Cross and double cross

Impressive things I saw on my trip to Russia in the summer of 2017.

The Kremlin. The Hermitage

Young couples pushing baby carriages. 

No kidding, they were everywhere. 

That might not sound impressive until you consider the “Russian Cross.” 

That was the infamous point in 1990 – amid the economic chaos that ensued after the fall of Soviet communism – when the rising death rate crossed the falling birth rate. 

The Russian Cross didn’t reverse itself until 2012.  And that didn’t come about by accident. 

Rather, it happened because Russians made a conscious decision to invest in children. Women were awarded “pregnancy allowances” worth several thousand dollars, and lucrative “motherhood capital” benefits for a second child…with still more tacked on for triplets. Child care and pre-school was heavily subsidized so parents could work without worrying about their kids. 

Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the reverse of what we Boomers have been doing back here at home. For years now we have been front-loading our tax breaks and government entitlements toward the goal of making life easier for us seniors in our golden years. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with any society taking care of its elderly. But there’s no question that my generation has chosen to do so at the expense of our children. 

So It was no great surprise to hear, shortly after returning to the U.S. from my Russian visit,  U.S. Sen Orrin Hatch say:  “The reason CHIP’s having trouble is that we don’t have money anymore.”?

CHIPS being the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides care for about 8.9 million American kids. 

Or at least it did before we…um…ran out of money.

Call it the “American Double Cross.” That point at which the political imperative to award tax cuts to the wealthy surpassed the fiscally prudent strategy of investing in our children. In our future, really.

I’d like to think that we are a better country than that, but they keep proving me wrong up in the D.C. Swamp. Especially now that we have well and truly entered the Imperial Age of Trump.

Which is not to say that we are not capable of choosing to invest in our children right here at home. Indeed, in this election just past, Alachua County voters opted to bank on its children on at least two fronts. 

A healthy majority of voters agreed to raise their sales taxes in order to help fix up Alachua County’s aging schools – the State Legislature long ago having, um, economized on public school funding so as to pour more tax dollars into charters and private education.

And while they were at it, local voters also raised their property taxes to better fund basic children’s services: That initiative will raise $6 million to $7 million a year for pre-school education, after school care, early childhood health and nutrition services and more.

Right here at home.

Apparently at least we in Alachua County are better custodians of our children than the likes of Donald Trump and Orrin Hatch. 

One more recollection from my visit to Russia. While on a bicycle tour in St. Petersburg our young guide took us to a small park to show us a monument to the children who helped form the backbone of the local resistance when Germany laid siege to what was then called Leningrad during World War II. 

Just kids, really. But for nearly 900 days they played dangerous cat and mouse games with hardened Nazi shock troops amid the rubble of Tzar Peter’s grand city. And when it was finally over, predictably, the majority of Leningrad’s casualties were women and children.

It is a stirring image of defiant kids. In a green park. In a now prosperous city. In a country that  hasn’t forgotten its children.

I wish we could say the same thing here at home.

(A version of this blog appeared in The Gainesville Sun in Dec. 2017.)

Graveyard of ‘heroes’

(Wrote this in the summer of 2017 for the Gainesville Sun. Still relevant today.)

Stalin’s got a busted nose. 

Shattered in transit, it makes “Old Joe’s” legendary scowl even more pronounced. 

His cold granite visage once stood sentinel at the Bolshoi. Now he resides in more humble digs – a leafy park near the banks of the Moscow River.

In truth, Stalin – let’s call him the Soviet Robert E. Lee – has nothing to smile about.

He is surrounded by a phalanx of grotesque figures – some kneeling, some writhing in pain, some with empty eyes and twisted mouths. 

Collectively, they resemble nothing so much as demons of the fiery hell Old Joe has surely been consigned to. 

And lest anyone forget the “heritage” this man wrought, just over Stalin’s left shoulder is a boxy, cage-like affair containing scores of stone heads – anguish written on each face. 

“Victims to the Totalitarian Regime,” we are informed.

Not too far away, Lenin – we’ll call him Russia’s George Washington – enjoys somewhat more generous treatment. Behind him are large aluminum symbols of the USSR – a giant hammer and sickle, a colorful “CCCP.”

