Sunday, March 23, 2014

Crimea and punishment:
Putin’s error and its consequences

NEVER MIND the to & fro going on in councils of state of Brussels, Moscow and Washington, the objections of the United Nations Secretary-General (and what’s happening on the bleeding streets of what had been southernmost Ukraine). What may be the most important development in the theft of Crimea by the Russian Federation has taken place in the offices of National Geographic Magazine.

U.S. News & World Report, on Tuesday, reported that “National Geographic will show the peninsula as part of Russia after the Duma officially votes for annexation.” On Friday, engaging in his own March Madness, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed the order of annexation of Crimea, the first territorial expansion of Russia since World War II.

What Juan José Valdés, NatGeo’s geographer, told U.S. News was chilling in its embrace of what, world objections aside, has become something of a fait accompli. “We map de facto,” Valdés said. “In other words we map the world as it is, not as people would like it to be.”

Another, parallel conflict of cartography is developing: U.S. News reports that Rand McNally, the other major mapmaker, is holding out for the State Department’s designation, and Wikipedia and Google Maps are still undecided about which way to go.

But for now, the action that NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Wednesday called “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the cold war” is a fact on the ground. The stability of Europe may hang in the balance. So too does the stability of Russia itself, in ways Putin has scarcely considered.

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In the short term, Putin has been hailed by the Russian people as something just short of a messiah, with his domestic opinion polls soaring (we’ll forget for now what it says about a country when it takes a warrantless invasion to get that country’s people feeling good again).

After the Crimean referendum, which saw 93 percent of voters supporting Putin’s move — an election result that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting despot — Russian forces have moved quickly to reinforce with military might what the referendum had apparently secured at the ballot.

William Saletan of Slate got Putin’s method of achieving “overwhelming victory” just about right: “First, you narrow the ballot to two choices: joining Russia or increasing Crimea’s autonomy from Ukraine. You exclude the status quo. Then you saturate Crimea with 21,000 Russian troops and put armed men outside polling stations.

“The effects are impressive.”

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THE WORLD waits for Putin’s next move, and the wait itself is troubling. Some believe that the Crimea incursion will be the end of it, that he’s achieved the ultimate prize by returning a region of what was Ukraine back to the Russian orbit.

But by gaining a dramatic expansion of the Russian map basically without firing a shot, there’s every reason to think Putin will keep going, that given the Crimean inch, he’ll go the extra mile and undertake a full invasion of all of Ukraine.

If that’s the logic of the ex-KGB man, Putin will discover that “дьявол кроется в деталях” — the devil is in the details. The Russian leader has tried to impose a generally militaristic solution on what, at the end of the day, is a social and economic dispute. And though he’s won in the short term, Putin faces challenges of economics and infrastructure, challenges neither he or the tender Russian economy are ready for.

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First, the money shots. The Wall Street Journal reported on how the crisis in Crimea may be an opportunity for Ukraine. “The loss of Crimea is a political body blow to the new government from Kiev, but it also relieves Ukraine of an annual $1 billion budgetary drain,” The Journal reported last week.

And Ukraine’s economic gain is already Russia’s loss. On Thursday, Fitch Ratings, the respected investment forecasting concern, revised its economic outlook for Russia downward, and did it in language that couldn’t be more downbeat.

“The current climate is negative for economic growth,” Fitch declared. “Russia was already experiencing a slowdown, with growth falling to 1.3% in 2013 and investment declining. Fitch has revised down its growth forecast to less than 1% in 2014 and 2% in 2015. These projections still rely on a mild upturn in investment, which is now less likely. Indeed, recession is possible, given the impact of higher interest rates, a weaker rouble and geopolitical uncertainty.”

This, of course, follows the block of economic sanctions imposed last week by the United States, including President Obama’s executive order to impose sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy. That no doubt led Visa and MasterCard to cut operations with Bank Rossiya, the personal ATM for senior Russian officials, and a bank with millions of individual customers.

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ON SATURDAY, The New York Times reported that Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov said “[i]mposition of the sanctions is definitely a negative for the general perception of our country’s economy,” according to the Interfax news agency. He cited more costly borrowing and the continuing pressure on the stock markets, one of which has fallen 21 percent this year.

“Whatever the political consequences, economists say the uncertainty that now hangs over nearly every profitable enterprise in Russia is what poses the gravest threat to the country’s long-term prosperity, rather than any immediate consequence of the specific sanctions,” Siluanov said.

Oleg Ustenko, director of the Center for World Economies and International Relations, was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal on March 18. The Journal reports: “Even before the crisis, Mr. Ustenko said that many investors steered clear of Crimea because of infrastructure problems and high levels of criminal and ‘shadow economy’ activity. Now, it will now be out of the question for international, Ukrainian or Russian private investors to put new money into the region, he said.”

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And then there are the thorny matters of the dependency of Crimea on various parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure. Up to now, Putin’s ace in the hole — his presumed leverage over any actions taken against Russia by the European Union — has been the towering EU dependency on Russia’s oil and gas reserves.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The rolling blunder of Vladimir Putin

MAYBE THE Sochi medal count went to Vladimir Putin’s head. It’s been a busybusy week for the Russian president and his army. Since seizing control of the Crimean Peninsula on March 1, Russian armed forces have steamrolled (without insignia) through the region, securing the airport and major buildings, attempting to reinforce Putin’s claim to part of a sovereign nation.

