Big War

What Putin has been doing for many, many years is building up to a big war. At a certain point, I felt crazy for saying it because the big war kept not starting. But the logic of his rhetoric, the logic of his actions, the logic of totalitarianism in general — all of these things required a big war.

Masha Gessen

This week’s featured post is “Why the Russians did it“.

This week everybody was talking about Russian atrocities in Ukraine

The atrocities, and why I believe in them, are discussed in the featured post.

Everyone is saying that the war in Ukraine has entered a new phase. The attack on Kyiv from Belarus appears to be over. Forces are being shifted to the Donbas region in the east, where Russia is trying to conquer the two Ukrainian territories that it has recognized as independent countries.

This is sort-of-good news. Putin seems to understand that the effort to conquer the whole country has failed, and is scrambling to achieve secondary goals that he could still spin as a victory. Without admitting any failures, Putin has replaced the invasion’s top general.

A Russian column has been reported headed towards Kharkiv. It’s not clear whether this force will do any better than the one that targeted Kyiv.

Military experts and western officials have also speculated that Putin’s generals are feeling the pressure to deliver some sort of results ahead of May 9, when Russia marks Victory Day, the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. But a fresh analysis from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US-based think tank, casts some doubt on Russia’s ability to concentrate the forces needed to make a breakthrough in the Donbas.

“We assess that the Russian military will struggle to amass a large and combat-capable force of mechanized units to operate in Donbas within the next few months,” the analysis states. “Russia will likely continue to throw badly damaged and partially reconstituted units piecemeal into offensive operations that make limited gains at great cost.”

Fiona Hill has a book coming out soon. The story about her in the NYT Magazine makes connections between Trump’s first impeachment, 1-6, and Putin’s Ukraine invasion.

“In the course of his presidency, indeed, Trump would come more to resemble Putin in political practice and predilection than he resembled any of his recent American presidential predecessors.”

Hill found it dubious that a man so self-​interested and lacking in discipline could have colluded with Russia to gain electoral victory in 2016 … Still, she came to see in Trump a kind of aspirational authoritarianism in which Putin, Erdogan, Orban and other autocrats were admired models.

… Hill was at her desk at home on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, writing her memoir, when a journalist friend she first met in Russia called. The friend told her to turn on the television. Once she did so, a burst of horrific clarity overtook her. “I saw the thread,” she told me. “The thread connecting the Zelensky phone call to Jan. 6. And I remembered how, in 2020, Putin had changed Russia’s Constitution to allow him to stay in power longer. This was Trump pulling a Putin.”

In the Economist, John Mearsheimer makes the blame-America case for the Ukraine invasion: We provoked Putin by raising the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO. I’m not convinced by that, because I don’t regard NATO-invades-Russia-for-no-reason as a credible fear; it’s been hard enough getting the alliance to unite in helping Ukraine defend itself. But Hill puts an interesting spin on that argument: Leaving Ukraine dangling as a maybe-someday NATO member was “the worst of all possible worlds”. We should either have let it in and helped defend it, or made it clear to Russia that NATO had no interest in extending that far.

and the larger lesson about autocracy

The most insightful thing I read this week was The.Ink’s interview with Masha Gessen, the Russian-American author who often writes for The New Yorker. She has written a biography of Putin, and a book-length account of contemporary Russian society. Her grasp of authoritarianism and totalitarianism reminds me of Hannah Arendt.

The opening part of the interview is focused on the Ukraine war and how it might play out. (Gessen takes the threat of nuclear war seriously, and believes that Putin, like Hitler, will not fall without bringing his country down with him. But, unless he dies soon of some other cause, he will fall.)

Then the discussion goes global, and this is the part I find most fascinating: Putin is part of a larger momentum towards right-wing autocracy, a wave that includes Orban in Hungary, Trump in the US, and Le Pen in France. Putin’s social rhetoric, she says, should be very familiar to Americans.

