I haven’t been able to blog for awhile, working through grief, frankly, which makes me just like everyone else these days.
As I strive for some semblance of normalcy, trying yet failing to accept that I will never again spend time with two of the best people I ever had the privilege to know and love, world events continue to knock me off balance. Again, I know, this makes me just like everyone else.
I need to react to the invasion of Ukraine, to process it somehow, and I hope to do so humbly, because no words work in the face of a senseless human rights tragedy, war pursued by choice (can I really label an act of madness as a choice?)
Perhaps I will start by offering snapshots that rise to mind right now. Several years ago, my family took part in a well-organized school program in which we all read the book Prisoner B-3087 written by Alan Gratz, based on the true Holocaust story by Ruth and Jack Gruener. If you know anything about the book, you know it depicts countless levels of hell during the Holocaust. Yet what stuck with me the most was an early scene in which the narrator, a young Jewish boy, is surrounded by his family at home. In that moment, when everything was normal, they were happy, though there were reasons to worry. And he recalls that if they had known what was to come, they would have run away at that moment.
I admit, I have thought about that often when I am surrounded by family in what seems like safety, most frequently in 2016 when the 45th President rose to power by stirring up prejudice and spreading lies.
And I think about it now when I read tweets by Ukrainians (and Russians, for that matter), for whom life shifted from stable to chaos in a matter of hours. They, like too many people in too many places around the world, have to wonder if giving up everything they know and love would somehow be better than staying put.
Another image that has to come to mind is that heartbreaking visual of a student standing defiantly against a tank in Tiananmen Square.
It is almost impossible to decipher the reasons behind this invasion. The expansion of the capacity of nations to defend themselves seems like a flimsy excuse (the existence of Alaska certainly casts doubt on that line of thinking), not to mention the fact that modern technology means that proximity is less meaningful in terms of self-defense.
What I notice is this: the Ukrainian democracy worked—people protested, people voted, and they elected a president of their choice. It was a real election, unlike what happens in neighboring Russia and Belarus. If you need evidence that democracy was alive in Ukraine, look no further than the fact that they weren’t universally happy with President Zelenskyy (before the invasion started, that is). Complaining about the politicians we elect is not actually a sign of weakness in a political system—it means we understand that there will never be one person who can be trusted absolutely with the power to control our destinies. It is our job in a democracy to pay attention, second guess, complain, and consider different options. Democracy is about We the people, not “I alone.”
From the perspective of tyrants, exercising the right to vote, claiming the right to self-determination, is provocation. The Ukrainians voted, and the tyrant responded. The same impulse arose here on January 6 when would-be tyrants attacked our capital in reaction to a fair and free election.
Peaceful protests and free speech threaten tyrants. (For the record, violence, destruction, willfully spreading illness, and laying siege to a city are not the exercise of freedom but the behavior of bullies.)
I see a line, a tenuous one perhaps, connecting the students standing before tanks in Tiananmen Square, the Ukrainians seeking to halt an endless line of Russian tanks, and the Russian protesters arrested in their public squares. I would remind some Americans that there are those in this country who drive cars and trucks into peaceful protesters. In every case, democracy scares bullies and tyrants.
The history of the pursuit of democracy is full of loss and heartbreak. And democratic governance is messy; it requires us to try to get along with people with whom we will never fully agree and to craft imperfect solutions to intractable problems. Democracy will always be vulnerable to those who would lie and manipulate us for their own enrichment. Those who support democracy are, alas, not always on the winning side of history.
But everyone loses whenever and wherever democracy is betrayed, suppressed, or brutally assaulted.