On Sunday, acting Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced he would fly to the White House this week for talks on “resolution of the situation in Ukraine,” Interfax reported. Last week, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton condemned Russia's “unwarranted escalation of tensions.” On March 1, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned "the Russian Federation's invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory.”

The regional parliament in Crimea set a March 16 referendum on leaving Ukraine to join Russia. And the Kiev Post reported on Saturday that a bill that would ease the process of annexing Crimea to Russia could have its first reading in the Duma, the Russian parliament, on March 21.

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As the rest of the world hammers out the proper reaction, President Putin has briefly realized the element of surprise. But as this crisis of his own creation evolves, there’s abundant gathering evidence that the Russian president has engaged in a grand blunder, regardless of the Kremlin’s short-term swagger. By undertaking the invasion in the first place, Russia has ignored the very international agreement it signed recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty.

By doubling down on the use of military might to achieve an objective that was imprecise at best, Putin makes use of exactly the wrong weapon in his arsenal, ignoring facts of natural resources and infrastructure that may make keeping Crimea much harder than invading it.

And the use of that armed might, on the flimsiest of pretexts, has caused at least a short-term disaster for Russia’s domestic economy and for its prospects as a world economic power — precisely what Putin has been hoping to avoid.

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THE JUSTIFICATION for Russia’s Crimea invasion — Ukrainian unrest posed an existential threat to the well-being of Russian military personnel, citizens and sympathizers — has hardly been supported by independent observers. Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute, said on MSNBC: “After the events in Kiev ... there was no evidence that the Ukrainian government planned any threat against the Russian military installations in Crimea.”

Geopolitically the Russian incursion may have long-term repercussions for Russia’s relationship with the world powers whose ranks it hopes to join — in no small part because of Russia’s willingness to blithely violate agreements it signs. One in particular: the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, an agreement signed in December 1994, by U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister John Major, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, pledging them “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

Signing the agreement was pro forma for the United States and Britain, which gave Ukraine those “security assurances” in exchange for surrendering over time what was then the world's third largest nuclear weapons stockpile. But Ukraine no doubt signed the agreement with a sharp side-eye on Russia ... for reasons that are, now, all too obvious.

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We’ve been here before. Last week, Peter Baker of The New York Times interviewed James F. Jeffrey, who was President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser. Jeffrey said that in August 2008, he told Bush that Russian troops were moving into Georgia, responding what the Kremlin then characterized as Georgian aggression against South Ossetia.

Jeffrey, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Times that “Bush confronted Mr. Putin to no avail, then ordered American ships to the region and provided a military transport to return home Georgian troops on duty in Iraq. He sent humanitarian aid on a military aircraft, assuming that Russia would be loath to attack the capital of Tbilisi with American military personnel present. Mr. Bush also suspended a pending civilian nuclear agreement, and NATO suspended military contacts.”

“We did a lot but in the end there was not that much that you could do,” Jeffrey recalled.

Jeffrey, Baker reports, said “Mr. Obama should now respond assertively by suggesting that NATO deploy forces to the Polish-Ukrainian border to draw a line. ‘“There’s nothing we can do to save Ukraine at this point,’” he said. ‘ “All we can do is save the alliance.”’

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LEFT UNSAID, however, is the possibility that Ukraine could save itself. The conflict that Putin has immediately characterized as a military one may come down to finances more than fighting. The New York Times reports that Yatsenyuk, the acting prime minister, “had said that the government’s first responsibility was to begin negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and start to put in place the economic reforms and painful austerity measures that the fund requested in exchange for help.”

We’ve all heard the good advice of not bringing a knife to a gunfight; with his Crimea adventure, Putin may have brought a gun to an economics fight — trying to impose a military solution on a problem that’s more monetary than anything else.

Hoping to strategically ride to the rescue of Ukraine after ousted Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich reneged on a pledge to sign a trade agreement with the European Union — ushering in the unrest in Kiev — Putin offered Ukraine an €11 billion ($15 billion) loan package ... in exchange for rejecting economic entreaties from the West.

That $15 billion bailout Russia had pledged when Yanukovich was in control was suspended by Ukraine’s upheaval, and certainly won’t be restored any time soon. That $15 billion was one of only a few persuasive arguments Putin could have made for Ukraine remaining in the Russian orbit.

Now that Putin’s abandoned the economic carrot and gone all in on using the military stick, he’s abandoned any pretense of negotiating with his neighbor to the west. The hell with good arguments, now it’s all about force. Knowing that, as the Ukrainian people certainly do, what’s the incentive for Ukraine ending its opposition to persuasion from Moscow? They can get the carrots somewhere else.

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Getting gas to heat the Ukrainian home may be another matter entirely. That’s the other, non-military leverage that Putin commands. “Ukraine highly depends on Russian energy,” reports Grégory Raymond of HuffPost France. “Rising gas prices decided by Moscow could lead, at any moment, to the country’s collapse.”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Movie history by accident

Every year we observe the Academy Awards, it’s a reach into our cultural history, but some occasions the event digs into history more than others, by accident. Actors and actresses can tap into their antecedents without even realizing it (or maybe they do).

It happened on March 2, Oscar Sunday. In one of her wild dashes into the coiffed, nipped and tucked audience at the Dolby Theater, Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres brought out a smartphone and started snapping selfies. It got out of hand when she gathered with people in the audience — Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Lupita Nyong’o, Kevin Spacey, et freakin al. — for what turned out to be the most retweeted photo on Twitter ever. Ellen’s arm was too short to do the honors herself, so Bradley Cooper took the image that temporarily brought down Twitter.