It’s how the American right weaponizes fear of your kids turning trans. It’s shorthand for the decadent West. It’s shorthand for the Other. It’s the promise of returning to an imaginary past when there was nothing that made you uncomfortable, like having to accept weird gender stuff and other queerness.

The message is: If you want to feel at home in the world again, if you want to feel at home in your country again, we have to get rid of this Western contagion. …

Erich Fromm very accurately describes preconditions for autocracy in Escape From Freedom. He wrote in the late 1930s and looked at extreme economic anxiety and mass displacement. Extreme economic anxiety related not only to hyperinflation in Germany but more broadly to a changing world, a world in which it was impossible for people to imagine who they’ll be and how they’ll live some years from now, or where their children will be. Those are conditions that are very much present in many parts of the world. There are kinds of societies and governments that try to address anxieties, and there are kinds that don’t. We definitely have the kind that doesn’t. I think that’s a culture-wide failure that isn’t concentrated on the right.

Is the point you’re making that, in a sense, the bad guys do address those kinds of anxieties whereas the good guys don’t?

Yes, that is the point I’m making. I think we see some attempts from the Biden administration to address those anxieties, but they’re meek, unconvincing, and unsustainable.

… What we need is recognition on the part of politicians that people all over the world are in this state of extreme anxiety, for very good reasons, and they need to be addressed as “my dears” [as the mayor of Kharkiv did recently]. We can’t just leave it to the bad guys to address the anxieties.

She sees Zelensky as a model, because he makes an FDR-like emotional connection with his people: He feels their fear and speaks to it, rather than telling them that everything is OK.

He models political speech. It is not about policy, and it is not about military strategy. It’s about people. No matter who he is addressing, he’s addressing people directly. He’s speaking directly to their experience.

and Justice Jackson

Thursday, Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. The vote was 53-47, with all 50 Democrats voting in favor. They were joined by only three Republicans: Collins, Murkowski, and Romney. Romney was the only Republican with the good grace to applaud for her.

Justice Jackson will take her seat this summer, when Justice Breyer’s retirement takes effect.

Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted that voting for Jackson’s confirmation made the Collins, Murkowski, and Romney “pro-pedophile“. I wasn’t going to make a big deal about that desperate plea for attention, but then it turned into this bru-ha-ha with Jimmy Kimmel. In his response, Kimmel coined a useful term: snociopath, a person who is both a sociopath and a snowflake.

and the pandemic

A tug-of-war is going on between the fading of the January wave and the start of a new wave. The result is case numbers that have been more-or-less flat for almost a month. Falling numbers in the Midwest and South have masked rising numbers in the Northeast.

Probably because the increase is in the highly vaccinated Northeast, deaths continue to fall nationally. (When cases rise in Mississippi, more people die than when cases rise in Vermont.) They’re now averaging 570 a day, cut about in half in the last month. Hospitalizations and ICU admissions are also still falling.

The Tyee, an independent news site from British Columbia, summarized a study in Nature of Sweden’s hands-off approach to Covid. The results were not good: Sweden’s death rate (though enviable by American standards) was four times its neighbor Norway. The Canadian writer finds parallels to

places like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, B.C. and Ontario, where political leaders didn’t adopt consistent public health goals, withheld data and offered little transparency about the decision-making process.

Yeah, but did they push quack treatments, demonize researchers, turn public health into a partisan issue, hold super-spreader events, ridicule people who wear masks, and personally spread the virus to others, as our former president did? That could be why Canada’s total of 991 Covid deaths per million people will never catch the US’s 3026. More than 600K Americans would still be alive if we had handled the pandemic as well as Canada. That should be a national scandal.

and the Trump coup

Newly released text messages show that Donald Trump Jr. was already envisioning how his father could stay in power in spite of the voters on November 5, two days after the election and before any news organizations had declared a winner.

The November 5 text message outlines a strategy that is nearly identical to what allies of the former President attempted to carry out in the months that followed. Trump Jr. makes specific reference to filing lawsuits and advocating recounts to prevent certain swing states from certifying their results, as well as having a handful of Republican state houses put forward slates of fake “Trump electors.”

