Jan 9 2017

A Brave New War with Russia

cross on steeple

A Brave New War with Russia

As an average American I was stirred by Molly K. McKew’s January 1 piece in PoliticoPutin’s Real Long Game”; as a foreign policy amateur, however, I can but respond by offering half-thoughts accompanied by a scattered set of quotations on things previously read. I urge everyone to please read McKew’s article before browsing anything I have to say about it below.

UPDATE: It looks like Quinta Jurecic at LawFareBlog.com beat me by a month-and-a-week on the whole Bullshit meme. Below I apply it to Russia’s disinformation campaigns, while she applies it the disinformation campaigns of President Trump.


In a bar in Seville in April 2014, shortly after the Orange Revolution, I had a conversation with a Ukrainian who was curious about American perspectives. The point I made was my belief, then, that the majority of Americans generally supported an independent Ukraine and generally opposed Putin’s policies, but that Americans also felt no urgency or passion or enthusiasm over the issue because most Americans feel powerless over any of their government’s actions concerning foreign policy.


I agree with McKew’s article that the Russian Federation is (and has been) engaged in a hardcore information war against the United States for quite some time and that Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election is a mere symptom of this much longer campaign. If war exists, then by definition, dialogue between the two sides does not exist,[1] and, as Reuters reported on December 21, “The Kremlin said on Wednesday almost all communications channels between Russia and the United States have been frozen,” although, “the U.S. State Department disputed the statement.” [2] Such an absence of dialogue has been articulated in the East by Tolstoy and in the West by Isaiah Berlin:

It used to be dreadfully difficult to talk when we were left alone. It was the labor of Sisyphus. As soon as we thought of something to say and said it, we had again to be silent, devising something else. There was nothing to talk about. All that could be said about the life that awaited us, our arrangements and plans, had been said, and what was there more? Now if we had been animals we should have known that speech was unnecessary; but here on the contrary it was necessary to speak, and there was nothing to say, because we were not occupied with what finds vent in speech.[3]

Sometimes the rot has gone too deep, and the members of the decadent society collapse into a kind of second barbarism, the ‘barbarism’ not of youth or of ‘the senses’, but of ‘reflection’––a kind of senility and impotence, when each man lives in his own egotistic, anxiety-ridden world, unable to communicate or co-operate with his fellows. This is the situation in which men, although ‘they still physically throng together, like live wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two of them able to agree, since each follows his own pleasure or caprice’.[4]

As an amateur, I believe an information war such as this calls on Americans to, among other things, rigorously study the dynamics of dialogue as theorized by Martin Buber in the West and Mikhail Bakhtin in the East.

An information war does not imply an absence of violence. Nonetheless, whether or not the current campaign is also a traditional war of blood-and-treasure, particularly with regard to the front of Eastern Europe, I agree with McKew that in this war the principle weapon of the enemy dissolves all distinctions between truth and falsity. As McKew sees it:

What both administrations fail to realize is that the West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.

Yes!––particularly “to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction,” or as McKew puts it later, “subversion rather than domination…. not about creating an alternative truth, but eroding our basic ability to distinguish truth at all”––this is the thesis to Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 essay “On Bullshit.” Frankfurt pointed out that bullshit is a special species of non-truth and that bullshitting is far more dangerous than lying. Why? Because a liar must have some regard for the truth––for that is the thing the liar tries to hide––while the bullshitter has absolutely no regard for the truth. The dangers of non-Russian-made bullshit were witnessed in the U. S. housing market crash of 2008. Why? Because bullshit is an acid that corrodes our social ontology—it eats away at what McKew refers to as our “security architecture”––and in this war Russia produces a lot of bullshit.[5]

In particular, Russia seeks to erode any desire we in the West may have to distinguish fact from fiction with regard to the war itself. The Russian psyche, however, is itself well adapted to such conditions, and has been for a long time. Even before phrases like “reflex control” and “multi-vector policy” became standard in the Kremlin, one finds, for example in the play The Trouble with Reason (1823), the character of Chatsky who admits: “The more you think about it, the more you’re overwhelmed.”[6] Lemontov has a character who confesses:

I lied, but I wanted to infuriate him. Contradiction is, with me, an innate passion; my entire life has been nothing but a chain of sad and frustrating contradictions to heart or reason. The presence of an enthusiast envelops me with midwinter frost, and I think that frequent commerce with an inert phlegmatic individual would have made of me a passionate dreamer. [7]

And as a young Tolstoy observed from fellow soldiers: “When we don’t think we don’t feel. When a man thinks, it is the worse for him.”[8]


For McKew:

“…. it haunted me, this idea that modern revolutionaries no longer felt some special affinity with the West. Was it the belief in collective defense that was weakening, or the underlying certitude that Western values would prevail? … It matters deeply that the current generation of global revolutionaries and reformers, like my Ukrainian friend, no longer see themselves as fighting for us or our ideals.”

