Monday, Mar. 19, 2018

Monday, Mar. 19, 2018

The Briefing

March 19, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday March 19th, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

As Putin wins record fourth term we’re reminded that not all elections are equal

Well there was certainly no surprise but there was news coming yesterday out of Moscow reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin had won an unprecedented fourth six-year term in office. He has already held three, now he’s been elected to a fourth and his term limited this time to just one additional six-year term. But remember that until recent days, the Chinese president was also term limited but then the Chinese Communist Party changed the Constitution in order to allow President Xi to continue in office.

It is not certain that the same thing will happen in Russia but there are huge lessons to learn here. We are watching the retreat of electoral democracy around the world and you will say how can that possibly be because you’re talking about an election just held in Russia? Well the point is that elections are not all equal, and in the Russian election there was never a question of the outcome and that’s not just because of the popularity of Vladimir Putin, it is because of the fact that his enemies, his primary challengers are eliminated from the possibility of running for office.

You’re looking at the fact that in Russia autocracy is replacing what had been a very fragile experiment in democracy. And as we have seen over time especially from the 19th and 20th centuries, there is no shortage of governments in which there are elections but there is no democracy. Vladimir Putin has appeared as a new model of a Russian strongman and Russia has tended over history to prefer extremely strong politically powerful leaders. Vladimir Putin is very much in that mold, but one of the other things to notice is that in consolidating his power, Vladimir Putin now controls almost every major sector of Russian society.

He controls the media, he controls the military, he controls foreign policy and in a very important way, he controls all the major business contracts and rights and services that are available in the massive country of Russia. Neil MacFarquhar reporting for The New York Times tells us that Russian voters gave President Vladimir Putin their resounding approval for a fourth term with preliminary results on state television showing him with more than 70% of the vote even if said The Times, the initial turnout estimate was less than the Kremlin had sought.

Now one of the interesting signals sent out of the Kremlin in recent months has been the fact that Putin wanted an enormous electoral mandate. Well since there’s no real credible challenger, how would that mandate come? It would not come so much in the percentage of the vote that he would receive, that’s fairly predictable, in this case about 70%, it’s rather in the turnout of voters. The percentage of the Russian people who actually cared enough to get out and vote. The 70% of the vote that Vladimir Putin received is probably not a disappointment, and by the way in any western democracy 70% would be a radical unprecedented landslide.

But when it comes to the Russian election, the bigger number is not the percentage of the vote that Putin received, but rather the percentage of the people who voted and it was well known by associates of Putin that he wanted a turnout of about 70% of eligible voters, but all the initial results indicated he did not get that probably not even close. The New York Times estimates that the voter turnout may well have been under 65% which would be less than he received in the 2012 election. It’s probably not fair to refer to Vladimir Putin as a dictator, not so much in classical terms. It is increasingly correct to speak of him as an autocrat, with power concentrated in one person and even though there are other sectors of the society and even of the government, there is no question that ultimate power finally ends in the office of Vladimir Putin.

And in recent weeks there has been a great deal of speculation about what would happen when Vladimir Putin comes near to the end of this fourth six-year term. If you look at the previous four terms, he has held all but one of them and in that case it was held by one of his associates, he simply switched places with the prime minister, he remained in power even though he conceded the title of president to another. But for only one-six year term. Otherwise it has been Vladimir Putin and the question is as he is term limited now to this last six-year term as president, will he surrender the office, and if so, who could possibly succeed him.

Now this reminds me of a statement made years ago, it was made in 1937 by Winston Churchill. He said famously, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount,” and then he warned, “And the tigers are getting hungry.” That’s a huge question from a Christian worldview perspective, how does someone who has concentrated power in himself, how does a nation that has allowed this concentration in one person, how does the leader leave? How does an autocrat much less a dictator, but even how does an autocrat resign or retire?