If the composition looks vaguely familiar, that’s because it is. Sorta.

Somewhere, Gregg Toland is smiling. Hey Cooper, if this acting thing doesn’t quite work out, you’ve got a future as a cinematographer.

Backstage, after Nyong’o’s big win, the newly-minted Oscar winner got to horsing around with Jennifer Lawrence, who won her own Golden Dude last year. We’ve always known actors and actresses were competitive in Hollywood. Lupita and J-Law put a comedic spin on that fact:

Wonder if they knew about what happened between Marlon Brando and Bob Hope at the 1955 Oscars:

What can you say? Hoo ... ray ... for .... history.

Image credits: Oscars selfie: Bradley Cooper. Still from Citizen Kane: © 1941 RKO Radio Pictures. Lawrence and Nyong’o: via Brando and Hope:

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Black History Nation

ON SUNDAY night, after “12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for Best Picture — the first time in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards that a film by a black director ever won the top honor — comedian Michael Ian Black, a master of snark, tweeted this: “Between ‘Django’ last year and ’12 Years’ this year, slavery has never been hotter!!!”

Inartful as hell, of course, but that piquant tweet drove home a deeper social and cultural point about the impact of African American culture on the most popular art form in the world, and what it’s apparently taken to achieve that level of attention. Slavery remains the indelible American metaphor-scar, its legacy an equally indelible component of modern American life.

But what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and its other movers and shakers and proxies, decided for the second year in a row was to recognize the power of stories that are nothing less than American history. The fact that it’s African American history has become something embraced by Hollywood, which seems to be reaching a comfort zone with film productions reflecting more of the diversity of America.

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The Oscars’ clean break with the past requires a look into what that past has been. The demographic inertia that’s characterized the Academy’s membership (and its voting patterns) was smartly distilled recently by a Lee & Low Books infographic. It’s surprising to see the monochromatic aspects of the Academy’s identity (according to the 2012 data) laid out so plain to see.

As of 2012, in all branches of the Academy, 98 percent of producers were white; 98 percent of writers were white; 88 percent of actors were white; 94 percent of all voting Academy members were white; 77 percent of all voting Academy members were male.

The Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave” forces the most painful part of black American history into the forefront of the culture in permanently inescapable ways. What’s just as inescapable is the fact that those white male Academy voters broke, however briefly, with the hegemony of their identity and recognized the power of Solomon Northup’s saga — not as a black story, but as an American story. The triumph of “12 Years a Slave” was, among other things, and at least for now, a triumph of equality over our more cynical cultural expectations.

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THE MULTIPLE--Oscar triumphs of “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” are only part of the story of a cultural evolution on race and the national history. The films “42” (recounting Jackie Robinson’s battle in the major leagues) and “The Butler” (Lee Daniels’ fictionalization of the life of a White House servant) also furthered it on the pop-cultural front. But the nation is also experiencing black history as current events.

President Obama’s recent confessional moment, in an event announcing a White House initiative for young black males, taps into the increasingly tragic trajectory of young African Americans and the history that spawned it. The murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have direct parallels with too much of the national past. And politically, as challenges to voting rights increase between now and November, in statehouses across the country, the nation will find out how past is prologue all over again.

History’s what you can’t get away from. The legacy of the peculiar institution persists right up to now; disparities of employment, income, health and wealth show how the past informs the present. Just like voting rights — the phrase itself calls out history — are top of mind for state legislators sworn to suppress those rights between now and November. Just like their antecedent cousins in the Jim Crow South did, years ago.

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History’s what you can’t get away from. And it’s not like we try to get away from history, given our numerological fascinations — since we’re so big on even-numbered anniversaries. Last year the nation used the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington as a way into tenuous but welcome conversations about race and progress, and how far African Americans have moved the needle since August 1963.

This year we’ll observe the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Next year we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which institutionalized the universality of the voting franchise ... and which today is under siege like never before.

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A LOT’S BEEN made — too much, frankly — about various incendiary debates about the value and importance of Black History Month, which takes place every February. But whether you agree with the idea of that observance or not, its purpose as another, parallel window into America is being advanced during months that have nothing to do with February. In important ways, as a common American experience, the observance of black history has long since slipped the surly bonds of the shortest month of the year. Emancipated. Unchained.

By way of our popular culture; our political culture, for which black history has been as much a problem as an opportunity (look at how Reagan resisted the King holiday); and our calendar culture (the one we depend on to remember anything), black history is steadily gaining wider exposure and recognition (if not always acceptance) in the wider cross-section of the American population.

Black history is also, always, current events. It was the pursuit of recognition of that fact that made Black History Month possible, and necessary, in the first place.

Also published at Image credits: Lupita Nyong’o: John Shearer/Invision/Associated Press. Academy diversity infographic: Lee & Low Books. Trayvon Martin: The Trayvon Martin Family.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Downsizing the giant:
The Hagel-Obama defense budget and what it means

ON MONDAY, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel finally dropped the ax on his own agency and delivered a sea change for the United States military, one he had promised, or threatened, for nearly a year. “Today I am announcing the key decisions I have recommended to the President for the Defense Department’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget and beyond.

“These recommendations will adapt and reshape our defense enterprise so that we can continue protecting this nation’s security in an era of unprecedented uncertainty and change. As we end our combat mission in Afghanistan, this will be the first budget to fully reflect the transition DoD is making for after 13 years of war — the longest conflict in our nation’s history.”

