Feb 7 2017

Three Articles on Russia

Mark Twain in Athens

Three Articles on Russia

Three things I read about Russia over the weekend:

*

Putin’s Intelligence Crisis,” by Amy Knight, New York Review of Books, February 3, 2017.

*

Exxon, Rex, and Russia: a Deep Drilling,” Dana Snitzky, LongReads.com, February 3, 2017.

*

An Activist is Mysteriously Ill in Russia; and the U.S. Needs to Speak Up,” Editorial Board, Washington Post, February 2, 2017.

 

 


Jan 25 2017

Our Reconcilable Differences with Russia

bookshelf

Our Reconcilable Differences with Russia

“It is a singular anxiety which some people have that we should all think alike.”

––Thomas Jefferson

 “We are wiser than we know.”

––Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When everybody is alike, anything different becomes shocking.”

––George Santayana[1]

I dunno, Waldo. We may not be that wise. I don’t know what to make of Lee Smith’s January 17 piece in The Tablet Magazine: “What Obama Owes Putin—and Why Donald Trump is Let Holding the Bag.” It essentially takes the position I commented on by McCrew on January 9 and turns it on its head, arguing that rather than Putin, “misdirection has been Obama’s guiding principle for seven years.”

Instead of the U.S. being on the receiving end of an information war propagated by Russia, Smith seems to argue that the U.S. and Russia are actually allied on good number of things, and that the only ones left in the dark about how reality really works are everyday American and Israeli citizens who are the targets and victims of a Russo–American disinformation campaign with regard to Syria and Ukraine. Susan Hennessey and Jordan A. Brunner’s January 25 piece of LawFareBlog.comWhat Do We Know About Investigations into Trump’s Associates’ Ties to Russia?” seems to show that while friendliness between the two counties may not exist, a certain absence of malice has started to emerge.

I agree we Westerners should not goad literature to explain the world’s problems. Reading translations of Russian nineteenth-century literature is no panacea for twenty-first century political engagement. Yes, this can become a form of so-called “orientalism”—but outside the acolytes of Edward Said, does anyone in the East or the West of 2017 even believe or act on or behave as if orientalism is something related to tangible reality?  Something tells me no. Something tells me those ideas remain trapped in the 1980s (like New Wave music).

How do we proceed? When we are actually confronted with specific answers, we soon complain of being suffocated or inhibited, of being denied the opportunity to contribute “creatively” and “freely” on our own; and we at once begin—usually with some success—to pick holes in what has been presented us. But as soon as we feel we have pushed all this aside, and at last stand free and ready to make our own contribution, the human heart shrinks at its new nakedness and its new gift of what Santayana calls “vacant liberty.” We start once again to crave specific direction, and turn reproachfully, notebook in hand, on those who are now exhorting [strongly urging] us—in the very spirit we had before demanded—to “go and do likewise….”

––Walter Jackson Bate (1918–1999)[2]

On this issue of misappropriating literature for political purposes at her Tumblr account, Sandra Afrika complains (via Alexey Kovalev) about clickbait coming from Harvardpolitics.com, as if that URL alone wasn’t enough of a warning sign not to read any further. I think her complaints are a little overblown. A little. I wouldn’t believe anything from Harvardpolitics.com, or Kremlin.com, or Breitbart.com, or the Wrap or the Onion or Rotten Tomatoes.  These sites are made for nothing but clickbait, and one cannot legitimately complain and moan at a baker for baking bread.

But that doesn’t mean old literature has no use or relation to the world’s current problems. I don’t think I was wrong to recently pull some of my favorite quotations from Russian works, again, translated into English, amid a discussion of the (non)relationship between the White House and the Kremlin. But I nonetheless need to be more careful about doing so from now on.

So perhaps we are not wiser than we know. Perhaps the world is too wise for us.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;––
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

––Wordsworth

NOTES

[1] For Jefferson and Santayana see: Kallen, Horace. M. “The Laughing Philosopher.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 61, No. 1. (January 1964.) 19–35 at 24–25. For Emerson, see “The Over-Soul.”

[2] Bate, Walter Jackson. The Burden of the Past. 1970. Harvard UP, Cambridge. p. 56. Continuing with Bate:

In a very real sense, therefore, human feelings, at least potentially, work outward toward reality, hoping to re-enforce and secure themselves by the ‘stability of truth.’ To this extent, they contain their own tension upwards and outward, if only in their need for reassurance, for external justification and support. But in order to use this to advantage there must first be some sort of exposure to what will arouse or satisfy us; our desires cannot clarify themselves or find objects to satisfy them unless we know or suspect the existence of such objects. Unless we have first tasted what we desire, hunger often remains only an uneasy and painful sensation, without a clear object. Accordingly, as a contemporary of Johnson pointed out, very young babies, suffering from physical hunger, often fight against food unless they have already experienced the taste of it….

