Saturday, December 31, 2016

Petlura at the Gates

"Petlura is only at the gates, not yet in the city."

It would take an old Russia hand like me to see parallels between Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard and the situation confronting many of us on the progressive liberal left at the end of 2016.  Like the Turbins in The White Guard, may we all find some momentary peace and comfort in family and friends as the New Year hour approaches.  These musings can be found in my other web journal, Alice in State, at

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Trotsky, French Novels, and Us

Leon Trotsky, The Prophet in the biographical trilogy by Isaac Deutscher, is not someone most of us think about on a regular basis.  Since the U.S. election in November, however, he's been on my mind.  More precisely, my mind has been conjuring up a particular image, that of Trotsky reading French novels as his political life was crashing down.

Leon Trotsky (1924)
No one, least of all Trotsky, could envision that Stalin, the grey blur with the functional position of General Secretary, would destroy all opposition in the Bolshevik Party through intrigue, deft use of wedge issues and personality differences among his opponents, and outright terror.  Trotsky's reaction as the noose tightened around his political neck in 1924-27 is one that still surprises and astounds biographers and historians:  he withdrew.  As Neal Ascheson writes in his review of Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy:
This passivity remains the mystery of his life.  After that Congress [XIV Party Congress of December 1925], his fate and that of the opposition were sealed; events moved slowly towards his exclusion, his deportation to Alma Ata in 1927 and his expulsion to Istanbul in 1929.  In that crucial period of 1924-27, one of the most forceful, restless personalities in history behaved like a Hamlet.  Why?  A sort of pathological disconnection, perhaps, which distanced him from political intrigues he found revolting?  Or intellectual arrogance:  the refusal to compete against people he secretly considered his inferiors?  He was certainly arrogant; to take a comic example, he probably had no idea of the resentment he caused by reading French novels during Central Committee sessions. 
Trotsky reading French novels.  I wonder if some, perhaps most, of the U.S. electorate that voted for Donald Trump doesn't view supporters of the Democratic Party in the same way, as divorced from reality, arrogantly reading French novels that they see as having little relationship to their lives?

XIV Party Congress, December 1925
Since the election I have been forcing myself to listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other conservative talk show hosts and Fox News broadcasts.  They make for difficult, painful listening.  If Bernie Sanders and other Democratic Party politicians talk about trying to find common ground on issues such as rebuilding U.S. infrastructure, this is not what I am hearing on conservative talk shows.  Rather, elation at victory over the liberal establishment and charges that those opposed to the incoming administration are hysterical are louder than what mainstream media had led me to believe before the election.

Joseph Stalin (1920s)
If there is a lesson from the life of Trotsky, it is that those of us being charged with liberal hysteria need to put away our French novels.  As post-election maps have shown, we are a nation that is deeply split both culturally and politically.  We move in our own groups with almost no communication, almost no exposure to each other.  If I can give myself an undeserved pat on the shoulder, it's that I unwittingly find myself as a blue homesteader in a red district, having moved to rural Maine in 2009.  (I may just be the only Hillary Clinton voter in my small town.)  As such, I know the pain of small town Mainers who saw their lives upended when NAFTA resulted in closed factories and as mills closed up shop.  The median income in my town is a tad below $12,000 with jobs becoming scarcer all the time.  The cost of higher education has put it out of reach for most.  Is it any surprise that the natural beauty that attracted me to Maine belies a growing drug problem for a population that sees a life that is increasingly without hope?  Is it any surprise that my neighbors would vote for someone who promises to smash the existing Washington system?  Is it any surprise that they would view the Democratic Party or even the mainstream Republican Party as divorced from their reality?

The Democratic Party is indeed going through a time of tumult as it attempts to grasp the post-election reality that promises to sweep away much of the legacy of past eight years.  Yet the need to continue U.S. leadership in climate change remains.  So does support for human rights in all of its dimensions both within and outside the US.  And this is not a time for a dramatic shift in our alliances and relations with other major powers.  

