The Power Vertical Up to Its Old Tricks? Or…? NYT confoosed about Russia. So confoosed.

Lots of coverage today (and someone thought to call Mark Galeotti, who gave his Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty-friendly analysis.)

The interesting thing is that the theses of the three main articles seem to be as follows:

Article 1: “Russia is Quick to Bend Truth About Ukraine,” by David Herszenhorn.  Thesis: Well Medvedev is just a wacky Kremlin propaganda CRAZY person to say that there is violence in Ukraine and that there are threats of more violence!  Wacky Medvedev.

This is the line that Brian Whitmore, Galeotti, Nina Khruscheva, Kirill Kobrin, and other RFE/RL type Kremlin-watchers have been consistently taking.  How goofy, they say, how paranoid, Putin is to say that there are neo-Fascist far-right groups involved in the Ukrainian nationalist movement!  How utterly bizarre to think that the US might have some kind of stake in destabilizing Russia’s hold on the area!  And how goofy to paint Eastern Ukraine as some kind of Mad Max -like landscape!  “It’s all lies,” Herszenhorn quotes Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Lilia Shvetsova as saying.  And the article makes fun of the “breathless,” “alarmist” Russian news claims of imminent hostilities by the Ukrainian government.

Herszenhorn does, it is admitted, take a half-pargraph to be Fair and Balanced, mentioning that “There is no question that the new Ukraininan government and its Western allies, including the United States, have engaged in their own misinformation at times,” but that the silly-Medvedev line might be an aspect of this misinformation is not something that is taken seriously.  Which makes it all the stranger to turn to:

Article 2: “Ukraine Sends Force to Stem Unrest in East,” by Andrew Kramer.  Thesis: The new Ukrainian government is sending more military units to the East, preparing to crack down even more on the “Russian special forces, terrorists, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens…who were tricked by Russian propaganda,” as Kramer quotes Ukrainian acting president Turchynov, which situation, says Turchynov, constitutes a “colossal danger.”  And meanwhile, the head of the Ukrainian National Security Council, Andriy Parubiy, is tweeting about rallying veterans of the Kiev uprising, including members of Right Sector, a neo-Nazi group. (Right Sector itself is highly tech-savvy, having recently launched a sort of fascist-tactical-rallying-and-kickstart-fundraising smartphone app, available for your downloading pleasure through Google Play.)

And when he’s not shouting out to his “Maidan self defense” paramilitary buddies, he’s shouting out to Damon MacWilson of the Atlantic Council.  “We have to stop Putin together!” he tweeted on March 27.

Hey, I’m all for strategic coalition building, but don’t then go calling poor Dmitry nuts for seeing some kind of pattern of far-right-and-Western-establishiment-thinktank-facilitated pressure campaign against Russian-speaking Ukrainians.  Especially given:

Article 3: “General and Former Defense Official Urge Nonlethal Military Aid for Ukraine,” by Michael R. Gordon.  The upshot of which is…. ok, we probably shouldn’t give weapons, but if we’re NOT already doing what Medvedev says we are, we SHOULD be.

Fukuyama: Project for the New American Century basically just “Bill Kristol and a fax machine.”

Hee hee.  See here.  FF speaks at Stewart Brand’s terrifyingly Tower of Babel-like Long Now Foundation, spills the beans.  (Please note: seriously, I think that the LNF is the closest thing going right now to the NICE in That Hideous Strength, so don’t get suckered, guys.  Also please note, FF is apparently trying very hard to distance himself from All That, and has used this line elsewhere, and it is very calculated.)

Market Clearing in Friend Groups: A Cambridge-Area Case Study

So, I’m doing this copyediting project for a friend who’s just translated a book on monetary theory from turgid German, and in the midst of the author’s discussion of how households might arrange to do a little bills-of-exchange shuffling around in order to settle accounts between themselves, I am reminded of a practice in which I used to engage with friends in the graduate school and church planting years (I’m not sure how much we ever actually employed the practice: I think we mostly just felt pleased with ourselves for thinking it up.)  Here’s how it worked:

When you’re part of a friend group, this is what happens: you go out to Ruby Foo’s, and you go to the place with the great brownies near Porter Square, its name started with a C, and then you rent a movie (remember renting DVDs???), and then one of you is meeting another of you outside the Div School, and the one who is being met wants a venti soy latte, and inevitably someone (the identity of this person varies) doesn’t have cash, and so someone covers, and this happens ALL THE TIME.  And there has to be a very informal, and yet not completely loosey-goosey way to keep track of it.

