Not another piece about the war. Yes. Yes I'm afraid it is
Wanting the Russia-Ukraine war to end seems weirdly unfashionable
How I feel in the current cultural environment, a lot of the time, is like a child.
Mummy, Daddy, the man in Ukraine said he's ready to talk about lots of the things the man in Russia said he wanted, so that the man in Russia stops killing people in his country. But everyone thinks that it's better that the man in Ukraine keeps fighting the man in Russia so that the Russian man loses his job. This means lots more people will die and I thought that we didn't like lots of people dying.
Look, son, you don't understand that if the man in Ukraine gives the man in Russia things that he wants he'll keep going to other places and killing people and stopping them from saying what they want and these are bad things.
But mummy, daddy, how do you know that?
... something something Hitler
Mummy, daddy, the man in Ukraine can't win because the man in Russia has more guns and soldiers.
Oh son, you don't understand. The man in Russia is losing the war. Go on Twitter and you'll find out.
Mummy, daddy, we did some lessons about nazis at school and they're bad and there are some of them in the army of the man in Ukraine who have been shooting prisoners of war and you said it was just the bad Russian man who is bad.
Listen, son, that was something called Russian Disinformation which the Russians do. Go on Twitter and you'll find out all about how that video was Russian Disinformation.
But mummy, daddy, no one has proved the video is made up and ...
SHUT UP RIGHT NOW
But, mummy, daddy. I'm confused. Also why was it OK for us to kill 460,000 people in far away Iraq so it could have different leaders that we liked better but the Russian man is wrong to kill people in the country next door for the same reason?
Son, you have so much to learn. What you just said is something we call 'whataboutism'.
Mummy, daddy, why isn't that nice Joe Biden man trying to end all the fighting? Does he like it when Russia is fighting people?
When you grow up you'll understand that evil must never prevail and that it's good if Ukraine fights well and the Russian man does badly.
Mummy, daddy, even if Ukraine can't win?
Son! Are you saying you want Ukraine to lose!?
Mummy, daddy, no. I keep thinking that all these people dying and losing their homes and things being destroyed are bad and it would be better if it stopped. And now the Ukrainian man has said he will talk about ways to stop it
Son, you are just a naïve child. Ukraine is good and Russia is bad and that is all that matters.
Mummy, daddy, I thought about the thing that you said is called 'whataboutism' and I think it's just a rhetorical sleight of hand designed to divert people away from examining uncomfortable and inconvenient examples of the arbitrary nature of values and how they are applied to controversial questions, especially when they reveal the essential hypocrisy at the heart of certain values systems.
Get to bed at once and no supper for you until you learn the rules.
Flippant, but the cognitive pain is real and this latest conflict has essentialised feeling-led information processing like nothing in my lifetime before. A bit like Covid with knobs on, because here you've got active killing at scale, as opposed to just preventable dying at scale.
Strangely, perhaps, the social post about the war that most moved me recently was about an appeal for donations of Lego. A little lad was missing his Lego because you basically don't pack your Lego when escaping the threat of aerial bombardment to find safety somewhere far from home. I keep thinking about him much more than the exceptionally handsome young men or beautiful women whose deaths are curated daily on my LinkedIn feed.
I keep wondering about that little lad and the most unsettling thing about his predicament is that I just don't see evidence that most of our leaders have got his back. I imagine that by now he has enough Lego from kind-hearted Europeans and Americans to build his own version of whichever pummeled town he should be living in, but that's not the point.
A Good Western Liberal bien pensant on LinkedIn really did suggest that my scepticism over his claims that 'Russia's military is weak' and that 'Russia lost the war before it began' signaled that I'm disappointed for Putin.
It was one of those moments when everything clicks into place. The abject stupidity we display when we're unable to separate our feelings from facts. Followed by contorted reasoning to keep us from looking more dispassionately at the detail. A small example of this phenomenon came during the pandemic when public health officials in the US suddenly swerved in their conviction that public assembly was to be avoided at all costs when the George Floyd protests happened and they lined up to say 'no Covid-related risks here'.
It's not news that we are emotionally led and typically arbitrary in our application of principles but I suspect that what isn't more widely appreciated is how much worse the situation is now that everyone is tapped into everyone else's emotions all the time, on the social web.
Nor is it original now to say that there is an authoritarian religious quality to a version of western social liberalism which seems to be eating itself across the anglophone world and showing signs of infecting my home country of France too. Sometimes I am barely able to resist listing my gender on LinkedIn as 'small gamete haver', but it wouldn't really be that funny because there are plenty of people who would approve of me rejecting my conventional sex identity.
As the Enlightenment gives way to something else we seem to be stuck in a washing machine full of feelings and values-based judgements. Which doesn't bode well for little Lego kid, who can't go home because the idea of ending this war without the removal of Putin is anathema to a majority who seem to me to be celebrating this war a bit too enthusiastically for my taste.
Asking rhetorically 'where does Putin invade next' might work as a thought-stopper on the socials but it seems adjacent to 'Ukraine - with enough weapons supplied by its western friends - must slug this out to the finish', an idea enthusiastically promoted by people with no actual skin in the game.
