Russia getting cancelled, the dishonesty of 'fact-checking' and Britain's upcoming lost decade(s?)
The best reads of March 2022
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The biggest surprise for Putin, of course, was the West. All the nonsense about how the West is decadent, the West is over, the West is in decline, how it’s a multipolar world and the rise of China, et cetera: all of that turned out to be bunk. The courage of the Ukrainian people and the bravery and smarts of the Ukrainian government, and its President, Zelensky, galvanized the West to remember who it was. And that shocked Putin! That’s the miscalculation…
Even if they capture Kiev, to what end? ‘They do not have the number of administrators they’d need or the cooperation of the population. They don’t even have a Quisling yet. Think about all those Ukrainians who would continue to resist. The Nazis came into Kyiv, in 1940. They grabbed all the luxury hotels, but days later those hotels started to blow up. They were booby-trapped. If you’re an administrator or a military officer in occupied Ukraine and you order a cup of tea, are you going to drink that cup of tea? Do you want to turn the ignition on in your car? Are you going to turn the light switch on in your office? All it takes is a handful of assassinations to unsettle the whole occupation.
In the FT, Anatol Lieven writes about Putin’s inner circle, including this alarmingly Weimar account of Russia’s wild east days.
By way of illustrating the depth of the Russian catastrophe of the 1990s and identifying with all those who suffered from it, Putin has said that at one stage he was reduced — while still a serving lieutenant colonel of the KGB — to moonlighting as a freelance taxi driver in order to supplement his income. This is plausible enough. In 1994, while I was working as a journalist for The Times in Russia and the former USSR, my driver in the North Caucasus was an ex-major in the KGB. “We thought we were the backbone of the Soviet Union,” he said to me bitterly. “Now look at us. Real Chekists!”’
“Real Chekist” (nastoyashchy chekist) was a Soviet propaganda phrase referring to the qualities of ruthless discipline, courage, ideological commitment and honesty supposedly characteristic of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police formed by Lenin and his associates. It became the subject of many Soviet jokes, but there is little doubt that Putin and his top elite continue to see themselves in this light, as the backbone of Russia — though Putin, who is anything but a revolutionary, appears to identify much more strongly with the security elites of imperial Russia.
An interesting illustration of this comes from Union of Salvation (Soyuz Spaseniya, 2019), a film about the radical Decembrist revolt of 1825, made with the support of the Russian state. To the considerable shock of older Russian friends of mine who were brought up to revere the Decembrists, the heroes of this film are Tsar Nicholas I and the loyal imperial generals and bureaucrats who fought to preserve government and order against the rebels.
Russia’s elite also suffer from a not-uncommon problem, in that they need to be ever richer to ‘feel’ like they are part of the elite. ‘It used to be that official rank gave you top status. Now you have to have huge amounts of money too. That is what the 1990s did to Russian society.’ Maybe they need ‘luxury beliefs’ to distinguish them.
Also in the FT, Richard Milne on the rich world’s toughest people, the Finns. Eighty year after humiliating Russia in the winter war, they’re still ready:
“We have had hard experiences in history many times. We haven’t forgot it, it is in our DNA. That is why we have been very careful in maintaining our resilience,” says president Sauli Niinisto. He points to opinion polls suggesting about three-quarters of Finns are willing to fight for their country, by far the highest figure in Europe. Finland has a wartime troop strength of about 280,000 people while in total it has 900,000 trained as reservists. It carried on with conscription for all male school-leavers even after the end of the cold war, when many countries in Europe stopped, and Helsinki has maintained strong defence spending even as others cut in the 1990s and 2000s.
Jarmo Lindberg, Finland’s former chief of defence, says that the Finnish capital Helsinki “is like Swiss cheese” with dozens of kilometres of tunnels. “There are areas like a James Bond film,” he adds. All armed force headquarters are located in hillsides under “30-40 metres of granite,” he says.
Helen Dale wrote an award-winning book on Ukraine and ruminates on many aspects of the conflict, including the weaponisation of woke capital.
