Wednesday, March 26, 2014

She's too sexy for this court, too sexy for this court

I spend a fair amount of time in court.  As a man, I have limited choices for how to dress for court:  dark suit, white or light blue shirt, tie.  All of the other male attorneys wear the same thing, with few exceptions.*

* - A few years ago, in a North Carolina county courthouse I spent a bit of time in, all of the courthouse lawyers went out one year and bought seersucker suits, which you would occasionally see in the summer months, but they seemed to have a rotation, as you'd never see two wearing their seersucker on the same day.  One day, somebody screwed up and wore his on the wrong day, and there was kind of an awkward, embarrassed recognition that they both looked extremely silly.

Women have more choices.  The pantsuit is a popular one, as is the skirt-suit, and those tend to be perfectly appropriate choices for court--modest and dress-equivalent to what men wear.  After all, the goal is to stand out on your skills and merit, not to distract others with outlandish dress.  But the dress rules for women are considerably less defined than they are for men.  I've seen women lawyers in cocktail dresses and church dresses and in button-up shirts with slacks. 

A Nebraska federal judge who has a personal blog has come under some fire for his comments about the way women dress for court--comments that included three "rules" [LINK NOTE:  Some colorful language] for young women lawyers:

1. You can’t win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.
2. It is not about you. That goes double when you are appearing in front of a jury.
3. Think about the female law clerks. If they are likely to label you, like Jane Curtin, an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down.
The judge, who admits to being a lifelong "dirty old man," discussed a young female trial attorney who appears in his court.  He described her as follows:

She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes.
I will admit to being a little bit conflicted by this attitude.  On the one hand, I like women.  I like looking at women.  I like looking at women who aren't afraid to be sexy.  I like to work with women who have the self-confidence to be sexy at work, as long as they can pull their weight.  And I think most men are like me in that regard.

On the other hand, I like women.  I like women who are brilliant, who write well, who speak eloquently, who are prepared and civil and respectful.  And I like them no matter what they look like.

I can't speak for most men, but as for me, I'm not looking to use my workplace as a hunting ground for female companions.  I'm happily married.  I have a number of women friends whose company I enjoy on a strictly platonic basis; I would never not work with someone, or be friends with someone, because of how she looked--good or bad.  As far as that goes, the possibility of some sort of "relationship" with them just never crosses my mind, at least not as anything other than a flirtatious joke.**  It makes me feel good to treat women as my equal--which I do because they are my equal--and to respect them for what they can do.  Sadly, there are a lot of women who rarely encounter a man who genuinely wants them to succeed, who isn't threatened by them in some way, who sees them as something other than an object or a distraction.

** - I think there is a difference between harmless flirting and sexual harassment.  I can't really define it, but, like Potter Stewart and obscenity (see Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964)), I know it when I see it.  The best I can do is to say that one treats the listener as an equal, while the other seeks to exploit power in a relationship.  I would be truly horrified if a woman felt that I had harassed her.

I have one simple rule for this kind of thing:  If you have to ask whether it's racist or sexist, it probably is.  But in this case, my radar is malfunctioning.  I can't decide if this judge is an ordinary pig who objectifies women instead of respecting them, or if he's just expressing his appreciation of the benefits of having intelligent, even brilliant, women in the office.  I'm not talking about giving preferential treatment to pretty women.  But if we are going to encounter women in the workplace, and we definitely are and should, is it wrong to enjoy it?  Or do we need to pretend that we don't see them as women?  Isn't that more anti-woman?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Right said Fred

This week, Fred Phelps, who developed and led the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, in a high-profile campaign against homosexuals, died at the age of 84.  Phelps and his clan became known in the 1990s for colorful protest signs proclaiming that "God hates fags." That was one of the milder ones, in fact.

It is hard to think of any figure in American history who is more universally reviled than Phelps.  Even Adolf Hitler still has his supporters.  Phelps's support seemed to be limited to the members of his small church.  Phelps's conduct was so outrageous that even people who were otherwise ardently anti-homosexual bristled at being associated with him and even fought against him.