It was a frank admission of something we should already know, and have been led to believe: the armed forces of the United States, paragon of a sometimes lethal efficiency, has become both a victim of that efficiency and a victim of the wider, asymmetrically bad domestic economy.

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Back in the days, a certain visible muscularity was more necessary by our armed forces; a relative military and technological primitivism meant doing more with more: big armies, vast armadas, overwhelming firepower that could be as overwhelming for our side (logistically and economically) as it was for the enemy to fight.

Now, though, with better training, lighter aircraft and more powerful weapons; with the hindsight of generations of tragic wartime experience; and with an emerging economic reality that makes juggernauts unsustainable, the United States has a military that’s more dynamic, more technologically endowed and more financially strapped — a military that may be about to do more with less. A lot less.

“This budget helps us to remain the world’s finest military — modern, capable and ready — even while transitioning to a smaller, more affordable force over time,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Monday.

Under the terms of the 2011 Budget Control Act, (sequestration), Congress approved a budget that required a reduction in force of Army personnel from 522,000 to about 420,000; and a cut in Marines’ numbers from 190,000 to about 175,000 — all by 2019.

The new Pentagon budget could pare as many as 90,000 soldiers from the branches of the U.S. military, dropping the force to about 440,000 — a figure that would be the lowest active force since before World War II. Hagel’s proposal will be part of President Obama’s official budget, which hits the stores on Tuesday calling for about $496 billion in core defense spending.

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WE ARE repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centers of power, and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States,” Hagel said at the Pentagon.

But that thunderclap shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Hagel said almost exactly the same thing last July at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Louisville, Ky. “We have to prepare our institution for whatever comes,” he said.

“To that end,” he said in Louisville, “these cuts are forcing us to make tough but necessary decisions to prioritize missions and capabilities around our core responsibility, which is the security of our country.” And back in December, Hagel announced a plan to slash 20 percent of the Pentagon's headquarters budgets, a move expected to save $1 billion over five years.

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But we really got a heads-up about this embrace-the-new thinking earlier than that. President Obama got the point across with humor and wit in October 2012, in his third presidential debate with Mitt Romney, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Indulging his inner hawk, Romney said “our Navy is older — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the — to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That's unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.

“Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947. We've changed for the first time since FDR. We — since FDR we had the — we've always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we're changing to one conflict. Look, this, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the president of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people.”

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OBAMA PUSHED back on this convincingly, schooling Mitt from the perspective of the commander in chief in modern times. “I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — because the nature of our military's changed.

“We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's, it's [about] what are our capabilities?”

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Putin, Russia and repurposing the past

IT WAS FRANKLY unbelievable. After all the comic preliminaries — the ridicule for stray dogs on the stadium grounds, the snarky comments about creature comforts and hotel toilets that spied on their users with cameras — The Sochi Winter Olympic Games were a glittering, $51 billion success.

The opening ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium was a phantasmagorical journey through 1,000 years of Russian history, a greatest-hits collection of Russian world figures — Sikorsky! Dostoevsky! Kandinsky! Nabokov! Eisenstein! — and a chance to rethink everything we thought we knew about Russia.

This voyage through the looking glass was brought to you by Vladimir Putin, the Russian president we were for 17 days invited to see as a proud leader and nation builder ready to advance the interests of his republic on the global stage. The awe-inspiring grandeur of the opening ceremony was poetically bookended by the final medal count: Russia led all nations with more gold medals, and more medals overall, than anyone else.

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But the world was brought back to the other reality while the games were still going on. On Saturday, after days of deadly fighting in Kiev, the parliament of Ukraine, Russia’s direct neighbor to the west and a former piece of the Soviet Union, voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovich, appointing Oleksandr Turchynov as the new interim president.

“We have to return to the family of European countries,” Turchynov said, repudiating Putin and his hopes of building a New Soviet Union, with Ukraine resuming its historical orbit around the Moscow sun.

Putin’s Sochi Kum Ba Yah apparently faded from memory as of Wednesday. That’s when the Russian president ordered military exercises in western Russia, according to The Associated Press.

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IN A TELEVISED statement from Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the exercise is intended to “check the troops' readiness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation's military security,” The AP reported.

Citing other statements by Russian news agencies, AP reported that Shoigu said the maneuvers would involve some 150,000 troops, 880 tanks, 90 aircraft and 80 navy ships.

It’s strangely ironic that during the Sochi Games, Putin enjoyed his defining triumph and faced what could be his defining challenge almost simultaneously. This first-blush, saber-rattling response to Ukraine’s independence is mostly meant for domestic and regional consumption.

How Putin really, finally responds to this situation will confirm or disprove, in front of the world, just how ready he is to accept the ways “Greater Russia” can be a concept based as much on perspective and vision as one based on geography and power.

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It’s guts-ball time for Putin. Everyone in the world is watching. The triumph of Sochi raised the stakes. The Russian president dropped $51 billion to host the most expensive games in Olympic history; the result, a winner across the board, has burnished and elevated Russia’s reputation, and Putin’s own.

Events in Ukraine have raised the stakes even more. It’s more than mildly interesting that the Sochi Games and the flashpoint of unrest in Kiev happened at about the same time. It’s also notable that what just happened in Ukraine has the virtue of being both organic to the people in the Kiev streets and legislatively ratified by the Ukrainian parliament.

