Monthly Archives: March 2022

Festivus in March Redux

The 'Festivus Miracle' Lives On - The New York Times

It has been three years since I last proposed Festivus in March. This time, maybe it will catch on. The past couple of weeks, I found myself yearning for an early Festivus, knowing I could not wait until year’s end to practice the Festivus tradition of “airing of grievances.” So please forgive my channeling my inner Frank Constanza, but “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people. And now you’re gonna hear about it.”

Grievance #1: The Washington Post

On March 19, a headline on the front page of the Washington Post read as follows, “Mixed signals from Ukraine’s president and his aides leave West confused about his end game.” Let me share the comment I posted to this story.

WTF. Did the writers pay no attention to what happened last Wednesday? Zelensky asks for a no-fly zone, but adds, “If I can’t have that, I need…” And hours later he gets most of “that” from the U.S. and NATO. That didn’t happen by accident. Do you really believe Zelensky is not talking with Biden and European leaders about his “end game?” The person he doesn’t want to share it with is Putin. Just like folks stopped talking about what arms were and were not arriving in Ukraine. Neither the war nor peace should be prosecuted in the media. Sorry if your little feelings are hurt because Zelensky is not willing to lay his cards on the table for you and Putin to see before the hand is over.

Grievance #2: It Takes a Special Kind of A-Hole

Friday night, Wild Amelia, a local non-profit that promotes protection of the local environment through education held a fundraiser comprised of a sunset boat tour hosted by Amelia River Cruises. Among the attendees with one older, white gentleman (I use the term loosely) with a beer belly covered by a politically incorrect tee shirt who felt it necessary to proudly don his “Let’s Go Brandon” gimme cap. I know, I could have simply said he was wearing the cap and you would have guessed he was no spring chicken, white, had a beer belly and a questionable sense of fashion. And to make sure everyone on the boat saw him, he would occassionally walk up and down the aisles with his belly puffed out.

The next day I received a call from one of the board members who asked me what I thought of the incident, especially since some members of the Sierra Club who came to support Wild Amelia had complained to the boat captain this “gentleman” had ruined their evening. She wondered what they could have done about it since the “gentleman” has the right to say whatever he wants. (See Grievance #4 for more on the First Amendment.)

I told her this was not about free speech. He knew he was not going to convert anyone to his cult. His goal was to be the center of attention. And sadly, some attendees let him do that while most of us simply ignored him.

Not every person who voted for the former guy in 2016 was a “despicable.” Not true of those who still relish being part of his cult. So if the “cap fits, wear it.”

Grievance #3: Military Disservice

If you get a package from the Disabled Veterans National Foundation (DVNF) filled with swag you will never use, asking you to help disabled veterans, Google their Charity Navigator rating. It is ZERO out of FOUR stars. Why? Because the organization spent 86 percent of their revenue in 2020 on administration and fundraising including a $15 million contract with a marketing firm in Connecticut. By the way, in 2014 DVNF was fined $25 million for abuse of solicitation laws after which current CEO and former U.S. Marine Joseph VanFonda claimed they had cleaned up their act.

My wife and I always give the calculators, pens and other “incentive” gifts to Goodwill or other organizations to distribute to those who might actually use them. This package also contained a real check for $1.50 made out to me. But, of course, the cover letter from VanFonda urged me not to cash the check because it would take money away from veterans who needed it.

I had a better idea. I cashed the check and sent a donation to the Wounded Warrior Project, to whom I regularly give in honor of our daughter’s service in the Air Force. Instead of the typical $100 donation, I made the check out for $101.50 and simulteneously emailed VanFonda, informing him that I appreciated his $1.50 and had passed it on to a legitimate charity that might actually put it to good use.

I encourage others to do the same.

Grievance #4: King for a Day after Day

Finally, I am really getting sick and tired of people who appropriate Martin Luther King, Jr. to justify policies and actions that are the antithesis of what King stood for. The latest is FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). This past week they started running ads with the tag line, “No Free Speech. No I Have a Dream” over a picture of the August 1963 civil rights gathering at the Lincoln Memorial. It is followed by, “Without the First Amendment, this historic speech would never have happened.”