If all that failed, according to the Trump Jr. text, GOP lawmakers in Congress could simply vote to reinstall Trump as President on January 6.

“We have operational control Total leverage,” the message reads. “Moral High Ground POTUS must start 2nd term now.”

Arizona’s Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich reported on his six-month investigation into the 2020 presidential election in Arizona. He has uncovered no mass fraud that could have changed the outcome of the election.

By law, the State Department is supposed compile an annual list of gifts US officials receive from foreign governments. But there is no accounting of gifts to Trump or other White House people in 2020, because the Trump administration routinely flouted anti-corruption laws.

and the culture wars

When radical Christian lawmakers propose extreme bills that hurt people, liberal politicians have a tendency to go easy on them: They have sincere beliefs, they mean well, they’re basically good people, and so on.

Well, not in Nebraska this week. Senator Megan Hunt represents a blue district in Omaha and is term-limited out of running again, so she’s got no appearances to keep up any more. She successfully led a filibuster of an abortion trigger law that would kick in if the Supreme Court overturns Roe “in whole or in part”, as it’s expected to do in June. The bill would have outlawed killing fertilized ova in just about all circumstances, including rape, incest, ectopic pregnancy, and possibly in-vitro fertilization, depending on how judges interpret its language.

Hunt played political hardball: Her maneuvers prevented amendments that might soften the bill to get the last few votes needed to end debate. So her filibuster held by two votes.

Her speech on the floor of the state’s unicameral legislature didn’t pull any punches:

There is no scenario where this will be amended, because I got to it first. You guys pulled the wrong bill. If this bill advances, IPP motions [to indefinitely postpone activity] are going on the bills of every proponent, because to me, yeah, this is personal.

I am not a person who can say, if you think my 11-year-old should be forced to give birth, that we can still be friends. I don’t understand a person who can say something like that. Maybe it’s a person who can’t give birth. Maybe it’s a person who’s never been raped. Somebody who doesn’t have a clue what it is to go through it. …

In life, sometimes we go through things where we have to draw a boundary. It is healthy for me, as a mother, as a rape survivor, to draw a boundary and say if you think that my child should be forced to give birth, you are not my friend.

And if I go to the Pearly Gates and meet your God someday—which sounds great, I hope I do—I don’t think I’m gonna get in any trouble for killing all of your bills who vote for this. I don’t think your God’s gonna have any problem with that. And I don’t think I’m gonna see any of you there either.

The guy who started the Republican panic about critical race theory is now planning a direct attack against public schools and public universities. “To get universal school choice,” he says, “you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”

By belatedly objecting to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, Disney has made itself a target for conservative authoritarians.

Remember: In other contexts, conservatives believe that corporations are people and have a right to their own moral views. That’s why the Obama administration wasn’t allowed to make Hobby Lobby pay for birth control.

Now, if conservative individuals don’t want to do business with Disney any more, that’s their right. I’m fine with them declaring a boycott and trying to get people to unsubscribe from Disney Plus. It’s hypocritical to do that while denouncing “cancel culture”, but hypocrisy is not illegal. (I should mention here that I own some small amount of Disney stock. I don’t think it’s affecting my view of this situation, but full disclosure and so on.)

However, threats to retaliate against Disney by using government power in unrelated areas — that’s corrupt; it’s basic machine politics. Government power should be wielded for the benefit of citizens, and not to further partisan political goals. So it’s corrupt for Governor DeSantis to threaten to revoke the special local-government status of Disney’s holdings in Orlando. (As a protection racketeer might say: “Nice park you got there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.”) And Fox News host Laura Ingraham was promoting corruption when she said:

when Republicans get back into power, Apple and Disney need to understand one thing: Everything will be on the table–your copyright and trademark protection, your special status within certain states, and even your corporate structure itself.