That fact undercuts the rationale for Putin entertaining a military strike for the purpose of Restoring Order, or any similar nostrums, despite the military exercises just announced.

Order already was restored to Ukraine over the weekend, by the Ukrainian people. To undertake a straight-up military operation would compromise Putin politically, isolating Russia even further from wider economic integration, something that Russia wants and Ukraine desperately needs. And days after an undisputed cultural victory on its own soil, a Russian military adventure would compromise Putin imagistically — and after the global spectacle of Sochi, optics matter more than you might think.

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IT’S TIME for Putin to resist the temptation to surrender to nationalistic reflexes, and change the world’s longstanding presumption of Russian antagonism (something he started in Sochi). The time’s come for Putin to play the geopolitical cards he’s been dealt — by the dynamics of populism and by historical fact — and realize that the casino he’s playing in is not his own. Not anymore.

During the Sochi Games, a tumblr called Pride Propaganda brilliantly pushed back on the rise of homophobic attitudes and actions in Russia by appropriating some vintage Soviet propaganda posters — depicting various Young Pioneers in different walks of life, muscular nuclear families marching in lockstep into the future ... only these images are awash in the rainbow motif long connected with the global pride movement. It was a smart, uplifting, memorably incisive way of artists repurposing the Russian past in a bold reach for the future.

It falls to Vladimir Putin to do exactly the same thing. Never mind the short-term show of force on the Russian border: The way is there, the door is open for him to start transforming his historically fractious and expansionist region of the world and our perception of it, to be the world leader he envisions himself to be by pursuing the best way of repurposing the past: Not attempting to revisit it.

Image credits: Putin: Sergei Guneyev for TIME. Poster: Pride Propaganda (Tumblr). 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ukraine, Putin, Obama and the art of watchful waiting

ON WEDNESDAY, protests by Ukrainians outraged at the government’s deliverance of their economic future to Russia escalated into waves of fighting in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, bloody clashes that were almost apocalyptic in their imagery.

What a difference three or four days can make. On Saturday, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovich, who bolted from the capital, bound for parts unknown. The Ukrainian parliament appointed Oleksandr Turchynov as Ukraine's new interim president. BBC News reported that, after his appointment, Turchynov pledged to institute a "government of the people,” saying "we have to return to the family of European countries,” an implicit statement of an intention to return to the orbit of the European Union, and away from Moscow.

“We are ready for a dialogue with Russia ... on a new, fair, equal and neighborly basis, acknowledging and taking into account Ukraine's European choice,” he said.

The parliament also freed from prison former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a Yanukovich political foe. Sky News reported that Tymoshenko said she was “sure” Ukraine will join the European Union “and this will change everything.”

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Yanukovich’s overthrow — amid days of violence in which 88 people were killed and parts of Kiev’s Independence Square became an operatic inferno — was an unalloyed repudiation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his hopes of effectively building a New Soviet Union, one with Ukraine as a crown jewel satellite. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine's opposition “had in effect seized power in Kiev, refused to disarm and continued to place its bets on violence,” BBC reported.

The collapse of Yanukovich was symbolized in comic fashion on Saturday. People arrived by the hundreds at Mezhygirya, the president’s abandoned private estate outside Kiev, to stroll around the grounds and take photos of the loot amassed at this Xanadu by the Dnepr River: His private zoo fat with ostriches, peacocks and deer. Sparkling waterfalls and an 18-hole golf course. A tennis court and bowling alley. An underground shooting range. Extensive private gardens. A car park with a 1950 Rolls-Royce and a 1963 Chevrolet Impala.

If only Yanukovich had been as democratic in wielding his presidential authority as he was in picking his cars.

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AS TURCHYNOV considers what’s next, and as Ukraine readies for new elections (now set for May), the United States will wait on tenterhooks for a more final resolution along with everyone else. But for now, President Obama’s gradualist approach to the situation in Kiev has turned out to be the right one. Once again, just like in Syria, the president resisted the reflex among conservatives — Arizona Sen. John McCain among them — to immediately start ratcheting up the tension with sanctions or threats of use of military force.

McCain, remember, was the one who just days ago condemned the president, even as he quickly called for targeted sanctions against Ukraine — the kind of thing that was likely to hurt the very people already being hurt by the Ukrainian government.

“This is the most naive president in history,” McCain said Thursday on Phoenix radio station KFYI, as reported by Politico. “The naiveté of Barack Obama and [Secretary of State] John Kerry is stunning ... This thing could easily spiral out of control into a major international crisis. The first thing we need to do is impose sanctions on those people who are in leadership positions,” McCain said.

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The senator had company. Niall Ferguson, drawn Wilkinson Sword flashing in the sun as usual, weighed in on Friday, in The Wall Street Journal. Lamenting what he called the U.S.’ “geopolitical taper,” Ferguson said that what was then the first blush of a deal for a coalition government in Ukraine “may or may not spell the end of the crisis. In any case, the negotiations were conducted without concern for Mr. Obama.”

The Journal, elsewhere in full scathing mode, took Obama to task in a Friday editorial: “As for the U.S., it's no coincidence that Mr. Putin asserted himself in Ukraine not long after Mr. Obama retreated in humiliating fashion from his "red line" in Syria. As always in history, such timidity invites the aggression it purports to prevent. If this American President won't even bomb Damascus airfields to stop the use of chemical weapons, why would Mr. Putin think Mr. Obama would do anything for eastern Europe?”