And so we invented the cowrie shell.  A cowrie shell is a purely notional unit of currency, pegged to the local value of a grande regular-milk latte (which varies between New York and Cambridge and Northampton– but was usually, at that time, around $3.50).  And so when you don’t have cash, or your friend doesn’t, you say “I owe you a cowrie shell,” and you kind of kept in mind how many cowrie shells you owed, and then when one was owed to you by someone else, what might happen is that if they were owed a cowrie shell by the person to whom you owed one, you might cover their portion of renting Mystery Science Theater 3000, and that would clear the market.

It would not stand up to auditing.  But it worked for us.

Margaret Atwood and the Post-Human Future


I have a thing about The Handmaid’s Tale, of course: it was what formed my beliefs, aged about 12, about what “the religious right” was, and what the agenda of men who claimed to be Christians was, with regard to women.  I’m not sure I ever actually finished it, but I got through enough for my emotions about a “right” to abortion to be colored by a rejection of a system that made women into breeding stock.

I’ve written about this elsewhere; I came to realize that what pro-life people were arguing was that actually, the violation of the integrity of un-powerful people that is represented by abortion can only weaken the safeguards against the exploitation of other un-powerful people.  “As I would not be a slave,” said Lincoln, “so I would not be a master.”  What women who are conscious of the fact that women in general have less access to power than men ought to say about abortion is, “as I would not be discarded and abused, so I will not discard and abuse others.”

I know this now, and it really does seem to me that the Handmaid’s Tale view of what evangelicals are, and are up to, is not one that can survive a close encounter with an actual evangelical– just an actual conversation, I mean, let alone a conversion.

But I did love Atwood’s writing, and I have a copy of Oryx and Crake somewhere, that I’ve maybe been wanting to read.  Or possibly my stepmother has a copy.  Someone has a copy, anyway.

I’ve gotta say, though, that after listening to Atwood’s recent interview with Tim Wu on his Stranger than Fiction podcast, I’m a little less inclined to take it up.  She’s biohacked her characters so that they “come into season”– you know, like baboons do– and turn blue to indicate this fact.  This eliminates a lot of ambiguity and heartbreak, as you might imagine.  It also, Atwood admits, eliminates romance.

Tim Wu said something like, “I mean, I see how that society is less violent, but it just… it feels kind of boring.”

“Well,” said Atwood, “it feels boring to you.  A snail’s life would seem boring to you.  But it’s terribly exciting for the snail.”

Oryx and Crake is, officially, dystopian: Atwood doesn’t approve of or like the genetic tinkering that has resulted in this future.  But she doesn’t really have a reason for disliking it.  “I’m old-fashioned,” she says, “I’m biased in favor of humanity,” as against modifying human nature to make it more tractable.

But would she consider the idea that there might be a stable human nature on behalf of which it is in fact good to be a partisan; that the wisdom of her repugnance at this dystopia she has made corresponds to a moral reality?  I suspect not, and I understand why.  In our culture, those who say things like, there is a stable human nature; we are in favor of it; there is a good way to treat people and a bad one: the voices that say things like this would be linked in Atwood’s mind with those “fundamentalists” who were the bad guys in A Handmaid’s Tale.

Or at least they were linked in my mind, when I was younger.  Moral absolutism, a suspicion of infinite malleability, was the province of the right– those blinkered anti-science types.  The natural allies, at least in the logic of ideology, of the corporate biohackers of Oryx and Crake are women like Offred’s mother, who championed the absolute right of women to do what they want with their own bodies (and the bodies of their children).  The natural allies in terms of ideology of anyone who posits something eternal, sacred, unhackable about human nature– someone who regards the world of Oryx and Crake as indeed a dystopia– are those who are parodied as theocratic fascists in The Handmaid’s Tale.

All of which makes me actually want to read O&C now.  Because what this means is that the wisdom of fiction may run deeper than ideology.  And that novelists like Atwood paint a more accurate and humane picture of human nature than the ideologues who might use her fiction to make a cheap point.  Science fiction– all good fiction– lives in complexity: not infinite moral relativism, but the complexity of trying to see, and seek, the human good in the face of whatever forces that attack it, whether those forces are pseudo-Christian fascists, or corporate gene-hackers.  Fiction allows both the writer and the reader to be human rather than flatly ideological, but it also requires anyone who is philosophically a moral relativist to check her moral relativism at the door for the duration of the story, because to work, a story must contain characters who are seeking some good– even if that good is clouded.

You may be in favor of IVF, but when you read Brave New World, you may see something you don’t like.  You may be outraged at any restrictions on human genetic experimentation, but when you write a novel about the post-human, you may find your old-fashioned biases in favor of old-school human persons, with all their messiness and romance, bubbling to the surface.  Despite your best efforts.  And that’s all to the good.