While I agree with McKew that Russia seeks to wage war “until we are broken as they perceive themselves to be,” and that “Putin has launched a kind of global imperialist insurgency,” I do not agree that the best way to engage the enemy (besides traditional hard power) is to cheerlead “Western values”––not when there is scant historical, political, anthropological evidence or indications that Western values are valued by a substantial majority in the East.[9] Yes, much of the current war takes place on Russia’s western frontier—right where East meets West—but more often than not East does not equal West, even in peacetime. The bear knows how the handle the cold in winter:

Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty….[10]

The basis of authority is bodily violence…. Government authority, even if it does suppress private violence, always introduces into the life of men fresh forms of violence, which tend to become greater and greater in proportion to the duration and strength of the government…. That has always been necessary, and has become more and more necessary with the increased diffusion of education among the masses, with the improved communication between people of the same and of different nationalities. It has become particularly indispensable now in the face of communism, socialism, anarchism, and the labor movement generally. Governments feel that it is so, and strengthen the force of their disciplined armies.

The fact that in America the abuses of authority exist in spite of the small number of their troops not only fails to disprove this position, but positively confirms it. In America there are fewer soldiers than in other states. That is why there is nowhere else so little oppression of the working classes, and no country where the end of the abuses of government and of government itself seems so near. Of late as the combinations of laborers gain in strength, one hears more and more frequently the cry raised for the increase of the army, though the United States are not threatened with any attack from without. The upper classes know that an army of fifty thousand will soon be insufficient, and no longer relying on Pinkerton’s men, they feel that the security of their position depends on the increased strength of the army….[11]

All men, then, bound together by state organization, through the responsibility of their acts on one another, the peasant soldier on the nobleman or merchant who is his officer, and the officer on the nobleman who has been appointed governor, the governor on the nobleman or son of an official who is minister, the minister on the member of the royal family who occupies the post of Tzar, and the Tzar again on all these officials, noblemen, merchants, and peasants. But that is not all. Besides the fact that men get rid of the sense of responsibility for their actions in this way, they lose their moral sense of responsibility also, by the fact that in forming themselves into a state organization they persuade themselves and each other so continually, and so indefatigably, that they are not all equal, but “as the stars apart,” that they come to believe it genuinely themselves. Thus some are persuaded that they are not simple people like everyone else, but special people who are to be specially honored. It is instilled into another set of men by every possible means that they are inferior to others, and therefore must submit without a murmur to every order given them by their superiors…. [12]

All the revolutions in history are only examples of the more wicked seizing power and oppressing the good. In declaring that if their authority did not exist the more wicked would oppress the good, the ruling authorities only show their disinclination to let other oppressors come to power who would like to snatch it from them.[13]

Yet even if people from the East believed in Western values, that doesn’t mean those values would prosper in the East. As McKew points out, a non-Soviet Russia attempting democracy since 1992 was suddenly interrupted by a coup in 1999. But should we in the West be disheartened that that democracy was overthrown by a quick three-month operation or should we be disinterestedly sober when we realize that Russia had only seven years to practice democratic principles?

After the Cold War, some in the East may have sought “some special affinity” with Western values, particularly, “the belief in collective defense,” but in 2016 most of that sounds like the jive talk of the now dissolved Project for the New American Century. There is no doubt that when we fail to distinguish truth from fiction, we must consider ourselves ignorant. And when we are ignorant we are childlike and must resort to rhetorical tropes to understand the things we are ignorant of. We rely on tropes for understanding our counterparts because dialogue between us has failed.[14] I believe in the traditional ideals (the social ontology) espoused by the United States, but those ideas may not be for everyone, and I believe in the childlike trope of Russia being part of the East and America being part of the West. Hitler harnessed the trope that socialism was the work of Jews and Russians, while today many non-Hitlers spread the trope that democracy––or the English Rule of Law, or transparency that combats corruption (take your pick)––may be the habit of Jews and Americans but is not the preferred practice of many in the East. In The Trouble with Reason Chatsky asks:

Where are the fathers of our fatherland who are
the models you insist we must acknowledge?
Surely not these who by robbery made themselves rich?
Who got around the law through family and acquaintance?[15]

Yes, as McKew points out, Russia has the second most powerful army; but its population (according to some) has also been drastically decreasing. Nonetheless, as Tolstoy once pointed out: “The strength of Russia” remains “simplicity and obstinacy.”[16] While Syria and Georgia may all be part of the same war, is it really, as McKew sees it, “subversion rather than domination,” or just the old idea that Russia is always looking for a southern port?[17] Either way we in the West, particularly my fellow Americans, need to pay more attention to the situation and thank investigators like Molly K. McKew for reporting from the front lines.


