The Power of Myth

Being in Washington D.C. around the Fourth of July makes me wonder what it’s like to be at the Vatican on Christmas, or in Mecca during the hajj.

In the neighborhoods around where I work, just a couple blocks from the Mall, you would be out of place if you didn’t have some combination of red, white and blue splattered on your clothing somewhere. The uglier the better. When the police escorts blare through, running some dignitary someplace or other or howitzers up to the Capitol steps, people stop and stare like they’ve never seen a police escort before, cameras out and at the ready, paparazzi for something hallowed and honored. And the lines at Jefferson Memorial, iPhones held up and forward and out like making an offering to the gods: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

The idea that the late Joseph Campbell liked to throw around was the Power of Myth, that, among other things, explained the commonality of myths and legends and stories that span language, culture and time. We all tell stories because they provide a framework, a scaffolding to understand the world and our place in it. And those stories are usually pretty egocentric, explaining the world based on the teller or the re-teller and how the universe appears based on his subjective and specific location in time and place.

(I may not be doing his idea complete justice, but this is the rough idea).

Stories and myths provide comfort and reassurance and explanation in the face of uncertainty and, if you really get into it, despair and hopelessness. On its face, this isn’t a bad thing. But in the service of providing comfort, critical elements are lost. Above all, factual reality. Inconvenient truths.

This commentary in the New Yorker toggled this idea. I had no idea that Francis Scott Key (author of one of the most forgettable national anthems) was related to and worked with the Supreme Court justice who authored one of the worst Supreme Court decision in U.S. history, then and now. Bombs bursting in air, gallantly streaming, rockets red glare, three-fifths of a citizen counted, Tenth Amendment states’ rights in the interest of slavery and apartheid.

It’s probably unfair to assume that the badly dressed, overweight, frappuccino-brandishing, iPhone-toting, God-fearing hordes tottering through Washington like cows put out to pasture have no knowledge of the fundamental inequality, racism and discrimination written into the U.S. mythology. Most probably remember something of it from 10th grade U.S. history class: Jefferson owned slaves? Check. (Dred Scott is easier  to remember than Korematsu). But the allure of myth, and the comfort it provides, easily pulls a person in its gauzy retelling; like a Disney fairy tale, sanitized of the uncomfortable details that would make for unpleasant reading.

You won’t find many teary-eyed patriots walking through the D.C. neighborhoods that house some of the worst legacies of 238 years of institutionalized inequality. You won’t find this tucked into the back pockets or shoulder bags, alongside museum pamphlets and National Park Service brochures.

It takes effort to go there and there’s no easy place for that in the mythology.


Tanks, Tanks and More Dirty Tanks

Mark Galeotti, who always has great nuance and insight to add to the cipher that is the Russian police state, has this to contribute to the discussion of the week: What The Hell Are Three Aging T-64 Tanks Doing Meandering Around Eastern Ukraine?

NATO, and the State Department, have reacted predictably with a mix of hysterics and less-than-nuanced statements and warning. NATO trotted out photos of tanks… on the Russian side of the border, which was sorta, kinda helpful. The US State Department’s statement seemed to suggest the tanks were an indication that the Russian invasion had finally begun in earnest.

Galeotti’s central point, it would seem, is don’t take Washington and Brussels’ assertions as gospel. They have their agenda.

Seems to me tanks are less worrying than things like Grad mobile rocket launchers and Iglas shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, which have the ability to inflict sufficient devastation on the ground in quick order and neutralize any air superiority that Ukraine might have in its own airspace. All the more so when we’re talking old T-64s, which are formidable but in many ways a weapon for another war in another century. It’s like cavalry charges by the Poles against the Wehrmacht; it’s just not the way 21st century conflict are fought anymore (Iraq included).

(NB: my understanding is that the Polish cavalry charge story may be more apocryphal than anything, but still, you get the point)

The larger, more impenetrable question is the coherence of strategy among the Russian military/security/intelligence apparatus. The appearance of the Vostok Batallion a few weeks ago was eyebrow-raising, because of its storied history in the Chechen wars, but also because of that fact that it was widely believed to be a construct of the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU. And they were running around Donetsk, attacking the airport, doing little to hide their identifying insignias. The tanks, by all accounts, didn’t have any identifying marks, according to NATO.

