Three Chronic Problems
Ukraine, latest test score reports, and the so-called Obamacare debacle, are just the latest instances of continuing stories, so many of which occupy our imagination of what political and institutional life is like out there beyond the reach of our family life and our work life. For the most part, we do not know about these stories from their impact on our own lives; we know them from reports in the media. We make our evaluations of them because of what appears to be new information to add to what we already know, and so it is worthwhile to trot out the insights garnered from previous analysis of the continuing stories to see how they apply to the purportedly new information.
Ukraine is apparently caught between, on the one hand, the European Union’s blandishment of a trade agreement that would bring the country closer to the higher standard of living Europe enjoys and, on the other hand, the offer of loans and cheap natural gas it could get and eventually did accept from Russia at the cost of eventually being more and more drawn into Russia’s sphere of influence, both economically and politically. The President of the Ukraine was off in one direction, towards Europe, before it was prevailed upon him to go in the other, towards Moscow.
This story, however, is just part of the larger story of the relation between Europe and its periphery countries, especially those associated with the old Soviet Union. Where are the boundaries of Europe, which means how inclusive can Europe be without destroying what is European, what binds together the various European countries, in the way of culture and religion and politics? Madeleine Albright had set the line at the eastern boundary of Poland, and I think that is pretty right. Europe shouldn’t reach farther east even if it can do so. The European countries are democracies, and that is not just nominally true, even if that is a dubious claim in the southern Balkans, but those are neither large nor significant countries and so one can let that go by. More important, the European countries are all or once were either Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox while the countries which might more properly associate with Russia are either Russian Orthodox or have national churches closely affiliated with Russian Orthodoxy, sharing the same view of the state, the meaning of faith, and much else. These ideas count and are in part responsible for the resistance of those in the Russian Orthodox orbit to the blandishments of capitalism and secularism. Despite news reports of the influence of Catholicism within Ukraine since the time of the Habsburgs, Ukraine is eighty percent Russian Orthodox and Ukranian Orthodox. It therefore belongs on the other side of the line between Europe and Russia. And Ukraine is not likely to become democratic anytime soon. The leaders of the Europeanist demonstrations wanted the President of Ukraine to resign before his term was over, and it was left to an official of the United States Department of State to tell them not to take on the police. Western European governments have had stable democratic governments since the Fifties and most of the former Eastern Bloc countries have had stable democratic governments since the Nineties. Shouldn’t there be a minimum period of democracy before a country is eligible for closer economic and cultural and political ties to Europe?
Why would Europe even consider making overtures to bring Ukraine closer to it? It would mean an outflow of wealth and the inclusion of an alien culture in its midst. Ukraine’s population of 50 million means that it would become a major participant in the European continuing dialogue on what it means to be European, something which is not the case with Moldova, also a dicey candidate for assimilation, whether in the short or the long term, into the European community, because Moldova has a population of only about 4 million people just about all of whom are Eastern Orthodox and so is just another one of those Balkan not quite countries that are mostly tribal groupings that have distinct languages and overlapping claims to territory.
The same problem arose not that many years ago with Georgia because while further away from Europe, could have served as the route of an oil pipeline, and was acting anti-Russia. But the Cold War is over and there is no need to cultivate countries only because they can be thorns in the side of Russia. Georgia is also a country whose religion is closely allied with the Russian Orthodox Church. Better that that peripheral issue in the current international balance of power has calmed down, as is also clearer every day with Turkey, which for a time thought about becoming part of the European Union, even though it is not very democratic and its culture is a war between Islam and secularism, with Islam ever more gaining the advantage. It would have been awful if the Europeans had tried to swallow that 80 million people country. Let it become the leader of an Islamic bloc, though I don’t think the Arab countries will allow that. Ethnicity and religion are still more important than anything else because people live by their ideas whether or not they have enough to put in their stomachs.
Why are the Europeans expansionist? It could be a leftover of old time imperialist ambitions, or it could be the idea that there is security in ever extended boundaries. That may hold for Israel, which is trying nonetheless to spit out what it will not swallow, but not for Europe, which does not need these other countries, those laying outside its natural borders, those borders created by culture and politics. It could be that the Europeans see cultural and economic expansion as just the opposite: a substitute for old time imperialist ambitions, but they don’t need that either. Welding together the various countries within Europe into a single nation state is a task that will take hundreds of years, given that the United States still has not welded together its northern and southern states into a single nation. But nations get distracted and so don’t attend to business, especially when that business is a story that will take a very long time to unfold.
The latest report on test scores in New York City schools is also a moment in a very long continuing story. The Times headline today on the story got wrong the substance of what the graphs it printed said, and that is usually the case because the Times is committed to the idea that education is always getting better and that a “cure” for the “disease” of poor school performance is just around the corner and can be recognized in one or another of the “innovative” programs that are always taking place in one or another school around the city. Such is their middle class faith in education. The obsession of a Park Slope parent to pick just the right school or after school program is what should motivate every parent.
The charts do show that there are mild increases over the past five years in reading and math scores in the middle grades. What is neglected is the fact, totally clear in the charts, that most of the scores just track the national averages while far below them. So this is no measure of progress but rather of stagnation where changes are likely the result of overall changes in the nation rather than because something has gone right in the educational programs of New York City or even because of demographic trends that apply in New York City but not elsewhere, such as the infusion of a particularly ambitious ethnic group into the population. The trouble with testing is now as it has been since it arrived on the scene twenty years ago that it is no use improving the speedometer on a car if the car is idling. You need some change to measure and the reform movement still has not produced results, which suggests that its means of producing results are questionable. Education is just another thing to move to the back burner, like space travel, until there is a new means of propulsion available. What you do with your own child has to do with what you can afford and what you imagine is the sort of education fitting for your child rather than what education is like in general, whether across the city or the nation.
A third continuing story worth unpacking, is the crisis in Obamacare, which might seem an acute matter until one looks deeper. Saxby Chambliss, the retiring Senator from Georgia, was on Morning Joe today and told a succession of lies about Obamacare. He said it promised to be free when it only claimed to be what it was, a way to extend insurance to everyone by making premiums affordable for insurance plans worth having. He said that people had to pay five hundred dollars a month for insurance programs when, in fact, there are plans that charge about a hundred dollars a month, and he offered his own daughter’s experience, though he did not explain whether the comparison policy she was being offered had been procured from the government established marketplace or was just the one that her own insurance company was offering in place of the old one. The press has not been fast in picking up on such assertions, though they may be waking up to Republican duplicities because some of those at Joe’s table did, politely, point out the facts. Polls about the unpopularity of Obamacare are unreliable because that is a response to the sense of it as a public program discussed on the airwaves rather than because of what are the needs of one’s own family, enough of which may decide that they have gotten something concrete out of the Affordable Care Act--I have gotten lower copays--that they will resist the public blather of candidates who campaign next fall on the repeal of Obamacare. Chambliss offered a hint of things to come when he said no one wants to take away the good things about Obamacare. That is a lie because he doubtlessly knows that Ted Cruz and many others called for repeal, just repeal.
The ongoing and deeper story that everyone should bear in mind is that Republicans these days and Southerners traditionally lie about their policies. They lie about Obama care; they lie about the reasons they are engaged in voter suppression. In the past, Southern Democrats lied about how happy Southern Negroes were with their conditions of Jim Crow servitude. Mary Chestnut thought the entire South at the time of the Civil War was in a conspiracy to make life under slavery appear better than it was. The ways of the oppressor, then of slaves, now especially of the poor, do not change.