Putin Pushes the Reset Button

I was seated at the same dinner table as a couple of Russian émigrés two years ago. The couple, an engineer and a physician, had emigrated from Russia to Israel, and after a few years there, had moved to Canada.  I know politics is a topic to be avoided at the dinner table, but I wanted to learn what Russians, and not just Western political pundits, thought of Vladimir Putin, and so I asked the engineer. I was struck by his favourable view of the Russian president. “He is a strong leader,” I remember his saying, approvingly.  Putin is a strong leader, indeed, as events of the last few days have proven, and a shrewd one, too.  The Russian president was watching as the US President and his Secretary of State dithered and stumbled, repeatedly.  The former KGB officer saw a leadership vacuum, and made his move. 

The Obama team has displayed a certain naïveté in regard to Russia from the get-go. Take Hillary Clinton’s cringe-inducing gift of a mock reset button, which looks even “cheesier” now than it did at the time.  Back in March 2009, then US Secretary of State Clinton presented Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov with a green box tied up with a green ribbon.  Inside was a red reset button bearing the Russian word peregruzka, meaning, ‘reset’–or that was what Clinton and her aides believed. The gift, a beaming Clinton told Lavrov, “represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is, ‘We want to reset our relationship.’ And so we will do it together.”  She went on, “We worked hard to get the right Russian word.  Do you think we got it?”  I can’t even begin to imagine Clinton’s embarrassment when Lavrov replied with undiplomatic forthrightness, “You got it wrong.  This says ‘peregruzka’, which means ‘overcharged.’” Clinton’s mock reset button should have read instead perezagruzka.  Her aide called the error a ‘typo’.  Lavrov said he would put it on his desk, where it has no doubt generated a lot of commentary and laughter since.

Observing Vladimir Putin’s actions of late, one can only conclude that the Russian president has “pressed the reset button.”   Putin has undergone a breath-taking transformation, from supporter of a brutal dictator to statesman.  He has enhanced Russia’s standing in the world and challenged the US’s position as sole superpower, a position held since the collapse of the USSR.  With the framing of the Russian-initiated agreement that would see Syria’s chemical weapons placed under international control, Russia has re-emerged on to the world stage.  The Russian bear is back! 

But it’s a gentler sort of bear now, a bear that writes and submits op-eds to newspapers.  In his 12 September op-ed to The New York Times, Putin reminds American readers that “we are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” (But God does not bless all people and all actions equally, Putin forget to mention.) I guess I get a little suspicious when I hear religious language coming from a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, from a man who joined the Communist party in his university days and remained a member until it was disbanded in 1991. 

The Russian peace initiative agreed upon by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Kerry on 14 September (on Yom Kippur, interestingly) would see Syria get rid of its chemical weapon arsenal while the US, in return, would stop arming the Syrian rebels, and retract its threat of a military strike.  Putin, the peacemaker, has averted a war, true, but it is he and his client Bashar al-Assad who are the clear winners in all this. It’s difficult not to be cynical, given that Russia has been the Assad regime’s enabler, supplying it with weapons, and protecting it from military action by means of its veto power on the Security Council. So, thanks to the Russian-initiated agreement, Assad stays in power, Russia keeps its naval base at Tartus, the Shiite-bloc remains intact, and the fighting continues. The American president is a winner by default, helped out of a tough political fix of his own making.  

What have the innocent civilians of Syria gained–the children and women, the elderly and infirm–gained from the Russian initiative?  The knowledge that they will be maimed and killed in future days, not by sarin gas, but by conventional weapons only.  Supporters of the Russia-US agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons see the agreement as a possible “stepping stone” to further peace negotiations.  Let’s hope so, for the sake of the Syrian people.  

Male, Female, Neither? The Choice Is Now yours

If you want to get a sense of the pace of social change in Western society at this point in time, all you need to do is do what I just did:  I looked up the definition of ‘marriage’, first in the dictionary sitting on the shelf in my den, and then with the dictionary app on my tablet.  My 1990 Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘marriage’ as: 1. the legal union of a man and a woman in order to live together and often to have children.  2. an act or ceremony establishing this union.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary app on my tablet, on the other hand, defines ‘marriage’ as:  1a(1) the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law.  1a(2) the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage>. 

It has been a mere 12½ years since the first ever same-sex marriage was legally registered by the mayor of Amsterdam.  Since then, fifteen more countries have joined the Netherlands in passing laws making homosexual marriage legal.  In the USA, thirteen states plus Washington DC have followed suit.  Like others, I’m sure, I have often wondered:  If a societal institution like marriage–understood from time immemorial as a union between a man and a woman–can be successfully redefined, and not only redefined but accepted by the majority in little more than a decade, what else is open to redefinition?  Well, now we know.

This past May, Germany became the first European country to introduce a third gender category to its birth certificates: Indeterminate.  A law was passed that allows German parents to opt out of determining their newborn’s gender at birth, thereby allowing those infants with both male and female physical characteristics to choose which gender to become later in life. The percentage of infants born with physical characteristics of both sexes is actually very low:  1%.  What’s highly significant about this law is that it does not apply to the parents of newborns with sexual dimorphism alone.  As of November 1, if a German “feels deeply” that he or she belong to a certain gender, that individual will have the right under the new law to choose how he or she wishes to be identified, irrespective of his or her assigned “plumbing.” That individual may opt to remain outside the gender binary, the male-female classification, altogether.   

When it comes to third gender recognition, Australia has led the way. On July 1, Australia added a third gender to its forms: X for ‘intersex’.  Australians may now select the gender of their choosing on personal documents:  M, F, or X. Australia’s attorney-general had this to say about the change in gender classification:  “We recognize individuals may identify and be recognized within the community as a gender other than the gender they were assigned at birth or during infancy, or as an indeterminate gender.”

A similar trend is underway in the USA.  California’s Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a state-wide law, Assembly Bill 1266, which gives transgender youth in K-12 public schools the right to participate in sex-segregated programs and activities, based on their self-perception, regardless of their birth gender.  The law, which takes effect 1 January 2014, will also allow students to use whatever bathroom and locker room they believe matches their gender identity.  Some surveys put the percentage of people in the USA who identify as a ‘transgender’– that is, someone who identifies with a gender role that differs from the biological one assigned to him or her–at only .3%. 

The idea that one’s “self-perception” should be allowed to determine one’s gender was demonstrated in dramatic fashion recently by Bradley Manning, the American Army private sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks.  The day after he was sentenced, he issued a statement saying that he is really a woman, that he wishes to be known as “Chelsea,” and that he intends to start hormone therapy to transition to a female.  He came to that decision, he stated, based on his feelings:  “Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.” It’s interesting to note that he is now referred to as “Chelsea” by the media, even though, I would suspect, he has yet to start the transition process. His gender is what he declares it to be!    

Is gender really all about self-perception, about feelings?  Feelings change, from day to day, year to year.  Is gender something that we alone determine?  In the Genesis account of creation, the gender binary is presented as an essential part of the Creator’s design.  Genesis 1:27 reads:  “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  The number of children born with sexual dimorphism is 1%.  The number of individuals who regard themselves as transgender is even lower, .3%. Do such numbers call for the creation of a third gender?  Some think so. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, in fact, would like to see third sex recognition as a worldwide human right.  I don’t agree.  Adding a third gender is a case of social tinkering on a scale uncalled for by the numbers, with unforeseen and unintended consequences down the road.