Opinion: The ‘cruelest month’ is behind us2022-05-01 07:13:42

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Russian and Ukrainian forces continued to grapple last week in eastern Ukraine, without either achieving a breakthrough. Yet the war’s reverberations grew louder, as the Biden administration shifted to a more forceful posture in its quest to supply weapons to Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin’s regime threatened to shut off gas to some European nations while brandishing nuclear weapons as its ultimate ace in the conflict. No end to the war is in sight for the victims — those who are just trying to survive amid the rubble.

Ukrainian poet and historian Olena Stiazhkina went for a walk in Kyiv on April 14, seven weeks after the Russians invaded. To her, it seemed like “the 50th day of February.” In the Podil district of the city, she came across the monument to Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda, as she wrote in her war diary.

It “has been given quite a makeover. Sacks are piled up around him and covered up with flat wooden boards. Between the boards, there is a gap. Skovoroda looks through the gap and seems to be about to deliver a modified version of his famous phrase: ‘The world chased me but never caught me. And you won’t either.’”

“You get the impression that during the nighttime curfew he jumps off his pedestal and goes for a stroll around the city. Because each morning he has this cheeky, roguish expression on his face.”

A few weeks earlier, she observed, “People are writing the names, dates of birth, and telephone numbers on the backs of their children. In English, Russian and Ukrainian. Those who are already sitting in basements and hope for nothing more than the survival of their children write directly on their children’s bodies.”

Yulia Gorbunova, a lawyer and researcher for Human Rights Watch in Ukraine, told the story of a family who fled the besieged city of Mariupol. “On March 15, Halyna Moroskhovskaya was cooking soup for 172 people in the city-run dormitory she managed in Mariupol. Like her, the residents were sheltering in temporary accommodation while Russian forces relentlessly shelled her home city.”

“At one point, the explosions got so bad that 59-year-old Halyna was running to the basement every time she added another ingredient to the pot. ‘Add carrots — run to the basement, add potatoes — run to the basement,’ she told me last week in a hospital in Lviv … It is here where Halyna and her daughter, Nataliya, 37, are being treated for the catastrophic wounds they suffered when an explosion hit their dormitory later that day.”

“Nataliya lost her right eye … Her mother was also severely wounded. She showed me the deep, unhealed cuts all over her right side, thigh, knee and ankle.”

As they searched for an escape route westward, the family had to pass through Russian checkpoints. “At one of the checkpoints, a Russian soldier looked at their wounded faces and asked: ‘Who did this to you?’”

“‘I really wanted to respond, “You did!” Halyna told me. ‘But it’s really better to keep your mouth shut when you are dealing with a man with a gun.‘”

Concealing the truth

As a 6-year-old growing up in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in 1986, Lev Golinkin went out with his family to see the pageantry of the May Day celebration. “We were almost back at our apartment block when I heard my grandma yell from the balcony, telling my mother to get me inside. She had heard a rumor that there was an accident at the nuclear plant in Chernobyl, a little less than 300 miles from Kharkiv,” Golinkin recalled.

The Soviet Union concealed the April 26 disaster at Chernobyl “until the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl was detected in Scandinavia on April 28, making it impossible to hide the catastrophe any longer. Even after the Kremlin was forced to acknowledge an incident at its nuclear plant, it grossly downplayed the issue.”

Now, 36 years later, Russia is still keeping its citizens in the dark — this time, about the true picture of its war in Ukraine.”
Experts on Russia note the importance of “Victory Day,” the May 9 commemoration of Nazi Germany’s surrender in 1945. “If Western analysts are correct that Putin has demanded victory by Victory Day, this means Russia’s military commanders need to achieve something — anything — after the humiliating defeats in the first two months of this war,” wrote James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia Program at Chatham House.
“Clearly, the war in Ukraine has touched a nerve in the American psyche,” wrote Frida Ghitis. “The deep sympathy and concern for the Ukrainian people and the outrage over Putin’s push to usurp their freedom has sparked a renewed appreciation for democracy.

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Elon Musk’s Twitter deal

Most Americans aren’t on Twitter, but the social media platform has outsized influence.

“Twitter is a salon of politicians and journalists,” as Jill Filipovic pointed out. When former President Donald Trump “tweeted, he had the attention of every political journalist in the country. For him, that was an unmitigated benefit.”

“Trump was permanently suspended after the January 6 riots; the company said it worried his tweets increased ‘the risk of further incitement of violence.’” But will that suspension endure if Elon Musk carries out his deal to buy Twitter and take it private? “Musk is a self-styled free speech absolutist, who has criticized many of Twitter’s efforts to rein in trolling and abuse on the platform.” Filipovic argued that giving Trump his Twitter account back could be his “path to victory” in 2024.
Loosening the content moderation standards could be disastrous for Twitter, wrote Kara Alaimo. “Allowing harmful forms of ‘free speech’ — like misogyny and hate — on Twitter will actually have the effect of silencing many people and will be disastrous for the social network. That’s because thoughtful users aren’t going to voluntarily keep using a platform on which they’re bombarded with abuse.