But even Lenin doesn’t get off scott-free in Art Muzeon Park – AKA the Park of Fallen Memorials. 

Arrayed around him are four gaunt, painfully thin and twisted figures by the sculptor O.N. Garkushenko. One is titled “Descent Into Hell.”

Their proximity leaves little to interpretation – however well intended Lenin’s revolution, Russia’s 70-year experiment in Soviet communism went horribly awry.

In Muzeon, the gang’s all here. There is a bust of Brezhnev and a marble of Marx. Kosygin looks queasy, Serdlov dispeptic and Dzerzhinsky depressed.

Each is accompanied by a disclaimer: “This work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the Soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.”

The Russians are nothing if not pragmatic.

And in Muzeon they can teach Americans something about how to memorialize people and events that many of us would just as soon forget.

I was visiting Russia when Charlottesville burned with rage, Trump excused the nazis and Gainesville said no to Richard Spencer’s bid for a University of Florida podium. Watching these events from afar, I searched for Russian parallels that might lend context to my own country’s current flirtation with the politics of racism, polarization and discontent.

Not many clues in St. Petersburg. That historic city on the Neve seems these days to be infatuated with all things Tsarist (from Ivan the terrible one to Peter and Catherine the great ones.) 

The good and bad of it all being good for tourism, they say.

But Moscow is 400 miles and seemingly two centuries removed from Tsar Peter’s city. If there is anything like a mass infatuation in evidence, it is surely with Putin’s “strong” leadership. His stellar popularity polls must make The Donald green with envy. 

Moscow, a bustling city of 12 million, is reinventing itself at warp speed. New money is  everywhere – in modern glass skyscrapers, sleek sports cars and luxury condos. Grim, gray Kruschev-era apartments are being renovated to resemble Miami high-rises. Immigrants from breakaway republics flock there in search of jobs. And a baby-boom is afoot – helped along by generous government subsidies to encourage procreation,

After the fall of communism in 1992, Soviet statues and busts were torn down by the hundreds, mostly to be left in crumbling piles. But some have since been “rehabilitated” in Muzeon Park. 

Not to be glorified, however.

Nor are they alone. And that is both the genius and the beauty of this park.

Muzeon is a sculpture garden, and Joe and Vladimir and the rest rank as little more than sideshows in the larger context of this magnificent public space.

Not 200 yards from Stalin is a serendipitous tribute to Old Man Mazoy, who, we are told, saved Russia’s rabbits by plucking them out of a flood with his rowboat. Within Lenin’s disapproving line of sight is Shtok’s “The Lying,” a graceful bronze nude shrugging off her nightgown. Next to the aluminum Soviet symbols are hundreds of small statues in a cluster. Angels and bears and children, oh my. Some are cracked and flawed. Some whimsical. Some sobering.

And then there’s the giant hand. 

Maybe it’s just me, but the giant hand seems to be waving a merry bye-bye to Old Joe and his gang of thugs.

Moscow does not believe in tears.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.

Gainesville’s strong compact

I love this town.

I know, I’ve been saying that for years. But I’ve never been more enamored of Gainesville than I am right now, in the wake of this otherwise dismal election. 

Yes, Florida went red (we think). Floridians elected Rick Scott (probably) despite his filthy legacy of algae green lakes and rivers and red tides. They went with a Trump puppet for governor because, I suppose, the Democrat looked too much like Obama (if you catch my drift).

Which is a shame because Andrew Gillum had the very best basic training imaginable for the office. 

He is a mayor. Mayors can do almost anything. They pretty much have to.

But never mind all that. It isn’t because Gainesville came in reliably blue that I’m singing its praises. That’s just Gainesville being Gainesville.

No, it’s because the social compact that binds us together as a community remains strong and resilient.

The phony siren’s song that we can have it all without paying for it may seduce a lot of voters. But not in this town. 

We have an obligation to our children. So voters in this county decided by a nearly 70 percent margin to impose a half-mill property tax on themselves to fund the Children’s Trust initiative. 

Our schools are falling apart. And so, while federal and state officials keep marginalizing public education, we local voters enacted a half cent sales tax to rebuild and modernize our classrooms.

Because if not us, then who?