I can only imagine Ingraham’s howl of rage if President Obama had similarly declared war on Hobby Lobby for getting in his way, or on Koch Industries because the Koch brothers contributed to conservative political campaigns. (That’s exactly what Trump repeatedly tried to do to Amazon to get back at Jeff Bezos for letting The Washington Post criticize him. But we already knew Trump was corrupt.)

(BTW: I have long opposed Congress’ repeated moves to extend copyright just as Mickey Mouse approaches the public domain. Lawrence Lessig is right about this. If the current conservative temper tantrum gets us a sensible copyright law, that would be good.)

Friday, Alabama became the latest state to pass laws targeting trans teens. Alabama’s SB184 is only 11 double-spaced pages, so you can read it for yourself. The bill makes a Class C felony out of medical treatments

performed for the purpose of attempting to alter the appearance of or affirm the minor’s perception of his or her gender or sex, if that appearance or perception is inconsistent with the minor’s sex as defined in this act

The banned treatments include puberty-blocking drugs, cross-sex hormones, and surgery.

The law justifies itself by claiming “Some in the medical community are aggressively pushing for interventions on minors”, and arguing the state knows better than either doctors or parents do. (Conservatives often claim to support “parental rights”, but that’s only when they approve of the parents’ decisions.)

Minors, and often their parents, are unable to comprehend and fully appreciate the risk and life implications, including permanent sterility, that result from the use of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgical procedures.

Section 4b creates an exception for surgeries that attempt to turn intersex infants into boys or girls. (Conservatives only support “nature” when nature does what they want.)

Section 5 of the law forces nurses, counselors, teachers, and administrators at public or private schools to violate their students’ trust. They are forbidden to

(1) Encourage or coerce a minor to withhold from the minor’s parent or legal guardian the fact that the minor’s perception of his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with the minor’s sex.

(2) Withhold from a minor’s parent or legal guardian information related to a minor’s perception that his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with his or her sex.

Governor Ivey also signed HB322, which is just four pages. Section 1 of that bill requires public schools to segregate multiple-person bathrooms and locker rooms by sex. Students must use the facilities associated with the sex specified by their birth certificates.

Section 2 is a don’t-say-gay provision:

An individual or group of individuals providing classroom instruction to students in kindergarten through the fifth grade at a public K-12 school shall not engage in classroom discussion or provide classroom instruction regarding sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.

It also requires the State Board of Education to establish such standards. (As with parental rights, local control is only a conservative value if local officials do what conservatives want.)

Reason eventually prevailed in Starr County, Texas: The woman arrested for murder after she had a miscarriage will not be prosecuted. She was charged with murder when the hospital reported to the county sheriff’s office that the miscarriage was self-induced. The local DA later announced that this was “not a criminal matter”. It was never clear exactly which law was being enforced.

Texas Public Radio has details.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said it was also troubling that this incident began with hospital staff making a report to police.

“We should not be living in a country where people who get pregnant are afraid to go for help at a hospital, because somebody there will turn them in or might turn them in, and it will result in arrest,” Paltrow told TPR.

Apparently there are some depths that Republicans are not willing to sink to yet. The Republican Party of Hampton, Virginia tried to remove the local Republican electoral board chair after his Facebook post assailed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and retired three-star general Russell Honoré as “dirty stinking ni**ers” (without the asterisks) and recommended “a good public lynching” as “the best way to pull us back from the brink”.

That seems to be a step too far, at least for now. The Hampton GOP has revoked his membership and returned his contribution. But I’ve got to wonder how this guy managed to rise so far without anyone noticing he was a raving bigot.

The official in question, David Dietrich, refused to resign until Governor Youngkin stepped in. Dietrich faulted Austin for his attempts to remove White nationalists (who Dietrich characterizes as “conservative, freedom-loving Americans”) from the military. Honoré’s sin was to accept Speaker Pelosi’s invitation to review Capitol security infrastructure in the wake of the 1-6 insurrection. Dietrich says Honoré, who is Creole, sounds like “a Black nationalist”.

and you also might be interested in …

With hardly anybody noticing, the economy continues to do quite well. New claims for unemployment last week came in at the lowest level since 1968.

