Russia and the Rights of Man

Vladimir Putin isn’t a czar. He isn’t a comrade. He isn’t a president. He’s like an old-time Pharaoh, an evil king, killing people deliberately to prove his power. Putin isn’t a westerner, a civilized person. He belongs with the tribal warlords, whose power rests on a foundation of propaganda and fear.

Putin should not be likened to Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s ideology was popular. Hitler expostulated Nazism so effectively that the whole German population fervently rallied around its aims. That rally at Nuremberg.

Far from being enthusiastically behind Putin, Russians are cowed. They are quiescent because they’ve seen activists like Navalny be jailed, beaten and poisoned. Russians have seen bad times and Putin has conditioned them to accept future suffering. They don’t want trouble. Ordinary people trust Putin’s explanations; they see his authoritarianism as a necessity. For years, the Russian population has heard only a steady diet of lies.

Putin himself is a coward, so he conscripts younger countrymen to go to Ukraine to commit war crimes for him. His people go because they are ignorant of what Putin is really doing to Russia’s “brother country,” Ukraine. Russians can’t believe their president would bomb a theater filled with Ukrainian women and children, that he would order the bombing of kindergartens and maternity hospitals, that he would murder pregnant women or shell innocent civilians running for their lives.

Putin is sending Russian soldiers to Ukraine without adequate food, fuel, or strategies. His troops are ignorant of the truth. When they encounter the gross reality of the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine, Russian soldiers are surrendering. They are deserting. They disregard orders. They leave behind their equipment. They have even reportedly shot down Russian planes from the sky.

No one has the nerve to oppose or force Putin out, so they go along with his damned course; they lick his boots and lie. Fortune reports that Russian troops positioned around Chernobyl have run roughshod over the radioactive site, raising the chance of their health being gravely impaired during their month-long occupation. The military mediocrity that such episodes reveal is astonishing.

Yet, the “free world” appears dangerously disadvantaged. It adheres to conventions. Decent democrats seem powerless in the face of Russia’s evil. Yet, for all that, the freedom that the rule of law brings is suddenly all the more precious (and empowering to Ukraine). Russia, once eager to be at the forefront of all nations, has fallen behind–economically, intellectually, and militarily. Its condition is provincial and static, because Putin’s regime depends on a closed society, where citizens have little access to news or information technology.

Having rejected the natural rights philosophy that undergirds representative governments in the West, Putin’s Russia is on a downward trajectory. Clearly not Western, it ever more nearly resembles benighted North Korea.

No wonder every decent American feels and thinks what President Biden had the guts and decency to say of Putin aloud: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

Image: from this source.


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Stewards of a Tough and Tender Earth

Two spring flowers and a leaf growing out of colorless soil

While the air is still cold and the dune’s trees are bare, these inconspicuous flowers bloom in the sand.  They are useless as far as I know, the hepatica and spring beauty.  Deer don’t eat them.  The plants don’t need much: given leaf rot and water, voila! they bloom.

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The Storm; Or, Putin’s Race To The Bottom

Chromolithograph showing Cupid and Psyche fleeing from an approaching storm (War).

Outside, rain is falling, and all America is waking to the news that Vladimir Putin is sending troops into sovereign Ukraine, having concocted an excuse that the world is too savvy to believe. It’s a deadly serious day for Ukraine, which has been moving fitfully toward genuine self-government.  For Americans, the challenge is to disregard the media hype Putin is deliberately stoking and to see his aggression as the desperate, go-for-broke gesture that it is.  If Americans start thinking that Ukraine is our fight, we fall into a trap that proves Putin’s point.

Putin can’t tolerate the shape of the post-Soviet world.  Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, many of Russia’s former satellite states have gotten used to being self-governing.  They enjoy more autonomy; their citizens have more civic and economic freedom.  Do they want to end up under Russia’s thumb again?  No.

Inside Russia, Putin struggles to turn back the clock politically, cracking down on pro-democracy NGOs and on opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny.  Navalny enraged Putin by exposing how Putin’s United Russia party enriches itself at the people’s expense, famously branding it “a party of crooks and thieves.”  Despite having all the resources of the Russian state at his disposal, Putin can’t tolerate Navalny’s inconvenient truths.  For the past several years, Putin has gone to grotesque lengths to torment Navalny, going so far as to order the KGB to attempt Navalny’s assassination by putting a Soviet-era nerve agent in his underpants.  At this point, Navalny’s death (the poor man remains imprisoned) would likely undermine Putin’s already doubtful popularity, just as the latter seeks re-election, in hopes of remaining president for 12 more years.

