Here is a half-formed thought.
Russia’s leadership (not just Putin, but various other power-holders, including at least some oligarchs) may actually welcome sanctions, and Western sanctions, far from being undesirable, were in fact the intended outcome of this war. Here’s how this works: these past 30 years, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has been a net exporter of capital. This is due to multiple reasons, but in essence businesses (both Russian and foreign) extract things and ultimately remove the capital. Putin & Co. cannot directly force Russian business to not export capital. The war and the imposed sanctions make the West do the work, and take the blame. This can help Russia to fulfill the autarchist (anti-globalist) fantasies commonly held by fascist-leaning thinkers of all stripes.
Scott Alexander posts a very interesting discussion of the question of “self determination” on his blog. This is a topic that has fascinated me for my entire life, but, as Alexander observes, defies simple answers.
Suppose that we concede that Ukraine has a right to self determination. Then so does Crimea, right? And also, Donbas. But then… so does that one Ukrainian-majority town within Russian-speaking Donbas, too, right? And if that one Ukrainian-speaking town within Donbas has a right to self determination (i.e. the right to not be incorporated into Russia), what about that one Russian lady in that Ukrainian-speaking town?
Self determination suffers from a kind of fractal defect, that washes up against concepts of personal autonomy and individuality on the one shore, and up against principles of universal humanity and world government on the other shore.
I think there are no easy solutions, but I tend toward what might be termed the “Quaker response” which is that although self determination might be an unresolvable question, it is violence that should be avoided, condemned, and prevented. This especially works if we are sure to include an opposition to structural violence as well (i.e. oppression).
I think there is no denying that there was structural violence that Russians found objectionable in pre-invasion Ukraine. Specifically, the government’s efforts to “Ukrainize” the Russian-speaking population through enforcement of language laws and such. But that fact does not justify or legitimate the actual violence of Putin’s regime in response to that. Illegitimate violence begets more illegitimate violence, ad infinitum.
The only place a person can take a consistent moral stand is against violence, not on something nebulous like “self determination.”
Here is a very brief, half-formed thought.
I find myself increasingly occupying what seems a severely underpopulated “libertarian center”. The right is populist-authoritarian (trumpism), the left is socialist-authoritarian (wokism). The center – the traditional liberal (in the lower-case, European sense of the word, dating to the 18th century) center of American politics seems to have been abandoned.
Here is are three quotes that I like, found online.
“I’m thinking that one of the worst things about surviving a nuclear war would be finding yourself in a society organized and dominated by the kind of people who optimize their lives around surviving a nuclear war.” – A person named Kalimac commenting on Scott Alexander’s blog, Astral Codex Ten.
“This is war, after all. If it feels good, consider for a moment you might be evil.” – Mike Solana (on his blog Pirate Wires)
“You got 1 percent of the population in America who owns 41 percent of the wealth… but within the black community, the top 1 percent of black folk have over 70 percent of the wealth. So that means you got a lot of precious Jamals and Letitias who are told to live vicariously through the lives of black celebrities so that it’s all about ‘representation’ rather than substantive transformation… ‘you gotta black president, all y’all must be free.’” – Cornel West
Here is a half-formed reaction to someone else’s thought.
I read a recent blog post by Niccolo Soldo (his alarmingly-named blog is called Fisted by Foucault).
I found his thesis quite thought provoking, but I can’t really feel that I’m in agreement. I’ll not attempt to summarize it here – you’d do better to just read it yourself – but I do have some reactions.
Essentially, nowhere in the essay does Soldo really grant any kind agency to the Ukrainians themselves. He blames the US for “provoking” Putin with the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine. The problem with this is that… well, what if the Ukrainians themselves decided, after evaluating their geopolitical situation, that they wanted to try for NATO membership? How could the Europeans and US Government sincerely refuse? Sure, it provokes the Russians, but the Ukrainians are surely aware of the risks.