Saturday, February 22, 2014

MSNBC and the shock of the new

PUSHING ITS own envelope again, MSNBC is set to roll out two new dayside programs next week: “The Reid Report,” to be hosted by managing editor Joy Reid; and “Ronan Farrow Daily,” with journalist, activist and lawyer Ronan Farrow (son of Mia), both start on Monday in the latest shift of the viewing schedule of the network that reshuffles its programming identity more reliably than any other cable news property.

But thanks to a prospective major merger, and accusations of union busting at an MSNBC production company, MSNBC’s generally progressive hosts face something that both jeopardizes the network’s populist “Lean Forward” identity, and calls out their core progressive convictions.

In a relative instant, MSNBC is transmitter of, and subject to, the shock of the new.

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It all started in December, as a story that managed to fly under the media radar, and, for obvious reasons, off the radar of MSNBC.

In a Dec. 18 story in Salon, an official of the AFL-CIO called on MSNBC show hosts Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton to speak out about alleged union busting at Peacock Productions, a production arm of MSNBC (the company co-produces the “Lockup” prison documentary series that remains a big part of MSNBC’s weekend lineup).

“These hosts have a particular responsibility,” AFL-CIO organizing director Elizabeth Bunn told Salon’s Josh Eidelson. “They have respect and they have clout that producers alone don’t have, and they’re part of the larger progressive movement.”

Bunn said the show hosts were “uniquely positioned to hear the stories of what their parent company is doing to workers, and broadcast that to the larger American public.”

Bunn said NBC, MSNBC’s parent company, was “guilty of hypocrisy and guilty of exploiting its workforce,” adding that “one would hope than an employer whose mission is to communicate accurately would behave more responsibly.”

WGA-E organizing director Justin Molito told Eidelson that Peacock directed “a textbook anti-union campaign that you would see at companies like Wal-Mart.” Some workers at Peacock decided to take independent action, putting them at odds with the company they work for.

Bunn told Salon that the AFL-CIO was “prepared to escalate the pressure on these hosts” as well as on NBC. Eidelson reported Dec. 18 that “[t]he only MSNBC host to respond to any of Salon’s inquiries on the issue has been Ed Schultz, who when asked about the campaign Dec. 10 emailed, ‘ has never been an ally of Ed Schultz, why should I help you with a story? Give me a reason.’”

That was last year. Now, fast forward to Thursday.

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ON THAT DAY the revolving doors at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, NBC’s headquarters, were quietly besieged when leaders of the Writers Guild America-East and renegade producers from Peacock Productions, arrived carrying boxes of petitions ... for Hayes, Maddow, O’Donnell, Sharpton and Schultz. The petitions call on them to use the bully pulpits of their programs to weigh in, on the air, about another uncomfortable situation right at their high-profile doorstep.

When Comcast announced plans to buy Time Warner Cable on Feb. 13, for $45.2 billion in stock, it was a thunderclap in the business world, one that fully declared Comcast’s intention to dominate in the cable space like no company ever had before. The deal proposes to combine the country’s two biggest U.S. cable companies into one inescapable media behemoth.

“This leaves Comcast as the sole king of the cable hill,” said Richard Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG LLC, to Bloomberg. “This is a game changer for Comcast.”

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Based in Philadelphia, Comcast has had a voracious appetite, making $65.6 billion of acquisitions over the past 10 years, this according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Last March, Comcast acquired from General Electric the rest of NBCUniversal that Comcast didn’t already own (by way of the controlling stake it acquired from GE in January 2011) for $16.7 billion. NBCUniversal is the parent company of MSNBC and NBC.

Bloomberg reported that the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable nuptials could face up to a year of scrutiny, but would “probably will end in approval after regulators secure pledges the combined company won’t harm Internet users.”

Richard M., a Huffington Post Super User, isn’t hopeful: “Every time there is a large merger like this we see 1000's of people who are put out of work, and we see increases in the costs so that the company can get their expenditures back as quickly as possible. These deals NEVER work out well for the consumer.”

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SUSAN CRAWFORD, John A. Reilly visiting professor in intellectual property at Harvard Law School and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, doesn’t look forward to that outcome either. In a blistering op-ed piece at Bloomberg, she explained the sum of many fears:

“The reason this deal is scary is that for the vast majority of businesses in 19 of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country, their only choice for a high-capacity wired connection will be Comcast. Comcast, in turn, has its own built-in conflicts of interest: It will be serving the interests of its shareholders by keeping investments in its network as low as possible -- in particular, making no move to provide the world-class fiber-optic connections that are now standard and cheap in other countries -- and extracting as much rent as it can, in all kinds of ways.”

“If all of this sounds technical, try this: We're all the people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, trying to get on the George Washington Bridge. There's a bully narrowing our access to the world whose interests aren't aligned with ours. ... Let's be clear: This is old-school monopolistic behavior.”

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All of which creates a problem for the progressive show hosts of a progressive, forward-leaning news network — a problem that’s more than purely imagistic.

The two-front war now under way against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger and alleged anti-union activities at an MSNBC entity puts these hosts in a quandary. Every one of their programs has been part of the network’s emerging identity as a progressive bulwark, an identity fully established in its coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Now these five hosts, the face of MSNBC, confront nothing less than a test of their core beliefs — where the hearts really are, not just their public identities. Scott Jones, commenting at HuffPost, cut to the chase: “The fact that these very well paid corporate television hosts have been placed between this rock and a hard place will expose the true courage of their beliefs. Let's see how they stand up to it.”