“And the first people to flee are likely to be those who are on the receiving end of the worst of it: women and people of color.”

In The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo wrote that “Musk’s own Twitter presence can be insufferable. His tweets are often crude, juvenile and misogynistic, traits that are the basis for perhaps the most unpleasant thing about him — the social-media sausage factory of aggressively bro-ey tech, finance and gamer types who hang on his every word and swarm his every critic …”

But Manjoo, referencing Musk’s success with Tesla, also wrote, “I doubt Twitter under Musk could get much more terrible than it is now. There’s also lots of room for Twitter to become much better, and Musk, with his enviable track record at managing technologically sophisticated companies and making groundbreaking tech products, might be just the owner to unlock its full potential.”

GOP blueprint

J. Michael Luttig, a retired federal judge who was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush and served for 15 years on the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, has long been an influential voice in conservative legal circles. So it was especially noteworthy when he wrote last week for CNN Opinion: “The Republicans’ mystifying claim to this day that Trump did, or would have, received more votes than Joe Biden in 2020 were it not for actual voting fraud, is but the shiny object that Republicans have tauntingly and disingenuously dangled before the American public for almost a year and a half now to distract attention from their far more ambitious objective.”

The goal, Lutting wrote, is “to execute successfully in 2024 the very same plan they failed in executing in 2020 and to overturn the 2024 election if Trump or his anointed successor loses again in the next quadrennial contest.” And unless Congress acts to prevent it, they’re well on their way, in Luttig’s view.

The House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot is gearing up to hold eight public hearings in June and to eventually publish a multimedia account of what happened, along with its written report.

Recent news stories have provided “a disturbing window,” wrote Julian Zelizer, “into just how deep the planning was for the campaign to overturn the 2020 elections. And a series of text messages, submitted to the committee by Mark Meadows, former President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, shows the frustration and shock even the most ardent Republicans felt with Trump’s effort to push the big lie.” Among them: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who recently denied he had made anti-Trump statements after the insurrection only to have his words belied by audiotapes.

Given how polarized America is, Zelizer wrote, it’s unlikely the hearings will substantially move public opinion. But they’re still worth holding. “If nothing changes, but we have a much more thorough understanding of how the anti-democratic efforts of 2020 and 2021 unfolded, our nation will still be better off for it. Accountability starts with accurate information.”

Extremes and the middle

Extreme candidates and politicians get much of the oxygen in US politics, but sometimes the most interesting things are happening in the middle. In a race with broader implications, opponents of the incumbent Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, are trying a new strategy this year.

Lee “would almost certainly win against a Democrat,” noted Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, and Uriel Epshtein, the executive director of the non-profit organization Renew Democracy Initiative. “Utah Democrats, who have failed to get a US Senate candidate elected since 1970, have declined to nominate a candidate this time around and instead thrown their support behind the politically moderate — and electorally viable — former Republican Evan McMullin, who is now running as an independent.”

“In a lot of ways, McMullin is a traditional conservative. But, he is willing to push back against the pro-Trump, pro-Putin wing of the party, and for a lot of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans, he would be a welcome change from Lee … as in chess, sometimes you have to take a risk and make a sacrifice in order to create a unique winning combination. And ultimately, winning on even a few priorities is better than losing in the name of ideological purity.

Rusty Hills, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, argued that extremism is a losing strategy. He pointed to two candidates for statewide office in Michigan who were backed by Trump and won the party’s endorsement last weekend.

But those candidates … appear to have absorbed all the wrong lessons from Trump. While the incumbent Democrats in Michigan are vulnerable, the Trump-endorsed candidates have built their campaigns around the disproved claims of a rigged 2020 election — an issue that may not have much traction among swing voters” who are more likely to be concerned about inflation and crime.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is betting that he will win big with cultural issues. “DeSantis, whose White House ambitions are well-known, seems to be trying to out-Trump Trump by mimicking his brash rhetoric while stoking a culture war that trades on fear and animus,” wrote Michael D’Antonio.

Writing in The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie observed that “Christopher Rufo, a right-wing provocateur who helped instigate both the panics against ‘critical race theory’ and against L.G.B.T.Q. educators in schools, has openly said that he hopes to destroy public education in the United States.”

“The culture war is here, whether Democrats like it or not. The only alternative to fighting it is losing it.

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Macron’s victory

French President Emmanuel Macron’s victory margin was smaller than last time but still convincing — and a big blow to Putin. As David Andelman wrote, Macron’s victory over “Marine Le Pen, a Putin ally” made him the “first French President in a generation to win reelection.”

“Voters simply opted, in these challenging times, for a safe middle ground rather than a firebrand far-right candidate who promised to rip up the economy and society and pivot France ever closer to Russia — all in the interest of change that the French have never truly embraced.”