And it’s not just that we’re willing to tax ourselves for the greater good. 

Gainesville voters refused to swallow whole the lies and false promises made by Keith Perry, the Chamber of Commerce and other backers of an initiative to separate Gainesville GRU-owners from direct control of their public utility.

We are nobody’s fools. We didn’t just say “no.” By a nearly 67 percent margin we said “Hell No!.”

But neither are we bereft of trust in our local democratic institutions.

The essence of the “independent” GRU board argument was that we can’t trust city government to make our decisions for us. Not only did we reject that nonsense, but we went one better.

By a 70 percent margin we approved a landmark city election reform measure that will give commissioners more time in office, increase voter turnout and ultimately broaden civic participation in municipal affairs.

Oh yeah, and save tax dollars.

Is this a great town or what? We aren’t fooled by politicians that do not have our best interests at heart. We insist on home rule. We won’t be deprived of our ability to hold the elected officials closest to us accountable. And we trust those officials enough to give them more leeway to make better decisions. 

Be proud, Gainesville. Call yourself progressives. Call yourselves liberals. Hell, just call yourselves “common sense,” voters, to borrow a meme that seemed popular with Republicans this year. 

You are Gainesville. You vote. And you do so well and intelligently. 

I love this town. 

Out out damned blot!

Like Jimmy Stewart’s father in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” I always fancied myself a fighter of lost causes.

Which is to say that I was a newspaper editorial writer. 

My resume of causes lost is long and impressive.

Abolish the death penalty? Lost. Gun control? Lost. Free the Ocklawaha? Lost. Unify Gainesville and Alachua County? Lost. 

I could go on but, really, it’s too depressing. 

And now that I’m off the editorial writing payroll and well into my freelance dotage, my zest for lost causes hasn’t faded. 

Stop Trump? Lost. Save the springs? Lost. Give Yoho the heave-ho? Lost.

Which makes all the more baffling to wake up the other morning and realize that I actually have a win in my win-lose column.

How depressing is that? A perfect record spoiled.

Gainesville voters have decided that it makes eminent sense to move city elections from every year in the spring (in splendid isolation) to every other year in the fall.

There to nest comfortably with federal, state and county elections. 

Not only will it save taxpayers money, but it practically guarantees a higher voter turnout for municipal elections.

Which have been known to fall into the single digits because, well, because there are lots of more interesting things to do in the springtime.

Like smell the flowers, dive head first into the gene pool, go to the beach.

Everybody seems to agree on this now.

The FOG (Forces Of Good, aka Gainesville progressives/liberals).

The city commissioners who put it on the ballot.

And the 70 percent of city voters who said “Hell yes!”

Sigh.

You see, for more years than I care to remember there was pretty much one drummer beating the drum for this particular good government reform.

The lowly, ink-stained wretch who occupied the editorial page office on the second floor of the Gainesville Sun.

Not that it was my idea. 

I stole it from a rival city. When I found out that the League of Women Voters had teamed up with the Leon County Supervisor of Elections to change Tallahassee city commission elections from spring to fall.

What a concept. 

But nobody listened. Even though I annoyingly brought it up every time we had a so-quiet-you-can-hear-crickets-chirp city election.

That’s just grumpy old Cunningham again. What does he know?

Imagine my surprise to find that now, five years into my retirement, It actually happened. 

Sigh.

Sure, it was the right thing to do, no matter who said it first (I did). 

But that’s not the point, is it? 

The point is that, now, I have to live with this. 

This damnable blot on my otherwise perfect lost cause record.

What next? Will everybody suddenly wake up one morning and realize that I’ve been right all along? About Reagan. About Bush? About Scott. About the NRA, and algae in our water?

About Trump?

Oh bother.

The spinx and the water

ST. PETERSBURG: This is a city of grand palaces and colorful onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches, of giant mosques and fortresses and spacious parks and even a sad, still-functioning Cold War-era brick-and-barbed wire prison. 

And it is a city of monuments: Bronze and stone tributes to tsars and saints and heroes and sinners. 

Consider the twin sphinxes that stand sentinel over the wide, blue Neva River. Mirror image studies of grace and torment. Each twin’s face split down the middle – one side reflecting a haunting beauty, the other a grim, skeletal mortality.