Another lesson from the Soviet Union from the Stalin period is that Stalin was wildly popular among the common population.  In his way he may even have been a populist.  That popularity endured throughout his authoritarian rule and has never faded away despite attempts by Khrushchev and others to publicize the crimes against humanity during his rule.  Only those directly affected by Stalinist terror came to understand the nature of his rule, often only after being arrested, convicted, and sent to the Gulag or, in the case of many, just as the executioner's bullet entered their brains.  Stalin distrusted the educated elite that he viewed as a source of opposition, and this elite suffered more than many other groups as Stalinist terror rolled across the country in repeated waves.  Even at the height of the Great Terror in 1936-38, the average person likely saw the accused as rightly convicted and sentenced, in the words of prosecutor Andrey Vyshinsky, to be shot "like the mad dogs they are."  To many, the removal of a Western educated specialist meant an opportunity for a worker, a Red specialist, to move up in the world.

I do not wish to imply any equivalence between the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 30s with the United States of today.  There is none.  Trotsky was a major player in creating the system that allowed Stalin to destroy him.  Nor do I view Trotsky as romantic or heroic.  Had he lived, he may have been more ideologically pure but just as bloody to his opponents as Stalin.  Yet as someone who has spent much of her life studying Russian and Soviet history, I believe there is a lesson to be drawn from Trotsky's downfall.  

For those of us who voted for Hillary Clinton or, during the primaries, for Bernie Sanders, it is time to work harder than ever to communicate what we believe in as core principles:  protection of human and civil rights for all both at home and abroad, saving this planet for posterity, promoting equality for all, and advancing the interests and equality of the working and middle classes.  It is a time to organize, to write letters to our elected representatives, calling on them to oppose cabinet nominations or policy changes that we consider dangerous.  It's time to donate and commit time to non-governmental organizations whose programs we support.  It's no longer sufficient for those committed to liberal principles just to vote.  

Let's not allow the November 2016 election be our equivalent of the Soviet XIV Party Congress.  We need to put away our French novels, not acquiesce to passivity, and get to work.  The consequences of not doing so are too frightful to contemplate.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Resistance Is Not Futile

The morning of November 10 found me in Copenhagen.  As I awoke that morning, the Trump victory was not yet a foregone conclusion.  Hillary could still pull it out, I felt sure as I headed out the door of my hotel.  Surely she will pull it out.  But by the time I reached the conference on environmental and related issues for which I had come to Denmark, it was over.  I spent the day in numbed shock, feeling I must still be asleep in a nightmare from which I would surely wake.  Then came Wednesday night and the following days.  The reality sank in.  The age of endarkenment seemingly had spread across my country.  Would it ever be the same?  Would any of us?

At some level I had seen this coming.  Over a year ago, when it came time for me to bid on my post-Kazakhstan posting in 2017, I had a choice of staying overseas or returning to Washington.  I chose the latter, largely for personal reasons but also because I knew the pattern of presidential races has been for any party that has been in power for two terms to be voted out.  The odds were good that the Republican Party would regain the presidency, and I did not want to be overseas in a position where I would have to defend policies with which I fundamentally disagree.  By going back to a largely non-political job in Washington, I would not have to say words in public that would make me turn red with embarrassment and cause me to retch when I would get back to the privacy of my own quarters.

That was a year ago.  Still, as the presidential campaign wore on, the hope inside me grew that I was wrong.  Donald Trump's campaign based on populist say whatever the current crowd wants to hear with its racist overtones could not possibly succeed.  His appeal to the most base emotions with scarcely a shred of real policy proposals was doomed to fail.  No educated person could stomach him for long.

But it has come to pass.  Donald Trump, like it or not, has been anointed, largely by white men who long for a return of the 1950s when a white man could buy a car, buy a house, and support a family while working a high-paying factory job.  Industry in Germany, the UK, France, Japan, and the Soviet Union had been leveled by World War II.  Only the US stood unscathed, and we ruled the world.  Life was good . . .

Unless one was black, female, LGBT, an immigrant, or member of some other minority group that could easily be ignored by privileged white males.  That began to change in the 1950s with the civil rights movement, followed closely thereupon by the anti-war movement and women's liberation.  Then came Nixon and Watergate and disillusionment that led first to the election of Jimmy Carter and then . . . to Reagan!