In recent years, his group's tactics included bringing their special brand of hatred to picket lines at the funerals of Americans killed abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan.  According to Phelps's logic, these Americans were struck down as God's punishment for our nation's embrace of homosexuality as a lifestyle.

The thing about radicals is that they often provoke counter-radicals.  Phelps's positions on homosexuality were so intense that he radicalized people who had previously been moderate.  People who were happy to keep things where they were--keeping homosexual conduct a nominal crime with no enforcement, strictly prohibiting recognition of same-sex relationships, etc.--were the moderates of the day 20 years ago.  These people did not necessary wish gays ill, but they didn't wish them well, either.

The rapid acceptance and legal recognition of homosexual relationships has been the biggest of changes in American life over the last 20 years.  I find it endlessly fascinating that a nation that did not show majority approval of the propriety of interracial marriage until the early 1990s (25 years after it became legal everywhere) now shows majority approval of same-sex marriage a few short years after it first became legal anywhere.

Phelps was a major reason why the majority has moved to where it is.  Here was a man clamoring for outright stoning of the gays.  It is difficult to hear that message and not react with sympathy for its target.  Associating that message with Christianity, as Phelps sought to do, forced Christians in particular to react in opposition.  That message caused us all to examine some of the policies that existed mostly due to inertia.

Beyond material comforts, most Americans want just a few things:  to be left alone to make their own decisions, to treat and see people treated fairly and justly, to avoid controversy and strife over things that don't affect us, to move cautiously forward.  When we saw that homosexuals could marry and be recognized as married without implicating the end of our way of life, our opposition dropped away quickly.  It's simply not fair to deny gays the right to marry if that's what they want.

I remember that one of my big "concerns" about embracing marriage equality was in what it would do to the language.  Could I cope with the inherent dissonance of the phrases "her wife" and "his husband"? As it turns out, sure.  Once you encounter, in real life, a woman who has a wife or a man who has a husband, you realize that those fears were unfounded.

When Phelps died, the general reaction was one of "good riddance to bad rubbish."  That's fair.  But the gay community and its supporters--and, by extension, our whole society--owe a sort of debt of gratitude to him.  He was the Lex Luthor to our Clark Kent.  His presence required us to access the Superman inside us.  There are no heroes without villains.  And Phelps was the surest of villains.

I don't regret his passing.  Many people suffered great harm because of the horrible things he did.  The world is surely a better place without him in it.  But despite his best efforts, the world became a better place because he was in it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In search of truth and light

My disappointment today is profound and unrelenting.

Some days, I look at the world with hope and pride at the progress we've made.  Other days, especially today, I am frustrated with the slow pace of that progress.  I never stop hoping that we humans will be better than our history, but some days it's harder to hope.

There are always new forms of injustice to fight against.  My emotional reaction against some things is deep and visceral.

Unfed children.

Undeserving winners.

Hypocrisy in all its forms.

And I am always disappointed when people whom I respect deeply do things that leave humanity poorer.

I wrote a few days ago about Taylor Ellis, a junior at Sheridan High School, my alma mater, the place where my parents still live and the place I will consider my home forever.  I am a committed member of the Sheridan diaspora, but that little town is close to my heart.  Taylor Ellis has been in the news because a member of the high school yearbook staff wrote an article about Taylor's experience as an openly gay teenager at a small-town high school, and because the principal, now backed by the district superintendent, has ordered that profile--and, so as not to seem other than even-handed, several profiles of other students--stricken from the yearbook.

I received a first-rate education at Sheridan, an education that prepared me well for university studies and law school.  At Sheridan, I learned the craft of writing, something I now do for a major part of my living.  The education I received was better than the reputation of the town and school might indicate.

High school is about more than academics or job training.  At high school, we develop our younger selves into the adults we will be; we form alliances and friendships that define our whole lives; we discover what we are to become.