Churchill’s metaphor of someone daring to ride a tiger is extremely appropriate here because that describes the predicament of the autocrat. In concentrating that power you make friends but you also make enemies and furthermore if you make yourself the indispensable person in the entire country, if you make yourself the final appeal for all of those years, if you concentrate power and furthermore concentrate wealth, there are reports that Vladimir Putin’s personal wealth is between 40 billion and $200 billion. That would be at the high end of those estimations twice of the wealth of for instance Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.

But the story of autocrats leaving office before death is generally not so long a story and certainly not a very happy story. Autocrats once they leave office tend to have very troubled retirements, sometimes incredibly short retirements. Sometimes incredibly short lives or they end up being in jail or stripped of their power and authority because once you establish the pattern of an autocracy, well if you resign, someone else is likely to become an autocrat after you. And there is nothing more useless or threatening than a former autocrat. But from a Christian worldview perspective, just considering the distinction between the separation of powers in the United States, something very much based as a constitutional principle upon the understanding of human sinfulness and the danger of centralizing power not only in one individual, but even in one branch of government, you compare that with Russia and you understand that history will have consequences. Ideas have consequences, constitutions have consequences.

Part II

The unforgivable sin according to Vladimir Putin? Betrayal.

And something else to note that’s extremely important in the timing of this Russian election, it now becomes increasingly clear that Vladimir Putin actually sought some of the headlines demonstrating himself as a strong leader taking actions that are considered immoral, unconstitutional, illegal in the West. Thus, Andrew Higgins writing also in The New York Times suggests that the attack on the ex-spy, the attempted assassination of an ex-spy, an ex-Russian spy considered in Russia a traitor, an attack, an assassination attempt that was traced to a nerve agent used by and owned only by Russia, it is now believed that the very act was timed in order to bring attention to Putin as a man who silences his enemies. In the Russian tradition, thus demonstrating himself to be the kind of strong leader that was represented by Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible or even Joseph Stalin.

Many Western observers have pointed to the fact that several years ago Vladimir Putin gave an interview in which he said that the unforgivable sin is betrayal. Higgins writes about statements made even more recently, “Cruising toward a certain victory in the recent presidential election, President Vladimir V Putin briefly dropped his image as Russia’s tough but Merciful Zeus to make clear that he would forgive misdeeds by wayward subjects but not everything. Asked what could not be forgiven Mr. Putin said bluntly, “Betrayal.” And then Higgins goes on to say, “Mr. Putin’s unforgiving contempt for treachery displayed in a new Hagiographic film released this week, provides the emotional and political backdrop to a pattern of Russian behavior that Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain announced on Monday made it highly likely that Moscow was responsible for a March 4 nerve agent attack in Salisbury England on Sergei V Skripal and his daughter Yulia.”

Now what is also interesting is that last Friday Britain’s foreign minister Boris Johnson went on to say that not only had the attack had been traced even by the specific nerve agent to Russia, but specifically to the authorization of the Russian president. And Andrew Higgins in the New York Times asked the question how could this news breaking about Vladimir Putin as behind this attempted assassination, how could this act which would be a criminal act in Great Britain and furthermore an act that has contradicted every agreement that Russia has made about nerve agents and nerve weapons, how could this serve his purposes? Well as Higgins explains in the Russian tradition of the strong leader, this just demonstrates to Russians that Vladimir Putin is a man to be feared and in many ways, the Russian people have indicated what they want in a leader is a leader to be feared.

Behind all of this is Russian resentment that their nation has been forced into the margins off a central stage in history. There is a very strong belief in the inevitability of Russian glory and Vladimir Putin has stoke the fires of that dream and of that resentment. He has presented himself as the agent for the return of Russian glory and as other observers and American and European intelligence agencies believe, Vladimir Putin believes that Russia cannot recover itself that role in the world stage, it is after all only at this point the world’s 13th largest economy. It may have the world’s largest landmass but it has only the world’s 13th largest economy. And given economic constraints, there is very little reason for Russia on its own to be able to recapture world glory. So what’s the plan? The plan is to destabilize the West and to weaken the West so that in relative strength Russia would then gain.

