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The Absence Of A Tragic Sense

We in the West are stumbling towards catastrophe over Russia and Ukraine, because moral purity is exiling sobriety
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Woke up this morning in Madrid to this:


A senior US senator is openly encouraging the assassination of the leader of a nuclear power. Think about that. These are days.

So little of this makes sense. So many people seem desperate for World War III. You should read the comments section of this blog, which is like:

Me: It would be a great idea if we took extra efforts to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

Them: So you’re saying we should just let Putin have whatever he wants then?

The other day I wrote here, citing Tanner Greer’s recent piece, about people who cast reasoned analysis to the wind, and instead fix facts around the emotional conclusion they have already reached. I cannot get out of my head the things I’ve read about the summer of 1914, as all of Europe marched towards a civilizational conflagration, both the leaders and their publics supremely confident in themselves, and in the rightness of the war.

Some people see what’s happening now as inspiring, as a return to moral clarity and righteousness. Here’s David Brooks this morning. Excerpts:

There’s been a restored faith in the West, in liberalism, in our community of nations. There has been so much division of late, within and between nations. But now I wake up in the morning, pick up my phone and am cheered that Sweden is providing military aid to Ukraine, and I’m awed by what the German people now support. The fact is that many democratic nations reacted to the atrocity with the same sense of resolve.


The creed of liberalism is getting a second wind. There’s a school of academic realists who imagine that foreign affairs is all about cold national interest, conducted by chess master strategists. But this week we saw that foreign affairs, like life, is a moral enterprise, and moral rightness is a source of social power and fighting morale.

Well, maybe. I am genuinely cheered by beautiful scenes like this:

… but I cannot regard what’s happening now as a cause for celebration. Don’t get me wrong: I believe the Ukrainians have been very brave and that Putin has been a villain. I want the Russians to lose. I even would be massively relieved if some of the people around Putin removed him from office (which I don’t mind saying as an Internet commentator, but which I would hope that I would not be so foolish as to say as a US senator). But we have just entered into an extremely dangerous period of life on this planet. People who are thrilled over the moral clarity of the moment must have forgotten that the Cold War, with the terror of nuclear war hanging over our heads constantly, was a time of moral clarity too.

I can’t see where the West had any choice other than to have imposed harsh sanctions on the Russian government, but Westerners delighted by the punishment we are inflicting on the Russian people (as opposed to seeing it as a tragic necessity) are fools. We are in the process of immiserating an entire nation, and turning its people against us for a generation or more. We are driving that nation, which we needed to help the West contain China, right into China’s arms. There may well have been no alternative here — at this point, I can’t think of one — but this has been a massive strategic defeat for us. The realist foreign policy scholar John Mearsheimer is persona non grata among a lot of people this week for saying things like this, which he told Isaac Chotiner in an interview with the New Yorker:

Looking at the situation now with Russia and Ukraine, how do you think the world got here?

I think all the trouble in this case really started in April, 2008, at the nato Summit in Bucharest, where afterward nato issued a statement that said Ukraine and Georgia would become part of nato. The Russians made it unequivocally clear at the time that they viewed this as an existential threat, and they drew a line in the sand. Nevertheless, what has happened with the passage of time is that we have moved forward to include Ukraine in the West to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. Of course, this includes more than just nato expansion. nato expansion is the heart of the strategy, but it includes E.U. expansion as well, and it includes turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, and, from a Russian perspective, this is an existential threat.

You said that it’s about “turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy.” I don’t put much trust or much faith in America “turning” places into liberal democracies. What if Ukraine, the people of Ukraine, want to live in a pro-American liberal democracy?

If Ukraine becomes a pro-American liberal democracy, and a member of nato, and a member of the E.U., the Russians will consider that categorically unacceptable. If there were no nato expansion and no E.U. expansion, and Ukraine just became a liberal democracy and was friendly with the United States and the West more generally, it could probably get away with that. You want to understand that there is a three-prong strategy at play here: E.U. expansion, nato expansion, and turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy.

You keep saying “turning Ukraine into a liberal democracy,” and it seems like that’s an issue for the Ukrainians to decide. nato can decide whom it admits, but we saw in 2014 that it appeared as if many Ukrainians wanted to be considered part of Europe. It would seem like almost some sort of imperialism to tell them that they can’t be a liberal democracy.

It’s not imperialism; this is great-power politics. When you’re a country like Ukraine and you live next door to a great power like Russia, you have to pay careful attention to what the Russians think, because if you take a stick and you poke them in the eye, they’re going to retaliate. States in the Western hemisphere understand this full well with regard to the United States.

The Monroe Doctrine, essentially.

Of course. There’s no country in the Western hemisphere that we will allow to invite a distant, great power to bring military forces into that country.

I know, I know: we aren’t supposed to say these things. We are supposed to stay focused on the evilness of the Putin regime. Any introduction of complexity into the narrative cuts the purity of moral clarity. But facts don’t disappear because they are inconvenient to the story we want to believe. I’ve seen tweets in the past day or two from people saying that yes, the Ghost of Kyiv legend wasn’t true, nor are some of the other heroic pro-Ukrainian myths passed around this past week … but so what (they say): what’s important is keeping up Ukrainian morale.

