Ukraine and why I'm not joining in with the social chatter
I'm having enough feelings already, without more of them
It's back again on the European continent. War. Living tissue and bone being minced and shattered in the pursuit of ideas that some 'top' people (fashionably known as elites) think ordinary people should make happen for them.
This time it began for me with the unreal-feeling last Thursday of WhatsApping a friend in Kiyiv (who happens to be a founding supporter of Rarely Certain). Thankfully he was out of the country for a birthday party somewhere. So he's safe. And now rebuilding his material life from nothing but a bit of luggage assembled for a short break.
I don't know if any readers have seen what violent death looks like. Really. Not the carefully curated version that you see in news media.
I have and it's 90% of what I have in mind as events unfold 26 hours’ drive away from where I'm sitting.
To prepare us for future possibly harrowing assignments, as journalism students we were lectured by the South Yorkshire Coroner, long ago. We saw the man who'd been minced between the elevator he fell out of and the wall. And several other scenes, in full projector screen detail. I was depressed for a fortnight afterwards. I'd been able to look, in fascination, so feeling consistently miserable later came as a surprise. Later I saw that reaction as a kind of growing up.
Then I saw war death, albeit thankfully not in real life. Working at BBC Television Centre I was tasked with monitoring a raw video feed from an international news agency for some particular images that were needed for that evening's teatime news.
So I know what someone looks like when a mortar shell killed them. Or when they were hit by air burst shrapnel then crashed their plane.
When you look at that, the last thing you calculate is whether they deserved it. Whose side they were on. You think that they were once a bouncing baby, a bright-eyed child, a functioning adult and then became some torn up multi-coloured (the colours are weird) wet or crispy stuff.
This is what the invasion of Ukraine is making. More of that wet or crispy stuff that was once people like me. So that some people who will always be safe can pursue a vision of some kind of destiny. Like a unified Russian Orthodox federation of Slavic and other folk or a US-led Liberal Rules Based World Order. I don't give a fuck what their vision is when it's paid for in the currency of lives.
That's where I'm at with this war. With some anxiety about escalation on top.
In a way, the invasion of Ukraine is a hard test for the idea behind this newsletter.
Rarely Certain mostly details a personal attempt to detach from tribalism and certitude. That urge began when I realised that people like me and my group lacked intellectual humility. As educated progressive economically successful liberal people who liked the general direction that life was taking, we seemed unable to deal with the shocks of Brexit and Trump. I and those like me seemed to react to these moments with incomprehension and - all too often - hysteria.
The idea of actively practicing intellectual humility by intentionally embracing something I pseudo-intellectually called 'radical uncertainty' flowed from noticing how much better it felt to be self-aware and able to dial down emotional reactivity to controversy.
It was hard, at first. Then it became easier because I opened my mind to wider perspectives. Brexit and Trump stopped seeming as easy to dismiss as the wrong people winning more votes and much more interesting as manifestations of cultural currents that I'd completely failed to notice. Cultural currents that had their basis in obviously well-founded discontent among ordinary people, even with whom I didn't share a worldview.
Covid-19 was a gift for this project. Prising myself out of the binary 'science vs populist scepticism' binary was tricky, but I'm glad that I did it. Doing so meant that I was less surprised to learn how corrupt people like Pfizer are when they want governments to buy their stuff, or how dishonest and incompetent our leaders tend to be when they're trying to get control of something that threatens to get out of hand. And the narrative control we are subjected to was quite a thing to notice.
I wish the process had stopped there, without a war to demonstrate how complex issues are instantly dissolved into asinine memes reducing everything to binary propositions.
But that's where are. Again.
I don't need to ritually denounce Vladimir Putin or blame any particular Western leader for turning people who are exactly like the people I love into wet or crispy lifeless tissue. Because this war is just some bullshit that will be great business for some and a vile ordeal for many more while the rest of us cheer or boo one side or the other from the safety of our sofas.
When someone sends their army into another country and starts killing people, how can you not take a side?
I read that 'Harry and Meghan stand with Ukraine'. And most of my LinkedIn network, who all seem to have instantly morphed into geopolitical analysts. For my part I don't even remember when we stopped calling Kiyiv Kiev and the Euromaidan revolution reads like complete news to me now, even though it happened eight years ago. I've been taking a crash course in what the fuck Ukraine actually is (apart from a country I've never taken any notice of) since last Wednesday.
How on earth am I in a position to pontificate on this war?
This didn't stop me from reflexively being angry with Putin and NATO for their mutually oppositional expansionist ambitions. But, really?
The only thing that I have any expertise in is my own mind and its vulnerability to manipulation, so that's where I jump off on this issue.
And what I've noticed is that I know exactly what I'm supposed to be thinking and saying. That Putin is an evil crazed despot, that Ukraine is a 'good' country, led by a heroic president, that anyone who questions this is an apologist for Russian expansionism and obviously spouting Kremlin propaganda.
There is absolutely no doubt here. If you don't 'stand with Ukraine' you de facto stand with Russia.
Woah. Hang on.
It's reminding me uncomfortably of George Bush's infamous "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" speech justifying the disastrous 'war on terror'.
Except this time it is journalists and citizens saying it. Dissent has been outlawed faster than I've ever seen.