Really? The First Amendment had been on the books for 174 years and there was no “I have a dream.” You can bet if George Wallace and Bull Connor were fighting integration today, they would be on Fox News and InfoWars claiming to be victims of “cancel culture.” And the First Amendment gave them the right to use the N-word and incite violence against people they feared would replace them. Take a look at the crowd surrounding the Reflecting Pool that day. There were too kinds of people. Black Americans who were tired of being second class citizens. And “woke” white Americans who, after watching the beatings and dogs and fire hoses, said, “Enough is enough. This is not what America should be about.” I’d bet the farm all of those people would have still been there with or without the First Amendment.

Want more proof. South Africa had its own “I have a dream” moment without the benefit of a First Amendment.

And by the way, if you asked Michael Jordan, he would probably admit, “It wasn’t the shoes.” NIKE and FIRE have more in common than four letter names. Both want you believe if only you wear their shoes or yell First Amendment on a college campus, you will be a superstar despite the lack of any causal relationship.

So Happy Festivus in March. Now, all we need to do is get Amazon and local merchants to adopt this faux extension of a faux holiday to discount merchandise as they do in July. Black Friday in March could be just as successful as Black Friday in July.

For what it’s worth.

A Tale of Three Cities

After watching so many foreign policy experts look back on their experiences in Russia and Ukraine for warning signs of the current crisis, I decided to do the same. Was there something I missed during my November 1994 trip to Moscow? Were there dots that I should have but did not connect?

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the National Governors Association received a USAID grant to work with the emerging Association of Oblast (i.e. Russian state equivalent) Governors (AOG). I was assigned responsibility for the grant which included setting up a Moscow office which would be used for two purposes: work with the AOG and facilitate Russian trade visits by U.S. governors. In the fall of 1994, I spent a week in Moscow, assessing the venture including meetings with both Russian and U.S. partners.

Anatoly Tyazhlov.jpg

On November 9, 1994, Ted Boimov, a Ukraine-born U.S. citizen who managed the NGA Moscow office, and I had lunch with Anatoliy Tyazhlov, who then held the title of head of administration (i.e. governor) of the Moscow Oblast. He was not elected to that position. Instead, he was appointed by Russian president Boris Yeltsin with whom he was known to have shared a vodka or two (but that’s a story for another time).

Two days earlier Ted and I, against the advice of U.S. embassy staff, went to the square outside the former KGB headquarters to view what the local communist party billed as an October Revolution Day parade and rally heralding the revival of Marxism and Leninism. Less than a thousand Russians participated. I remember telling Ted how glad I was we had gone as we might have just witnessed the last vestiges of the Soviet Union.

After lunch, I shared this experience with Tyazhlov and asked his perspective on what this meant for Russia’s future. I should have paid more attention. He said the real danger would come from the “right,” not the “left.” He talked about how so many Russians, who believed in the communist promise of support from cradle to grave, now seemed lost. If conditions did not improve, Russia would be ripe for takeover by an autocrat. Less than six years later, Vladimir Putin was elected Russian president. City #1 is filled with Russians who grew up under Stalin and are creatures of the conditions which made his rise to power possible.

The following day I attended a session co-sponsored by the Foreign Commercial Service within the U.S. Embassy and the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce. NGA was in the midst of a new initiative to encourage states to make their economic development policies and programs more entrepreneurial centric. The hosts invited graduate students from several Moscow based universities and asked me to share some of the lessons from the NGA effort.

Two things immediately became clear. Higher education in Russian academies was overly practical with students being taught how to produce and delivery commodities based on government planning priorities. There was little or no understanding of market pull or technology push. At the end of my talk I asked the students, “If you could start your own business tomorrow what would you offer?” One student immediately replied, “That depends on what the government tells us they need.” City #2, almost thirty years later, is filled with middle-aged Russians, who were on the cusp of becoming part of the global economy but hampered by Soviet era educations.

City #3 emerged in the late 1990s at the dawn of the information technology revolution. Young Russians were exposed to the world outside their geographic borders and wanted to be a part of it. With the exception of a couple of Russian and Ukrainian students in the classes I taught in Milan, I have had little exposure to them. But I know them when I see them. Which is exactly how I felt watching Marina Ovsyannikova disrupt a Channel One broadcast last Monday. Ovsyannikova, born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1978 came of age during the era of dial-up modems and WordPerfect, just enough for her to understand the window that had opened for her and her peers.

