Sometimes Healthcare Reform Is Just Healthcare Reform

I stood outside today, after reading the New York Times Sunday edition, and puffed on what was left of the stogie I’d started smoking when I began reading the paper. Almost half the articles in their "Week In Review" section either wondered what was wrong with the president, or tried to predict how much of the healthcare reform law could be repealed by the new Republican majority Congress that would be seated in January 2011. 


As I looked down from the back deck at the dead leaves that had accumulated like orange and auburn colored snowflakes over what was left of our back lawn, oddly enough, I thought back to last spring, when everything was new and green, and reminisced about a particular weekend we’d had seven months ago…

This was a spring weekend when there wasn’t much TV watching or newspaper reading or web surfing going on in our house. Nope, this had been one of those weekends where instead of cobbling together an extended profane political polemic like “Christine O’Donnell Got 99 Problems But Telling Lies Ain’t One”, back when she was running in the GOP primary, S. and I were eagerly working in the yard, cleaning away dead leaves, pruning trees and bushes, and spreading a black velvet colored mulch around the yard. Okay, “eagerly” is probably the wrong word for the attitude I had—“sourly” is probably much more accurate.

Then a friend of mine from across town showed up that Sunday afternoon with his two boys and their friend after attending a soccer game just around the corner. Two four year olds and a nine year old, they were the Three Musketeers—one mini afro, one mini fade, and one Mini Wheats colored shock of blonde hair that kept disappearing around corners and behind cars, at least until the kids from next door came outside.

The family next door were Russians, as in Russians from Russia, with heavy accents like they have in the movies and an insane obsession with cars. Their daughter was in the second or third grade, and their son, who speaks a totally unintelligible polyglot of Russian and English fragments, was three. In twenty minutes, I’d gone from being a lone field negro bagging dead leaves while breathing through a makeshift turban to starring in a cast of characters that included my better half with the dog, a bowl of popcorn, three pre-testosterone age boys following the Russian princesses every move, and a three year old I had to do sign language with, who hollered every time he saw a bee.

In the midst of all this chaos, my buddy remembered the brace of cigars he’d brought over, and pulled them out of his pocket. A word to the wise—if you ever get to choose your friends, choose the kind that are apt to pull a handful of Romeo Y Julieta double coronas out of their pocket . They are even better than the occasional bottle of hooch when it comes to making a friend's flaws recede into nothingness.

By the time this was all over, I had been forced to pull out my Super Soaker to defend my manhood. The kids had dropped so much popcorn on the paving stones, the dog had simply given up trying to eat them all. The neighbor’s pink Barbie Escalade had run out of power after careening around the cul-de-sac loaded down with passengers. And young Master Mini Wheats surprised himself by yelling “I love you” to the Russian princess from the backseat of my friend’s truck as he pulled off…

Why was I thinking about this today, with winter just around the corner, as I stood in the stillness of the crisp fall air? Because I wanted to know why the crazy folks who swear Barack Obama is an alien life form don’t see what my neighbors see.

I mean, my better half is tall, and is a lawyer, like Michelle. And I like to talk a lot, and I'm biracial myself, just like the president...

...okay, maybe being half black and half Geechie isn't exactly the same as being half black and half white—more like half black and half rice—but you get where I'm going with the general theme.

Smart, well educated, well behaved, well mannered black folks like us have been goodwill ambassadors before anybody even knew who the Obamas were. We have always done what we could to bridge the gap between the ignorance of long held racial stereotypes and the reality of our existence.

It took more than another couple of puffs on this cigar that was slowly coming to an end this afternoon, however, to think about the disconnect between my neighbors, who expect to see me and know who I am, and the weekenders touring the neighborhood whose eyes often jump when they spy me trimming the hedges in my “Obama” t-shirt while puffing a trusty stogie. To think about the disconnect between me and millions upon millions of other Americans and that dynamic duo, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who have decided to dedicate the next two years to dismantling his healthcare reform bill because it is a symbol of social justice, a political mindset with which they do not agree.

By the time I finished my stogie, though, I had decided that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

And sometimes, healthcare reform is just healthcare reform.   

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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