There are some other interesting observations for one, if you are a Russian age 24 or younger, you know no major political fact or figure in Russia other than Vladimir Putin. And so the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition actually provided a good many interviews with very young Russians between the ages say of 18 and 24 amongst them there’s no question that Vladimir Putin is wildly popular, why? Because he’s really the only political option, he’s simply a political fact of life. But I’ll end our consideration of this issue by going back to that quote from Winston Churchill in 1937. “Indeed autocrats decide to get onto the back of a hungry tiger but eventually, one way or another they do have to get off. They may get off by death or they may get off alive but then they have to deal with a very hungry tiger.” Vladimir Putin may have won another six-year term as Russian president but even for autocrats, there is no term that does not come to an end.

Part III

Why we should be alarmed by a special report on sexuality in one California high school’s student newspaper

Next we shift back to the United States and controversy not so much about a national election but about a special edition of a high school newspaper. In this case the High School is the San Juan Hills High School in Orange County California. The newspaper, the student newspaper is known as The Express. The edition was headlined Relationships and Sex and it’s a blockbuster of a special issue. After explaining that the issue is all about relationships and sex in high school, the student editors of the paper said, “The following special report highlights the realities of relationships and sex for high school students today. The content contains anonymous testimonials from students and opinions about stigmatization of sex culture. The features reflect each student’s personal experiences and opinions and should not be taken as universal truth.”

The editors went on to say that the names have been changed to protect the stories and the identities and furthermore it states that opinion stories reflect that of the individual authors and not that of the newspaper or the editorial board as a whole. Well, it set off an explosion and if you look at the special edition, you’ll understand why. Most of it I cannot repeat on the briefing, but you’ll pretty much get the point by the approach taken by the student editors and writers of this high school newspaper. The testimonials come from students who talk about heterosexual sexual activity, homosexuals sexual activity bisexuality. Well the stories go on. One in particular is a subversion of the very idea of virginity but another the testimonials comes from a young couple who are committed to chastity before marriage.

That’s very much a piece that though included in the article series is fairly out of step with the theme taken by the whole. For example, as you look at the articles in the series you find statements such as this. “Any concept that shames youths for having or not having sex is detrimental.” Later quote. “Although abstinence until marriage for religious or moral reasons is completely acceptable, the stigma that if you don’t wait then you are impure is as toxic as it is normalized. In a later statement I read quoting again, “Now is the time for acceptance of any sexual experimentation and experiences at any stage in someone’s life with anyone they choose. As long as both parties are consenting, mutually benefiting and understand the potential ramifications of their choices, then sex is okay.”

There is then an affirmation of what’s described as a sex positive movement. Later in yet another article in the series, I quote, “Whether one has sex on the first date or doesn’t kiss until the fifth, it’s nothing but a personal choice. As long as it’s consensual and they feel safe, it is healthy and natural-healthy and natural both all caps. It is crucial …” says the article, “That we all ingrain that into our minds rather than the idea that judging someone based on their sexuality is okay.”

Now the series makes the same point over and over again and even in that editorial introduction, it’s clear that the series has an agenda but it’s an agenda that got some blowback immediately from parents and others who saw the student newspaper. And then the principal issued a statement in an email to parents in the school. In her email to parents, the principal Jennifer Smalley said and I quote, “The Express published yesterday does not meet the high standards we expect of our students and our staff which have been set forth in previous publications where our students tackled challenging issues surrounding the LGBTQ community as well as raising awareness of suicide with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. The publication distributed yesterday said the principal is disrespectful and sensationalistic and I will not condone the contents. I am truly sorry to our students, families and community for the shock and dismay you felt when you opened up the paper, I share your feelings.

Interestingly, at that point the principal goes on to explain that according to California law, the principal of a high school has no power of prior restraint. That is to say the principal of a high school has no authority to prevent a student publication from running an article in advance. The article may run and the consequences may follow but the principal is not legally allowed to prevent the publication by what in journalism is called prior restraint. In response to the email sent by the principal in response to the article series, the student editors put out a statement of their own in which they said, “We are saddened and hurt by the response we have received from you, meaning the principal in regards to our latest print edition. This edition has been brainstormed they said for almost a full year and we put numerous hours into its creation. As our principal your opinion often holds more weight among parents and the community because you are considered the leader of the school. Therefore, calling students’ experiences disrespectful and sensationalistic was perceived as insensitive and insulting by The Express and the subjects of our center spread.”