“These are my favorite statues because they represent the soul of my city,” Victor, the young bicycle guide we hired to show us Russia’s grand city of 6 million people, said. “We have so much beauty, and we have seen so much suffering.” 

The bloody reign of the tsars. The brutal Nazi siege that could not bring St. Petersburg to its knees. Seven decades of grim Soviet rule.

And the surging water. Always the water. 

Slayer of tens of thousands over the city’s 300-year history, flooding has been St. Petersburg’s most constant tormentor since Peter The Great decided – against the advice of just about everybody who knew the terrain – to build his grand capital in the Neva’s low, swampy delta. 

There is a reason they call St. Petersburg the Venice of the North. The river dissects the city with surgical precision, and along its banks are a network of side canals that these days teem with excursion boats. 

Those canals built, not to enchant tourists, but to get rid of unwanted water. 

Floods happen with predictable regularity due to prevailing winds that send Baltic Sea ice melt surging into the city. One flood in 1824 alone killed as many as 10,000. More than 300 floods have swept over the city since its founding in 1703. 

In his epic poem “The Bronze Horseman,” Alexander Pushkin writes of water that “seethes up from below, manifesting itself in uncontrolled passion, illness, and violence. It rebels against order and tradition.” 

Rather like Harvey rebelled against Huston. 

Like St. Petersburg, Houston sprouted on shallow, swampy lands that should never have been selected to host a city in the first place. Houston grew and drained and dredged and filled and sprawled with no rational planning and little heed for the world’s single most destructive force – water. 

Harvey wasn’t Houston’s first flood, only its deadliest. Like St. Petersburg it has suffered the curse of excess water repeatedly.

Which is not to say these two great cities are sphinx-like mirror images. 

Beginning in 1979 Russia began construction of an elaborate series of 11 dams and related  flood-control structures to protect St. Petersburg. Work was halted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but began again in 2005 under Vladimir Putin. 

Finally completed in 2011, St. Petersburg’s network of dams, tunnels, discharge sluices and flood gates have since been credited with helping the city survive at least two serious storm events without sustaining major damage. 

Total cost for the project: An estimated $385 billion in U.S. dollars. 

Meanwhile, after the “Tax Day Flood” of 2016 that killed 16 people, Houston asked Congress for a modest $311 million for flood mitigation. 

Congress couldn’t be bothered. Tax cuts these days being deemed a better investment strategy than life-saving infrastructure.

Now Congress must try to figure out how to pay down at least some of the estimated $190 billion in damages Harvey visited on Texas. 

Nobody in D.C. wants to come right out and admit it, but as climate change aggravates both the frequency and intensity of killer storms, we will be forced to choose between two mitigation strategies. 

One is a gradual retreat from the coast, surrendering cities like Houston and Miami and New Orleans to the elements and relocating their populations ever inland. 

The other is to follow the Dutch, Russians and others who that have decided that great cities like London, Venice, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg are worth the not inconsiderable infrastructure costs necessary to sustain them. 

Call it America’s own twin sphinx dilemma. 

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in the Sun in August 2017.)

Everywhere a sign

Signs, signs everywhere a sign.

Maybe it’s just me but I have a tendency to look for not-so-subtle signs as I wander through AutoAmerica.

For instance, in St. Augustine Beach I noticed that at every pedestrian crossing on Beach Boulevard the city has thoughtfully provided stacks of bright orange flags. The idea being that if you are going to cross the street on foot, better grab a flag so people in automobiles will be able to see you, um, coming.

I’m sure traffic engineers patted themselves on the backs over that one. Keeping our pedestrians safe against all odds, they’d say. 

But that’s the real message here? Those orange flags are very much a sign that people who do not encase themselves in two tons of Detroit iron really don’t belong on the public streets. That they require extraordinary markings just to survive that hostile environment. 

Rather like the old plague ships that had to fly yellow flags.

Everywhere a sign.

At Gainesville High School, where my kids graduated, I see that they have installed a push button system that sets off flashing lights at the pedestrian crosswalk. The better to allow students to get safety across four lanes of highway designed for speedy motor transit. 

