The friend asked “Why?” when I told him that the spouse wanted to sell our second car. And I thought about how much mysterious excitement would be gone from the marriage if I knew and understood all the spouse’s whys.

“It is diverting to note how often people who offer good advice would benefit if you took it.” Old Saying.

The spouse and I got on the subway in midtown Manhattan on a Friday evening. Many people with suitcases got off while a few remained on the train. We assumed that they must be coming from an airport, but we did not know which one as we had never taken this route from an airport; all we knew was that this particular route could not have been straightforward. One of New York’s major failings is that it does not have efficient public transportation to its airports. A couple in their twenties, with suitcases, sat across from us on the train, and when I asked, they told me that they had arrived at JFK and gotten to a subway station. They said they managed that by following the crowd. From his accent, I correctly guessed that they had come from Ireland. He said that they were in NYC for four days, and according to her, “doing everything” was on her list. This included watching an Irish boxer at Madison Square Garden. The young man said that he was from County Cork, and she was from the “north.” He said that they had met at university in Dublin. When asked, he said that it was Trinity, and when I responded, “Oh, the fancy one,” he almost blushed. He told us that he had studied maths and she, almost inaudibly, said “theoretical physics.” There are many experiences and surprises on the subways. This was the first time I had met a young theoretical physicist.

“It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.” Oscar Wilde.

I am surprised that somebody has not already perfected this way to become rich: Find a way to make some women’s shoes so they are larger inside than on the outside.

In the wake of the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft abortion opinion, Clarence Thomas said that people must accept outcomes they don’t like. I wonder if he preaches this to his wife about the last election.

Consultants are those who are smart enough to tell you how to run your

organization but too smart to start one of their own.

This is true for me: The only ambition in life a paper napkin has is to get down off a diner’s lap and play on the floor.

When people say that they will do this or that tomorrow, ask them what they did yesterday.

It seems that often when a politician supports “family values,” he means that for other people but not for himself.

“The measure of people’s real character is what they would do if they knew they would never be found out.” Macaulay.

Putin, America, and the Politics of Being (continued)

          Putin, coming out of relative obscurity, was elected Russian president in 2000 with 53% of the vote. He consolidated his power quickly and extensively in ways large and small, such as by nationalizing television, and was reelected in 2004 with a reported 71% of the vote. The Russian constitution then only allowed two consecutive four-year presidential terms. Putin endorsed Dmitry Medvedev for the March 2008 election and Medvedev got more than 70% of the votes. He then appointed Putin his prime minister.

          A constitutional change increased the presidential term to six years after Medvedev’s term, and Putin again ran for president in 2012. The election was viewed by many within and without Russia as corrupt. Masha Gessen in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin reports: “Putin declared victory in the first round of the presidential election, with 63 percent of the vote. Holding a virtual monopoly on the ballot, the media, and the polls themselves, he could have claimed any figure, but he opted for a landslide, and a slap in the face to the Movement for Fair Elections.” The Movement had been part of widespread demonstrations that started months before the election. They wore white ribbons, which Putin tellingly sexualized by saying the cloth looked like condoms.

          Putin won, but it was clear that a significant portion of Russians were unhappy with him and the direction of their society. Putin had invaded Georgia in 2008, which perhaps was initially popular, but became less so as the war wore on. Privatization had put money into private hands, but little of it went to anyone other than what are now known as the oligarchs. Russians could increasingly see the results of wealth, but few had it as Russia became the most economically unequal society in the world. More and more people felt dangerously unsettled. Gessen again: “Many Russians, however, got poorer—or at least felt a lot poorer: there were so many more goods in the stores now but they could afford so little. Nearly everyone lost the one thing that had been in abundant supply during the Era of Stagnation: the unshakeable belief that tomorrow will not be different from today. Uncertainty made people feel ever poorer.” And people took to the streets in numbers that Putin could not ignore.

          He responded not by trying to distribute wealth more equally, increasing civil liberties, or having fairer elections. Instead, in something that should feel familiar to Americans today, he sought to unite Russians by launching an anti-homosexual crusade. Gessen states, “In the spring of 2012, Putin decided to pick on the gays. In the lead-up to the March 2012 election, faced with mass protests, Putin briefly panicked. . . . And faced with the protest movement, the new Kremlin crew reached for the bluntest instrument it could: it called the protesters queer.” Timothy Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America sees Putin as making this an external threat: “Some intractable foreign foe had to be linked to protestors, so that they, rather than Putin himself, could be portrayed as the danger to Russian statehood. Protestors’ actions had to be uncoupled from the very real domestic problem that Putin had created and associated with a fake foreign threat to Russian sovereignty. [The protestors] were mindless agents of global sexual decadence whose actions threatened the innocent national organism.” These protestors were the tools of a foreign power, a power embodied in the person many American conservatives loathed. “Three days after the protests began, Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for initiating them: ‘she gave the signal.’” A few days later, without providing evidence, he claimed that the protestors were paid.

          The propaganda maintained that the forces promoting sodomy were not just trying to affect Russia. They were also after Ukraine. “European integration (of Ukraine) was interpreted by Russian politicians to mean the legalization of same-sex partnership (which was not an element of Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU) and thus the spread of homosexuality.” Gessen tells us that a Russian politician “warned that if Ukraine went west, that would lead to ‘a broadening of the sphere of gay culture, which has become the European Union’s official policy.’ Over the next couple of months, the image of the Western threat menacing Ukraine broadened to include not only the gays but also the Americans, for whom the gays were always a stand-in anyway.”

          Whether or not American manifest destiny (see previous post) compares to Russian exceptionalism, Putin’s turn to sexual matters does have American parallels. How American does this sound? Putin announced, Gessen reports, that he was “defending traditional values.” Russia passed legislation “not only banning ‘homosexual propaganda’ but also ‘protecting children from harmful information,’ which meant, first and foremost, any mention of homosexuality, but also mention of death, violence, suicide, domestic abuse, unhappiness, and, really, life itself.” (The law was entitled, “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.” Perhaps it produces a snappy acronym in Russian.) Russian kiddies should not learn of things that might make them uncomfortable. A similar agenda is being implemented in an increasing number of American schools.

          Putin has adopted the basic political stance that when the topic is about the shortcomings of Russia or Putin himself, shift the topic: “Putin was enunciating a basic principle of his Eurasian civilization: when the subject is inequality, change it to sexuality.” American conservatives have followed a broader path to avoid confronting American shortcomings: the topic may be switched to a number of topics, including critical race theory or Black Lives Matter, but, of course, the staple of avoidance still remains of waving the rainbow flag of gaydom and transdom. American conservatives and Putin share the goal of wanting to make “politics about being rather than doing.”

(concluded May 9)