Links to Consider, 9/19
Freddie deBoer and Noah Smith on Ukraine sentiment; William Costello on Tinder; Russ Roberts and David McRaney;
It’s constant, everpresent, and relentless, the denial of any complication in the case of Ukraine and Russia. The glee and the gloating and the urge to ridicule anyone who takes even a single step outside of the consensus is remarkable, unlike anything I’ve ever really encountered before. And I find that I can’t even get people to have a conversation about that, a meta-conversation about why the debate on Ukraine is not a debate. . .
I think the last two decades of failure for the American military machine, and our failure to fight good wars, has everything to do with it, has everything to do with the remarkable enforcement of consensus on this issue.
If you don’t know the triumphalism that he is talking about, read Noah Smith.
Ukraine are clearly the good guys in this war, a peaceful country invaded by a brutal, imperialistic neighbor without provocation, and it’s good to see them throw the invaders back. But it also illustrates some important principles about the broader conflict unfolding across our world between liberalism and illiberalism.
That paragraph set me off. In one of my comments, I pointed out that I am old enough to remember the establishment saying similar things about South Vietnam.
Freddie’s point that we’re in one of those times where we need to feel like we’re fighting a good war strikes me as plausible. But I think that the consensus is not as strong and deep as it appears to be.
Back in February, my initial take was that wars often begin with people feeling very enthusiastic about them. Years later, the attitude can be very different, so one should be wary of joining the cheering parade. That is still my view.
Bari Weiss hosted several essays on the social impact of Tinder. Among these, William Costello writes,
We evolved to assess potential mates in person. The information provided on a dating app is relatively impoverished, strategically curated, sometimes deceptive, plus lacking in scent, chemical, and audio cues. So certain pieces of data, like height or job, become overly prioritized. To illustrate the point using an entirely random example that has no personal significance to me whatsoever, dating apps might not allow for a charming Irish accent to compensate for one being 5’7” in height. But I digress.
When I finished high school, someone wrote something to me in my yearbook that made me think that if I paid no attention to my short stature, then no one else would. So I took that attitude. I’m glad that at the time there was no the data on how heightist women are. It would have made it harder for me to feel ok about myself.
Russ Roberts talks with David McRaney, who explains how people become conspiracists.
if you're in a tent in the woods and you hear a sound and you're like, 'Oh, that made me feel a negative emotion,' you would be motivated to go search for information to confirm that your anxiety is justified. And, that's good. I mean, you should make sure: Is that a bear? And, you go looking; you might get false positives, and false negatives. But you search with your flashlight. You're trying to see if your anxiety is justified because there is this sense that you're going to argue this to your peers, 'Hey, there's a bear in the woods, and I found some evidence.'
You take all of that and you put it online, and you feel something happens in the world that gives you this a negative emotion. Some anxiety starts to come up. It could be for really good reasons, but it could also be because you have some sort of prejudice or some sort of political bias.
So, then you do that thing. You go, 'Hmm. Let me search for evidence that justifies the anxiety that I'm feeling.'
And, when you do that, online, you absolutely will find something that suggests your anxiety was justified.
…And slowly you can radicalize yourself. .. you start snipping your connections away from people who don't share the attitudes being expressed in that community and you start strengthening the connections you do have with those.
As I’ve said before, McRaney’s conclusion is that to change someone’s mind, you have to make them more comfortable being part of your identity community and less comfortable being part of the identity community that holds the beliefs you want to change. Although this struck me as correct, I did not like his book as much as I had expected. I can’t quite put a finger on what bothered me about it.
The war in Ukraine was completely avoidable- all it really required was for Ukraine to agree to allow the Russian majority east separate, and for NATO to agree to never admit Ukraine to the treaty alliance. However, for the last 30 years NATO had expanded right up to the Russian border, and spent part of the last year and a half trying to induce color revolutions in other former Soviet Republics that are still aligned politically with Russia, like Belurus and Kazakhstan.
Now we are stuck with a situation where the likely path seems to be escalation. Putin bit off more than he could chew with the limited operation, and will now likely commit more forces to the conflict, which runs the risk that the US gets even more deeply involved in supporting Ukraine with air support and possibly actual troops if it looks like Ukraine's effort is about to collapse. The clowns in charge of the west and Russia are going to blunder us into a nuclear exchange if they don't start looking for an off-ramp soon.
I'm hardly a booster for Ukraine. I think the war was entirely avoidable and that the "good side" shares a lot of blame for it starting. I think many of the problems Ukraine had will still be there after the war even if they win, though I hope the experience of fighting the war might generate enough social bonding to break out of some old equilibirums. If the best case scenario outcome comes to pass, I still don't think supporting Ukraine was worth the risks.
However, I think the Vietnam reference is flawed.
1) Vietnam was a guerrilla conflict, this is a conventional conflict.
2) Ukraine has clear war aims that are measurable and achievable (we can debate how achievable they are, but "push army to the following borders" is certainly clear and at least possible).
3) America was the aggressor in Vietnam, Russia is the aggressor here.
4) The Vietcong could call on essentially unlimited reserves of fighters and the war itself generated new Vietcong fighters. Russia has the men it went into the conflict with and it has clearly shown it can't or won't replace them.
For the first six months of the conflict it seemed as if we were in a First World War trench warfare type situation. One in which nobody was going to move the front lines much and a lot of people would die in artillery duels. In such a situation, continuing the war in a futile attempt to wrest control of the Donbass seemed really dumb and immoral.
Now it appears that Ukraine is capable of large scale offensive action that can break Russian lines. Given all I've outlined above, they will eventually win the war.
Maybe in some alternate timeline of more reasonable people, we could skip all of the fighting and dying to get to that point and negotiate some deal, but I don't really see it happening. Probably the most likely outcome for a negotiated settlement is if both sides were pessimistic and thought there was something to gain from peace. Other than saving a few lives, its not clear to me that the Ukrainian side would gain much from peace at this point. Putin also isn't going to give up all that territory without a fight.
I don't think Putin will mobilize or use nukes. I think he will do what he's done the whole war, putz around and always wait till its too late to matter.