of much of my work for the past two years.  Will it all be swept away by a man who believes climate change is a hoax?

I have been devouring the opinion columns in the International New York Times each day since the dark morning of November 10.  Of the many columns I have read, I take heart most of all from a November 12-13 column by Timothy Egan, Resistance Is not Futile.  I particularly like his comment about my own employer:
The State Department, which usually tries to be a force for good, advocating human rights over bottom lines, cannot be easily pressed into aiding the globe's gangsters and oligarchs, even if New Gingrich is secretary of state.
I hope I can look back four years from now and say those words applied to me.  With less than three years left until retirement, I have no career ladder to climb, no career to risk.  The professionals I work with care deeply about their issues.  Even if a different direction is given at the top, it will take a full purge to rid the State Department and other government agencies of their educated professionals.  For once, bureaucracy can be a force for good, standing in the way of policies likely to unhinge this planet from its moorings.

Meanwhile, I take courage from the scenes of peaceful anti-Trump demonstrations in many U.S. cities.  Just as in the days of the civil rights movement, this is the time for the exercise of freedom of speech and peaceful resistance.  It will be a time for civil disobedience if Trump insists on pushing through much of his campaign rhetoric as policy.  May that power of the people then extend to the Democratic Party as it reorganizes and reestablishes communication with the working class that it left behind.  

Resistance is not futile.  It is, rather, the only way left to us.    

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Journaling in Kazakhstan

Many months have passed since I last wrote in this web journal.  It has not been for lack of subject matter.  The heights and depths of emotion and experience in Kazakhstan have been every bit as great as they were in Romania, my previous post, but the countries and cultures are different.  The experiences in Kazakhstan that have been of greatest significance to me are not ones that can be written about openly without whitewashing or otherwise removing all that made them significant.  Thus I choose to remain mum.

But I am keeping a record for myself in the old fashioned way that puts pen to paper.  I've kept such handwritten journals at other times in my life, and I can't say that I've gone back to consult them more than out of curiosity.  This time is different.  My last year in Kazakhstan -- the last year of my international life -- is starting.  It is a year I will want to remember in detail, and a handwritten journal kept regularly will see to this.

So what is to become of this web journal?  Writing here is also a good exercise, and I do not intend to abandon it.  There are still things in Kazakhstan I can write about, and as I get closer and closer to the end of the international life, my future plans will be more and more in view.  But readers should also know that most of what has been of greatest significance to me in Kazakhstan will remain in handwritten form.

With that caveat now aired and made plain, I invite readers to continue following Alice in State.  And if you have been wondering if the title of this journal is a play on words, let me remove all doubt by saying . . . who knows?