These three cities peacefully co-existed in modern-day Russia until February 24th. Residents of City #1 largely rely on state-controlled media and Putin’s disinformation campaign. Citizens of City #3, absent access to more traditional social media, are finding ways around the information blackout. Inhabitants of City #2 are conflicted, their allegiance depending on whether they are more influenced by their parents or their children.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is correct when he says the fate of his country is in the hands of the Russian people. My bet is on the Russians in City #3. Why? Because America was in the same position in 2020. Consider the following exit poll data from the presidential election.


The 65+ voters represented only 22 percent of the 2020 electorate. I suspect the population of City #1 is also a decreasing percent of Russian society. The only question is will it decline fast enough.

For what it’s worth.

Mutual Guaranteed NOTHING

If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.

Winston Churchill

When is the truth not the truth? The first time it is tested.

We have had our eyes opened to perceived truths twice in less than three years. Truth #1: Advances in medical science make global pandemics things of the past. Truth #2: The sacred cornerstone of American democracy is the peaceful transfer of power.

This week we have been exposed to a third, the idea that massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons by the world’s superpowers and the threat of mutual guaranteed destruction (MGD) would keep the peace. A brief history of the concept via BRITANNICA.COM.

To many Western strategists, the development of the hydrogen bomb with its incredible killing potential spelled the end of conventional ground warfare. Despite the example of Korea, the next war, they reasoned, would be fought by the thermonuclear giants, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Such a holocaust could only be avoided by a strategy of nuclear deterrence, and the development of a sizable nuclear arsenal would provide the cornerstone of U.S. Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “New Look” defense policy. 

Faith in this theory grew over time based on the absence over seven decades of armed conflicts approaching the last two world wars. However, just as manufacturers put consumers on notice guarantees are voided if they do not follow specified service terms (e.g. taking the item to an authorized repair provider), the same is true of geopolitics. A guarantee is only as good as the willingness of the buyers to follow the instructions which come with their purchase.

Which of course brings us to Vladimir Putin and his threat to use weapons of mass destruction if the United States and NATO directly intervene in Ukraine. Under the tenets of MGD, U.S. and NATO nuclear capability should have deterred Putin from thinking about, much less launching, an invasion on a sovereign nation. When tested by someone who chose to void the guarantee, MGD proved to be exactly what it was. Just a theory.

Putin had a theory of his own. Nuclear weapons cannot deter aggression. But they can deter opponents from intervening in my aggression. And in a wisp of irony, the justification for spending billions, if not trillions of dollars, on the design and delivery of more and more lethal weapons of mass destruction vanished as quickly as the predicted end of the world if they were ever deployed.

POST SCRIPT: Scarlett O’Liynik

This morning, my on-line news briefing included a picture of Kira Rudik, a member of the Ukrainian parliament who tweeted this image with the following message.


I learn to use #Kalashnikov and prepare to bear arms. It sounds surreal as just a few days ago it would never come to my mind. Our #women will protect our soil the same way as our #men. Go #Ukraine!

Where had I seen this before? Of course, Scarlett O’Hara’s confrontation with a Yankee soldier in “Gone With the Wind.” From the screen directions in Sidney Howard’s movie script:

Leisurely riding up the driveway toward the front door is a Yankee cavalryman. He dismounts, tosses the bridal reins over the hitching post, takes his pistol from its holster and glancing to the right and left, starts toward the front door of the house.

Scarlett’s hands quickly open the drawer and take a pistol from it – the one Rhett had given her on McDonough Road. Scarlett stands still, her heart pounding. She drops her arm to her side and hides the pistol she holds slightly behind her.

It is not hard to imagine a similar scene being repeated again and again in the coming days by women like Kira Rudik. Why does she take this risk? What is really at stake in Ukraine? I again turn to Sidney Howard and paraphrase the opening lines of his screenplay.

There was a land of brave fighters and budding democracy called Ukraine…
Here in this foreign land the promise of the post-Cold War order took its last bow..
Here was the last ever to be seen of outmatched warriors and steeled fair ladies, of former slaves of the Soviet empire saying no to their master..
Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a civilization gone with the wind…

For what it’s worth.

Pundit, Heal Thyself

The past 24 hours have been one of those synchronistic moments that only make sense when you make the connection between seemingly unrelated events.