Money woes

The economic outlook turned gloomier last week, with growing fear the US may be headed for a recession as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to choke off inflation. April was Nasdaq’s worst month since the financial crisis of 2008.
“Is the global economy flying into a perfect storm, with Europe, China, and the United States all entering downturns at the same time later this year? The risks of a global recession trifecta are rising by the day,” economist Kenneth Rogoff wrote for Project Syndicate. “A collapse in one region will raise the odds of collapse in the others. Record-high inflation does not make things any easier. I am not sure politicians and policymakers are up to the task they may soon confront.

President Joe Biden is promising a decision within weeks on the politically charged issue of forgiving some student debt. Historian Nicole Hemmer argued that the deeper question isn’t who deserves debt relief as much as how we got to this point.

“Since the 1980s, the US economy has been marked by greater inequality and more abundant debt. The two go hand-in-hand. The American dream of middle-class careers and home ownership has moved out of reach for more and more people: housing prices have shot up and college education — increasingly a requirement for entry into the middle-class — has become increasingly unaffordable. Yet both appear attainable thanks to enormous amounts of easily accessible debt … in the early 2000s, Americans could tell themselves that the inequality and precarity that had come to define life in the United States had not touched them.

“They could still afford a home, could still afford to send their children to college, could still afford to participate in the fantasy of class mobility and economic stability. But that debt turned out to be inordinately expensive, and paying it back has had a crippling effect on people’s ability to make ends meet — so even households with incomes over $74,000 find themselves struggling with large monthly student debt payments.
In the CNN Business Perspectives section, Mayors Levar Stoney of Richmond, Virginia, and John Giles of Mesa, Arizona, urged Congress to help the poorest cope. “Families across America are precariously perched on the edge of a hunger cliff. With inflation on the rise and supply chain backlogs, more families have been turning to food banks, forcing programs nationwide to ration supplies and cut services. And now the war in Ukraine is leading to more food shortages and driving up prices even further. Now is not the time to turn our backs on those who cannot afford to put food on the table.

30 years after

It’s been 30 years since violence erupted in Los Angeles after an all-White jury acquitted four police officers of all charges in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.

Van Jones, then a law student who was arrested after protesting the verdict in San Francisco, spoke with CNN Opinion’s Stephanie Griffith about what has changed — and what hasn’t — in the decades since. Jones explored the topic in a new CNN Special Report, “THE FIRE STILL BURNS: 30 Years After the LA Riots.”

“Everybody knew that a big injustice had been done to the Black community. But when it all came down to it, we didn’t know what to do. I just felt like we needed better leadership. And we needed better ideas and better organization. I’ve spent the past 30 years of my life trying to build constructive organizations and constructive ideas that could actually solve some of these problems. But I never got over the feeling of being disgusted with the system and disappointed about people’s response.”

Surprising solution

The US has seen more than 169 mass shootings so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. With progress on legislative solutions stalled, it’s easy to give up hope for change. But as Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab wrote, a closer look reveals opportunities.

“Unlike what we see in the movies or on television, gun violence in America is not wholly driven by wars between gangs over drug-selling turf. It’s not clear that our mental image of murders being due to a sort of rational benefit-cost type analysis, in which shootings are pre-planned and thought through, is right,” Ludwig observed.

They often start with something else entirely. Words – or arguments, to be more specific -— are often the primary circumstance that leads to murders.”

“A neighbor won’t turn down their music. A landlord and tenant argue over unpaid rent. A group of teens thinks some other teens stole a bike. Someone gets cut off in traffic. All arguments that could have been de-escalated but weren’t — and they end in tragedy because someone has a gun.”

One solution is to “make it more likely that there are adults around who can step in and help de-escalate arguments before they spiral out of control. This is the logic behind street outreach and violence interrupter organizations, which for the first time are targeted for substantial funding in next year’s proposed federal budget.”

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AND …

Waffle party

For a long time, the American workplace was “a safe space” on television, as Sara Stewart noted. “Both in sitcoms and dramas, the job was where you built a life, made lifelong friends, and even fell in love.” Some of that was even true on “The Office,” the show that mercilessly satirized office work as meaningless and bosses as clueless.

But Apple TV’s “Severance,” which has now been renewed for a second season, took a fresh and disturbing look at the office, appearing just as many American workers are emerging from two years of pandemic isolation and venturing back to their cubicles, at least part of the time.

Stewart sees the show as “a delicious upending of the workplace trope, one in which office life is very literally a waking nightmare. The fact that it stars Adam Scott, who played the lovable Ben Wyatt on the government-office sitcom ‘Parks and Recreation,’ is icing on the cake (or, perhaps, the waffle).”

Tantalizingly, though, there’s a “perverse fantasy about work-life boundaries” encapsulated in the show’s dystopian world. Stewart noted, “Mark S. and his co-workers don’t have to worry about taking their work home with them, as their altered brains won’t allow it. When they clock out, that’s it, and their home lives are their own. For the significant number of workers who continue doing their jobs at night and on weekends, the Lumon experience, ghoulish as it is, might actually be an improvement.”

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