Thursday, March 10, 2022

Free Brittney!

In a recent social media argument with someone whom I don't know (because isn't that the point, to get froggy with strangers), the topic was about the lanes we choose whenever there is some incident that relies on our perpetual culture wars to inform our opinions. I had posted an article on the Facebook page about the case of Brittney Griner, the WNBA player who is currently being detained in Russia.

Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury during the regular WNBA season and for the UMMC Ekaterinberg in Russia, was detained at the airport in February. The news of her detainment was released on March 5, days into the conflict that is currently ongoing between Russia and the Ukraine. Griner was arrested and charged with allegedly importing vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage and could face up to ten years in jail. More than a dozen other American WNBA players scheduled to play this season in Russia and the Ukraine are back in the US, consistent with U.S. State Department travel advisories. In recent remarks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that efforts were underway to secure her release (along with two other Americans also being detained). 

In my FB commentary, I pointed out how reactions to Griner's predicament tracked the cultural fault lines of intolerance, namely race, queerness, patriotism, and diplomacy. In other words, a third of the comments expressed concern, a third felt it served her right for having broken the law, and a third were asking who she was and why they should care. Once I read the meager details that have been released so far and posted the article, a guy we'll call Mr. Toad came to my page to offer his rUlEs ArE rUlEs take, proving my hypothesis that some people would rather hold tight to their politics than see the entire picture, right or wrong.

I'll start with the low-hanging fruit to address the diplomatic angle that had some folks loudly proclaiming that if TFG was still President, Griner would have been home by now. Sure, if diplomacy was the same as selling swamp land as prime real estate. TFG might have won the Pyrrhic victory of securing her release on paper, while trading away something far more costly to the detriment of the rest of the world. Don't forget this same guy got impeached for trying to blackmail the Ukrainian President for information on the current President's son. If you honestly think he would have done a better job, try to imagine how much he would have been willing to wager just to save face in an actual diplomatic face-off with Russia...

My guess is that none of it would matter once we're all dead from the subsequent nuclear blast. No one would be around to identify our disintegrated corpses in the rubble. And because con man luck rarely runs out, he would be safe in a bunker, praising himself until his handlers, driven to near madness after enduring a week of his endless prattle, would escape to try their luck in the fallout.

As you are contemplating that mushroom cloud, let me remind you that my generation has vivid memories of the Cold War as dramatized by the 80s nuclear disaster movie, The Day After (1983). EVERY Gen Xer who is currently watching the events unfold in the Ukraine is having flashbacks. Those aspects of our childhood are why so many of us fear for Griner's safety and fate. In our worldview, the Soviet Union was evil.

The Soviets were the Klingons in the classic Star Trek (before they hired a better makeup artist). They were our greatest sporting nemesis at the Olympics, which is why we boycotted the Moscow Summer Games in 1980 and they returned the favor by skipping the Los Angeles Games in 1984. It is why we booed whenever wrestler Nikolai Volkoff was scheduled to appear on the Saturday WWF lineup. We actually used to chant U-S-A in our living room during his singing of the Soviet anthem. The space race was about beating the Soviets. Our need to beat the Soviets at everything is why we tolerated a fourth Rocky movie; it is what kept the James Bond franchise going after Sean Connery quit; and it is why Indiana Jones as President in Air Force One didn't seem all that improbable. (Jones always beat the Nazis, so of course he could undo the Russian plot to assassinate the U.S. President. Americans hated the Soviets as much as the Nazis!)

Or at least we used to. But as I climb out of that morass, I need y'all to remember that point. Many of us grew up in an era where we didn't praise or extol anything Russian, not even vodka. We cheered when talented Russian artists and athletes defected to America: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martina Navratilova, and Nadia Comaneci. The entire comedy career of Yakov Smirnoff was based on his coming to America. When the wall came down in East Germany and the Soviet Union disintegrated soon after, we danced in the streets! 

So for some, it is partly understandable how the fault line of patriotism gets tripped by Griner's situation. She's a two-time Olympic gold medalist, who has been playing professional basketball in Russia during the off-season for years. Record scratch--how dare she! No matter how much more she was paid, because not all money is good money...right? Oh wait say that again, her salary as a professional WNBA player doesn't even come close to what a rookie NBA player makes? She doesn't have a lucrative endorsement deal nor star in a bunch of commercials for subpar sandwiches or racist pizza? Ahh, but she made some comment about standing for the National Anthem, so that's what makes her a socialist. Even though our athletes have the right of free speech and the freedom to pursue wealth anywhere in the world, maybe some time spent in the Russian gulag will cause her to appreciate how good she had it in America.