The events:

  • I received an email from a friend seeking advice about the future of the non-profit organization she co-founded 15 years ago.
  • I sent an email to another friend explaining why I have stopped reading op-eds in the Washington Post and New York Times.
  • This morning, I perused the home page of NYTimes.COM.
  • I then turned on the TV to see what is happening in Ukraine.

The connection:

  • The best advice I could give my first friend was something I learned during my days managing the social entrepreneurship portfolio at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City. The only difference between a for-profit and non-profit entity is the nomenclature and what are allowable uses for net revenue. Survival is the same in both cases. Strategically, are you creating enough value to generate customers/members and investors/donors? If so, success depends on offering the right products/services, delivery, marketing, etc.
  • When I explained to my second friend, I have lost interest in people’s opinion versus reporting of facts, she replied, “Well, if everyone quit reading op-eds, you’d have no readers.” Touché.
  • Among the list of op-ed links on the Times’ home page was the following. “Four Times Opinion Columnists on What They Want Joe Biden to Say Tonight.”
  • “Morning Joe” opens with the following panel in their DC and NYC studios: co-hosts Joe, Mika, and Willie Geist plus Katty Kay (former BBC anchor), Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Financial Times national editor Ed Luce and Politico White House Correspondent Jonathan Lemire.
  • I immediately turned to CNN where the morning show hosts were merely directing traffic among correspondents in several Ukraine locations, Moscow and the Poland/Ukraine border crossing.

So let me begin pulling this together with a quote often attributed to Mark Twain but actually of unknown origin. “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

The friend who questioned my own writing went on to say, “Of course, I believe facts are important, but all facts exist in context.” And there lies the rub. Some essays on the op-ed page do provide context. For example, to understand the nonsense of Vladimir Putin’s claims about the innate union between Russia and Ukraine you need to look at the history of the region over many centuries. Or review the Russian president’s public statements that are evidence of Putin’s personal outrage over Western dismissal of his country following the demise of the USSR.

Which brings me to the future of Deprogramming101. When I started this blog five and a half years ago, the mission statement ended as follows. “The ultimate goal is not to find RIGHT answers, it is to promote the asking of BETTER questions.” And I have admittedly violated that strategic goal on occasion. But if that mission statement still has value, I need to reexamine the product by which I deliver that value.

When I return to full-time blogging I hope to be more true to the original goal. To promote counter-intuitive thinking. And not being satisfied with an adequate answer, but always looking for the next right answer.

Believing that good questions are still the best way to achieve those goals, allow me to use the coverage of the war in Ukraine as an example.

  • Why do cable news networks pay their “contributors,” e.g. pundits, between $31,000 and $570,000 annually instead of beefing up news bureaus around the world?
  • When did “Meet the Press” and other Sunday talk shows become “A Meeting of the Press,” with panels of journalists chatting among themselves instead of concentrating on holding leaders’ feet to the fire to explain or justify their policies and programs?
  • What is different about the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the 1991 Iraq invasion of Qatar when Western military forces had no problem defending Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army?
  • Why did Russian media use terms like “we will be welcomed as liberators” and “shock and awe” or trumped up justifications to prepare the Russian people for the impending invasion?
  • And finally, why aren’t historical data and facts which provide context not part of news reporting instead of being labeled as op-ed essays? Has the news industry, print and broadcast, contributed to the plethora of disinformation by failing to differentiate between reporting and opinion?

Consider the historical context of these last questions. Before digital news media, the Washington Post and New York Times had an editorial page. Today, they place links to opinion pieces at the top of their home pages right next to the lead stories. And local news broadcasts used to have editorials at the end of the show. But they were delivered by the station owner or general manager, not the news anchor.

I wonder if a return to separating fact from opinion could make a difference as it did a half century ago. Walter Cronkite did not accelerate opposition to the war in Vietnam because he personally disagreed with the Johnson administration or General Westmoreland. He left the comfort of his studio desk and reported the facts on the ground from the combat arena.

Ironically, of the three cable news networks, CNN (“The most trusted name in news”) and MSNBC (“This is who we are”) have let Fox (“We report, you decide”) claim the high ground. I can only wonder, was Shakespeare watching Fox News programming when he coined the phrase, “More honoured in the breach than the observance?”

I question, you decide!

For what it’s worth.