And I don’t mean to imply that Ukraine was in some way naïve. This may have been a quite intentional provocation on their part. Further, it may be that, at least at the start, it was only the current Ukrainian government and the country’s business elite who were on board with this. I’ve considered before that the regardless of the outcome of this war, Putin’s invasion will provide the Ukrainian “nation” with a nice, simple foundational myth such as they’ve never had before. Perhaps for a certain class of cynical Ukrainian nationalist (whether of liberal or illiberal inclination – there are plenty of both), the expected invasion and war would be a price worth paying for the outcome: a fervently patriotic Ukrainian populace (perhaps even including the ethnic Russians – look at the shift in public opinion in Odessa!) and a now-unconditional endorsement of NATO membership by the existing alliance. So sure, if you’ve got the right kind of cocky confidence, poke that bear right in the eye – if nothing else, it will certainly build character.
I don’t disagree with Soldo that the US’s faithless encouragement of this act was at core cynically unethical. The war progresses, and you see the evolution of the Ukrainian nation, with instances of undeniable heroism and demonstrations of character. I not only think it’s a mistake to deny the Ukrainians their own agency in this, I think that the US and Europe could take from the lesson a capacity for looking more empathetically at other victims of global bullying and misguided invasions: Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, (how far back do we want to take this?).
In fact, the knee-jerk pro-Ukraine stances adopted by most of the pundits and elites in the West (Justin E. H. Smith succinctly sums this up with the observation that the Ukrainian flag is suddenly a “a de-rigueur semiotic accessory”) seem to represent a turning back of the equally knee-jerk, self-hating “wokism” that had been increasingly dominating discourse. The Ukraine situation is holding up a mirror and enabling the West to see its best self, in a weird, admittedly jingoistic way (and maybe that’s always been a bit definitional for the West?) – to see what is possible if we hold liberal values uncynically.
Regardless, it’s unethical to deny the agency and self-determination of peoples – regardless of what great power they happen to have offended. It was unethical in Iraq, it was unethical (twice) in Afghanistan, it’s unethical now in Ukraine. But when confronted with the “facts on the ground” – country X is bullying us and denying us our self-determination – then resistance is warranted and appropriate. That includes the right to manipulate or lead on other powers to make that resistance as successful as possible. The Iraqis had a right to egg other powers to help them (e.g. Al-Qaeda’s rump, Russia, ISIS, or whatever). The Ukrainians have the same right (e.g. NATO). The extent to which the “Ukrainian on the street” is resisting, now, is a very strong indicator of the fact that this is, indeed, a question of self-determination, and not some astro-turfed, propaganda-induced pro-Westernism.
Here is a snapshot of my daily life.
A coworker and a regular customer are in the store. The customer is talking about the fact that he’s moving back to Florida (I hadn’t realized he was from Florida). My coworker asks him, “So, what’s it like there? Is it a good part of Florida?”
The man makes a thumbs up gesture. “Oh yes. It’s north central, west of Gainesville. Dixie County. Confederate flags everywhere, freedom, lots of trucks with gun racks. You don’t have to worry about city people, criminal types.”
“That’s excellent,” my coworker grins. “That’s perfect for you. K [name of his girlfriend] will like it there too.”
Notice how things are coded, in the above conversation. None of what was said was meant ironically, in any way. Terms like “city people, criminal types” refer to minorities and immigrants. There is such an immense amount of fear.
Here is a half-formed thought.
Tyler Cowen writes that the US is “good at destroying things” (link) and about how the current cultural forces in our society have been quickly repurposed, in the circumstances of this new Russo-Ukrainian war, to destroying Russia. But I’m not sure I agree with what he has made his thesis statement: I really don’t think the US is in any way uniquely good at destroying things. Yes, the US is good at destroying things, but only in the sense that all human polities, in all eras, are good at destroying things. I suppose I will concede that because the US has, historically, been a quite competent polity that is good at other things, that means it is more effective at destroying things, too. Perhaps this is what Cowen means.
Here is a half-formed thought.
The thing that’s genuinely new in our culture, that has caused the seemingly out-of-control spiral on both the left (“wokism”) and the right (“trumpism”), is the near-universal approbation of vigilantism. This new acceptance of vigilantism has been emergent for many decades (from Dirty Harry through Batman through Blacklist), but I think it must have reached some kind of consensus-level acceptance in the popular culture within the last decade – in a similar process to the acceptance of gay marriage, though much more insidious. Once vigilantism becomes morally acceptable, even accepted, then everyone becomes an enforcer for their particular moral code.