Russia is shrinking all over, thanks to Putin’s crooked and cowardly authoritarian rule.  He chose to turn the nation toward oligarchy and repression, instead of being “a river to his people” and empowering them to become creative, healthy, and autonomous.  Russia’s economy is based on the export of oil and natural gas, a narrow base of support for the nation’s population of 144 million people, a population that’s shrinking dramatically and is estimated to have lost nearly a million people in the last year alone.

Russia’s global prestige derives mainly from its military might, but this comes at a high social cost.  Its military comprises some 900,000 personnel.  A war in Ukraine will have require significant manpower, imposing a heavy burden on Russian families.  The population of Russian men aged 20 to 34 is estimated to have been just 14.25 million in 2020.  Russia’s failure to pacify the Donbass region, echoing the Soviet Union’s failure to prevail in its 9-year war of agression in Afghanistan in the 1980s, testifies to how limited Russia’s concrete military successes have been.  Some observers have noted that, when true crises call for a demonstration of leadership, Putin tends to disappear from view.  His decision to send troops into Ukraine will further burden the Russian people and continue to hamstring the Russian economy.

All this needs to be kept in mind as American journalists compare Putin to Hitler and carelessly compare the current moment to WWII.  Russia in 2022 is not Germany in 1939; Putin is not Hitler.  Russian sentiment is not mobilized around the unwarranted aggression against Ukraine that Putin is bent on.  Putin is using a very tired playbook from earlier times, largely because he doesn’t have what it takes to keep his once pre-eminent nation from sliding down to a secondary position in a changing world.

Image: from this source.

The Freedom to Assemble in Covid Times

Since the first case of covid-19 was reported in the US, Americans have had to face a new cause of illness and death.  Two years into the experience, society remains divided in its willingness to combat the virus, protect itself, and limit the harms that this pernicious, sometimes mortal contagion wreaks.  Covid is just dangerous enough to interfere with ordinary social pleasures, disrupt institutional regimens, and cramp habits of congregation outside. Continue reading

The Face of Power

Western home in junk-strewn landscape.
Election 2016 delivered a shock to conventional wisdom, to liberals and conservatives, to the political establishment, and to people like me who write or talk about politics professionally.  Even though I correctly predicted a Trump victory, still when it came to pass, I was shocked.  Now, when I wake up in the morning, I sometimes feel a sense of foreboding.  At other times, though, I feel guardedly optimistic—about the body politic, if not about Trump.

Because conventional wisdom, the professional politicians, and the party establishment, all needed to be shocked.  For at least five years, I have been writing about the stale condition of the parties and their ideologies.  I have been writing about how the parties need to reorganize themselves around new ideas, about how the nation needs to get organized around a new constellation of goals appropriate for our times.  Nothing less than the victory of a Donald Trump was required to shake the political parties and all their personnel out of a state of perpetual complacency.  Both GOP and Democratic leaders must wake up: they are under much greater pressure now to use what power they have responsibly and constructively.  If they do not deliver better government for the electorate, their parties are going down.  I firmly expect that the next two to four years will be a time of constructive ideological ferment in the United States–and that politics will attract a new generation of leaders committed to reform and a renewed focus on commonly shared ideals, like a generally enjoyed prosperity and peace.

Like most intellectuals, I enjoy a life of privilege.  I live in a city.  My circumstances set me off from the rest of the population who are not part of ‘the creative economy,’ a term used to describe the formation of elites who make things and make things happen–who enjoy a sense of influence and autonomy.  This election has rudely reminded all of us to broaden our vision and consider what is really happening in our country: how a system that used to work for most Americans, providing sound education, civic consciousness, and secure livelihoods for breadwinners–has been gradually slipping away.  Great swathes of the nation are cut off from the expansive prospects that cosmopolitan Americans find so exciting.  The election has forcefully re-directed our gaze–back to the ordinary places where democratic power dwells.