It was with the election of Reagan in 1980 that I first sensed I was out of touch with that large segment of the U.S. population that had elected him.  Having grown up in New York City, having been educated at leading East Coast public and private universities, and having a deep knowledge of at least one foreign country together with its language and culture, I had become what much of the country despises:  a member of the educated, cosmopolitan elite.  

Therein lies the tragedy of the Democratic Party:  we lost touch with the working classes that in the past had been at the center of labor activism that supported progressive policies.  Unions were allowed to fail, and little was done to oppose Republican policies that hastened the unraveling of what unions had fought so hard to achieve.  Of all our failures, the greatest was to allow the cost of higher education to climb to the skies at the same time that the quality of secondary education was falling.  The divide between the working class and the educated class widened.  Workers with only high school educations found themselves at service jobs for minimum wage and looked enviously at the educated class even as many members of that class were far from being in the top 1% of the moneyed elite.  

Is it any surprise that a populist message, even when that appealed to angry racist instincts, would appeal to those who felt left out in this modern global economy?  Sound bites and tweets took the place of well-reasoned dialog that a large portion of the U.S. population had lost the ability to engage in.  The coming of a man like Donald Trump is something we should have seen coming but, hoping against hope and talking only to ourselves, did not.

I worry to the depths over what the incoming Trump administration will do to the country, to the progressive social fabric that had moved inexorably forward through most of my life, and to the planet.  Most of all I fear what will happen to the Paris Agreement on climate change that has been at the center of much of my work for the past two years.  Will it all be swept away by a man who believes climate change is a hoax?

I have been devouring the opinion columns in the International New York Times each day since the dark morning of November 10.  Of the many columns I have read, I take heart most of all from a November 12-13 column by Timothy Egan, Resistance Is not Futile.  I particularly like his comment about my own employer:
The State Department, which usually tries to be a force for good, advocating human rights over bottom lines, cannot be easily pressed into aiding the globe's gangsters and oligarchs, even if New Gingrich is secretary of state.
I hope I can look back four years from now and say those words applied to me.  With less than three years left until retirement, I have no career ladder to climb, no career to risk.  The professionals I work with care deeply about their issues.  Even if a different direction is given at the top, it will take a full purge to rid the State Department and other government agencies of their educated professionals.  For once, bureaucracy can be a force for good, standing in the way of policies likely to unhinge this planet from its moorings.

Meanwhile, I take courage from the scenes of peaceful anti-Trump demonstrations in many U.S. cities.  Just as in the days of the civil rights movement, this is the time for the exercise of freedom of speech and peaceful resistance.  It will be a time for civil disobedience if Trump insists on pushing through much of his campaign rhetoric as policy.  May that power of the people then extend to the Democratic Party as it reorganizes and reestablishes communication with the working class that it left behind.  

Resistance is not futile.  It is, rather, the only way left to us.    

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Five Years: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Astana:  November 6, 2016

Five years.  I turned around, blinked, and now see the past five years in the rear view mirror.  It was on November 10, 2011, that we announced my social transition to the U.S. Embassy community in Bucharest, Romania.  There have been many important dates in my life, but this rates at least as highly as the birth of my son.  My passport may still list the date of my physical birth, but for me it is November 10 that is the important date, the date worth celebrating.  And when better to celebrate and take note than when I turn five years old?

I've debated writing in this web journal again.  The spotlight that was on me that day five years ago as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) transitioning gender while serving overseas has moved elsewhere.  After serving for a year as president of GLIFAA, our lgbt+ association for employees of U.S. foreign affairs agencies, I too have moved on.  For over two years now I've been serving in Kazakhstan covering environmental, science, and health issues both within Kazakhstan and in other countries in the region.  The job is a challenging one.  The hours are long, the meetings are many, and I travel frequently in the quest of making this planet a better place for our children and grandchildren.  I'm not that much different from other FSOs who are in the field doing their best to serve our country.

On a Winter's Day in Astana
So why write here now?  In part it's because five years is a nice round number, what Russian speakers would call a round date (круглая дата).  In part it's because I know friends who supported me in Romania would like an update.  (Romania, te iubesc!)  And surprisingly, it's also because I don't want to fall into the type of stealth where covering my past becomes a primary aim.  Not wanting to trumpet my past on a daily basis is one thing; trying to cover up that past is something else entirely and is, indeed, impossible in this age of electronic media.

