The war is far away and then it is up close. The conversation is about basketball and real estate and family and then I remember the photograph in the Times of a Ukrainian family trying to escape the Russian advance, hurrying through a small town to catch a train to somewhere, a young boy, girl, mother, a family friend, carrying packs and a dog in a carrier, towing a suitcase, and here they lie freshly dead, murdered by Russian mortars shelling civilians, no military engagement nearby, and the image stays with you, the friend face-up, the boy and girl lying on their sides, and who will tell the father who is probably fighting somewhere, who will bury them, who will commemorate these senseless horrible deaths?
The Minneapolis paper ran a story about the Times’s decision to run the picture but didn’t run the picture, which isn’t gruesome or bloody, but simply terribly real. Four people suddenly killed for no reason except to cause suffering. The Russians have shelled power plants, hospitals, refugees, and war crimes are fundamental to Putin’s policy, and the photograph was the Times’s way to show that. The picture is clear in my mind days later.
I’m at an age where all the people who might’ve reassured me about this war are long dead and so I steady myself. Most of what agitated us a month ago is gone and forgotten, wiped out by the Russian tanks. We’re done talking about gender pronouns and woke tropes and done with the anti-mask b.s. and the Florida Orange, he is less relevant than pink plastic sandals, and what matters are the women and children fleeing for their lives, no idea what lies ahead, just the thought that Ukraine must survive and the civilized world must punish the war criminals.
And then, after some restless nights, you get one whole night of good sleep and awaken in gratitude and make coffee and read that the Senate has unanimously passed a law against lynching as a hate crime. It only applies here, not to the Russians in Ukraine, but the shock of seeing the words “unanimous” and “Senate” in one sentence — what will happen next? Will the American people — some of them? A fraction? Ten percent? — demand that cheap political blather be given a rest for a while and let us form a united front out of love of our country at its best in crisis?
Inflation is a cost of COVID, along with a million dead: we can game this for political advantage, meanwhile the nation faces the challenge of standing up for our fundamental decent democratic values. We’ve fought wars that we inherited from colonialism, but this is different.
The Russian people are in the grip of a madman who sits at the end of a forty-foot table, knowing that he might well wind up hanging from a lamppost one of these days. The difference between his rule and our democracy could not be clearer. Republicans who believe the 2020 election was fraudulent are saying that we’re the same. This lie needs to be set aside for historians to consider, along with the idea that January 6 was a normal political protest. There are urgent questions to take up. Murderous hardware is being brought to bear on a free people and that family lies dead in the town square.
I was looking all over for my phone the other day after it disappeared in plain sight and I bumbled around in a state of confusion — I come from the era when the phone was in the kitchen, at the end of a cord plugged into a wall, and so I’m not used to the free-floating phone, and my Beloved, about whom I’ve written numerous sonnets, saw me and said, “You look lost,” which is a harsh thing to say to an old fundamentalist, it brings back memories of gospel sermons about End Times and the need to repent. This present tribulation in Europe is a powerful message to America about the seriousness of our situation. Our long-running cultural “wars” are an amusement, the MeToo vigilantes, the evangelicals’ deal with the devil, the stolen election, but now the Cold War has resumed for real, and the lines are clearly drawn between Western democracy and authoritarian regimes. They stand prepared to wipe out individual freedom and rewrite history, and it’s time to decide which side you are on.
This week’s classic broadcast travels back to 1998 for a show from the Fitzgerald Theater with legendary Scottish vocalist Jean Redpath and humorist and newsman Studs Terkel. The program features some poetry from Yeats and Frost, plus Guy Noir, the Cowboys, and a piece of Rhubarb Pie, plus standout performances of “Women of our Time” and “Sweet Thames Flow Softly.” In addition, Andy Stein sits in with the house band. and Studs joins the Royal Academy of Radio Actors. Go to our Facebook page for a listen on Saturday at 5 p.m. CT (or if you simply cannot wait, use the link below). February 7, 1998