One of the things I have been very involved with over the past months is Ukraine, particularly on Twitter but also in other ways. Yesterday, in a Twitter space hosted by Sparkles, the question went around asking what we were doing to support Ukraine, and even why. There was, of course, commonality because social media drives like minds to come together, and for unlike minds to be ignored.
For me, though, it’s complicated. When in 2014 the annexation of Crimea happened, I expected the world to do something. The world did do something, but clearly not enough as 8 years later, a brutal invasion with siege tactics began on February 24th, 2022, and the world decided to do something. A lot of the world, anyway, as far as sending weapons over. At the onset, looking at Ukraine as I had, I saw something that the world has not seen in anything other than history books: A young democracy defending it’s sovereignty, it’s way of life… where former colonies became independent one way or the other around 75 years ago, Ukraine is 31 years old. It’s young.
I’m older than Ukraine as it stands now by 19 years, but the culture of Ukraine is much, much older. That part of the world is something I had only passing knowledge of, in my lifetime colored by the Cold War. Knowledge I lacked, and still lack in some ways, was because of this implicit part of life where ‘Soviet Union Bad’ was sufficient to cover everything that the Soviet Union did. Insight into that part of the world did not seem necessary, and it ends up that it was being colored by all the major news outlets still having their offices in Moscow. Whatever news I got was likely written in Moscow and influenced by Moscow. I had no knowledge of Russia’s imperial past.
It seems most of the world suffered the same. We tend to forget that aspect of colonialism, where the narrative is still that of the Empire, present or former, as nations begin to get their legs under them. We tend to use broad labels on things we don’t understand – Season 2 of The Wire, as an example, had a Ukrainian named Serhei constantly having to correct people that he wasn’t Russian, that he was Ukrainian, and that his name was not Boris. Granted, he did not play a good guy in The Wire, but back when the show first came out, had I been paying attention, I might have paid more to that issue that seemed like nuance then.
The world got smaller over the last decades, but my mental shorthand did not permit me to expand on nuances like that. There was the career, which was mainly either looking for the next job or doing a job with the work ethic of my father who was a workaholic. Thus time to explore the world was limited to what was right in front of me but for the last few decades, where I started truly exploring things beyond the scope of work and my work in the last decades also forced me to explore things. Software Engineering was good like that in some ways, in other ways it would have you so focused on the minutiae that the forest was invisible.
The world was busy, I was busy, and if we’re all honest it doesn’t seem like we got much done.
And so what happened in Ukraine, and is still happening, hit me with a visceral need to get involved. The wars of the world in the last decades have been, at best, unclear and uncertain. The ‘War on Terrorism’ made no sense to me because terrorism isn’t about direct conflict, it’s about creating terror. Afghanistan, Syria, and yes, Palestine and Israel, all largely created by conflicts of other powers who just seem to have had this curious need to use what we once called the cradle of humanity as their testing ground of weapons. Meanwhile, in the United States, I would frequently hear about how evil Islam was, where extremist Islam almost seems to have grown extremist Christianity again.
Or was it the other way around? I’m not sure. I don’t even think it matters anymore. In a world of globalization, extremism somehow became trendy.
But this invasion of Ukraine by Russia was clear cut. A sovereign democracy, young and getting it’s legs, attacked by a neighbor who is a nuclear power. There was a clear right and wrong because the world has rules, and these rules were being broken. As time progressed, I became educated on just how wrong it is.
I grew up on a steady diet of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. When I became involved with Free Software and Open Source software, ‘freedom’ took on new meaning: freedom means nothing when it stands alone, a lonely word. Freedom from what? From oppression? Yes. Freedom from other people negatively interfering in your affairs, as long as you don’t negatively interfere in the affairs of others? Yes. Freedom from not having a say? Yes. We Americans talk about freedom a lot, but as the last few decades have shown, especially recently, we don’t really know what freedom is anymore. And in the Caribbean, Latin America, ‘freedom’ varies.
Democracy? Ask 100 people what democracy is and create a definition from those 100 people, you have a definition of democracy that the majority agree upon – which is the implicit flaw in democracy. This is not to say that pure socialism, communism or anarchy are better – we have established that they’re not fairly well across the world – but we’re also seeing that the instantiations of the idea of democracy are also flawed.
Today, Boris Johnson resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and I read things about the Westminster system [of democracy] being broken. Today, in the United States, people are wondering what the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will overturn that will impact democracy. Today, in Trinidad and Tobago, people are still talking about the Prime Minister and the Attorney General. Democracy itself has not failed, mind you – but the stabs at it that have been implemented are not doing so well.
But in Ukraine, democracy is in full swing, and as imperfect as democracy may be implemented anywhere, nothing unites people like genocide, war crimes and an attempted erasure of culture and history as Russia is attempting to do. Elder democracies are sending weapons even as domestic issues around the world related to economies and by extension flawed socioeconomic striations, and even the very idea that there should be equitable opportunity. Women’s rights issues, which in my lifetime were pushing forward well beyond voting, have become degraded recently… there is much wrong with our implementations of democracy, but the problem is not democracy itself.
So when I look at Ukraine, a young democracy that has so much potential to learn from the mistakes of other implementations since it’s still only decades old… I see promise. Hope. And in contrast, a Russian state, a de facto authoritarian state, violently trying to erase it and the promise it holds in both freedom and democracy, I see the potential for the rest of the world to learn from this, and to learn from Ukraine what has been forgotten.
Hope. The world could most certainly use hope right now.