To openly prefer a manipulative lie to the complicated truth is corrupt. And it’s not only corrupt, but extremely dangerous, given that we are talking about the possibility of stumbling into World War III here.

I’m taking some criticism in the comments section for spending more time talking about the way we in the West are responding to Russia’s aggression than I am talking about the aggression itself. What, do we lack for news, information, and commentary on what rat bastards the Russians are for invading Ukraine, and ought to turn their tanks around and go home? I can’t see that we do. But not enough people want to hear that this is all likely to end very badly, and that the thing we can least afford now is banishing a tragic sense from our deliberations.

Meanwhile, President Zelensky is trying to goad the West into tripping World War III by declaring a no-fly zone over Ukraine, something that could only be enforced by the willingness of NATO jets to fire on Russian aircraft. I understand why desperate Zelensky is doing this, and I understand why it is difficult to sit back and watch the Russian military brutalize Ukraine, and do nothing about it militarily. But — and I want to yell my head off here — the alternative is to risk a shooting war with a nuclear-armed superpower! My God, think about what so many of you are suggesting here! We cannot fix the entire world. Life is tragic. The cost of acting militarily against the Russians in this case could easily be the annihilation of life on earth.

We have to be prepared to take that risk if Russia attacks a NATO country. Ukraine is not a NATO country. Treaties matter. I had hoped that the tragedy of the US wars on Iraq and Afghanistan would affect the ability of Americans to think about the limits of military power, and of the power of the United States to impose its will on the world. Nope. We are now the kind of people who kick Anastasia off of Disney Plus, because she’s Russian.

It has struck me that we are all being gaslit by a media-constructed narrative. I’m quite sure the Russian people are too, by their state-controlled media. If you read Live Not By Lies, you will recall the lament that Father Kirill Kaleda, a Russian Orthodox priest, made to me in a 2019 interview: that the Russian state media were training, via propaganda, the Russian people to hate Ukrainians. What few of us Americans are considering now is the possibility that our media are doing the same thing to us regarding the Russians today.

Yesterday at the Madrid conference, I fell into conversation with a Mexican woman, who said that Americans have a bad habit of believing in their own good intentions. We don’t like to try to stand outside ourselves and understand what the world looks like through the eyes of others. If you think the only smaller, weaker nations who have to bow down to great-power hegemony are those in Russia’s orbit, talk to a Mexican, or anyone living under the Monroe Doctrine. If Mexico decided to align itself militarily with China, you would see how quickly the US would turn into a Yankee Doodle version of Putin’s Russia.

About the media-constructed narrative: does this kind of thing not strike you as insane?

Anastasia, a movie about the legend of a Russian princess who escaped the murderous Bolsheviks, is now cancelled by Disney because it is about a Russian. What is wrong with us? The superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has now been forced out of Western opera companies because she refuses to denounce Putin personally, as the mob demands. She wrote last week:

I am thinking about the human rights outrages that China visits routinely on people — most especially the Uyghurs, who are facing cultural genocide at Beijing’s hands — but that the West is prepared to take in stride. You will not see Disney removing Mulan from its repertoire in solidarity with Uyghurs. There is far too much money to be made in China. We are such hypocrites.

Ah yes: Russians as incarnations of whiteness. Finally, a woke principle that can unify liberals and conservatives. Thanks, Putin.

Reading my friend David Brooks’s optimistic column this morning about the moral clarity all this brings, I recall a dinner conversation I had last night with a professor from a European country that struggles with violent Muslim immigrants. He told me that he and his family moved out of his hometown because they knew that there was no hope there. He said that Muslim immigrants, who make up a high proportion of the local population, decided that they weren’t going to obey parking regulations in the city. So the city backed down, as it always does, afraid of trouble.

All over his native country, the professor said, the police cede more and more areas to Muslims, turning them into no-go zones. Everybody knows this is happening, but elected leaders don’t want to face it, and the media don’t report it, because they police themselves well for Islamophobia. The thing that tipped the professor was when the son of a prominent local imam posted something on social media in which he (the son) performed a song calling for the murder of Christians and Jews. Nobody dared to say a thing about it, because they didn’t want trouble. The professor told me that this was the last straw for him, the point at which he realized that the people of his home country no longer have the will to defend themselves.

He moved his family to a Central European country that is less, um, diverse. Most European governments are unwilling to defend their countries from this immigrant invasion, but they are in high dudgeon over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I don’t blame them at all for being outraged at Russia’s outrageous behavior, but which invasion is more likely to affect the lives and futures of European peoples this century? Answer: the one the ruling class refuses to talk about.

“We are now in an era of civil conflicts that will emerge all over the West,” he said (this is an era of academic speciality for him). He went on to say that he expects this to eventually result in a left-wing authoritarian regime, and when that one fails, he expects a right-wing one. He said, grimly, “This is the kind of environment that produced Hitler.”

We can only keep up this optimism by living in denial about the whole picture. The world is falling apart, and we in the West have played, and are playing, a role in its disintegration.

UPDATE: Happy to report that the earlier item about Anastasia being removed from Disney Plus is semi-fake news. It was removed, as reported, but not because of Russian content. Was something about the contract.




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