I don't write thinkpieces about what should be done about this that and the other. I intensely dislike most of the ones I read, so I'm not going there with my own.
But I do read widely enough to see that the conversations everyone is having about this war barely represent a fraction of the spectrum of thinking that might just lead to understanding it well enough to perhaps avoid another similar one.
Or work out what is the least bad option to get out of this one.
Or, lead to understanding that wars like this generally can't be avoided because of human nature or something.
You know, actually thinking about it instead of trotting out what your tribe's brand guidelines for commenting on world affairs dictate.
Both sides are at it all the time. The contrarians are certain that Putin wouldn't have invaded Ukraine if NATO (aka the US) had done some things differently. So 'we' are to blame. Doctrinaire liberals are certain that Putin is just evil and wrong about everything. Then there's me. Skimming through LinkedIn and wondering how everyone can be so confident that their military and geopolitical analysis prowess is suddenly so sublime.
The LinkedIn guy (he's always cropping up as he builds his personal brand) is today sagely posting about how Putin is in an echo chamber and therefore never hears contra-perspectives on the war. I'm itching to point out that his incessant sharing of Guardian and Observer pieces (which the latest one predictably is) possibly signals that he’s in his own echo chamber. But why bother? He'll only think that I've got a hard on for Putin, because that's how this shit works.
None of this is a call to switch summarily to kneejerk contrarianism. It's a suggestion to read more widely, including perspectives that you don't like. Such as this chilling assessment of the Biden administration's approach to the current moment. Not saying that Niall Ferguson is 'right'. Just saying that the perspective of the cost to Ukraine and its magnificent (the absolute balls this is taking!) defenders as the war drags on seems never to cross the minds of people on the socials.
If you’re just enjoying the spectacle of the underdog socking it to the bully fill your boots.
But if you want to think a bit more carefully about things, using the term loosely I've enjoyed these recent perspectives. You probably won't have seen some of these lines of thought (or even some of the facts they mention) in legacy media.
The point isn’t that you should read these and go ‘ah, now I know what I should think’. It’s that you might read these and go ‘ah, oh shit. I hadn’t thought about it this way’.
While it feels good to celebrate Ukraine’s successes in preventing Russia’s quick victory this sober analysis of the actual military situation (written by an expert, not an ideologue) will be interesting to look back on. The Next 2 Weeks Could Determine the Fate of Ukraine.
Michael Tracy can sometimes be a bit … much … but this essay poses some reasonable questions about US culpability in Bad Things like the current war. Why Wouldn’t The US Negotiate With Putin?
Cancel me now for entertaining the idea that popular environmental posturing has put European countries in a ridiculous predicament AND that Donald Trump was right about some stuff, but Michael Shellenberger’s piece about reliance on Russian energy is worth your awareness. The West’s Green Delusions Empowered Putin.
Matt Taibbi’s piece about mindless ‘analysis’ of the war and the relentless internal contradictions of legacy punditry is a tour de force. Putin May Have Played Himself. Will we.
This is mad, but chimes with a sense I have that ‘the sensibles’ are the post-Enlightenment’s small c conservatives. Research from Canada suggests that the more likely you are to have been vaccinated against Covid the more hawkish you’re likely to be about punishing Russia.
It’s worth noting, while recommending information sources, that one I recommended last month has temporarily ceased publication. In this piece for Rarely Certain I said that the Moscow-based investigative journalism site Novaya Gazeta was among sources I was inclined to trust for perspectives from inside Russia. The Kremlin has now frightened them into suspending publication until the war is over. Worth noting too that I also recommended the German news organisation Deutsche Welle as providing more thoughtful and less frothy reactive journalism about the onset of the conflict. But they’ve now been banned in Russia too.
This week’s bit of joy. OK, you really had to be there to fully appreciate this. But please join me in celebrating a moment that will stay with me. Hosting a visit from my oldest and best friend we walked on my favourite local coastal path. And as we watched the sun dipping, suddenly there appeared a pod of dolphins arcing out of the water. As moments go, it was a keeper.
Quote of the week (because the weirdness of social liberal culture is one of my go-to fascinations at the moment).
It’s difficult to see an ideological connection between supporting child soldiers in Ukraine and putting American children in a bubble out of fears of COVID, but somehow many of the same people seem to support both. On the other side, there is no obvious link between being skeptical about vaccines and global warming denialism, but the two do seem to go together. It’s not “anti-science,” as we can see by thinking about which side accepts the reality of sex differences.
Richard Hanania in How To Think About the “Current Thing”
Something funny? Go on then. Half a minute of your favourite ringtones played on piano.
Finally, an apology to paying subscribers for the slowdown in articles over the past month. To be transparent, I kept writing stuff that I hated when I read it back. I won’t insult supporters by publishing things just to keep the numbers up and I’d rather people unsubscribed than received rubbish that I felt obliged to send. To manage your expectations a bit more respectfully I should say that it’s going to be like this sometimes. When I’m inspired and like what I’ve written you’ll get an article. When I’m not, you won’t. Several of the writers I subscribe to publish unpredictably and that’s fine by me, but I recognise that some readers will have expectations of a certain level of service. Thanks for being there and making this worth doing.