The channeling effort toward achievement, in other words, constitutes a certain limitation: to be one thing is, by definition, not to be another. It is limitation, at least, when compared with what Santayana calls ‘vacant liberty,’ even though this blank liberty to drift without purpose in the dark is meaningless until it is again channeled into specific aims and renewed efforts. The history of human achievement is strewn with compulsive by-products—and with by-products that become, if not more pronounced, at least more striking, in proportion to the degree of concentration on the end desired. Too often, of course, we find a tendency to interpret the achievement as either the flowering or else the compensation of the secondary traces that accompany it, putting the hoof-prints before the horse, and regarding them as a pre-determined path. We are never unwilling to ‘lessen our disparity.’ We all feel disturbing psychological quirks in ourselves; and it is not unpleasing to imagine that if we allowed them to be a little more pressing, the achievement we are interpreting could be our own. (The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. Oxford UP. 1955. pp. 140–41, 155)


Jan 16 2017

Things Recently Read on Russia, Obama, Democracy, Christianity, & Community

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Things Recently Read on Russia, Obama, Democracy, Christianity, & Community

Reshared this week at First Things Magazine is an article where David Novak asked 21 years ago: must community exist prior to democracy? If it does, then it is possible, Novak argues, that the community, particularly the Jewish community, can be religious and its governing democracy secular.

Opposite the idea of several religious communities being collectively governed by a secular democracy is Tolstoy, who sought, in Thomas Larson’s recent words in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “spiritual self-reliance.” And Count Tolstoy finds the best examples of spiritual self-reliance in the lives and beliefs of Russian peasantry—something that espoused by someone today might lead them to later be accused of promoting an ideology of what Tim Strangleman at NewGeography.com this week called “working-class nostalgia.” But, as Strangleman points out, nostalgia tells us more about our attitude toward the present than any understanding we may have (or think we have) of the past.

On the other hand, as Emma Green finds out in the Atlantic Monthly, there are currently some liberals who do not believe outreach toward religious conservatives will be rewarding:

I [Michael Wear, a former Obama White House staffer] think Democrats felt like their outreach [to religious conservatives] wouldn’t be rewarded. For example: The president went to Notre Dame in May of 2009 and gave a speech about reducing the number of women seeking abortions. It was literally met by protests from the pro-life community. Now, there are reasons for this—I don’t mean to say that Obama gave a great speech and the pro-life community should have [acknowledged that]. But I think there was an expectation by Obama and the White House team that there would be more eagerness to find common ground.

Cornel West, who is in some ways a religious conservative, wrote in the Guardian this week a severe critique of the Obama Presidency. More than Obama himself, West focuses his criticism on Obama’s “cheerleaders” who refuse to bear the blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat as well as the neoliberal economic failures of the Obama administration. On this latter issue West poses the question of whether commercial brands compel their consumers to shun integrity, and he suggests commonwealth of American society in the name of pure profit-seeking. On this last point, it is interesting to compare a passage from Benjamin Nathans’ “The Real Power of Putin” from back in the September New York Review of Books:

The Soviet Union from which Russia emerged in 1991 was the most purpose-driven society the world has ever seen. Yet Laqueur struggles to put his finger on what he calls “the emerging ‘Russian idea,’” partly because so many doctrines are competing for influence (Russian Orthodoxy, Eurasianism, antiglobalism, nationalism), and partly because, as he concedes, the vast majority of ordinary Russians “are not motivated by ideology; their psychology and ambitions are primarily those of members of a consumer society.”

As Alistair Roberts points out on his blog Alastair Adversaria, whether in Russia or America or elsewhere people hunger for truth, not only in purely rational terms, but hunger for truth in other people. We hunger for truth from the doctor when we ask what’s wrong and we hunger for the perceived truth in our leaders (whether or not the truth is actually there). This doubt of whether the truth is or isn’t there in that particular moment is like the wavering, lingering, roving sense of exile. And as Kate Harrison Brennan has recently written of the Western Christianity’s alleged perception of exile from rest of the participants in secular democracy, she reminds her flock that exile is a temporary condition; it should never be something one is comfortable with; on the other hand, as she expounds on Jeremiah:

The Israelites in exile were not just to tithe their cash crops, or to seek the good of their Babylonian oppressors as neighbours. Instead, they were to pray actively that the city would prosper, even before they did as a community in exile.


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.

INTRODUCTION

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. WHERE I AGREE WITH MCKEW

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]

II. WHERE I DISAGREE WITH MCKEW

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.

NOTES

[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)