"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Putin A Bully? Hardly - Just A Canny Political Master

Bullying is still news in the Style Section and on Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post; but years of professional hectoring have not changed the calculus of the playground where kids still learn how to deal with those stronger and those weaker.  Every adult has had to deal with some kind of childhood taunt.  All except my classmate, John Walters, who was perfect. John was gifted with extraordinary good looks, athletic ability, and brains; and somewhere along the way learned modesty.  Everybody loved him. 

Those of us with big noses, fat lips, unruly hair, pigeon-toes, or spindly legs picked on each other, but no one picked on John Walters because there was nothing to pick on.  We all wanted to be him – blonde, blue-eyed, flaxen hair, sculptured body, and absolutely irresistible to girls – but could only admire from afar his exploits on the football field, his prom dates, and his SAT scores.  John had been anointed, and he did what we expected from him – Yale, Navy Seals, Park Avenue, Martha’s Vineyard and an intelligent, successful, and beautiful wife.

The rest of us scrapped for our dinner. We figured out ways to deal with playground bullies and prep school taunts. Some of us, like Billy Blantyre, went to the mat with them.  Billy was our 9th grade hero when he tussled with the school bully. Billy came away bloodied, discombobulated and bruised but triumphant.  Others figured that their J.Press button-downs were not worth the effort and either kept their distance or paid the bully off. 

Bobby P was only the biggest school bully.  We in turn teased Needles Fogelman mercilessly.  Needles had been born tiny to tiny parents, and was lost in the forest of tall, athletic West Enders at Chapel Country Day.  He was Jewish, a Democrat, and smart - a terrible trifecta for a young adolescent; but he held his own, kept his head down when called for and up when it counted.  Either because of the taunts or despite them, Needles, aka Jacob Fogelman, went to Harvard, Harvard Law School and clerked for William O. Douglas.

I met up with Needles many years later, and asked him about his days at Chapel.  Did all the taunting bother him?.  No, he said, it did not.  His family was Jewish, his relatives were camp survivors, and life in the United States had been no picnic.  Picking on people was so normal that he did not hold it against us.

I remember an incident at boarding school when a classmate was being held down and given a pink belly by three seniors from down the hall.  He was always picked on because, like Needles, he was small, uncoordinated, and defiant.  While the beefy football players pinned him to the bed, they invited the rest of us to give poor Tim a whack.  Few declined.  They picked on an innocent, vulnerable, and completely defenseless hall-mate for no good reason except to look good in the eyes of the football players. 

I caught up with Tim at a Lefferts reunion, and of course asked him if he remembered the event.  He said he did, and although he still harbored some resentment against the football players who had made his life hell, his bad feelings were reserved for his supposed friends who had joined in the beating.  “The need to belong is a very corrosive force”, he said, excused himself, and went for another white wine.

Bullying is natural, normal, pervasive, and permanent.  Rather than try to expunge it from childhood and marginalize it through programs of sensitivity and diversity, school administrators, parents, and teachers should leave it alone.  Children learn from the raw, primal world of the playground.  They learn about courage, compassion, ignorance, status, friendship, and authority; and if they don’t learn hard lessons there, they will be unprepared for the adult jungle they are about to enter. 

Bullying is one thing, cruelty is another; and even before the anti-bullying fad, teachers were quick to step in when things got out of hand.  “Some children are just plain bad”, a second-grade teacher friend of mine once told me.  They may have good parents, live in a good neighborhood, and have all the right genes and advantages, but they just turn out cruel and twisted.  These children are trouble, she said, and no amount of school discipline was going to set them right.  Adult society would have to deal with them.

Bullying these days is applied to anyone who uses power forcefully in his own self-interest. I had a boss once who was called a bully because she hammered incompetent subordinates, insisted that they redo unsatisfactory work, and threatened them with dismissal unless they shaped up.  She was no bully.  She simply demanded from others the same high standards she had set for herself; and more importantly wanted her division to be at the top of the corporate performance charts every year.