Europe is reconsidering nuclear power. The Ukraine war is causing European countries to question their dependence on Russian natural gas. According to Grist

Roughly one-fourth of Europe’s energy comes from natural gas, and as much as 40 percent of it flows from Russia.

If you do the math, 10% of Europe’s energy comes from Russian gas. There are ways to replace that 10%, but they’ll take time: increasing renewable power (which is already ramping up, but not fast enough), and importing liquified natural gas from places like the US (the port facilities for unloading it aren’t adequate yet). Europeans could turn down their thermostats, but that’s not going to be a popular solution.

In addition, the prospect of replacing gas-powered cars with electrics requires more generating capacity, not just maintaining the current capacity.

Normally, you wouldn’t think of nuclear power as a quick solution, because nuclear plants take a long time to approve and build. But Europe has recently decommissioned a number of plants, and more are scheduled to close over the next few years. Restarting the closed nuclear plants and extending the life of those still online would indeed provide a short-term boost over currently anticipated generating capacity.

Not everyone likes this idea, of course. Disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima loom large in European thinking, as they should. The Grist article is a pretty well balanced look at the pros and cons.

A guy who has bounced around from one working-class job to another, and now cleans carpets, has a remarkable knack for languages. He speaks 24 languages, and has a lower-level understanding of many more. He didn’t set out to break any records, he just wants to understand what people are saying.

Proposed mergers involving smaller airlines Jet Blue, Spirit, and Frontier are a challenge to regulators. Air travel is dominated by four big carriers: United, American, Delta, and Southwest. Either of the proposed mergers would create a fifth large airline. Is that good or bad for competition in general?

and let’s close with something stupid

We should all be more familiar with economist Carlo Cipolla’s work on human stupidity. Cipolla had a very succinct definition of stupid people: those who cause harm to others without benefit to themselves.

Cipolla’s Five Laws of Stupidity are:

  1. Always and inevitably, each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in the world.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of the same person.
  3. A stupid person is one who causes harm to another person or group without at the same time obtaining a benefit for himself or even damaging himself.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people.
  5. The stupid person is the most dangerous person that exists.

Cipolla’s theory leads to this four-bin categorization:

My one quibble with this model is in the upper left quadrant, which should be divided: If you understand that you are harming yourself to help others, you are generous. But if you don’t, you are gullible, and are probably being victimized by a bandit.

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  • Anonymous  On April 11, 2022 at 1:17 pm

    You are misgendering Masha Gessen. Please update to they/them.

    • Anonymous  On April 11, 2022 at 3:16 pm

      Let’s eliminate all the confusion by inventing a new pronoun that isn’t gender specific.

  • slehotsky  On April 11, 2022 at 1:39 pm

    Doug, Masha Gessen’s pronouns are they/


    • Anonymous  On April 11, 2022 at 3:26 pm

      “They” is already a plural pronoun. Let’s invent a new singular pronoun that isn’t gender-specific.

      • David Goldfarb  On April 11, 2022 at 4:27 pm

        There have been quite a number of attempts to invent new singular pronouns: “e” and “xie” come to mind, and that barely scratches the surface. None of them caught on, and singular “they” is the current consensus choice. Tell me that you don’t use singular “you” and I may then let you object to singular “they”; or if I’m in a bad mood I might just call you a liar.

      • Anonymous  On April 15, 2022 at 12:18 pm

        “They” isn’t the consensus choice. There is no consensus choice. If “they” was the consensus choice, than everyone would be “they.” You would be “they.” I would be “they.” Biden would be “they.” Dolly Parton would be “they.” Nobody would need to correct someone for using the wrong pronoun, because everyone would be “they.”

      • Anonymous  On April 15, 2022 at 12:47 pm

        What we have at the moment is a free-for-all. In the face of that free-for-all, I say “let’s invent a new singular pronoun that isn’t gender-specific.”

