Where We Are Now

Paul Greenberg

4/18/2014 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

The news is too much with us late and soon, and watching and listening we lay waste our powers. Flashing endlessly by, the unceasing flow of BREAKING NEWS seduces and betrays, mainly by pretending to be new. Even though, as the Preacher said, what has been will be. The particulars of the story may change, but not the human condition. The names may be new, but the stories remain remarkably the same, just as weapons change but war remains the bloody same.

Yet here and there in the familiar murk of the news there comes a sudden shaft of light that reveals just where we are in A.D. 2014. A single story in the haystack that is the day's wire stories may not just catch our fleeting attention but fix it, like a butterfly pinned to a display board. Reading it can focus and engage the mind, maybe even drive us as far as contemplation. Which is a rare thing indeed in this or any other busy-busy era. And we are stopped still. As by Revelation.

That single story may even be enough to leave a newspaper columnist silent, if only for a blessed moment. As if he had stumbled across a summation and condensation of this moment in history, that mire of repetition.

The other day the mesmerizing story in the paper was an eye- and mind-opener about the new or at least remodeled resort of Yalta in Crimea, which is Russia again, and where the czars' old Livadia Palace is being all spiffed up -- like an historical re-enactment of 1945. That's when Yalta was the site of a Big Three conference -- a summit meeting of Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. It was also where the fate of Europe for the next half-century would be determined: half slave, half free.

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There are certain historic places that are not just historic. For they evoke not just what happened there but is happening now. Places like the palatial headquarters of the old League of Nations by the lake at Geneva, where distinguished diplomats still meet not to confront but to condone aggression, even coordinate it. As has been observed before, history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. The names may change -- appeasement, d├ętente, reset -- but the policy remains the same, and so do its bloody results.

A shadow lingers around such places despite their glitter and glow, their new paint and new scams. A shadow that evokes not only past but very present tragedy. And future disaster. For the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, to quote Burke, is that good men do nothing. What, our leaders worry? They are too busy proclaiming Peace in Our Time even as it turns into war in our time, and right before their blind eyes.

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It was at Yalta that it was decided the continent would be carved up -- like a prize turkey -- into different spheres of influence. And so it was -- despite all the talk about free elections, which would prove only talk. For once the Red Army took over, directly or through sudden coups or stage-managed elections, all Europe east of the Elbe would become a collection of captive nations, Soviet satellites where there would be no more chance of a free choice than in today's supposedly post-Soviet Russia.

In an historic speech the next year, at a small college in the heart of the heart of America, Westminster College in little Fulton, Missouri (population 7,000), it was Winston Churchill who would sum up what had been decreed at Yalta, even giving the world a name for it: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent."

Now that iron curtain descends again as the Voice of America is banned in Russia along with so many Russian voices. And the Russian bear prowls again, snatching a slice of Georgia one year, the Crimean peninsula the next, and the world wonders which country will fall prey next -- Moldova, Azerbaijan? More of Ukraine? One of the Baltic republics, or all of them? And all the while, the West stands by and mainly watches, issuing a paper protest now and then. Yes, sometimes a single shaft of light will illuminate what is happening in the all-enveloping dark. This is such a moment of illumination. Call it Yalta II.