If you examine the Latin roots, you'll find that to educate means to draw out.  Our education draws us, to borrow and somewhat mangle Plato's metaphor, out of a cave of shadows and into the sun.  That metaphor is cleverly hidden in the words of the Sheridan High School alma mater, which I still know by heart, twenty years on:

May students ever come to thee
In search of truth and light
And justice reign o'er thy domain
For years to prove thy might
I don't know Taylor Ellis.  I suspect based upon this incident that he is in many ways a very ordinary person, in the sense that he lives his life, works hard, tries to do good and right things, and sometimes falls short of his promise.  In other words, he's just a person.  But I also know, based on this incident, that he is very much an extraordinary and courageous person.  These qualities are more common than you might think.  But it takes courage to reveal your innermost secret, no matter how much a part, or the heart, of you it might be.  Taylor has set an example for all of us, and his is a story that deserves to be told, and respected, and commemorated.  

Today, Dr. Brenda Haynes, the superintendent of the Sheridan School District, issued a terse, almost defiant statement about this incident, which I will quote below:

We must make decisions that lead in the proper direction for all of our students and for our community. We must not make decisions based on demands by any special interest group. The seven profiles will not be published in the yearbook.

We have reviewed state law, court cases, and our own policies. It is clear that the adults who have the responsibility for the operation of the District have the obligation to make decisions which are consistent with the mission of our school. We have done so.
I have great respect for Dr. Haynes, whom I have known for almost 25 years.  She is a capable administrator, a committed educator, and a genuinely nice person who cares deeply about the students she serves.

But she is quite wrong on this issue.  By referring to "special interest groups" she is, as Max Brantley has capably pointed out, mistaken about where the pressure was coming from.  The pressure was coming from the yearbook staff, students at Sheridan High School, and an organization, the Student Press Law Center, that advocates for the free speech rights of student journalists--something that could not reasonably be considered a special-interest group.  We all need free speech; it is foundational to our democracy and to our existence as Americans.

Indeed, Taylor's story is primarily not about the triumph of any gay-rights group.  Taylor was always going to find support with those of us who are sympathetic to homosexuals.  What he found, perhaps to his surprise, is that the widest swath of the student body--a student body that one would expect to be more conservative than average, more religious than average, and certainly less accepting of Taylor's sexual orientation than average--accepted him for who he is.  That's not a "special interest." That's the general interest.

But even worse, Dr. Haynes's decision is simply not consistent with the mission of the school.  Again, I quote from Dr. Haynes:
We are committed to providing our students with learning opportunities that recognize individual differences in an environment that affirms self-worth. Each individual is valued and respected.
Those words come from A Message From the Superintendent of Schools, which is published prominently on the district's website.  The sad reality is that the refusal of the school to allow Taylor's profile to be published in the yearbook in no way "recognize[s] individual difference" or "affirms self-worth."  To the contrary, by removing the profiles, the school is whitewashing individual differences, and because everyone knows that it was Taylor's profile that was targeted by this policy, it neither affirms his self-worth nor values or respects who he is as an individual.

As for the school's mission:
It is our mission to provide effective classroom instruction so all students achieve at high levels, every child, every day, whatever it takes.
Of course, the school's mission goes far beyond "effective classroom instruction."  But if you take an expansive view of what is meant by "classroom," to extend it to the ball field and the court and the stage, and on to the classroom of the world, and all of the things that a school does for its students, then this mission, this goal, this reason for being is high achievement for all students.

Not just the straight ones and the gay ones who are willing to hide.

I am not an activist.  I am a straight ally of the gay community, yes, but that is derived mostly from my sense of justice.  I am not a patient person by nature.  When a change is coming, I want it to be here now, if for no other reason that we simply do not have enough time to wait on justice.  And I am so enormously frustrated by the missed opportunity this incident represents.  The news this profile was to trumpet, and to commemorate for, well, forever, was how big a deal it was that Taylor's coming out wasn't that big a deal to most people.  This was a chance to celebrate the youth of our town deciding against bigotry and for friendship over all.

And the school blew it.

And so I am disappointed about that.

But I have hope because of the kids who opened their arms to a friend despite his being different.  Those kids, yeah, they give me hope.