[1] This is an old idea in the East as well as the West. See Bhagavad Gita, III, xx; Caesar, Gallic Wars V, xxviii and xxxi.

[2]Kremlin says almost all dialogue with U.S. is frozen: RIA.” December 21, 2016. Reuters.

[3] Tolstoy, Leo. Крейцерова соната. (The Kreutzer Sonata.) 1889. Translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude. § X.

[4] Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. NY: Viking. 1976. p. 63.

[5] John Searle’s propositions for social ontology theory start with the premise that one cannot intend to play a language game with (or against) another if that other refuses (does not intend) to play that game, which is what the bullshitter does:

A way to come to see this point is to ask oneself, what is the difference between regarding an object as an instance of linguistic communication and not so regarding it? One crucial difference is this. When I take a noise or a mark on a piece of paper to be an instance of linguistic communication, as a message, one of the things I must assume is that the noise or mark as a natural phenomenon like the wind in the trees or a stain on the paper, I exclude it from the class of linguistic communication, even though the noise or mark may be indistinguishable from spoken or written words. Furthermore, not only must I assume the noise or mark to have been produced as a result of intentional behavior, but I must also assume that the intentions are of a very special kind peculiar to speech acts…. (Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge UP. 1969. § 1.4, pp. 16–17; see also 42–43)

Meaningful utterances are those where the speaker intentionally imposes conditions of satisfaction on the utterances. But because the utterances themselves are the conditions of satisfaction of the intention to make those utterances, we can say that speaker meaning consists of the intentional imposition of conditions of satisfaction on conditions of satisfaction. This, I argue, is the essence of speaker meaning. The condition of satisfaction of the non-meaningful intentional utterance is simply that an utterance should be produced. But if the utterance is to be meaningful it must itself have further conditions of satisfaction, such as truth conditions or fulfillment conditions. It is the intentional imposition of these further semantic conditions of satisfaction onto the conditions of satisfaction already present in the intentional utterance that constitutes speaker meaning….

We create money, government, private property, and marriage, for example, by representations that have the double direction of fit….They are the glue that holds human society together, because they carry the special type of deontology that makes society possible…. (“Language and social ontology,” Theory and Society. Vol. 37. No. 5. (October 2008.) 443–59 at 447, 451, 452)

We make something the case by representing it as being the case…. Intentionality essentially involves the representation of conditions of satisfaction….” (“Language and social ontology.” 445, 452)….

The necessary conditions of a speaker’s performing a fully consummated definite reference in the utterance of an expression are:

  1. There must exist one and only one object to which the speaker’s utterance of the expression applies (a reformulation of the axiom of existence) and

  2. The hearer must be given sufficient means to identify the object from the speaker’s utterance of the expression (a reformulation of the axiom of identification). (Speech Acts § 4.4, p. 82)

[6] Griboyedov, Aleksandr. Гope om yma. (The Trouble with Reason.) 1823. Translated by Frank R. Reeve. IV.

[7] Lermontov, Mikhail. “княжна.” (“Princess Mary.”) 1840. Translated by Vladimir Nabokov with Dmitri Nabokov.

[8] Tolstoy, Sebastopol. 1855. Translated by Frank D. Millet. § I.

[9] From Wolfgang Balzer:

It is an idealization—to put it mildly—to call coerced behavior agreement and a system an institution when the majority of relevant individuals has been removed from the system…. The majority of individuals, those occurring in the other groups, have a different perception. Usually such individuals take the institution for granted, as a part of their natural environment which they cannot influence. They do not perceive themselves as involved in the collective ascription of new statuses and power, not to speak of the “construction” of the institution. At best they can be said to participate in maintaining the institution in the sense of not actively seeking to destruct it. (“Searle on Social Institutions: A Critique.” Dialectics. Vol. 56. No. 3. (2002.) 195–211 at 206, 210)

[10] Dostoevsky, Записки из подполья. (Notes from the Underground.) 1864. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. I, vii.

[11] Tolstoy, Царство Божие внутри вас, (The Kingdom of God is within You.) 1894. Translated by Constance Garnett. 1894. VII.

[12] Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is within You. XII.

[13] Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is within You. X.

[14] Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas 103–08; Vico, Giambattista. Vico: the First New Science. 1725. Translated by Leon Pompa. Cambridge UK: Cambridge UP. 2002. I, xiii, [¶ 42–43] pp. 33–34; [The Third] New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. Third Edition. Translated by David Marsh. NY: Penguin. 1999. “Idea of the Work” [¶ 4] 3; I, § 2, xxxvii, [¶ 186], p. 89; I, § 2, lxviii, [¶ 206], p. 92; II, § 2, iv, [¶ 408], p. 162.