Now before we even look at the moral dimensions of this particular news story, one thing we should note is that both the principal’s email and the response by the student editors of the newspaper, both of these statements are almost purely emotional in force. The principal spoke of the shock and dismay, a shock and dismay in response to the article series that the principal said that she had shared. Then the editors responded by using the words that they were saddened and hurt and that the principal’s email was perceived as insensitive and insulting. If we don’t note anything else about this news story, at least we should understand that young people in America and for that matter, a good many and older generations as well have forfeited almost any serious rational or moral terms of debate in exchange for the merely emotional.

It’s the emotional that seems to pack just about all the power and to consume just about all the energy in our national conversation. Certainly about controversial issues and certainly when that controversial issue gets close to human sexuality. But the other thing we need to note is that we really shouldn’t be too surprised by the substance and the expression on these issues that is found in this edition of a student newspaper in Orange County California. Why? Because the very same arguments, the very same expressions, the very same moral judgments are those that have been pressed upon the society by the courts, pressed upon the society by progressive educators and certainly pressed upon the society by cultural influencers and certainly the center of that influence would be found Hollywood. And all of the cultural engines of production in our society.

A constant theme is coming over and over again and this is evidence of the fact that high school students in America have been listening. They have been watching, they have been receiving the signals and furthermore even as much of the expression, much of the substance in this article is shocking and far too sexually explicit to be found in any such consideration, the larger moral context is one in which you could simply summarized by saying, “Message received.”

Christian parents looking at this story have to understand another fundamental and unavoidable insight. Here we’re talking about a rather unfiltered therefore controversial approach to questions of human sexuality taken by student writers and student editors at a major public high school in Orange County California. What that tells us is that what students in that context have been receiving and what they now represent and what they now articulate, is a worldview that is radically at odds with that of Christian families, Christian churches and Christian parents. What makes this story particularly alarming is the fact that this isn’t something that’s been released by a think tank, a progressive liberal think tank about these positions that should be taught to high school students, no, what we’re getting here is evidence that the high school students themselves are now sending the message, sending it loudly, sending it clearly, sending it quite explicitly.

It’s one thing for us to note that the moral revolutionaries have in ordinate authority in so many of the formative sectors of our society, it’s perhaps a wake-up call for just about everyone that now it turns out that one of those influential sectors is the editorial board of a high school newspaper in California.

Part IV

Gold falls from the skies, literally, in one Russian town

Finally, we’ll go back to Russia. Here’s a headline for you, it came just in recent days in the New York Times, “For a moment in Russia gold falls from the sky.” Matthew Luxmoore reports. Yakutsk, a city 5,000 miles from Moscow where temperatures can plummet to minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit is not the sort of place where people normally spend winter nights searching the bushes by torchlight. But it’s not every day that 3.4 tons of gold falls out of the sky.

Luxmoore went on to explain and I quote, “The unusual scene unfolded this week after a door on a Soviet era cargo plane sprang open on takeoff spewing Dozens of what seemed to be gold bars into the frosty air. We were then told they turned out to be doré, a semi pure alloy composed of gold and silver, not pure gold but close enough. The plane was an Antonov AN12, and the biggest air freighters in the world today many of them are actually those Russian Soviet era planes; the AN12, the AN22 and the massive AN225, the biggest cargo plane in the world. A plane capable even though there is only one of them of caring by air 418,830 pounds.”

So while the international community and millions of Russians were primarily concerned about a presidential election, a good many Russians were concerned about looking around for fallen gold, and they were oddly encouraged by an official statement coming from the government that seemed to be a little contradictory. The government said all of the cargo has been recovered, but then it continued to say anyone who finds any of it and doesn’t turn it in, will be guilty of a crime. One Russian Instagram user simply summarized it this way, “Such things can only happen here.”

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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