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Courageous Conversations

Courageous Conversations: Envisioning the World Differently

 Date published: June 20, 2018

Note: This story has been adapted from Courageous Conversations: ‘The Challenge of the Future’.

In the summer of 2017, Professor of Global Business Ruth May engaged in a conversation triggered by a truth upon which she had stumbled, one that kept nagging at her because no one else seemed to be acknowledging it. Finally, she realized that she would have to be the one to bring it to light.

By Ruth May, Ph.D.

Courageous ConversationsWhat inspired me was the thing that always drives important research in any field — a burning question that compels you to search for answers.

In the summer of 2016, when cyber thieves hacked into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers, I immediately suspected it was Russia because I’ve closely studied their state security apparatus under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Russia has some of the best hackers in the world, and I was well aware of Putin’s loathing of Hillary Clinton, which stems from her public criticism of him in late 2011 for manipulating elections to guarantee that his party would win majority control before the start of his third term as president. Over his (now four) presidential terms, Putin enacted legislation and approved hostile corporate takeovers to punish both individuals and media companies that publicly criticized him. Consequently, I fully expected Putin to exact revenge on Clinton when she ran for president.

On Oct. 7, 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence issued a joint statement confirming that the Russian government had directed the cyberattacks on the DNC and disseminated thousands of stolen emails through WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0.

After Donald Trump was elected, we learned that Russian intelligence operatives had also hacked into our state voter registration rolls. They had purchased ads on Facebook critical of Clinton and posed as Americans on Twitter and Facebook for the express purpose of sowing discord in the U.S. political system. Russia’s interference was an egregious attack on our democratic institutions that demanded a strong retaliatory response. Republican leadership had always taken a hard line on Soviet/Russian aggression, so I was sure it was only a matter of time until Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell took the lead on making sure that Russia paid a heavy price for attacking our electoral process.

I waited. And I waited. And I waited. But nothing happened. No sharp criticism from the top GOP leadership; no push for an aggressive investigation; no action. Why? Why? Why? This is the burning question that gnawed at me relentlessly and drove me to search for answers.

In early 2017, I was reading an article on a flight to New York about the soon-to-be-confirmed U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. At the time, Ross was still co-chair of the Bank of Cyprus in a country known for its money laundering, particularly Russian money laundering. Buried deep in the article was a one-sentence mention of a $1 million donation to Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership PAC on Oct. 25, 2016, by a Soviet American billionaire, Len Blavatnik, whose Russian business partner, Viktor Vekselberg, is one of Putin’s closest oligarchs. Vekselberg also happens to be the largest shareholder in the Bank of Cyprus. My jaw dropped, my heart sank, and I began to feel nauseous. There was no way that Mitch McConnell would have taken $1 million from a billionaire oligarch with ties to the Kremlin only a week after American intelligence had confirmed that Russia had meddled in our election. This had to be a mistake.

As soon as I got off the plane, I went straight to my hotel and got on the internet. I searched the donor database of the Federal Election Commission, and my worst fears were confirmed. Not only did McConnell take $1 million from Blavatnik, he took $2.5 million, and five other top GOP leaders had accepted donations totaling at least $3 million. I was sure this story would be reported by leading journalists and news outlets at any moment, but it didn’t happen. By late summer of 2017, a few of my close friends who were aware of what I’d discovered convinced me to stop waiting for someone else to break the story and to write it myself. So I did.

I first reached out to the New York Times and the Washington Post, but got no response. When I contacted the Dallas Morning News, they immediately responded, but they wanted to see all my original sourcing. Once they realized my story was sound and factual, they jumped on it.

Ruth MayI often tell my students how dangerous ideas that require you to engage in courageous conversations will find you. You don’t have to go looking for them. They will come right to your doorstep — in your company, in your church, in your classroom, or among your colleagues in your university. When you get that sick feeling in your stomach; when you would rather look the other way and keep silent; when you wish you didn’t know what you know; you can be certain that you’re being faced with a truth that requires a courageous conversation. My best advice to students is to be ready: Don’t be caught off guard when truth lands at your doorstep, and don’t fail yourself by keeping silent, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. You have to be willing to pay a price. You might lose money, or a job, or even close friends in the process, but you won’t lose yourself, and in the end, this is all that really matters.

The email responses I received from readers ran the gamut from one calling me “an unhinged, liberal, snowflake fascist” to another telling me that I should win a Pulitzer Prize for my reporting. Overall, the responses were positive and appreciative of the detailed research I had done in knitting together a rather complex story. My UD colleagues have been very supportive because, as Professor William Frank said in his King Fellow address earlier this year, “Our teaching asks our students to envision themselves and the world differently. We ask them to face the reality that a huge part of their dignity as persons lies in their taking up their responsibility to listen and hear and speak the truth.”

Read more Courageous Conversations from the Univeristy of Dallas.