Did I mention that she is a two-time U.S. Olympic GOLD MEDALIST? Does that not count as sufficiently patriotic? Or have you sing or die flag zealots who insist on superficial gestures as more evocative actually embraced Soviet-style genuflection?

The Black, female, and queer angle are also predictable fault lines. Last summer we learned first-hand how some of you don't give a hot damn about Black women in sports, regardless of what they might be enduring off the court. Naomi Osaka couldn't have space to deal with her anxiety. Simone Biles almost spun out of control in a mid-air flip, but she should have toughed it out for the sake of her team. Sha'Carri Richardson shouldn't have smoked a joint to numb the pain of losing her mother. Being a queer woman also irks these red-hatted Americans who don't much like Megan Rapinoe or her pink hair. Our girls need women they can look up to, they claim...until they notice that all of the American figure skaters are Asian American...(thanks for fixing that racist headline NYT)

Now comes the unapologetically Black, female, and queer Brittney Griner. All of the fault lines converge to polarize reactions to the case of an American citizen who is being held in Russia and stands accused of drug trafficking. The outrage is not that she's been in custody for three weeks or that her family has no information about her physical condition or that our State Department can't even assure her safe return because the situation is just that volatile. Y'all only see your politics. As Mr. Toad calmly asserted, she did the crime she must do the time. As if every detail offered by the Russians should be taken at face value! 

How is Brittney Griner any kind of international drug menace if what she was carrying in her luggage was for personal use? She didn't get caught with powder cocaine condoms stuffed in unmentionable body cavities. I don't know much about vaping, but you can buy vape pens at Walmart, so whatever the European equivalent is (el Corte Ingles perhaps), why are y'all reacting like she was on the run from having robbed the place? I know even less about hash oil, but I will earnestly ask if any of you L&O folks ever considered the following possibilities: (a) she was aware of the laws; (b) she had brought these items in her luggage on previous occasions without incident; (c) she's being set up to look like she's part of some drug cartel; and (d) she is being treated like a high-profile pawn. When Secretary Blinken addressed the press, he mentioned the names of the two other American prisoners in Russia, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, whose release our government has been trying to secure. Yet the Russians only released the video and details of Griner's arrest to the press in the fog of war.

Y'all are on Al Gore's internet engaging in the very kind of propaganda-influenced speculation about Griner's guilt based on nothing other than what the Russians said she that did. 

The fault lines are exposed. When the North Koreans claimed that Otto Warmbier had stolen a poster, we were outraged that he would be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. When LiAngelo Ball and two UCLA teammates were arrested for shoplifting at a Louis Vuitton store, a crime to which they confessed to having committed, the bigger story was that TFG had prevailed upon China to secure their release. The case of A$AP Rocky being imprisoned in Sweden for assault is another demonstration of the diplomatic negotiating "skills" of TFG. Well, I say if Trumpelthinskin actually had that kind of juice, he could intervene and offer to help Griner since he is such good friends with Putin...

But you know he won't. Not only is there nothing for him to gain by speaking up for Griner, but Putin changed his phone number and stopped taking TFG's calls last January. As for all of that bravado he touted, Warmbier tragically died days after his release. As a consequence, the North Koreans were rewarded with a high-profile summit but were never held accountable. LiAngelo Ball and A$AP Rocky both fared better personally, but our diplomatic relations with China are still toxic and Trump never did convince the Swedes to award him a Nobel Peace Prize. Now you know why my mushroom cloud isn't off base.

In all seriousness, Brittney Griner has the same chance of surviving this as the Ukrainians fleeing the war zones on the ground, and those are not favorable odds. When a madman declares his intent to punish the ENTIRE FUCKING WORLD because we won't let him conquer another sovereign nation, the response should never be to cheer on his ambition and courage. Or to accept any of his propaganda as irrefutable truth. This is not a game or one of many Hollywood movies where the megalomaniac is tripped up by his own hubris (I mean, Putin might be, but a LOT of folks will die before that happens). Our genuine fears for Griner's life aren't based on idle hysteria, and the casual way that some of you dismiss her plight as acceptable according to the premise that she assumed the risk is troubling. 

SHE IS AN AMERICAN. That is not up for debate nor does it need to be qualified on the basis of your political leanings. I thought we never left any of our people behind. I thought we believed that if you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us. There should already be an Operation Free Brittney in the works in a Navy SEAL or Green Beret situation room. I am serious, we should be MAD the same way we were during the Iran Hostage Crisis (yes, Gen Xers remember that one too). When did we adopt conditions? When was it decided that being Black, female, queer, and outspoken were legit reasons to sit back and watch shit happen to one of our own? Y'all claim to love that flag and the republic for which it stands, so what does that mean if you ignore that it symbolizes liberty and justice for ALL? 

(L-R) Griner, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed

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