Friday, March 14, 2014


I wrote last September about controversial happenings in the Sheridan School District.  Back then, the uproar was about teachers who had invited a Muslim speaker to address their classes on September 11, in order to give another perspective on the events of that day 12 years before.  Reportedly, the speaker was to surprise everyone by strongly condemning the terrorist acts carried out in the name of Islam.  Well, that wouldn't be surprising to everyone, just to those uninformed of the fact that almost all American Muslims (and almost all Muslims, period) are opposed to terrorism.

There is controversy in another quarter today, emanating from the high school.  It seems that the yearbook staff had put together a series of six profiles on various students.  One of those profiles focused on Taylor Ellis.  Taylor, a junior, is noteworthy at Sheridan because he is openly gay.  More on the controversy in a moment.

Sheridan is a place of contradictions.  Its schools are among the best in the state in terms of student opportunity and achievement, having been led by a long series of capable administrators who care deeply about those things.  It is in many respects the same rural-oriented small town it was when my grandparents grew up there; religion plays a central role in almost everyone's lives there, and with that there is a kind of built-in conservatism at work.

Sheridan also has a history of some racial tension; until the last census, the minority population in the town was almost zero, and it's still low.  (The school district draws students from a geographically wide area that includes minority communities, which makes the schools much larger and more diverse than the city proper.  When I was in school, the total attendance at Sheridan Schools exceeded the population of the city.)  But the handful of black students who attended at the same time I did were among the most popular students in the school.

When I lived there, Sheridan had the reputation of being behind the times.  We used to joke that when the world ends, we want to be in Sheridan, because everything happens 20 years later there.

I don't have any special insight into conditions at the high school, and I don't know Taylor Ellis.  But I have to believe that the fact that Taylor is openly gay and willing to be profiled on that subject in the yearbook for all eternity has to say something, not just about Taylor, but also about how not-controversial this subject is for the students.  After all, Taylor isn't "coming out" in the yearbook. He's already out.  If his being out were really problematic for his safety and the order and discipline of the school, those problems would already be seen.  And from what I can tell, they're just not.

But the school administration has been putting pressure on Taylor and on the yearbook staff to pull the profile, going so far as to attempt to censor the entire series outright.  According to the Student Press Law Center, that censorship probably runs afoul of Arkansas law, which is surprisingly progressive on this point.  State law recognizes students' right of free expression in school publications and gives ultimate editorial control to students except in certain limited circumstances that don't appear to apply here.

Principal Rodney Williams has declined to comment publicly about this dispute, but his position on the matter has been reported by various outlets--he's against the publication.  I don't know Principal Williams at all, so I have no idea whether he is motivated by anti-gay bias (which strikes me as unlikely; public-school educators, especially administrators, tend to be progressive because of their education level).  What seems more likely to me is that Principal Williams is trying to quell the potential for controversy.

There is a tendency for people who are responsible for administering large organizations to attempt to avoid controversy by enforcing homogeneity and minimizing "otherness" and diversity.  I saw it in 12 years living near Charlotte; the city's obvious problems were often swept under the rug by city officials who were desperate to portray the city as "Tidy Town."  That is, it probably isn't so much that Principal Williams is against Taylor being gay, as it is that he wants to whitewash the whole thing.

Ironically, Principal Williams has probably invited more attention and controversy than would have occurred had he simply ignored what was going on.  He is not the first person to misjudge the mood of a place based upon its reputation.

And, really, in my experience, the people who care about what's written in the yearbook are pretty much limited to (1) those on the yearbook staff and (2) the people who are written about.  Most people are instead interested in seeing how many times they appear in it and in how many cool messages they can have inscribed in it by their friends.

I was never on the yearbook staff, but I did write for the school newspaper, a monthly publication we tried very hard to make as professional and as interesting as possible.  We knew that one issue was going to be submitted for competitions, and we wanted to show that our staff could compete with other schools particularly when it came to editorial writing.  We picked a controversial topic that was in the news frequently at that time.  Back then, there was routinely a public--expressly Christian--prayer given over the loudspeaker at football games.  We took a strong position against it on the basis that not everyone is a Christian, that public money furnishes the equipment and the audience, and that if we are going to have Christian prayers we could be forced to offer prayers of other religions, including that great bugaboo of small towns, the devil-worshipers.