[15] Griboyedov, The Trouble with Reason. II.

[16] Tolstoy, Sebastopol. § I.

[17] “The drive of the Russians for a warm-water port, whether under the Tsarists or the Communists, is a fundamental geographic expression of Russian foreign policy.” (Russell H. Fifield and G. Etzel Pearcy. Geopolitics in Principle and Practice. NY: Ginn & Co. 1944. p. 5)

Dec 21 2016

Did Arthur Balfour Predict Facebook a Century Ago?

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Did Arthur Balfour Predict Facebook a Century Ago?

Did Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, and twice the giver of the Gifford Lectures,  stumble upon the idea behind Facebook–that it can collect data on people and try to predict their behavior–nearly a century before its advent?

The region where these uncompromising doctrines show to least advantage is human character. I do not propose to discuss causation and free will; but I may with advantage say something on a less hackneyed theme, namely, negligibility and foreknowledge. The thesis I desire to maintain is that, in dealing with a human character, full foreknowledge is theoretically impossible, even though free will be wholly absent, and the succession of psychic states be completely determined. Practically impossible we know it to be. But most determinists would hold that this impossibility is due partly to our ignorance and partly to our incapacity. We know too little either of the general laws of mind, or of individual character, or of surrounding circumstances, to make accurate forecasts; and, even if we possessed the requisite information, we could not use it, owing to the irremediable weakness of our powers of calculation. It is this contention that I wish to traverse. I hold that, had we the supernatural powers of Laplace’s calculator, armed with a knowledge of the human heart which supernatural powers of observation could alone supply, we should still fail, because we are face to face with that which is inherently incalculable.

The contrary opinion is due, I think, to an imperfect comprehension of the doctrines I have touched on in this lecture. All human foreknowledge depends on detecting old sequences in a new context. The context, of course, is always new. There is never full or complete repetition. But, unless there be partial repetitions embedded in the universal flux, prescience is impossible. This is the doctrine of “negligibility.”

Now consider two illustrative examples. First, imagine yourself standing on the edge of a valley down which a landslip has just let loose the waters of some great reservoir in the hills. The catastrophe is sudden in its onset, brief in its duration, wildly irregular in its character. Even the most tumultuous cataract retains a certain steadiness of outline: and few sights are more impressive than the stationary waves in a great rapid. But there is here no trace of order imposed on disorder, fixity on motion. The rushing wall of water, spouting into foam over every obstacle it encounters, the tossing flood that follows furiously behind, seem in their brief violence to present the very ideal of incalculable confusion. But we know it is not so. In the presence of such a spectacle our calculator would not feel a moment’s embarrassment. He could forecast without difficulty the whole scene down to its minutest eddy; the motions of each drop obey laws with which he was perfectly familiar; and the total effect, catastrophic though it be, is but the sum of all these component examples of natural uniformity.

Turn now and contemplate a calmer scene. Consider the commonplace life of a commonplace man as it develops in the untroubled prosperity of a steady business and a quiet home. Such a career seems as orderly and uniform as the flood I have been describing is terrible and strange. Surely no supernatural calculator is required to cast the horoscope of its hero: for he does, and leaves undone, the same actions, he thinks and leaves unthought the same ideas, as thousands of his contemporaries; and, so far as outward appearance goes, he is an indistinguishable member of an undistinguished crowd.

Yet, in spite of this, we know him to be unique. There never has been before, nor will there ever be again, another individual exactly like him. A similar statement, it may be urged, can be made about our catastrophic flood. Though this has plenty of parallels, none of them, strictly speaking, are exact. Where, then, lies the distinction on which I am trying to insist? Let me endeavour to mark the contrast.

If the material world be conceived as a mechanical system, the flood in my illustration may be regarded as a piece arbitrarily cut out of it at the whim of the spectator. It possesses no natural unity; and, like the whole of which it is a fraction, the moving particles which compose it do each obey laws which are (we assume) perfectly well known, and have been endlessly exemplified. Its behaviour is the sum of the behaviour of these several parts; and it is by estimating their movements that our imaginary calculator can prophesy its course with absolute exactness. He is never perplexed by the problem of negligibility; for negligibility in such a case can be accurately measured, and our calculator possesses all the data required for its measurement. In short, the principle of regularity may here be applied in its most uncompromising form; it requires no qualification, nor can it be pressed too boldly or too far.

–Balfour, Arthur James. Theism and HumanismBeing the Gifford Lectures. NY: Doran. 1915. p.  207–11.