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Clio's Temple


Unspoken fears

Posted on March 26, 2013 at 3:08 PM Comments comments (23)
On this date thirteen years ago, something unprecedented happened: Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation. In the bleak annals of power in that part of the world, a peaceful act of succession was a milestone. Nowadays, though, we're not sure where the road leads.

Yeltsin, despite his Communist past, was a man hard to dislike: big-framed, rather like the fabled Russian bear. His struggles with the bottle only made him seem human. When he stood up against the anti-Gorbachev coup of August, 1991, he became a hero to many who had never given much thought to what was happening as the Soviet Union crumbled. Two years later, his reputation took some smudges when he used the army to attack his opponents in the Duma. That seemed like a reversion to the age-old pattern of Russian autocracy. It wasn't: the subsequent looting of Russia's natural resources by the oligarchs was a sign that the age of buccaneer capitalism, its own Gilded Age, was at hand.

My wife and I visited Russia two years ago. She had been there in 1993, chaperoning a group of Methodist youth. She had vivid memories of the all-too-visible decrepitude of many of the apartment blocks. Some of these are still visible, although as often as not there are glittering high-rises within a few hundred yards of these Stalinist relics. There, too, it seems that Russia is retracing some of the steps the U.S. took in its political evolution, with a jarring mix of wealth and poverty side by side. As we cruised the waterways from Moscow to St. Petersburg, dachas that were little more than fishing shacks stood near residences that would fit right in on Hilton Head or Pawley's Island.

There's the rub: it looks as though too much of Russia's wealth is either on display in the form of posh dwellings, or is offshore in Cyprus and other such places. Putin's apparent determination to hang on to power is another worrisome sign. One of the reasons why Russia's history has so much sadness is that progress seems always to be in conflict with the determination of the wealthy and powerful not to use their wealth to build a modern nation. Old patterns of power die hard in Mother Russia. Will things be different twenty years from now?

The Wisdom of Ike

Posted on January 17, 2013 at 3:08 PM Comments comments (0)
It's become so common a part of our political currency that we may forget how radical it was for the time. On this day in 1961, outgoing President Eisenhower made his farewell address to the American people. It included his famous warning: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

These words served as an epigraph for the novel Seven Days in May, a thriller about a clandestine coup plot against an unpopular President. Yet it may be sobering to recognize that Ike, looking backward over a half-century of service to the nation, couldn't have prophesied the dangers that would arise from multiple forces seeking to gain influence over the national government. It was considered slightly shocking for a career soldier to utter those words, but hardly so when we recognize the traditional role of the U.S. military prior to 1945 or how that role has changed.

Washington itself reflects these changes. When I first visited our nation's capital in 1964, green bluffs still rose on the Virginia shore of the Potomac. The Beltway was still a superhighway, not the vehicle-clogged parking lot it has become. What was true for the military-industrial complex is also true for the academic-governmental complex, for the medical-pharmaceutical complex, for the financial-governmental complex, and a number of others that have grown fat on Washington's largess. The green bluffs of the Potomac have been smothered by rank upon rank of high-rises.

Local politicians often decry the demands that Washington makes upon us. Most of us are prone to forget that the age of the Beltway Bandits is something that has arisen as a fruit of what we expect and demand of government. The thunderous demands that Washington live within its means are seldom accompanied by offers to sacrifice some of our cut of Washington's largess. Perhaps the most disastrous byproduct of all these changes is that our attitudes and rhetoric haven't kept pace. Instead of debate, we get posturing. Instead of the patient work of reforming Washington's ways, we get the back-and-forth of the perpetual campaign. I doubt that Ike would be happy with what's happened in the last fifty-two years, but at least he was looking backward. Those of us who try to look ahead ought to demand greater honesty of ourselves.

Now is the Winter of our Discontent

Posted on December 22, 2012 at 4:19 PM Comments comments (5)
Shakespeare's famous introduction to Richard III comes to mind when reviewing the year now departing. Perhaps it's just middle age. This is a season of hope for believers, yet a quick look around must cause puzzlement, if not alarm. The outrage in Newtown is just the sort of thing to cause the question, "Where is God in all of this?" to come up. I can't answer that. I can only offer consolation from Ruth and me to the families who suffered the loss of a child, wife, sister, or daughter.

The desire to scream with outrage is natural. We need to remember that dealing with such horrors requires both warm hearts and cold minds. Much careful thought, open dealing, and compromise are required to make some progress, however painful, toward something better from this nightmare.

I've owned a shotgun for many years, a family heirloom from my grandfather. Like most gun owners, I would never carry it someplace where it doesn't belong - to say nothing of using it for anything but hunting, target shooting, or home defense.We need to teach our children that a weapon is a good servant but a dreadful master. We also need to remember that our children have a right to life that outweighs whatever other rights we call our own.

As we come up to the start of a New Year, let's resolve to look beyond the tired, wrathful, shopworn cliches to which we resort when such tragedies strike. The dead of Aurora, Oak Creek, and Newtown deserve no less.