Western commerce and woke capital have also learnt to deploy the tools of cancel culture, sometimes on a state-to-state basis but often privately with nodding government approval. And yes, they’re well on the way to cancelling a country (in historian Stephen Kotkin’s words).
In parallel with positive effects—already, Russia has run out of the imported chipsets it needs for many of its weapons and is running out of conventional spare parts—sanctions also mean the country is running short of medicines and companies no longer have cash to make payroll. As Justin Trudeau did with Canada’s protesting truckers, both states and the private sector have figured out how to target ordinary Russians’ ability to live—to pay bills, to shop, to eat.’
On a similar note, economist Esfandyar Batmanghelidj has a post on the use of economic warfare. It’s easy to see why, for some countries, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be less alarming than the ability of western countries to simply shut down their economy at will.
If Russia is the first country to be cancelled, will Ukraine become the first to be milkshake-ducked when the war is over? On perhaps on the most central issue to western liberals, gay rights, Ukraine is not that different to Russia, as Sebastian Milbank points out in this fun piece on why the Ukraine war is all about us.
Putin, wily strategist that he is, invaded during February, which is LGBT History Month in Britain and Black History Month in the USA (Eastern Rite versus Western Rite Anglosphere), meaning that Western liberals would be distracted by their elaborate liturgical rites. He could have chosen no better time to exploit the radioactive levels of self-involvement generated by the professional activist class.
In the newly-launched Compact, Christopher Caldwell writes about Samuel Huntingdon’s clash of civilisations
Occidentalism is an anatomy of anti-Western bigotry. The book opens in Kyoto, 1942, where Japanese scholars and literati gathered to discuss “how to overcome the modern”, seven months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Although hazily defined, “the modern” included science, and capitalism, and democracy - all of them, it was said, antithetical to traditional Japanese culture. That the project felt so urgent wasn’t just down to the war against America. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century Japan had embarked on a furious programme of Westernisation, adopting European dress codes, Prussian constitutional law, British naval strategies, and French architecture. Its intellectual classes had come to believe things had gone too damn far, and it was now time to turn the clock back to an idealised spiritual past. A theme of the book of is that Occidentalism arises within societies that are becoming more “Western” while struggling to maintain their own identity.
Of all social media sites, LinkedIn is by far my least favourite, a prison of mindless platitudes and the worst kind of dreary corporate diversity+inclusion drivel. You can connect to me here — it will improve your career and life not a single bit, but please don’t contact me via LinkedIn. I’d rather you turned up unexpectedly at my front door, naked and screaming passages from the Bible.
So, asks Trung Phan on Substack, Why is LinkedIn so cringe?
Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman has the answer: in a book called The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life, Goffman posits that every person goes through life wearing many “masks”, like an actor in a theatre play. Most people are different personalities at work vs. home vs. happy hour. People wear these different masks to impress or avoid embarrassment with different audiences…
The setup forces everyone on the site to basically wear the professional “CV mask” of their personality. Bland. Buzzwords. Inoffensive. A little exaggeration. Self-promotional (but not too much). Desperate to impress.
The transgender question: the big hot potato of our age. I find it amusing that, a decade after the great New Atheism movement, large numbers of people proclaim that a woman can have a penis. Scott Alexander has argued that many of the New Atheists in fact evolved into social justice activists, becoming the same people who now hold scientifically unorthodox views backed by blasphemy codes.
There are many writers with a keen interest in the issue, but none who have the scientific depth of Ellen Pasternack, and who are able to communicate the facts so clearly. Pasternack writes in The Critic this month about how science doesn’t just point to a general sense of anarchy, but in fact looks for structure, patterns and rules.
Cooke’s approach — presenting variability as evidence for the “anarchy of sex”, not explaining that it does fit into an existing binary model — illustrates something I’ve come to think of as “Life Is Diverse” science. Someone will present, say, lots of wacky and wonderful ways that animals reproduce, and imply that all this variety shows it’s pointless trying to draw any general conclusions beyond marvelling at the sheer diversity of nature.