I didn’t say much, these last several years.
But I decided to try an experiment, here. I like to think about politics, and I like to develop my political thinking, but I have no outlet for it. None of the people in my immediate, day-to-day life would tolerate my political meanderings, and as mentioned in my First Post, expressing myself politically with sincerity in my current living situation might actually cause problems for me.
So I’ve decided to just write random political rantings and reflections here on this blog, anonymously. I won’t try to limit myself to questions of immigration policy, despite this website’s stated focus. Maybe at least once a week? Let’s try.
So, these days, what’s on my mind? Obviously, the war in Ukraine. A half-formed thought.
It’s an important question, but difficult to ask: how is what’s happening right now in Ukraine qualitatively different from what happened in Iraq about 20 years ago? Except for the minor difference that we (Americans) are on the other side? I don’t raise this question because I am trying to defend Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but rather to make sure you can empathize with some of the never-resolved discomfort I felt about that other war. There are other differences. The US-led coalition was “bigger” or broader. The US military seemed at least somewhat more competent – perhaps at some things. But not more competent at all things: more competent killing people? Yeah, maybe; more competent not getting killed? Yeah, definitely; more competent at getting praised and welcomed with open arms by the liberated populace? Uh… not really. But mostly these are quantitative differences, not differences in the moral foundations of the enterprise.
Another thing that’s been on my mind over the last two years is the COVID thing. And the end of Trump’s presidency. A half-formed thought.
Conspiracy-thinking is a type of hypochondria at the level of society, instead of at the level of the individual. It’s an apophenic search for meaning where meaninglessness is the more rational explanation, and a kind of default assumption of malignancy. That said, between the excessive reactions to COVID on the one hand, and the explosion of conspiracy theorizing on both the left and right in our political space, I would dub our current era the “Age of Hypochondria.”
I built this website some years ago, but it had no “blog” attached to it. It was just a minimalist political platform that I never used, never publicized, and only sparingly maintained.
Last week, something happened that crystallized for me a growing desire to express myself politically, somehow, somewhere. So I decided to start an explicitly political blog. What better place for it than as an adjunct to my moribund political platform website?
I already maintain two personal blogs. One is for my creative writing, for journaling my day-to-day life, for photos I take and things I do and for my friends and family to see what I’m up to. Another blog is for my hobby community, where I prefer not to be “too transparent” in my online persona.
But in both blogs, I deliberately refrain from overt political statements. Part of the problem is that my friends and family are ideologically diverse – and I’d prefer not to alienate any of them with my own strongly held political opinions. Lately, too, I actually live somewhat in fear that if my neighbors, friends and coworkers knew my actual political stances, it could put me at risk of – for lack of a better word – “ostracism” – if not something worse, like losing a job or not being able to call on neighbors for help in a time of need.
The crystallizing event was conversation which I witnessed at work, between a coworker and a local resident. The local resident and my coworker, call them L. and J., were discussing the first presidential debate, between Biden and Trump (they are both Trump supporters, wearing buttons and with bumper stickers on their cars).
J. said, “You have to be ready – I know it’s scary, but you know, Biden might steal the election.”
L. said, with a dead-serious face that brooked no argument, “It’s gonna hit the fan. We need to start rounding up democrats and shooting them, now.” This is not an idle threat from L. – a well known gun collector and local 2nd amendment nut.
They looked to me for endorsement, as if this were an unassailable proposition.
I had to say nothing. Pick your battles. Don’t jeopardize your work relationships with political argument. Even my silence was probably viewed as problematic.
I was stewing inside. I need to have some kind of outlet to discuss these issues.
I must be clear. L. and J. are perfectly kind and reasonable people, in many respects. Indeed, my coworker has been generous to a fault with me personally, and is remarkably “live and let live” with respect to the people actually encountered day-to-day. Yet when confronted with a monstrous, amorphous other, “democrats,” baser instincts apparently kick in.
To those reading: if I have sent you a link to this, it’s because I trust you and need to express myself. I actually want you to share – on facebook or other social media or political forums. But, please do not link my name to this website. I’m going to run this blog anonymously.
I don’t know how often I’ll post here. I expect I might post fairly often for the next few months, as the election plays out. I might let it fall dormant again, after that.