You can believe all of those things and still find the current state of the discourse to be disordered and unhealthy

Wednesday, April 27th, 2022

People just want to feel good about war again, Freddie deBoer notes:

I want to suggest that you can think that Russia is clearly acting in an unjustifiably aggressive manner and that Ukraine has a right to defend itself, as I do; you can support sending further American arms and money to the Ukrainian government; you can think that NATO and EU behavior have nothing whatsoever to do with Russia’s actions; you can think that Russia’s motivations are pure mustache-twirling evil with no justifications in national security or realpolitik; you can pray for a swift and decisive Ukrainian victory; you can even argue that the United States should send troops and get into a hot war with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf — you can believe all of those things and still find the current state of the discourse to be disordered and unhealthy. You can believe all of that stuff and still argue that the intense social mandate against dissent and hard questions is ugly and unhelpful.


So, to follow along, Americans focusing on America’s role in the world are guilty of insularity and self-obsession, but also only America stands in the way of victory for Putin. Does this make a lick of sense to you? You can’t simultaneously say that Americans are being self-obsessive when they discuss Ukraine while you demand that America do more and more for Ukraine. Calls for the United States to deepen its involvement in this conflict are definitionally the business of each and every American, including Chomsky, other left critics of prolonging the war, and me. It is nonsensical to claim that an American has no right to an opinion on conduct by America’s government.


It’s also worth saying that it is of course not 100% Ukraine’s decision how much of their territory and their people to surrender to Russia because that’s not how the world works. Russia has had and will continue to have something to say about how much territory Ukraine keeps and how many people it loses. Is that fair? No. But that’s life. Russia possesses a large and advanced military, as well as the world’s largest nuclear armament. Those facts have consequences, no matter what American pundits think is fair. Sometimes the world is like that. I thought the fact that bad actors sometimes do bad things, and that our efforts to change this will often simply make things worse, was a shared lesson of recent history. I think that living as part of the hegemon has led many Americans to chafe at the idea that there are any obstacles to implementing their will at all, that the world is an entirely pliable entity that will bend to our preferences if we just want it enough. But there has never been a time in post-agrarian history when there was not some sort of conflict between peoples or powers, and the ongoing devastation in Yemen demonstrates that bad things are happening in the world all the time. Whether they’re seen as major challenges to international norms is a matter of publicity.

I suspect that Chomsky’s deeper sin, in that interview, was to make the sensible observation that you shouldn’t think of foreign policy in the exact same moral terms that you think of the behavior of individuals. Foreign policy and warmaking are not easily mappable onto the ordinary moral intuitions that we apply to day-to-day life and the people around us. Chomsky is asking us to think less about simplistic considerations of good and bad and to instead practice some hardheaded cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, he’s suggesting that perpetuating the conflict by enabling short-term Ukrainian victories will ultimately only increase the risk of a truly ruinous war between NATO and Russia and result in greater destruction to Ukraine, without much changing the eventual outcome. Could he be wrong? Absolutely. Is he so wrong that he deserves days of bipartisan rage? I don’t think so. And I also don’t think that rage can be explained in rational terms. I think it speaks to the emotional miasma that has developed regarding this issue.

I think supporting Ukraine in 2022 has become like supporting the troops in 2002 because people are desperate for a morally simplistic contest in which the Goodies will nobly defeat the dastardly Baddies. Americans grow up surrounded by World War II nostalgia and feel denied their birthright of ethically uncomplicated and heroic wars. There’s also a deeper desperation to be positively inspired. I think most people in 2022 are profoundly disillusioned, in politics yes but also in a broader overriding sense, and feel beset by convincing critiques of every idea, party, movement, and institution in American life. In recent decades it’s felt like everything has been undermined and nothing has been built. We churn out college graduates who can critique everything yet create nothing. Even the most dedicated partisans seem to have a jaundiced view of their own side, saving all of their passion and energy for excoriating the other. You look at the discursive inroads the socialist left has made in the last decade in this country, and it’s the perfect example: we’ve achieved no power and little representation, but the leftist critique of conventional liberalism has infected liberals, they’re stung by it, they preemptively work to address it, they feel exhausted by it. I find it very difficult to locate genuine, uncomplicated, positive feelings about the broad left-of-center project anywhere. The migration of political discussion to social media has helped extinguish optimism as a factor in political life. Briefly with Ukraine it seemed that there was finally consensus on a major political issue, and broad American ignorance about foreign policy facilitates superficial unanimity. But the cost of enforced consensus is too high; the stakes here are life and death, and in such a context the need for robust and unrestrained argument is greater than ever.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Someone has just stumbled upon the existence of superorganisms.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    The most pertinent part of DeBoer’s view is his realistic assessment of Westerners short attention span as we move on to the Next Big Thing — on the hopeful assumption that US/NATO aggression does not lead to global thermonuclear war:

    “But I suspect that, instead, in a year or two those who are celebrating the Ukraine-Russia conflict as a good war will not have such rosy feelings anymore. … The fickle American imagination will turn to other things. … I don’t think this will stay a feel-good story for long.”

