interesting times

Putin’s First Year in the White House

No puppet? Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

What are we to make of Vladimir Putin’s first year in the White House? How has he done?

I’m only slightly kidding. Or rather I’m just channeling a CNN interview earlier this week with James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence. Here’s what Clapper said: “I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president […] You have to remember Putin’s background. He’s a KGB officer. That’s what they do. They recruit assets. And I think some of that experience and instincts of Putin has come into play here in his managing of a pretty important account for him, if I could use that term, with our president.”

Clapper clarified his statement by saying he was being figurative, rather than literal. So let’s just ask a figurative question, shall we? How successful has the Kremlin’s figurative investment been this past year? Pretty damn impressive.

Look first at Putin’s domestic goals. His core concern, as with any despot, is the legitimacy of his pseudo-democratic autocracy - which means, in turn, discrediting the very different features of the liberal democracies of the West. And in this, he must be scarcely able to believe his luck. After decades of the West’s championing of liberal democracy, the American president has spent his first year attacking it. Trump has exhibited contempt for a free press, describing the bulk of Western journalism as “fake news,” words that have gladdened the hearts of dictators across the planet. He has minimized Putin’s assassination of critical journalists, saying that America has no moral standing to criticize. He has treated the judiciary either as instruments of loyalty — hence his packing of the federal bench — or as pests to be slandered or dismissed. He prefers total loyalty from law-enforcement officials to the actual rule of law. For good measure, Trump has legitimized Putin’s core model of governance — that of a benevolent cult hero of the nation, shored up by religious reactionaries — by plagiarizing it. As for the other critical aspect of Putinism — the looting of the treasury by oligarchs — I give you the latest tax bill. It even carves out special goodies for real-estate investors.

Then there is Russia’s permanent interest in deepening the racial and partisan divides in America — the better to force the United States to be more concerned with internal strife than with foreign affairs. On this, Putin’s success is even more impressive. What better propaganda could the Kremlin get than the Charlottesville horrors, the racial divide crippling the NFL, or the candidacy of Roy Moore? In the Cold War, the Kremlin constantly cited America’s racial strife as proof that, whatever its democratic pretensions, the country was still a bastion of white supremacy. Now, much of American academia and an entire rising generation agree with what the Soviets long argued. As for the stability and legitimacy of liberal capitalism, Putin could scarcely do better than the GOP tax proposal. When economic inequality is at record highs, undermining the social compact that undergirds capitalism, the GOP is making things far worse. It would also add well over a trillion dollars to the U.S. debt. Trump is not just looting the Treasury for himself and his buddies, he is looting the younger generation as well.

Internationally, Putin has had an even bigger year. One of his central goals — the disintegration of the European Union and the entire concept of the West — has been advanced by Washington in ways never seen before. Trump backed Brexit, breaking the U.K. away from its European partners; he supported Marine Le Pen in France for the same reason; and he has routinely lambasted Merkel, whose power is now hanging by a thread. He chose Poland, where an authoritarian party is busy dismantling judicial independence, as the site for his major foreign-policy address. He has permanently undermined the core Article 5 commitment that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all of them, by being the first U.S. president to equivocate on it. America has also broken with its European allies by withdrawing from the Paris Accords on climate, threatening the Iran nuclear deal, and backing the ethno-nationalist extremists who now run Israel on the status of Jerusalem. Last week, the U.S. found itself utterly isolated at the U.N. on the question, and openly threatening all its allies with payback. In the Middle East, Russia has never been stronger — it is now the key player in the future of Syria, while Putin’s naked annexation of Crimea and sections of eastern Ukraine remains in place, unmentioned by the White House.

What more could Putin ask for? Well, he could hope that his grotesque attack on the last U.S. election would lead to no serious effort to prevent it happening again. And lo, an American president has emphatically refused to lift a finger to defend the Constitution he is duty bound to protect. There’s been no attempt by the White House to protect the integrity of our elections — just a constant disdain for those who worry about them, and a general, somewhat egregious, complacency.

No American president in history has ever given Russia so much in so short a time. Congrats, Vladimir. You’ve achieved what no Soviet dictator ever managed to. Your asset in the White House, figurative or not, has given more than all the British and American traitors in the history of the Cold War.

Speaking While Male

I’m sorry, but I fail to see why anything in this quote from Matt Damon is offensive: “I think we’re in this watershed moment. I think it’s great. I think it’s wonderful that women are feeling empowered to tell their stories, and it’s totally necessary […] I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior, right? And we’re going to have to figure — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”

Well, of course, right?

Damon’s ex-girlfriend Minnie Driver went ballistic on Twitter: “God God, seriously? Gosh it’s so interesting (profoundly unsurprising) how men with all these opinions about women’s differentiation between sexual misconduct, assault and rape reveal themselves to be utterly tone deaf and as a result, systemically part of the problem.” She later elaborated for The Guardian: “I honestly think that until we get on the same page, you can’t tell a woman about their abuse. A man cannot do that. No one can. It is so individual and so personal, it’s galling when a powerful man steps up and starts dictating the terms, whether he intends it or not.”