I have in fact fallen nicely into a form of stealth.  I can go days or weeks at a time now without thinking back on the transition challenges I faced.  To most of the people I know in Kazakhstan, I'm just an American woman who is well preserved, even attractive for her years.  Most people I work with both within the Embassy and outside it have no idea that there is a long story behind the woman sitting across the meeting table from them.  And in fact there's no reason for them to know.  There's scarcely even reason for me to remember.

Being stealth without actively pursuing it has in its way been wonderful.  I'm one of the lucky ones with passing privilege.  I've found that men find me attractive, and I even had a steady boyfriend for a year when I was in the US.  I'm part of a women's group, and I lodged an official complaint when a woman I work with at another Post in our region was the object of what I perceived to be gender-based discrimination.  

I've made many local friends in Kazakhstan.  I rather expect many of them would not believe me if I told them my story.  And why tell them?  It's not relevant to what we do together, to where I am today.

But Summer Does Come Even Here!
There have been personal challenges serving in Central Asia, but the challenges I face are the same that any other divorced woman my age would face.  The greatest of these is distance.  Kazakhstan is eleven time zones away from the East Coast of the US.  I miss my sisters, my son, and my granddaughter, and I now recognize that an intimate relationship lasting more than a year will have to wait until I return home for good next year.  The reverse challenge is that I would like to bundle up many of my local friends and take them home to the US with me, but I know that is impossible.  Just as with my dear friends in Romania, my relationship with friends here will be reduced a year from now to Skype, e-mails, and Facebook postings.  The joy of being an FSO is meeting new people in new countries and cultures.  The sadness is that we are always saying goodbye.

But sometimes there are reminders of my roots.  The political turmoil in the US seems strangely distant when one is this far overseas, but echoes do reach me.  The controversy over transgender persons in North Carolina makes me wonder if I should ever visit that state . . . and also makes me wonder if any of my friends who do not know my past would understand why.  The outcome of the current presidential election (I'm writing on November 5) could have a direct effect on whether my rights will be protected throughout the country.  I feel I have a personal debt to one of the presidential candidates whose actions ensured that my employment as an FSO did not end in 2010-11. 

Other reminders are local.  If the status of the Romanian LGBT community is similar to that in the US some 20-25 years ago, then the situation in Kazakhstan lags by 50-100 years.  I have had the pleasure of coming to know many gay, lesbian, and transgender persons here.  I admire many of them and was devastated earlier this year when my closest friend in this country, a natural leader who could have united individuals into a movement, died well before his years.  The lot of transgender persons is particularly difficult in a system that makes obtaining new identity documents if not impossible, then at least extremely difficult.

So here I am, a privileged American with a particular background serving her country while local friends with similar backgrounds struggle simply to exist.  Central Asia may not be Africa, but serving here has given me an appreciation for Chloe Schwenke and what she has written about the lack of rights for her transgender sisters and brothers on that continent.  (You can find Chloe's journal at  On days when my privilege stands out starkly following a diplomatic reception or high level meeting, I think of my local friends who are no less deserving than I am.

On a Museum Visit
I do what I can.  I do quiet work both official and unofficial to improve conditions for the local T and LGB communities, but their situation is not going to change by much while I'm here.  Moreover, with thoughts of being an Ugly American on my mind, I know this is a region where my U.S. and even Romanian experience may have only limited application.

Thus I turn back to the official job I was sent here to do and take joy in that and in the friends I have made.  I look to the coming winter, to me one of the true joys of being in a severely continental climate at the same latitude as the northern tip of Newfoundland.  (Yes, I love winter!)  I look forward to our annual tradition of doing a New Year's snow shoe night hike under a full moon on the frozen river outside Astana.

And if anyone was wondering, I would never go back.  The joys and even heartaches of the past five years are woven into the fabric of my life more brightly than anything that came before.  Surprisingly, November 10 this year will find me on a work trip to Copenhagen.  PE will fly up from Bucharest to spend my birthday and the following weekend with me.  Two Danish girls, temporarily at least, we'll pause, think back on what we lived through together and since, and raise a celebratory glass.  Life is good, and life is as it should be.