Some of my favourite writers are dismissing with alacrity any questioning of NATO's expansion to the east and writing emotionally-laden tributes to the Ukrainian president, likening dissenters to the idea of escalating this war to the appeasers of Hitler in 1939. I notice that I daren't comment on their pieces, even to point out that a widely shared image of Volodymyr Zelenskyy in body armour was taken several months ago, not last week. But I'm uncomfortable to see so much false information being shared by normally reliable people.
You might say that in the context of a full invasion, some incorrectly attributed photos or memes about heroic deeds by a probably fictitious Ukrainian fighter pilot or the 'go fuck yourself, Russian warship' story not really ending in the Snake Island border guards being shelled to death but probably with their capture, are insignificant.
In a way, they are. But they are obvious signs of emotional manipulation and I'm wary of that. I'm wary of that creeping warm feeling I get when I read uncorroborated accounts of acts of heroic resistance, not because I don't want Ukraine to prevail and repel their invaders but because I want to form my views on the basis of something other than made-up stories.
This is already feeling like a heretical position to hold.
The only acceptable position is ... well, you already know it. You've probably voiced it on your Facebooks, Twitters and such. Because you're having feelings. Natural feelings about people being turned into wet or crispy lifeless stuff because a man we've been taught to fear, from a place we don’t understand, wants to control their country.
And you will be branded as stupid for wondering whether this is really ALL about one man's despotism or may possibly be about many factors that might have been managed differently on all sides.
So I'm staying out of it while trying to get up to some sort of speed on what brought us to this frankly alarming and dangerous point, with its frequent mention of nuclear deterrents and general escalation.
I'm reading things like Ukrainian English language newspapers, to learn about the political currents there that pre-date this war. Things I had no idea about before the last few days. Some of which seem to contradict the idea that Ukraine is a fully functioning democracy where it's safe to dissent from the current government.
Independent commentators with area expertise seem, to me, to be providing more thoughtful assessments of the situation than anything I've seen in The Guardian or the NYT, with cooler and less inflammatory adjectives or nouns in play. Commentary that makes things seem a bit more complicated than the good vs evil story that makes it feel nice to overlay a Ukrainian flag on your social media avatar and celebrate Russian soldiers being ripped apart or fried on Ukrainian soil.
In the end your understanding of things is only as reliable as your information sources and what follows is a short list of my currently favoured ones. It's a start.
Lawrence Freedman on the overview of the invasion itself, how it's progressing and what might happen on the ground. He's making his Ukraine posts free to read for the foreseeable and several times I've noticed corporate media lifting his observations (without attribution) 24 hours later.
The Kiyiv Post newspaper, particularly the section where they detail the deaths of journalists in recent years. This is helpful for revealing background on Ukraine and how much less simple that country is than just 'the goodies' in this war.
I notice, too, that English language German media is offering angles I've not seen elsewhere on questions such as financial sanctions. Deutsche Welle is worth monitoring. So is the Moscow-based Russian language Novaya Gazeta, owned by ex-president Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexander Lebedev (who also has stakes in Britain's Evening Standard and Independent newspapers).
Glenn Greenwald is writing helpfully - and not from a pro-Russian perspective, as many denounce him for on social media - on the scale of information manipulation we are subject to right now.
Leighton Woodhouse writes intelligently and non-ideologically on policy matters of all kinds. This is a very good essay on the most common rhetorical device used in debate at moments like this, the Mott and Bailey argument. This is the go-to move for people who prefer to parse every issue as a binary choice between doing what they think would solve a problem or doing nothing at all.
Along the way I'm skimming through media that is largely briefed by anonymous sources, which means the most widely consumed outlets like the BBC or Sky News. My default setting here is the assumption that they're reporting what various government agencies want the public to think and so it's possibly unreliable as genuine neutral analysis or insight.
And, of course, I'm entirely avoiding the main tool designed for mass emotional contagion known as Twitter. I don't need to know how upset or angry everyone else is to form my own view on the vileness of this conflict or what soft left or right-leaning centrists who hated Brexit (my main constituency there) think should be done to attenuate Putin's ambitions. I'm also keeping a watching brief on Britain's tabloid front pages, specifically to gauge the jingoistic bottom-up pressure on Britain to weigh in harder, and in general for the quaint way it reduces the whole disaster to the level of the WWII comics I loved as a child.
For nerdy people there is also the community-sourced probability assessment platform Metalculus to help predict what happens next. It often does reasonably well in predicting disparate things, compared with people held up as experts who are given popular media space for thinkpieces. The conservative commentator Richard Hanania offers an interesting perspective on how he performed in the run-up to this war, compared with the Metalculus community.
There are no positive ways to navigate the unfolding story of this war, as an ordinary person. But there are ways to not become part of the story by pontificating on it from poorly informed standpoints rooted in feelings. I'm having all the feelings I need right now. It's better understanding that I need.
Quote of the week
One instrument of propaganda that did not exist in 2003 but most certainly does now is social media, and it is hard to overstate how much it is exacerbating all of these pathologies of propaganda. The endless flood of morally righteous messaging, the hunting down of and subsequent mass-attacks on heretics, the barrage of pleasing-but-false stories of bravery and treachery, leave one close to helpless to sort truth from fiction, emotionally manipulative fairy tales from critically scrutinized confirmation. It is hardly novel to observe that social media fosters group-think and in-group dynamics more than virtually any other prior innovation, and it is unsurprising that it has intensified all of these processes
This week's bit of joy
Romeo and Una look slightly perplexed as our Youna cools herself on the trail this weekend, in the hills north of Marseille.
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