  3. Goober says:

    I find it very curious how any discourse that isn’t fully and 100% in support of everything “Ukraine” is being branded “treason”.

    US Senators have said as much (Mitt Romney) and I was shocked to discover that at some point, the meaning of “treason” started to simply mean “anything that doesn’t support the policies of a Democrat Administration”.

    I was surprised to discover that, apparently, while I wasn’t looking, I began to owe some loyalty to Ukraine, and that as a US citizen, not unquestionably supporting them was treasonous.

    If one cannot see how dangerous that is, then may history eventually forget that that person was ever my countryman.

    God forbid that I don’t want to start WWIII with a nuclear armed peer adversary over a territorial dispute between two criminally corrupt regimes. That’s not to say that I don’t feel for the Ukrainian people, because I do. That’s not to say that I support Russia; I don’t. What they’re doing is awful and I hope that some way Putin can be held responsible for what he has done.

    But is it terrible of me; treasonous, even, to suggest that some European problems can simply be European problems? If the EU wants to deal with it, let them. If a NATO country gets attacked, then gloves off. But until then, why can’t I have the opinion that this isn’t our damn problem without being branded treasonous?

  4. Goober says:

    Gavin – I agree. In short order, I think we’re going to find out that this thing is going to become far less “glamorous”, and far more brutal. The culture of both Ukrainian and Russian societies isn’t the same as ours. Their values are different. Human life doesn’t hold the same value to them, and I suspect that the list of what we westerners would consider to be atrocities will grow longer and longer, from both sides of the conflict, to the point to where it will become difficult for westerners to support the Ukrainian cause so fervently, if at all. Especially given the fact that I can pretty clearly anticipate that this is fixing to become a far more static, far more attritional type of war very soon. And the more Ukrainians see their countrymen being slaughtered, the more I’m anticipating that any qualms that they now have about humane treatment of prisoners of war and so forth are going to fall by the wayside. Both sides can dig mass graves, and I more or less guarantee that we’ll be seeing more from both before this ends, especially as Russia’s mechanized, fast-movement capabilities continue to be eroded and the conflict devolves into WWI style trench warfare.

  5. Bob Sykes says:

    With the bombings of Russian assets in Transnistria, the war has spread to three countries (3!!!): Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova.

    Moreover, the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg has called for the assassination of Putin. Biden said the same thing, more or less, in an ad lib a while ago.

    Putin is making WW III threats, as did Lavrov. This war is spinning out of control. We are in the most dangerous situation since the summer of 1914.

  6. Altitude Zero says:

    I will never forgive the neocons for forcing me to agree with Noam Chomsky. I feel like I need a shower.

  7. Mike-SMO says:

    Putin has two armies. One has invaded the Ukraine to steal the gas, coal, and industry. The other is the wives and mothers of those soldiers. The medium of exchange is blood. Both the US and Russia left Afghanistan and the US left Viet Nam when the price got too high. The Ukraine was the source of a lot of Russian/Soviet military hardware ( missiles, aircraft, ships) so they have a few cards to play. It isn’t clear who has been causing all the explosions and fires in Russian installations. Corruption is a problem in both the West and in Russia. Putin is surrounded by “yes men” who have degraded the Russian military and the country in general. The Moskva is just one example of the problem. The Ukrainian missiles never should have made it and never should have produced the lethal damage. Maintenance, training, leadership? It will be an interesting game..

  8. Putin suffers degenerative changes neurologically. Once he has made a catastrophic mistake, his inflexible mind can never go back. He must double down again and again. Until nothing but rubble remains.

    That has always worked for him in the past. But this is the biggest mistake he has ever made. Blustering through this one to the end will force large portions of the Russian security apparatus to go far beyond comfort levels. Corruption and risk aversion go together.

    Putin provides the boldness that Russia feels it needs. But if it is based on madness, there are no checks or balances. There is no adroitness. Only inevitable disaster.

  9. Harry Jones says:

    We live in an era when most of the major world leaders are manifestly unfit. We need to ask ourselves: how did this come to be?

    Part of it is that power goes to those who seek it at all costs – irrespective of their other qualities.

    The other side of the equation is what the rest of us are willing to put up with. The evil are enabled by the stupid, and the stupid are enabled by the weak.

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