The Memo: Two Americas draw vastly different lessons from Brittney Griner saga
Basketball star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony Thursday — and America’s reaction has been so polarized, it’s like watching a split-screen.
Did Griner’s release show that “President Biden gets it done” as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the soon-to-be leader of House Democrats, claimed? Or did the White House deliver “a gift to Vladimir Putin,” as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) asserted?
Was Griner’s release proof that “God is good,” as an exultant Joy Reid of MSNBC tweeted, or that Biden had gone out on a limb for an athlete who “despises the United States,” as Tucker Carlson indignantly told viewers of his Fox News show?
Was Biden right to celebrate what he called “a day we’ve worked toward for a long time” or was his predecessor, former President Trump, correct to assess the episode as “a stupid and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!”?
Polarized reactions are hardly a surprise in today’s hyperpartisan political climate.
But the contours of the Griner matter make it a particularly combustible element in a fractious nation.
The bare facts are these:
Griner was arrested in February at a Moscow-area airport with vape cartridges containing marijuana oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty at her subsequent trial and, last month, was moved to a penal colony with a grim reputation in the western region of Mordovia.
In order to get her out, the Biden administration agreed to release a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who had been serving a 25-year sentence imposed in 2012 for crimes including conspiracy to kill Americans.
Importantly, the deal failed to spring from captivity another American in Russian detention, Paul Whelan, who was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges. Whelan proclaims his innocence despite having been convicted by a Russian court in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Beyond those details, the symbolism is at least as important as the substance — particularly when it comes to conflicting views among Americans as to what the events really mean.
Griner is a Black, lesbian athlete whose plight became a cause celebre, especially in liberal circles and in the worlds of sport and popular culture.
Whelan is a white, middle-aged former Marine whose family has struggled to get his case into the headlines at all.
Bout, for his part, has a story lurid and macabre enough to inspire a Hollywood movie and earn him the nickname “The Merchant of Death.”
Anyone looking for ammunition to fire new volleys in the culture wars could hardly have designed things better.
“The entire decision to release Griner and then the response to it is emblematic of America,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor emeritus who specializes in political communication.
“One part of America is celebrating the release of an African American gay woman, and another part of America is bemoaning the continuing long imprisonment of a white Marine.”
There is also the broader backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine to consider, as well as the frayed nature of American political culture.
“This is really the perfect storm,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. He added that, within the case, there are “a number of thorny domestic cultural issues exploding, along with difficult geopolitical challenges outside the U.S. … What happens when those things meet?”
What happens, at least in part, is that huge numbers of Americans seem to pick a side.
Carlson, in a segment on his show Thursday — the day of Griner’s release — put the contrast between Griner and Whelan in especially stark terms.
“The former Marine, who has been there for four years already, gets left behind in Russia, while the celebrity athlete [who] gets busted with hash oil is championed by her celebrity media friends like Gayle King [of CBS News] and is home in just months,” Carlson complained.
This, he added, “seems like a metaphor for how America under Joe Biden is working at this point.”
But to Democrats like Payne, it is precisely those kinds of arguments that expose an unfair, derogatory view of Griner.
“Those folks who over the last 24 hours seem to have been rooting against Brittney Griner are telling on themselves, because I think they are telling you who and what they value,” Payne said.
“If you are someone who thought Brittney Griner should have spent nine years in a penal colony, I think it probably says something about the value you put on her as a Black woman, an athlete and an LGBT woman.”
The Griner and Whelan families are trying their best to avoid the pitfalls of partisan politics or divisive public statements.
Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, speaking alongside Biden at the White House on Thursday, said the couple “will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home.”
The Whelan family has endorsed Biden’s decision as the “right choice” — given Paul Whelan’s release was apparently not on offer.
Still, the matter is far from settled. Paul Whelan himself told CNN from Russia that he was “greatly disappointed that more has not been done” to get him home.
The Biden administration has been emphatic that it will continue to work for Whelan’s release, as well as for other Americans held in foreign nations.
When it comes to the Griner situation, the refrain from the White House has been that the president’s only choice was whether one or zero Americans would be released.
By most accounts, that seems to be true.
But it’s an argument that has no chance of quelling a controversy that so neatly fits into America’s deepest divides.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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