I fail to see how Damon is “dictating the terms” to anyone in particular. He’s making obvious distinctions between different levels of abuse, while saying he wants to “eradicate” all of them. What on earth has he done or said that is wrong? His offense, it appears, is talking while male. And that, on the question of sexual harassment, is simply not permitted. The movie critic Mimi Kramer, in another blast of contempt, instructed the comrade on the correct formula: “What you want to be saying is, ‘This is complicated, but I think we’re discovering that there’s more here than meets the eye, and that this has been true for a very long time.’” Here’s the more nuanced Hannah Jane Parkinson in The Guardian: “I do think certain people should recognize when their voice carries less authority, should know when to shut up, and realize that their voice is not needed, wanted, or helpful at a particular time.” In other words, repeat the current orthodoxy or shut the fuck up already. And if Damon had followed orders and refused to answer any questions about the current moment? Well, he’d be “systematically part of the problem” then, as well, wouldn’t he?

The logic behind all of this is deeply illiberal. On various subjects, it seems, only a certain segment of allegedly victimized citizens are allowed to voice opinions and be heard. Others must be silent. Only women can legitimately speak about sexual harassment; only African-Americans can have an opinion on “white supremacy”; only gays can talk about their wedding cakes and be taken seriously. Slate had a headline on the gay-cake case last week: “How Clueless Straight White Guys Excuse Religious Homophobia.” Can you imagine this happening in reverse? Would there ever be a headline in Slate that said: “How Clueless Gay Latina Women Excuse Illegal Immigration”? Well, maybe in Breitbart, I guess. Which is precisely my point.

Yes, an opinion can be judged on its context, on the experience and viewpoint of the speaker, but it is ultimately valid only if it is reasonable, cogent, and persuasive regardless of anyone’s actual identity. (In fact, of course, sometimes being very close to an issue can render one’s opinion more vulnerable to bias and epistemic closure than someone at a further distance.) Sure, reason can be complemented by an awareness of identity but never substituted for it. If identity really is all, then no white person can ever have an opinion on race, no man can have an opinion on feminism, no Gentile can have a position on Israel, no straight person can have an opinion about gays, and so on. Or, if they do, they’re simply displaying white supremacy, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, which renders those opinions void before they have even been expressed. How much easier this is than refuting actual arguments, or judging an individual on the cogency of her arguments rather than the color of her skin, biological sex, or sexual orientation. How much simpler to deploy the words “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining” as an alternative to the somewhat harder task of refuting. But among many elite liberals today, identity has come to eclipse reason and even aspire to be reason itself.

This is why, at the end of 2017, I feel close to despair about the liberal-democratic project in the West. When it isn’t being assaulted by the identitarian thugs of the hard right, it is being corroded by the identitarian puritans of the “social justice” left. This is how liberal democracies die — or rather how they reveal that they are already, under the surface, dead.

On Thomas Aquinas and Blogging

What would happen to you if you wrote 4,000 words a day for years and years? Not so long ago, something like this question came up for me in my crazed years of blogging. It’s also surely relevant to the journalists who now have to produce daily, hourly copy, then also tweet and Instagram and go on TV and on and on … until they, well what, exactly? The correct answer is: Drop dead.

Which is what, some believe, happened to Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian who tried (and largely succeeded) to fit the entire world into a synthesis of Christian revelation and Aristotelian teleology. This was not only staggering as an intellectual achievement, but as a physical one. It took decades of unremitting concentration and focus. And you’d imagine that this holy workaholic would be writing until he expired (just as Hitch — peace be upon him — was still working on a review as he prepared to croak). But he didn’t. Nearing the end of his magnum opus, The Summa Theologica, Thomas suddenly stopped. He wrote not another word. He left it all unfinished. A few months later, he died at the age of 50.

There’s a wonderful review essay in Commonweal meditating on this mystery. Jonathan Malesic compares Aquinas’s work compulsion with the contemporary cult of productivity. Aquinas is, he argues, the patron saint of burnout. And journalists, of course, are not the only people in our time who are subject to this kind of pressure every waking day of their lives. Frazzled doctors in hospitals, harried academics, bleary-eyed tech coders, single moms working round the clock, lawyers, cops, service members, and on and on. The web ensures that there is no work-life separation, and the constant demand for higher and higher productivity gets to you. It drains us, wears us out, ages us … and we don’t even have the consolation that we are leaving behind a body of work that scholars will still be poring over more than a millennium later!

Malesic proposes burnout as the answer to the Aquinas conundrum, in contrast to the traditional view that Thomas had a vision and suddenly realized the pointlessness of it all. But I don’t see the two theories as mutually exclusive, and perhaps that’s because I’ve always loved the original explanation. We know the following: That on December 6, 1273, Aquinas hit a wall. He wrote not a word afterward. When asked what had happened, he responded: “I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw.”

What I draw from that is the same I draw from Pascal’s inability to complete his own comprehensive defense of Christianity (he left behind fragments that are now known to us as The Pensées). It is definitionally impossible to understand what cannot of its very nature be understood. If God is God, then God is beyond our understanding, beyond ideas, beyond words themselves. It is a categorical error to attempt to summarize all of “godness,” as it were, with precision or confidence. There are only “hints and guesses,” as Eliot put it. Much of what has gone wrong with religion, in my view, is the attempt to nail it down, to turn the scriptures, for example, into literal truth (an insane exercise) or to construct an infallible Magisterium of the Truth, with a capital T. In the end, this is absurd. Religion is simply a way of life, lived under the influence of some kind of revelation; a practice, not a doctrine. Orthodoxy is to religion what ideology is to politics — a necessary reflection, perhaps, but an abstraction nonetheless. It is only when we leave ideology and orthodoxy behind that politics and faith can begin. The rest, as someone once said, is silence.

See you in the new year.

Andrew Sullivan: Putin’s First Year in the White House