Last year, for instance, I attended a zoom workshop on “Teaching accurate and inclusive sexual selection” run by Cornell University. One of the main messages of this session was to “present diversity first”: to primarily emphasise that there is much diversity in sexual characteristics and behaviour, instead of first explaining general trends and afterwards discussing exceptions.
But one of science’s functions is to make generalisations: to look for the signal in the noise and deduce underlying principles. The scientific method means asking questions about observations that don’t fit neatly into boxes. Why was our model of how the world works wrong in this particular case? Could this somehow be an exception that proves the rule? Or is there a specific way we need to update our model to account for it? This is the opposite of throwing your hands up and saying “well, Life Is Diverse, we can’t say anything more than that”.
Is upper-class American culture becoming less highbrow? I don’t know personally, but Matthew Walther makes an interesting argument.
Instead, one gets the sense that highbrow aspiration is itself somehow suspect. In my experience of life among educated would-be bohemians in their twenties and thirties in New York and Washington, D.C., there is almost nothing more gauche than accidentally betraying (say) one’s familiarity with Huysmans or Satie. At best this kind of thing is likely to elicit questions about where—not whether—one is studying for a Ph.D., which is at least socially acceptable if not financially advisable. At worst it is a serious faux pas. In 2020 I confessed to an acquaintance whose background might twenty years ago have betokened at least some affinity for classical music that I was disappointed at the cancelation of the Bayreuth Festival. The response would not have been out of place if I had mentioned that, but for the lockdowns, I had been looking forward to attending a Donald Trump rally.
My general view is that everything moves towards dispersion; there are healthy and active high-brow subcultures, but the more general culture becomes ever-more lowbrow: Netflix, superhero films and, in politics, the IQ-suppressing effects of identity politics, which is itself a product of academic culture studies and its unwillingness to make judgements between high and low brow.
I can’t recommend enough this piece by Jacob Siegel in The Tablet (the American, Jewish, vaguely conservative Tablet, as opposed to the English, Catholic, vaguely liberal Tablet). Siegel writes about the ‘fact-checkers’, one of the most insidious aspects of the 21st century media, and who he describes as ‘narrative regulators’.
Fueled by a panic over misinformation, the fact-checking industry is shifting the media’s primary obligation away from pursuing the truth and toward upholding vague notions of public safety, which it gets to define. In the course of this transformation, journalists are being turned into rent-a-cops whose job is to enforce an official consensus that is treated as a civic good by those who benefit from—and pay for—its protection.
At Meta—the parent company of Facebook and Instagram—content flagged as false or misleading gets downgraded in the platform’s algorithms so fewer people will see it. Google and Twitter have similar rules to bury posts. In reality, America’s new public-private “Ministry of Truth” mainly serves the interests of the tech platforms and Democratic Party operatives who underwrite and support the fact-checking enterprise. This, in turn, convinces large numbers of normal Americans that the officially sanctioned news product they receive is an ass-covering con job—an attitude that marks many millions of people as potentially dangerous vectors of misinformation, which justifies more censorship, further ratcheting up the public’s cynicism toward the press and the institutional powers it now openly serves. On and on it goes, the distrust and repression feeding off each other, the pressure building up until the system breaks down or explodes
The industrial fact-checking complex is not a debate society or a branch of science pursuing the truth wherever it leads. It’s an institutional fixture with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding behind it, along with battalions of NGOs and formerly broke journalistic authorities who are more than happy to cash fat checks and proclaim that America’s ruling bureaucrats at the FDA, the CDC, the FBI, the CIA, the Fed—and the entire alphabet soup of government agencies—along with the ruling Democratic Party, are never wrong about anything, at least nothing important.