The point is that both the FSB and GRU and other smaller agencies have been wholly reconstituted and revitalized under Comrade Putin, and have massive resources — human, technology, weaponry– under their disposal now. And the top-down nature of Russian administrative structures (hell, the entire freakin’ state) means that autonomy just doesn’t happen at the lowest, platoon-levels. Decisions to, say, assassinate high profile investigative journalists who are critics of the Chechen wars don’t happen in a vacuum. GRU-linked military units don’t just appear across a foreign border, in the midst of a geopolitical insurgency crisis, without any forethought or knowledge by the topmost generals and first secretaries.

Galeotti himself makes this point in an earlier posting here, about how Moscow has a long tradition of utilizing local proxies, mercenaries and other non-state actors to achieve policy goals without having to commit actual state-sponsored forces. (Moscow isn’t the only one who does this, of course). At some point, though, a non-state actor taking orders from a state actor eliminates any sort of legal or political distinction.

The Russian security apparatus is unified in its thinking, vertical in its administration and highly innovative in executing policy. Tanks and Chechen battalions running around eastern Ukraine is but one manifestation of this phenomenon.


Putin caps Moscow’s Victory Day fervor with visit to Crimea

Putin praised Russia’s ‘iron will, fearlessness and steadfast courage’ in World War II. He made only oblique references to the current crisis in Crimea. Then headed to Sevastopol. 

May 9, 2014                                                                                                                                                  By Mike Eckel                                                                                                                                              

0509-odu_full_380Tanks, troops, and patriotic fervor swept through Moscow’s legendary Red Square Friday as Russia marked the anniversary of the end of World War II, a traditional celebration whose emotional resonance has been amplified this year by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin then capped the sense of triumph in Moscow with a visit to Sevastopol, Russia’s newly annexed Crimean port.

Two days before pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine have vowed to stage a referendum on the future status of the region, President Putin used the military parade as an occasion to recall the historic defeat of Nazi Germany, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. But his nationally televised remarks skirted the tense situation in Ukraine.

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Odessa: growing shadows for a city known for light humor, deep tolerance

Even this Black Sea port, known for its tolerance, is seeing tensions flare over pro-Russian sentiments


ODESSA, Ukraine — Walk up to the motley encampment of pro-Russian, anti-“Maidan” activists set up outside the stately, columned Odessa trade union building and the first question that gets put to an out-of-towner isn’t political or military.

“Nice building, huh? Want to buy it?” said the man, who gave his name as Vanya. “For you, very cheap. I could trade a bridge. Maybe the Brooklyn Bridge?”

It’s light humor in dark times and in a city like Odessa renowned for its dark humor, sharp wit and wily commerce, these are days of growing shadows.

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In Crimea, the Tatars fear a repeat of a brutal history

The past isn’t far away for a people who remember an exile forced by Russia and the decades it took to get home

BAKHCHISARAY, Ukraine — Fatime Saifulayeva is too young to remember clearly her first years in the frigid Ural Mountains village where her parents lived — and nearly died — after being deported from Crimea.

Local villagers took pity on Tatars like her family, exiled in 1944 on Stalin’s orders. They whispered to Tatar parents to register their children as being younger than they actually were, to save them from doing brutal hard labor cutting down trees in the Siberian winter. Locals taught the Tatars to feed their starving children watered-down moonshine, despite Islamic customs against alcohol, which warmed their bodies and gave small sustenance.

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Gunfight breaks out in simmering east Ukraine, with fears of more

Kyiv says one security officer dead, casualties on both sides as government security forces battle armed men

DONETSK, Ukraine — Government security forces on Sunday battled armed men who seized a police station in eastern Ukraine, the interior ministry said, and thousands gathered to hear belligerent calls to arms amid deepening fears that Russia is preparing military action in the region.

The fighting in Slovyansk, about 55 miles north of the regional center Donetsk, appeared to be the first such gunfight in this part of Ukraine since the violent “Maidan” protests that deposed President Viktor Yanukovych in February.  Ukraine’s acting interior minister said at least one security officer had been killed and several wounded in the fighting.

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