Great idea. Oh, but wait.

As if to prove the point that no good deed goes unpunished, the traffic engineers in their infinite wisdom decided that the thick concrete post bearing the life-saving push button ought to be implanted right into the sidewalk, just off-center of the middle.

What’s the sign here? Fine, we’ll give you a break getting across the street. But you’ll pay the price with a partially blocked sidewalk. Tough luck if you happen to be in a wheelchair.

Everywhere a sign.

Speaking of which, I notice that the county just installed a couple of speed trackers along NW 16th Blvd, not far from my home. The speed limit is 40 MPH, and if you are going faster (or slower) than you are so informed in an orange LED digital readout. 

Good idea, because you have to assume that at least some of the drivers who are going faster than 40 will take the hint and show down….at least for a hundred feet or so.

So what’s this sign really saying?

It’s a tacit acknowledgement that four-laned, broad-laned NW 16th has been engineered to near interstate standards, so much so that the natural tendency is to drive faster than the posted limit allows. 

One might reasonably ask why anybody needs to drive 40 mph on an urban street that separates neighborhoods, schools, churches and parks. But that’s an irrelevant question: For all practical purposes you could slap a 30 mph limit on that stroad (look it up) and people would still drive 40-50. Or faster, I’ve seen them do it.

Because fast-moving cars are exactly what NW 16th was designed to facilitate. And it does its job very well.

Orange flags, sidewalk obstructions, electronic slow down alerts. 

The signs are all there. And they all say the same thing.

Here there be autoAmerican dragons. Pilgrims afoot beware.

Voting on the abyss

I was going to tell you that I am seventy years old and this is the most important election in my lifetime. 

I was going to tell you that I voted when Lyndon Johnson was sending young men my age to Vietnam because his Best And Brightest assured him we would Win.

They slaughtered tens of thousands of us.

We slaughtered hundreds of thousands of them.

We didn’t Win.

But this is the most important election in my lifetime.

I was going to tell you that I voted during the Nixon years as that bloody war raged on. But the rage had spread to our own streets, and national guardsmen were shooting young people down on a college campus.

But this is the most important election of my lifetime.

I was going to tell you that I voted when American cities exploded in racial strife and the ghettos seethed with resentment over the the enduring chains of Jim Crow segregation.

But this is the most important election in my lifetime.

I was going to tell you that I voted in the Reagan years, when we trained murderous thugs and overthrew elected governments south of our border so we could “save” their people from communism. 

Want to know what that hapless caravan making its way through Mexico is fleeing? Not communism, but the inevitable fallout from years of U.S.-funded instability.

But this is the most important election in my lifetime.

I voted when we reacted to the deadly attacks of 9-11 by invading a country that had nothing to do with any of it. We went. We’re are still there. We don’t know how to get out. 

Mission Accomplished.

But this is the most important election of my lifetime.

This is the most important election because America is teetering on the abyss. Over the edge is darkness, and once we tumble we may never claw our way back.

We seem more divided white against black as ever Jim Crow intended. We are being fed a steady diet of hate and resentment and fear of The Other. 

We cannot pick up a paper or turn on the television without learning of yet another mass shooting. We are not safe in our schools, the public square or our places of worship because gun possession is held to be sacred above all other American values.  

I was going to tell you that this is the most important election of my lifetime for just one reason.

There is a callous, calculating hate monger in the White House. And every day he finds new ways to divide us one against another. He ridicules and derides and debases. And he delights in inciting the mob that aches to blame someone else, anyone, for their problems. 

All to stroke his monumental ego. 

He is bankrupting America. He scorns nations that have been allies for generations. 

He has a captive Congress whose leaders are without principle or scruples and who will not stop, or even moderate, his excesses.

He is the leader of a party that holds power by gerrymandering, voter suppression and by cynically employing the propaganda tools of fear, bigotry and hate.

He is not on the ballot. But those who empower him are. They are guilty of dereliction of duty and must be turned out.

I was going to tell you that this is the most important election of my lifetime because two more years of Trump unleashed will likely be our undoing. 

That our very democracy hangs in the balance. 

I was going to tell you all of that. 

But do I really have to?

Don’t you already know it?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.