What a Week It Has Been

Most of the time changes happens slowly. It’s only by looking back at a long stretch of time and reflecting that we recognize substantial differences in our reality. However, there are some weeks, like these past two, when so much seems to happen all at once.

After an outrageous and distinctly American act of terrorism, huge momentum has emerged to remove symbols of treachery and hatred from prominent places in the South. The highest court in the land affirmed President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, ensuring millions continued access to affordable healthcare. And, as the best sequel since Godfather Part II, the same court legalized gay marriage nationwide.

Much of what this means for our country and the legacy of President Obama remains to be understood. But, if anything, it should put to rest forever any ideas that his presidency has been a minor one. Quite the opposite is the case. For too long, too many have been quick to think that the president has failed to deliver. He promised change they say, but too much remains the same. This, quite simply, ignores objective reality. It’s one thing to disagree with what he’s done; it’s lunacy to suggest that he hasn’t done much. That has never been more obvious in any week during his presidency as this one.

Yet for all his tangible actions while in office, his greatest achievement is and always will be the fact of his election. He is, and always will be, the first black president this nation has ever known. That fact is inescapable and never more apparent than it was on Friday when he delivered the eulogy for the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney. He spoke as only he could. In his oration, he articulated the astonishing and gut-wrenching flaws of our country, baked into it from the founding. But his words did far more than that. They went above and beyond the filler text politicians and leaders too often mumble to pay lip-service to the “conversation about race.” They were real. They were personal. They spoke to his own experience, to the experience of his audience. They lamented the dead. He made us remember what we too often forget and ignore or never even learned. He helped us decipher a small section of the American story, with tales of the past and present. As one of our greatest once wrote, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Our president has failed in countless ways, but Friday he was there for all of us, carrying the light onward. Leading us with grace and song.

More reactions from James FallowsDavid Remnick, and Greg Howard.

Advertisements

Putin’s Russia

Two pieces on Russia for this afternoon that demand to be read in full. The first is a long, terrific, and terrifying story brought to us by David Remnick of the New Yorker. It centers on Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. It charts his first appearances in the pro-democracy protests surrounding the breakup of the Soviet Union, and brings us to today, where he is a Stanford professor, recently returned from his time as a diplomat. The piece is breathtaking in its scope and attention to detail. Plus the variety of sources here is startling. Remnick has deep contacts in the Russian oligarchy and a good sense of history there. The second is this short commentary on the current state of the country from McFaul himself.

The most troubling fact of this whole situation is not Russia’s capabilities, but that there leadership seems unhinged. They’ve crafted an elegant propaganda machine they all seemed to have bought into, heedless of the consequences. They see Russia as the world’s Conservative (capital-C) bulwark, standing against the decadent, soulless Western civilizations. This is not their predicament, but rather their destiny. Money quotes from Remnick that come to us via two Russian intellectuals:

[Aleksandr] Prokhanov is pleased to conclude that Russia is entering a prolonged war with the West—a cold war, possibly worse. “There is always danger of worse,” he said, “even worse than nuclear war—and that is soulless surrender.”

And:

The world, for [Aleksandr] Dugin, is divided between conservative land powers (Russia) and libertine maritime powers (the U.S. and the U.K.)—Eternal Rome and Eternal Carthage. The maritime powers seek to impose their will, and their decadent materialism, on the rest of the world. This struggle is at the heart of history. For Dugin, Russia must rise from its prolonged post-Soviet depression and reassert itself, this time as the center of a Eurasian empire, against the dark forces of America. And this means war. Dugin rejects the racism of the Nazis, but embraces their sense of hierarchy, their romance of death. “We need a new party,” he has written. “A party of death. A party of the total vertical. God’s party, the Russian analogue to the Hezbollah, which would act according to wholly different rules and contemplate completely different pictures.”

There is a sense of reckoning to be felt here, like we got off easy at the end of the Cold War and this is the real backlash. There are many reasons to be scared, but we shouldn’t be hysterical. As McFaul reminds us, Putin is on his own now (Russia’s posturing only becomes meaningful if China gets involved, but that is highly unlikely). The U.S. is in a far stronger position and enjoys stable relations with both its neighbors and many more countries. Effective deterrence and diplomatic relations kept the mass-murdering tyrant Stalin at bay, and they will do just fine here.