We thought it was going to draw some controversy, and the principal, though sympathetic, did ask whether we were sure we wanted to take a position.  But when it came out, we got virtually no response.  I'd like to think it's because we were so convincing in our argument that we won over the opposition.  But mostly, I think, it was because a lot fewer people cared about it than we expected.*

* - For the record, they didn't stop the prayers on our account.  I don't know if they still have them.  Maybe I'll find my way down there for a football game this fall to find out.

And so it is likely to be for the article about Taylor Ellis.  I am glad we live in an era in which even in Sheridan, Taylor feels free to express himself as he actually is.  I'm not sure even he realizes how monumental that really is.  There are people my age, or close to it, who were closeted while in school, and it would have been nigh unto unthinkable for them to be "out" at that time, much less talking about it in the yearbook.  That's a shame, but it was the world we lived in.  I like the world we're living in now, and I'm excited for a future in which the Taylor Ellises of the world generate no controversy by being themselves.  That's simply a matter of human rights.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Between two ferns

For those of you who keep track of such things, you can add Zach Galifianakis to the list of celebrities of whom I am not a fan.  I find his antics distracting and his comedy less than funny.  He has, however, parlayed a rather limited set of physical features into a sort-of-leading man's film career, and while I wouldn't call him brilliant, in life's casino, he's managed to play with house money for a long time.

The most recent edition of his epically unfunny parody of a local-access chat-show, Between Two Ferns, featured Barack Obama.  If you haven't seen it, head to to check it out, if only for context.  I've seen the gag before several times; its characteristic awkward silences and frequent resort to insult comedy is chuckleworthy at times, but it's as formulaic as watching Carson play Carnac the Magnificent for the eightieth time.  The comedy is in the memory, not in the jokes.

Obama's "plug" in this edition was to get young people, who presumably are fans of Galifianakis, to sign up for health insurance through  That's an admirable goal, and if nothing else, it's great to see the President going to bat for an initiative that will save lots of lives but has taken a lot of unfair lumps from people who want it to fail. 

The White House Press Corps, who collectively apparently think of themselves as guardians of the Presidency, did not like seeing Obama this way.  Obama's a cool character; he's got good, not great, comedic timing; and his lines cut deeply--just as the Between Two Ferns formula mandates.  But some members of the Corps went in search of a fainting couch, worrying that Obama had demeaned the Presidency by deigning to appear in a comedy sketch.

I wasn't alive when Richard Nixon delivered the famous catch phrase on Laugh-In--"Sock it to me!"--so I have no idea what the cultural impact of that was on the Presidency.  As it turned out, Nixon did a lot more damage to the Presidency through other endeavors.  But Bill Clinton played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall (although technically he was only a candidate for President at the time) and even though he was clearly not a professional, he showed himself to be a man of the people.  Clinton and his successor both made short comedy films that were released to the public.  Clinton's included one of the funniest things I've ever seen: the look on his face as Hillary's car pulls away from the White House, headed to the Senate, as Bill runs out with the brown-bag lunch he's made her, not quite in time. (The whole thing is worth seeing again.)  Bush resorted to gallows humor as he pretended to look for WMDs in various locations around the White House.

I won't say I enjoyed Obama's appearance on Between Two Ferns as a comedy sketch, but, like his channeling of Al Green a couple of years ago with the opening line of "Let's Stay Together," it showed that he's the best kind of cool:  the smart, aware kind.  Maybe it's just an act, and maybe it's the product of being surrounded by "messaging" people who are built for the Internet Age, but it works.  That's not demeaning, but humanizing, to the Presidency. 

Not that it means anything, but I approve.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Some real religious persecution

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two stories in the media over the last couple of weeks, both of them nominally about religious freedom and persecution.