I avoid playing strategy games for the same reason I’ve avoided ever taking heroin. Life would surely just be black and white after you’ve spent eight hours as the Doge of Venice capturing the entire eastern Med, defeating not just Genoa and Pisa but the Ottomans and Byzantines. Why would I go back to reality after that, back to being boring old me? Yet millions are playing, as Luka Ivan Jukić writes in the Atlantic:
Some time ago, we passed the line where historical video games are at the same level of influence and demand the same level of critical analysis” as historically themed movies or TV shows, Devereaux told me. But despite the fact that the PC-gaming industry is now twice the size of the movie industry, many games have evaded such analysis.
The game uses a mechanic of “institutions,” such as the printing press and the Enlightenment, which appear in a preset order at 50-year intervals, almost always in Europe, before slowly spreading around the world. Without these institutions, new technologies can be adopted only at much greater cost, meaning that over the centuries Europe slowly pulls ahead of the rest of the world technologically. The player is taught that what made Europe exceptional was the adoption of these institutions, which allowed technological growth to flourish and thereby gave European countries the advantage they used to dominate the world.
Why has no historian thought of writing a book called something like The World in 1444 aimed at this huge history-loving demographic, or one explaining the rise of nation-states? Presumably it’s too late now, but if any publisher wants to pay me in order to spend the next few months playing strategy games, I want an advance of no less than one million ducats.
There’s a probably a good chance that you follow Sam Freedman on Twitter; his main area is education and government policy, but he tweets about UK politics generally. I was vaguely aware that Sam went to hospital last year and things were quite serious, but I didn’t quite realise how bad. In a Substack post he manages to combine a quite heart-wrenching account of facing his own mortality, while also — true wonk that he is — contemplating from death’s door how state efficiency might be improved.
This was the darkest moment for me….Surprisingly, I wasn’t scared of dying itself, which I’d always assumed I would be. But I was deeply upset about everything I was going to miss out on. I kept seeing my kids’ faces and thinking of everything I was going to miss — their graduations, their weddings — and seeing the people they’d turn out to become. I thought about all the tribulations of growing up I wasn’t going to be able to help them through. I thought about my wife and all the trips we’d planned together. I thought of the piles of books in my room I’d never read and the books I wanted to write. The sense of regret was overpowering. It was then that an amazing nurse called Caroline spotted how distressed I was and came to sit with me, despite the ICU being manically busy. She spent an hour calming me down and managed to get my wife on a video call even though it was 11.30 at night. I will be forever grateful to her.”
As a father with children around the same age, I find that pretty hard to take. But, after the wonders of modern medicine did their miraculous work, Sam pondered why the British healthcare system spends so little on bureaucracy — counter-intuitively, a bad thing.
The second is that the political/media obsession with cutting administrative costs to ensure money is spent on the “front line” is even more ridiculous that I’d realised. Clinical staff are hamstrung by a lack of administrative capacity that forces them to spend time on tasks well below their pay grade. The NHS spends less than half the OECD average on administration (as a proportion of total spend); a third of that in France and less than a fifth of the US (which is, to be fair, incredibly inefficient). From what I’ve seen so far, the kind of improvements necessary to manage the huge post-covid waiting lists, can only come from management and clinical staff working together to develop better processes, understand their data, and focus on opportunities for behaviour change. Any politician or newspaper demanding we cut management to fund “the front line” just isn’t being serious.
If you haven’t heard of Deano, then you probably don’t spend enough time on the internet. Deano is a British social demographic subset, related but not quite the same as Essex Man, for one thing being more concentrated in the Midlands. Conservatism in Britain essentially depends on Deano, and things aren’t looking good.
Everyone thinks that the Tory majority is based on the old, but between the 2017 and 2019 elections, the age at which people were more likely to vote Tory actually fell. The current majority and its red wall seats owe as much to Deano inhabited new build estates as to the white working class abandoning Labour.
Deano’s contentment comes not only from the security of owning his Barrett home, but also from the fact his material well-being has increased throughout his life (yes, even during austerity). We’re potentially going to see ten percent inflation this year, and his 24 month iPhone 13 Pro Max contract is RPI linked. The heating costs of his Deanobox are about to double. For the first time in his life his cost of living is about to outstrip his increase in wages.