Although Lyndon Johnson was President long before bullying became déclassé, the term is always applied to him a posteriori.


LBJ was no bully.  He simply knew how to use presidential power and his even more impressive personal power and unstoppable will to get what he wanted. Johnson was a master of compromise, and ‘bullying’ was just part of a larger strategy of compliment, concession, and retribution.  Yet he is always called a bully.

Reading Hilary Mantel’s wonderful two-part series about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, one quickly sees that the king and the imposing Cardinal Wolsey were determined men willing and able to use power for their own ends.  Few courtiers wanted to challenge either one of them for fear of being excommunicated or losing their heads.  For that matter most kings with unchallenged authority use it indiscriminately.  Why waste time and resources on kindness and compromise when you have divine right? 

Does that make them bullies? Hardly.  The arrogation of power comes naturally when its acquisition is unopposed. Even the benign and beloved Elizabeth I suffered fools badly and while her record at the chopping block is far more temperate than other English monarchs, you can be sure she threatened, frightened, intimidated, and berated like her more abusive colleagues.

The expansion of the term ‘bullying’ to include any kind of forceful, self-interested behavior is a product of ‘progressive’ liberalism, and a desire to see things as they should be rather than they are. Strong, defiant, and willful people who do not hesitate to use their power aggressively are disparagingly called bullies, while they are only acting as powerful, motivated people always do.  Nietzsche is hated among the ‘progressive’ community because he celebrated the exercise of will as the only validation of the individual.  Morality and ‘good and evil’ mattered not to him, and his heroes were Tamburlaine, Richard III, and Genghis Khan, bullies all.

One has only to take a cursory peek into the corporate offices of Wall Street, Houston, or Hollywood to see ‘bullying’ at its best.  Does anyone doubt that the investment banker smelling a deal and sensing weakness will not intimidate and threaten to get compliance? Or the movie mogul for whom hundreds of millions are at stake on movie rights?  Or the Texas oilman operating in a cutthroat business where energy desperados would rather shoot you than look at you?

Vladimir Putin is not a bully.  He did not bully Ukraine.  Yes, he has threatened them in the past by withholding gas supplies, loans, and economic agreements; but that was no different than any other national leader negotiating for the best deal possible for his country.  After more than twenty years of Western pushing, shoving, disparaging, demeaning, marginalizing, and ‘bullying’ Russia, Putin has shouted basta and with a big Fuck You took back what he and millions of Russians considered their Crimea. Without a doubt he took advantage of a smaller, weaker, poorer country at its weakest – Ukraine –but his show of force was in the face of Obama, the United States, and the European Union, not Ukraine; and the action was therefore not that of a bully.  It was an expression of the determined will of a powerful, canny leader willing to take on the big guys.

The entire debate about bullying is a symptom of America’s more serious debate about the use of force.  We have become risk averse, fearful of putting our soldiers in harm’s way or injuring innocent civilians.  We have apparently lost the indomitable will to win that we had in WWII when we firebombed Dresden, sent thousands of soldier up the beaches of Normandy to withering German machine gun fire, and blew up Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and thousands of ordinary citizens in a nuclear fireball.  To add a footnote to Clausewitz, if you decide to go to war, win it at any cost.

We are worried about being seen as the world’s bullies – a big, strong, military power blowing the little Taliban to smithereens or establishing brutal, decades long martial law in Iraq – but in our deference to inclusiveness and vain and idealistic notions of morality, we become the fat kid on the playground – easy to push around.

We have to admire Putin for his muscular, willful actions in Crimea.  He has been clear in his disdain for silly Western notions of ‘national sovereignty’, stating that as usual America is very myopic when it comes to history.  Ukraine is not one, indissoluble, sacred whole, but a fractious and disparate place – no different from Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, or any other nation/culture.  The West, ignorant to historical complexity, will always misread the intentions of savvy, smart, purposeful leaders like Putin.

America needs to start bullying more, not less.

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