The first is one that I wrote about, at least tangentially, when Arizona's legislature passed--and its governor was forced to veto--a bill that would immunize from suit and from local ordinance any person who, for religious reasons, declines to provide services to homosexuals.  Similar bills remain pending in other legislatures.

The theory behind these bills is that (a) marriage equality is coming to every state, soon, and (b) marriage-industry service providers are concerned that they will have to provide services on an equal basis to same-sex couples, in violation of their religious convictions.  The crowd of homophobes, finding their numbers dwindling, are desperate to cast their bigotry as a matter of defending against religious persecution.

The other story is one making the rounds on conservative media outlets, and although I would ordinarily be skeptical, this one seems legit:  Kim Jong-Un, the boy king of North Korea, has apparently ordered the execution of 33 Christians who have aligned themselves with a South Korean missionary who has set up some 500 secret churches in the communist North, where religion is banned.

That is, of course, horrible.  As we lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur:  the thing speaks for itself.  You don't have to be religious to understand why it's horrible or to oppose what's happening.

I don't really have any other words about what's happening in North Korea.

But it must be genuinely terrible to be a "baker of conscience" and be asked by a gay couple to accept money in exchange for a wedding cake.  That's some real persecution, right there.

* * * * *

Before some of my readership protests...yes, I agree that even little things matter.  Just because something isn't the worst thing ever doesn't mean it's good, or even okay.  But those bakers don't seem to profit by the comparison to the North Korean dissidents.  My conjecture is that it's because they are using religion as a pretext for bigotry in the context of something that is, at its heart, a commercial transaction.  That is to say, it's not a question of religious persecution so much as a requirement that participants in the market serve all comers.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Paul Ryan admitted what?

Yesterday, the House Budget Committee (Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., chairman) released a report on the War on Poverty [PDF], nearly fifty years after Lyndon Johnson announced that war and sharply increased the amount of federal assistance available to needy American families.  Weighing in at more than 205 pages, the report is a partisan exercise designed to assist the GOP in dismantling anti-poverty programs.

That being said, the report contains a surprising piece of honesty from people who are usually deeply dishonest when it suits them to be.  (You may recall that during the 2012 election campaign, Rep. Ryan, who was his party's nominee for Vice President, and his family went to a soup kitchen for a photo opportunity, only to find that they had arrived too late to provide any assistance with serving food or cleaning up.  But they had to do something, so they proceeded to roll up their sleeves and re-wash dishes and serving trays so that the press would have something to photograph.)

Ryan was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  Like many people who were born into wealth, in the memorable words of Barry Switzer, he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.  His tenure as the GOP's go-to guy on budget issues has been marked by a desperate desire to dismantle pretty much everything the federal government does to alleviate poverty.  A disciple of Ayn Rand, Ryan is a True Believer when it comes to the breathtakingly sociopathic worldview Rand espoused (except, of course, when she was facing cancer and poverty in her old age and applied for Social Security and Medicare benefits she built a career railing against).

A key point of Ryan's argument is that social welfare programs are expensive and don't work.  I'll grant that they are expensive, but they constitute spending that is far more beneficial to a broader swath of society than are, for example, bank bailouts--which Ryan apparently has little problem with.

In the Budget Committee report, Ryan notes that the poverty rate in 1964--before Medicare and Medicaid and a host of other programs--was 17.3%.  Today, he notes, the poverty rate stands at 15% (and as you dig deeper into the report, you can see that the rate has varied between 11% and 15% based upon the general economy).

Sounds like not much bang for the buck.


It turns out that Ryan's report includes a footnote that contains a pretty tough qualification of that statistic.  Right there in the introduction, in footnote 2, the committee notes that the official poverty rate does not include welfare payments and benefits received.

When you factor in those payments and benefits, it turns out that the people who actually live below the poverty line are a lot fewer in number.  One study quoted in an appendix to the report suggests that the actual poverty rate is about 4.5% when government programs are factored in--and that the figure 50 years ago would have been about 30.9%.