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THERE’S no schadenfreude joy to be found in the dilemma of these show hosts, and others under the MSNBC banner, including Farrow, whose new show airs starting Monday at 1 p.m. eastern, and Reid, whose program starts an hour after that. In some ways, their possible conflicts of interest are nothing new, and they’re certain to happen again.

As media companies get larger, as their technologies get more diversified, and as content — information — furthers its hold on a public that gets that information in more ways than ever before, we can expect crises of media gigantism, and what happens when the progressive tendencies of the newsroom are forced to contend with their fiscally conservative, risk-averse opposite number in the boardroom.

When journalists and newsgatherers at one network call out governors or officials for anti-union behavior, it’s easy to see how those journalists might have a problem with one of its production partners accused of doing the same thing — and another problem with not being able to report about that on the air.

And when one company owns not just the pipes but a disproportionate amount of the content that runs through those pipes, it’s easy to see how labor groups, civil libertarians and the public at large might have ... issues with how a bigger, more muscular version of that company could do business in a nation that’s more and more wired by fewer and fewer companies all the time.

Image credits: MSNBC logo, The Ed Show promo: © 2014 MSNBC. Comcast logo: © 2014 Comcast. Pre- and post-buyout charts: The Huffington Post via Imgur. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Christiegate: The road to Subpoena Boulevard

THE LEGAL traffic jam building around the office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Trenton, N.J., is as big as the ones convened on the access lanes to the George Washington Bridge for four days last September. With new summonses, new statements and new disclosures from the press in the case of the busiest bridge in the world being used for political purposes, all roads to and from Christie’s office are being diverted to the newly-widened access lanes of Subpoena Boulevard.

It’s gettin’ so you can’t even keep up. In the last week, The Star-Ledger, The Bergen Record, The Wall Street Journal and MSNBC have reported on the latest chapters of the Christie saga: 18 fresh subpoenas were issued to several figures in the GWB scandal by the New Jersey legislature. A legislative committee passed motions to compel former Christie aides Bridget Kelly and Bill Stepien to respond to earlier subpoenas.

Philip Kwon, the Port Authority deputy general counsel, is under close scrutiny for his possible role in this mess. And, thanks to Steve Kornacki of MSNBC, a new report documents, through emails and texts, the fact that David Wildstein, a now-former top Christie aide at the Port Authority, and a Port Authority police lieutenant named Chip Michaels, were on the scene when the lanes were shut down in Fort Lee, N.J., presumably maneuvering their way around the traffic nightmare they helped to engineer.

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Last weekend, Kornacki reported how, in a 7:28 a.m. email on Sept. 9, the first day of the GWB traffic farrago, Wildstein told bridge manager Robert Durando that he was “going to take a ride with chip and see how it looks.”

For those of you trying to keep score at home, all this elevates the appearance, if not the likelihood, of a conspiracy, of a toweringly cynical manipulation of a public resource, planned and orchestrated and monitored by functionaries of the state, for political purposes.

But as Christiegate grows, what’s clear, clearer now than before, is just how far Chris Christie will go to maintain his grip not just on power as New Jersey’s governor, but also on the perception of power beyond his current office, including his unlikely bid for the 2016 Republican nomination. His mindset, or at least his public persona, seems to be some weird cross of detachment and engagement, of an internal conviction that he will rise above the waters that are rising around him. He is lately a man with a lot to do.

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BESIDES HIS day gig of riding the beast of a $500 billion state economy, Christie has the additional responsibility of being the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a position that requires trips around the country, in the eternal fundraising quest that the job entails. All this and widening scandals too.

But Christie has adopted a full-steam-ahead strategy, acting like nothing much has happened at all in the last three months, as if subpoenas and state inquiries were just a speed bump on a possible road to the nomination, instead of a sinkhole for those ambitions. This despite cratering opinion poll numbers within his state, and equally dispiriting survey results from around the country.

From all outward appearances, this is a man who knows no reverse gear. In a masterful piece of journalism in The New Republic, Alec MacGillis tells us why.

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MacGillis, a TNR senior editor, writes in detail about the governor’s longer back story, in a breakdown of personal and political history that more fully explains Christie’s upbringing and personality and, among other things, why Christiegate is a better descriptor of the current implosion of the governor’s fortunes than Bridgegate ever was.

MacGillis explains that, to make sense of Chris Christie, you have to make sense of the environment that made him possible. Once you do that, it’s easy to see how in some ways his current iteration wasn’t so much possible as it was inevitable.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Jordan Davis and Florida’s war on young black males

WE’VE BEEN here before, again. A white man with a gun. An unarmed black male teenager. The wrong words. A drawn weapon. Shots fired. A child dead on the ground. Outrage and tears. A trial. A verdict. More outrage at a system that works preferentially, when it works at all.

On Saturday, after 31 hours of deliberations, a Florida jury reached a verdict on four of the five charges in the trial of Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old Floridian accused of shooting Jordan Russell Davis to death in a Jacksonville convenience store parking lot on Nov. 23th, 2012, for the crime of playing hiphop music too loud.

Davis and friends had arrived to buy gum and cigarettes; Dunn pulled up so his fiancée could buy wine and chips. Dunn had issues with the volume of the music coming from the teens' Dodge Durango SUV. He asked them to turn it down. Dunn claimed Davis threatened him, and said he saw what he thought was the barrel of a gun coming from the Durango.