      • Anonymous  On April 15, 2022 at 12:51 pm

        Lots of things fail before they succeed.

  • NANCY BROWNING  On April 11, 2022 at 3:28 pm

    I highly recommend the book STRONGMEN: MUSSOLINI TO THE PRESENT by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, which elucidates all of the aspects in the “playbook” of authoritarians, giving examples that show the similarities between Trump, Putin, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, Berlusconi, and others.

  • fgsjr2015  On April 11, 2022 at 7:51 pm

    ‘Mad Vlad’ Putin’s fear of NATO expansion, though especially the deployment of additional U.S. anti-nuclear-missile defense-system batteries, further into eastern Europe is typically perceived by the West as unmerited paranoia.

    Surely he must realize that the West, including NATO, would never initiate a nuclear-weapons exchange. Although the continuing unprovoked mass-slaughter of innocent Ukrainian civilians by Russia is inexcusable, one must wonder how he — or we, the West, for that matter — can know for sure, particularly with America’s military past?

    While Ronald Reagan postulated that “Of the four wars in my lifetime none came about because the U.S. was too strong,” who can know what may have historically come to fruition had the U.S. remained the sole possessor of atomic weaponry. There’s a presumptive, and perhaps even arrogant, concept of American leadership as somehow, unless directly militarily provoked, being morally/ethically above using nuclear weapons internationally. Absolute power is well-known for corrupting absolutely.

    After President Harry S. Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur as commander of the forces warring with North Korea — for the latter’s remarks about using many atomic bombs to promptly end the war — Americans’ approval-rating of the president dropped to 23 percent. It was still a record-breaking low, even lower than the worst approval-rating points of the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.

    Had it not been for the formidable international pressure on Truman (and perhaps his personal morality) to relieve MacArthur as commander, could/would Truman eventually have succumbed to domestic political pressure to allow MacArthur’s command to continue?

  • pauljbradford  On April 11, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    Reagan’s quote “Of the four wars in my lifetime none came about because the U.S. was too strong” is something that sounds reasonable as long as you don’t think about it. Viet Nam, for example, would never have happened if the USA were weak. There was no national interest in fighting in Viet Nam, but we were able to go ahead and fight there while still having enough forces to deter the USSR elsewhere. Same with Iraq – we only fought because our military was so strong.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On April 12, 2022 at 11:38 am

    Here’s a sample letter that’s going around among Florida educators now:

    Dear Florida parent/caretaker:

    The Florida house of Representatives has recently ruled that “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

    To be in accordance with this policy, I will no longer be referring to your student with gendered pronouns. All students will be referred to as “they” or “them.” I will no longer use a gendered title such as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or make any references to my husband/wife in the classroom. From now on I will be using the non-gendered title “Mx.”

    Furthermore, I will be removing all books or instruction which refer to a person being a “mother,” “father,” “husband” or “wife” as these are gender identities that also may allude to sexual orientation. Needless to say, all books which refer to a character as “he” or “she” will also be removed from the classroom. If you have any concerns about this policy, please feel free to contact your local congressperson.

    Thank you,


  • Jared T Robinson  On April 12, 2022 at 1:16 pm

    but … isn’t it divided? the upper left and lower right? or did you add that? doesn’t seem like you did since the link also has that line

    I think it is saying exactly what you want it to say but not annotated?

  • Michael Harrison  On April 12, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    Wow, Putin approval rating twice Bidens…this is some empire bootlickin drivel. I’ll be un subscribing.

  • Frank Wilhoit  On April 18, 2022 at 9:46 am

    Cipolla’s notion (it does not qualify as a “theory”) of stupidity is facile, but wrong on at least two crucial points. It neglects the extremely important role of ideological addiction, and it fails to treat collateral damage as ethically distinctive.

  • Anonymous  On April 18, 2022 at 12:18 pm

    Meghan Hunt is not term-limited yet. She is my representative and is running for re-election this year. Please correct because it makes what she said even more brave!

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