In the Toilet Paper Tube of History: Watching the Battle for Ukraine in Real Time

February 27, 2022

We’re all gerbils crawling through an endless toilet paper tube. Most of the time we don’t notice the tube, because we’re focused on our forward motion. But every once in a while, we realize that we’re stuck in a freaking cardboard tube and it’s controlling everything about what we can see and where we can go.

History is that toilet paper tube. I remember how on a Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I realized the events I was watching on my father’s television in Roswell, Georgia would impact every aspect of my world.  There were two realities, pre-9/11 and post-9/11. The tube was tight, preventing me from getting on a flight back to Portland. And it’s touched our reality ever since.

I feel that way again, watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I was focused on the tasks at hand, getting my students through winter quarter, adjusting to life as a single parent, waiting for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to start a new season. And then on Wednesday night all that changed as Putin sent tanks and troops across the border in an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation. I had a similar feeling when I was 15-years-old on New Year’s Eve 1979, watching Soviet tanks roll into Afghanistan. It felt like the whole world shifted on its axis a bit.

Now as Russian troops bomb Kyiv, it seems like the axis shift is massive. Thursday I took time to talk to my University of Oregon students and ask them to be present in this moment. They will likely talk to their grandchildren 50 years from now about the first days of the third world war. Rising gas prices, bread shortages, fear of conscription are surely weighing on their minds. But for these Generation Z students, most born after 9/11, this will all get very real when the Russian cyber hacks shut Instagram down.

Historical parallels aside (Hitler pulled the same stunt in 1939), it’s clear that we have entered a geo-political order where Russia is not our friend. (Sarah Palin must be smirking.) We will divide modern history into before 02/23/2022 and after 02/23/2022. Will this end up in the similar global turmoil that followed Hitler’s invasion of Poland? It seems entirely possible. Vladimir Putin is this generation’s murderous madmen with designs on expanding his empire by any means necessary. Putin’s statement Wednesday that nations that come to Ukraine’s defense will face “consequences you have never seen” is chilling given the fact that Russia holds 45% of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Maybe this will be a limited conflict and, well, sorry freedom-loving Ukrainians. Yeah, it went sideways with Hitler, but Putin is an ethnic nationalist of a different stripe. It will be fine. Let’s get back to the other existential crises, like COVID and global warming. Why should Russian tanks rolling through Chernobyl be an issue in suburban America? It will be OK. Have you seen the price of milk? Let’s riot!

Of course, the good people of Ukraine didn’t think Russian bombs would be falling on their suburban neighborhoods either. A child Cozy’s age was killed today on the westside of Kyiv. Global conflicts have the tendency to spread. Quickly. Watching the children heading for the Polish border makes me wonder where I would send my daughter if the war spreads to this part of the world. Hopefully we can get her to Mexico if things get hot here. The United States is not guaranteed to exist forever. Four years of Trumpism weakened our democracy and greatly inflated Russia. That could create a cascade of crises that puts the USA in the rear view mirror. You may not be safe as you think.

The reason of this concern is rooted what I did in the first 12 hours of the invasion. I spent it on the dark corners of the web in the places where white supremacists, Qanon believers, and Trump nuts dwell. They, to the one, threw their support to Putin, seeing Biden’s policies as part of a liberal Jewish plot to push Putin and Trump’s buttons and cheered Putin’s fascistic ethnic nationalism. They want that wider war to launch their “boogaloo” race war in America. And they are armed. Heavily. Timothy McVeigh is their hero. The ethnic cleansing of Yugoslavia is their game plan. And Putin and Trump are their leaders.

Fortunately, like those Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island who defiantly said, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” the majority of Americans have no tolerance for the anti-American “America First” con artists and their little boy soldiers. Yeah, 4.5 million viewers tune into white supremacist Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show each evening but that means that over 327 million Americans don’t. Hopefully, unlike Ukrainian citizens right now, we won’t all have to take crash courses in how to fire AR-15s. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and thoughtful mobilization. We’ll certainly have the time after Russian hackers take down Instagram. Maybe then we will see the toilet paper tube we are in.

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