And then Dunn, subconsciously secure in the conviction that might makes right, took matters into his own hands, firing 10 shots from a 9mm into a car full of kids.

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On four of the charges, the jury ruled that Dunn, who said he was in fear for his life, was guilty of attempted second-degree murder because he fired at the Durango, filled with Davis and other teenage occupants. But the jury couldn’t reach a decision on one of the charges to determine if Dunn’s killing shot — the one that ended Davis’ life at the age of 18 — constituted first degree murder, second degree murder or manslaughter. Thus deadlocked, the judge declared a mistrial on the one count that mattered.

The jury could have waited until Monday to announce its verdict, but they came back on Saturday, at the low end of the news cycle, when maybe no one was paying as much attention. Or maybe they hoped to avoid the unhappy prospect of announcing a verdict any closer to Sunday, what would have been Davis’ 19th birthday.

Whatever the reason, whatever the timing, the Davis verdict has reopened the wound that never heals in this nation, the wound of violence against young black Americans on the strength of a suspicion, and nothing more. And it reawakens the interminable debate over Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, and that law’s ancillary permissions of other avenues to deadly force, and the ways the Sunshine State has declared war on the young black American male.

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ASSISTANT STATE Attorney Erin Wolfson told USA Today that each of the three attempted-murder counts carries a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. Jackelyn Barnard, spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office, told USA Today that the sentences must run consecutively. Another sentence of 15 years is also possible, for the act of shooting at the SUV.

“You are looking basically at life in prison,” Dunn defense attorney Cory Strolla told CNN, when asked to speculate on his client’s time behind bars. “At 47 years old, that's a life sentence regardless of count one.”

Dunn and his defense team went to great pains not to invoke (or even mention) Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” law, the work of a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association that was signed into law by then Gov. Jeb Bush, the same Jeb Bush pulling his chin over making a run for the White House. (You shudder to think of Bush making this legacy of his time as governor something he’d work to bestow on the whole country as president.)

But the parallels to “stand your ground” were there just the same. Davis’ killing, after all, bears the eerie echoes of the slaying of Trayvon Martin, the teenager shot to death in February 2012 by the cypher George Zimmerman, in Sanford, due south of Jacksonville. And Strolla did make a point of claiming that Dunn fired in self-defense, the crux and pivot point of the “stand your ground” statute.

The question is, self-defense from what?

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Was this a cultural thing, was Dunn defending himself from rap music and its culture? Because that was on trial too. Dunn’s actions were apparently precipitated by his distaste for what he called “rap crap.” It wouldn’t be the first time that rap and hiphop culture have been indicted by implication, in the mainstream media if not in a court of law. To go by the media’s shorthand characterization of this case as either the “loud music” or “thug music” trial, if Davis and friends had been listening to “Nessun dorma” or “Okie From Muskogee,” everything would have been all right.

Strolla, Dunn’s attorney, tried to take the high low ground. “[T]his was not a “black-and-white issue,” he told USA Today, but “a subculture thug issue. And again, it doesn't go to race. It goes to how people behave and respond to situations.”

But maybe this was a racial thing. Dunn’s jailhouse letters, circulated in the media but not entered into evidence for the prosecution at trial, paint a nasty, suggestive picture of Dunn’s state of mind.

While in jail, he wrote this to an unidentified recipient:

I just got off the phone with you and we were talking about how racist the blacks are up here. The more time I am exposed to these people the more prejudiced against them I become. I suppose the white folks who live here are pretty much anti-black, at least the ones who have been exposed to them.

In another letter dated July 12 he wrote:

The jail is full of blacks and they ALL act like thugs. I think the legal system is scared of a backlash any time there is a white-on-black incident, but don’t get excited when it’s black on black or even black on white. This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these ***** idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.

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BUT THE most poisonous aspect of the outcome is the tally of the charges for which Dunn’s been convicted. Guilty on three counts of attempted murder; guilty on the charge of firing into an occupied vehicle.

But on the principal count — the charge of taking someone’s life — the jury bailed, laying the groundwork for a mistrial despite having the options of convicting on lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

There was no conviction for the most serious matter in this case. The verdict on Saturday confirmed the idea that, for all intents and purposes, Jordan Davis did not exist. This, as surely as the Trayvon Martin verdict, is what amounts to a declaration of war.

The unfortunate instructional narrative for black families with children has become pre-emptively proscriptive, and utterly corrosive: The quasi-executions murders of Davis and Martin mean that black children, especially black males, are the ones whose behavior is presumptively suspicious, if not presumptively criminal. Act like this, don't act like that. You must watch how you behave at all times. You are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing post-verdict on Saturday in The Atlantic, summoned rage and a blistering candor he could barely contain: “I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy ... I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting [to] which, likely to the end of our days, we shall unerringly return.”

In a statement it broke our hearts to watch, Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, struggled on Saturday to speak, to say what we all know had to be said: “We will continue to stand and we will continue to wait for justice for Jordan.”

Dunn’s sentencing is set for March 24. We’ll have a better handle then on whether justice for Jordan Davis is possible, or if Florida continues its sorry, tragic slide further and further back into the judicial swamps. Til’ then, we stand and wait and try to hold back the tears. We, all of us, got robbed again. Another young man is gone. And if we start crying now, we might never, ever stop.

Image credits: Jordan Davis: RIP Jordan Davis Facebook page. Dunn: Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office booking photo. Jordan Davis: via
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