And in The Sunday Times, Robert Colvile paints a very bleak picture of Britain’s economic future.
In the 1980s Japan’s economy was roaring away. At the height of the boom the land under the imperial palace in Tokyo was theoretically worth more than the entire state of California. Then it all went pop.
What followed has become known as the lost decade — or, eventually, decades. Japan’s economy failed to grow, post crash, at anything like its past rate. Wages were flat. Business investment was woeful. There was a huge surge of debt, as the central bank tried desperately to jolt the economy into life with money-printing and rock-bottom interest rates. Stagnation became institutionalised. Sound familiar?
In fact, we’re worse off than Japan in many ways. Japan’s economic stagnation is intrinsically linked to its ageing population, a sad reality in modern times but an inevitable one; people live longer, the population grows older, and so it becomes less productive. Britain’s leaders have tried escaping the problem with immigration, which provides an economic boost but is essentially a Ponzi scheme — because immigrants get old too. In doing so, they’re also contributing to housing cost inflation, a catastrophe in British life that no one in power seems capable of solving. Unless that problem can be tackled — and there is potentially one way out — it’s hard not to feel very pessimistic about the future.
Blake Smith is a very interesting writer on culture and art; I always learn something new, and see the world slightly differently. Here he shares a fascinating tale of what might be described as ‘woke slave-owners’.
Raimond was an activist for the rights of people of colour. In 1789, he left his home in Saint-Domingue just before the outbreak of the French Revolution. He went to Paris to lobby the government to grant equal status to free people of African origin. In Paris, Raimond joined a circle of radical thinkers and politicians who believed that racial equality had to be part of the emerging Revolution. But Raimond was no opponent of slavery. On the contrary, while his allies argued for its abolition, Raimond insisted that racial equality and abolition of slavery had nothing to do with each other. The first page of his treatise claimed that a cabal of ‘white plantation-owners … have cleverly conflated the cause of people of colour with that of slaves’. Raimond, in fact, wanted to preserve slavery. He believed that eliminating racial prejudice would bring white and non-white slaveowners together in a united front against enslaved Africans.
(H/T reader Aidan Barrett). Imagine, a ruling class coming up with convoluted and bizarre moral frameworks to justify their own position? Impossible!
On the SW1 Forum Substack, an instructive little piece on how the British media reports race. What I find especially interesting — and quite infuriating — is how American memes are just mindlessly absorbed by the British. This case involved ‘an all-white jury’ — yes, in rural Wales, not Los Angeles County! After the George Floyd protests, a couple of activist groups in Britain even began referring to ‘BIPOC’ people, an Americanism that make literally no sense here, unless by ‘indigenous’ you’re actually talking about the Welsh.
Finally, Tyler Cowen cites a paper showing the increase in love in western literature.
Since the late nineteenth century, cultural historians have noted that the importance of love increased during the Medieval and Early Modern European period (a phenomenon that was once referred to as the emergence of ‘courtly love’). However, more recent works have shown a similar increase in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Indian and Japanese cultures. Why such a convergent evolution in very different cultures? Using qualitative and quantitative approaches, we leverage literary history and build a database of ancient literary fiction for 19 geographical areas and 77 historical periods covering 3,800 years, from the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Modern period.
This is presumably related to the ‘Romeo and Juliet Revolution’, which set Europe on the path to individualism and marrying for love, but then love is probably a terrible idea. (And that concludes my Ted Talk etc etc.)
Finally finally — The End of Invention. Sam Bowman was on Radio 4 last week asking why technological advances seem to be slowing down. Are we in a state of decline and decadence, or is just that the easier things have been done? Sam is a friend, so I’m biased, but it’s a fascinating little episode, and he’s certainly ‘one to watch’ when it comes to radio broadcasting. (One to watch… radio… that’s the joke.)
I have a paid post coming tomorrow, and will then be off for a week in my other country. See you in April, and thanks for subscribing!