Cakes and Ale

(c) National Trust, Petworth House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Just got done with a matinee of Twelfth Night, with Stephen Fry as a somewhat un-malevolent Malvolio.

Interesting.  I’d remembered him as a straight-up satire of a Puritan, with the implication being, if you scratch these Puritans they’re just as vain as everybody else, and hypocritical to boot, but that’s not it, actually.  We’re told explicitly he’s not actually a Puritan; and the character who expresses anti-Puritan bigotry is the most complete idiot in the play, the cavalier, Sir Andrew:


Possess us, possess us; tell us something of him.


Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of puritan.


O, if I thought that I’ld beat him like a dog!


What, for being a puritan? thy exquisite reason,
dear knight?


I have no exquisite reason for’t, but I have reason
good enough.


The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing
constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass,
that cons state without book and utters it by great
swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so
crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is
his grounds of faith that all that look on him love
him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find
notable cause to work.

It’s not that Malvolio is a Puritan and therefore he doesn’t want anyone to have any fun.  It’s that he affects, inconstantly, to be a Puritan.  His “ground of faith”– and surely Shakespeare knew what he was doing in using this kind of phrase– is his own worthiness– the opposite of a Puritan’s ground of faith.  It’s a hypocrite, not a Puritan, who is the killjoy in this play.

A Christmas Poem for the Very Reformed, from an Arminian-ish Sister


May the gospel’s joy invade from Bethlehem, my hard-shell dears,

May you keep your Christmas thoroughly and banish all your fears:

You’ve the theology of roundheads, but the hearts of cavaliers.

Stuff You Can’t Not Know

In a recent– well, as in I downloaded it recently– episode of Stuff You Should Know, Josh and Chuck run head-first into natural law theory– unscripted, unplanned.  And what happens is one small instance of what’s called for here: the guys, for just a moment, take time off from talking about underwater tunnels, Black Friday, chocolate, and werewolves, and “strip the mask [of moral relativism], not just in private conversation and in the classroom, but in…the public square.”  In a podcast that reaches approximately a bajillion people, they ask “the questions which everyone thinks but no one speaks,” and at least for a minute, engage in “a public moral apologetics that connects the dots of our nation’s moral consciousness and reminds people, absurdly, of what they know already.”

They also provided the occasion for me actually for the first time reading something by J. Budziszewski, instead of just running into other people’s asides about him. So they get double thanks.


Chuck: So, we’re talking about the Inca… people.  Who, um… they had a habit– not a habit.  They had a practice of–called–

Josh [snickering, being an Inca, with a habit]: “I can’t quit!”

Chuck [trying to stay on track]: — they had a practice, in their culture, of child sacrifice.  Which sounds… horrific.  And based in our modern-day culture, it is… But [conscientiously] we’ve long pointed out the tenets of cultural relativism…

Josh: I would like to say that I officially renounce cultural relativism, on the whole.

Chuck [with interest and surprise, suddenly much more awake]: Oh, really?

Josh: Yeah.  I’ve since changed my viewpoint.  I think there are absolutes that are universal.  Or should be, and that a culture can be judged as…

Chuck: …barbaric, perhaps?

Josh: Yeah.  For certain practices.

Chuck: Yeah.  Cultural relativism– I know we’ve explained it before– but that’s basically, you can’t look back at some old culture that did these things and judge it by today’s standards…

Josh: Right.

Chuck: …and say, you know…but–

Josh: It’s a foundation of anthropology.  You couldn’t have anthropology without cultural relativism.

Chuck:  And, [garbled,] you really are–

Josh: –taught this.  Oh yeah.  It’s an absolute: there was nothing you could do that was out of bounds, as a culture, because you can only judge a culture by its own standards, therefore everything is self-justified, right?

Chuck:  I still believe it… to a certain degree.  But I think in certain cases maybe I could say, uh…’cause people could make an argument for a lot of things, saying, oh yeah, that’s just the culture of things.

Josh: I’m exactly where you are.  I would say that…maybe 98 to 99 percent of things are bound by cultural relativism.

Chuck: …yeah.

Josh: …but I do think that there are a handful of things… [he is groping, kind of amazed he's saying this] …and I don’t even know, I haven’t fully explored yet, but I think there are a handful of things that …you just shouldn’t do, and if you do it, you’re not as great as cultures that don’t do that.

To find out, however, what the guys think falls under the category of “wrong for all men in all cultures at all times” and what doesn’t, you’ll have to listen to the episode.  Hint: they decide that child sacrifice is OK.  But I haven’t actually finished listening myself yet, so maybe things change later.

Baby steps, baby steps…