We can disagree about where we go from here, and about what steps we should take to deal with the problem of persistent poverty.  But the takeaway from this report is clear:  Federal anti-poverty programs work to reduce poverty in a significant way.

And the fact that even Ryan's committee acknowledges that point ought to be headline news.

Monday, March 3, 2014

GC Explains: The Crimean Peninsula

I don't know what you might have been reading and hearing about Russia and Ukraine lately, but I thought it might be worth a few words on what's going on there, just to catch you up.

First, let's talk a little bit about Ukraine's recent events.  While the world was watching the Winter Olympics a few hundred miles away in Sochi, Russia, Ukraine was in the middle of a revolution.  Ukraine is a country culturally divided between ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the country and ethnic Ukrainians in the western part of the country.  The eastern part of the country identifies pretty closely with Russia and, to one extent or another, longs for reunification with Russia.  The western part, however, identifies with the western-style democracies and longs for closer ties to the modern economies of the European Union. 

After massive protests marred by violence, the eastern-leaning president of Ukraine agreed to reforms to appease the western opposition, but he was ultimately driven from office.

In the meantime, Russia has seized the opportunity to put troops into Crimea.

The Crimean Peninsula is attached mainland territory belonging to Ukraine at a narrow neck of land on its northern end.  The peninsula, which is colored light peach in the map below, juts into the Black Sea.  The smaller "sea" on the northern side is called the Sea of Azov, and it is connected to the Black Sea by the Strait of Kerch.

The Crimean Peninsula has been the scene of several important events in world history.  As you can see on the map, Yalta is a Crimean resort best known for hosting a conference among Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt in early 1945, at which the so-called "Big Three" powers planned for the postwar.

The Crimean Peninsula (along with the Black Sea) was also the setting of what might have, in another century, been termed a "world war."  In the 1850s, Russia was in conflict with the Ottoman Empire over the protection of Orthodox Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land.  Russia destroyed the Ottoman naval fleet based at Sinope (located on the "hump" of modern Turkey that juts into the Black Sea).  Britain and France, worried about growing Russian influence in the Middle East, entered the war on the Ottoman side.  The Crimean War was devastating all around and settled very little, except that it established the Black Sea as neutral territory (since Russia's Black Sea fleet was also, eventually, destroyed).

The Crimean War is famous mostly for two things.  As a result of her efforts, Florence Nightingale became a household name.  And Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a famous poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," about the Battle of Balaclava and a genuinely disastrous attempt by the British cavalry to take Sevastopol.

For administrative reasons, the Crimean Peninsula was part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was in turn part of the Soviet Union.  When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine became an independent country and took Crimea with it.  However, modern-day Crimea, while nominally a part of Ukraine, enjoys "autonomous" status within Ukraine. 

Culturally, Crimea is Russian.  Its population consists mostly of ethnic Russians, and it has, over the last two decades, had an increasingly tense relationship with the rest of Ukraine.  Part of this tension is exacerbated by the presence of a major Russian military base at Sevastopol.  Russia leases this base from Ukraine, and in 2010 the Russia-leaning Ukrainian government extended that lease, by treaty, to 2042.

Last month, the new pro-Western provisional government of Ukraine took steps to assert Ukrainian nationalism and independence, to the detriment of ethnic Russians (in particular).  For example, the new government established Ukrainian as the sole national language and abolished the use of minority languages at any level of government.  This contrasts with the former practice of using minority languages as de facto official languages where there were significant minority populations.

The new government has also undertaken to reassert control over Crimea and to abolish the autonomous (pro-Russian) local government.  In response, Russia has sent troops into the area.  The Russians claim that they have done so only to protect Russian assets (including the military base and Russian business interests in Crimea) and ethnic Russians living in Crimea.  The Ukrainian government, however, considers this an invasion of its sovereign territory.

While violence and military action is regrettable, it is not altogether clear who is in the right and who is not in this situation.  There have certainly been times in our history where we have taken exactly the same actions that Russia is taking, by invading the sovereign territory of another country when we deemed it in our national interest.  I'm not sure where I come down on this yet, but hopefully cooler heads will prevail.