This is Fair Observer’s new running feature offering a regularly updated review of the way language is used, sometimes for devious purposes, in the news.
February 22: Practice
For the past month or so, the Biden administration has been demonstrating a unique innovation in diplomacy. It consists of explaining not its own intentions — which might be interesting for the media and the world to understand — but the will of the party it has decided to brand not as a rival or even an adversary, but as the archenemy embodied in the person of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
No one doubts that Russia’s deployment of troops on the Ukrainian border that began at the end of 2021 was a powerful and unusual provocation. We now know that it was a prelude to Putin’s decree on February 21 recognizing the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine as independent. On the basis of that decree, Russian troops are now entering those regions, not as an invading force, but under the pretext of assisting those areas in the exercise of their autonomy.
Ideally, at any point following the initial buildup of Russian troops along the border, if Washington’s intention truly was to avoid war, the appropriate response would have been to engage in a serious and discreet diplomatic dialogue. Far less ideally, working the media in a way that exacerbates tensions and could produce the perception of a bungled or inappropriate response could only exacerbate the risk of war. For the past few months, brinkmanship has become the rule on both sides. The Biden administration’s choice of predicting an invasion went beyond mere brinkmanship and at times resembled the theater of the absurd.
Serious diplomacy should take place as quietly as possible between governments that understand the stakes. This is especially true when there is a sense of standing on the brink. The Biden administration chose instead to use the popular media to stir up a belief that conflict is inevitable. The intention behind that tactic can be interpreted in three ways.
The first could be that its experts believe the opposing forces are not on the brink, that it’s a tempest in a teapot. If that is true, we should find it reassuring. The second is that Washington doesn’t really care because Ukraine is so far away. Some would call that the Tucker Carlson thesis, which may be true even if the US does insist on engaging. The third is that because President Joe Biden has promised not to send US troops, he counts on the perception that only Russia could be blamed for the killing and destruction to follow. In this scenario, the aim would be to draw Russia into Ukraine and let the fireworks play out.
Pundits in US media have been endlessly speculating about what the evil genius Putin’s ultimate intentions are. He has now begun his gambit, but how he intends to develop the game remains a mystery. A new round of speculation can begin. It might be useful now for the pundits to begin making the same effort to guess the intentions of the White House by considering the three hypotheses stated above or a possible fourth or fifth one.
Careful and discreet diplomacy rather than largely unbelievable declarations directed toward the media about an imminent invasion would have been the logical and even traditional approach to avoiding what is now almost certain to become, at the very least, a form of civil war within Ukraine. Despite Washington’s claim, the crisis has never been about a simple question of national sovereignty. It has unfolded within a historical context whose complexity seasoned non-political experts on Russia and diplomacy — such as John Mearsheimer and the recently departed Stephen Cohen — had little trouble understanding. It is unthinkable that the advisers in the Biden administration might remain ignorant of the insight those and other analysts have provided. Consequently, the tactic the White House has employed — that consisted of predicting not just what Russia will do but when it will do it, and getting it repeatedly wrong — can only be seen as the opposite of serious diplomacy.
The best indication that things are truly out of kilter appears when someone as ideologically inflexible and bellicose as John Bolton plays the role of a realist. According to The Hill, the former national security adviser to Donald Trump worries about the psychological stability of the current administration because he thinks it “is so consumed by the reaction to its catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, that it’s overhyping the imminence of the potential attack.” When you talk for weeks on end of an imminent attack, the message it sends is that you are aching for an imminent attack.
It is hardly surprising that the Russians were not pleased by the Biden administration’s tactic, traditionally used by end-of-the-world cultists who keep predicting and then having to re-predict the apocalypse. Perhaps it was just a psychological game invented by the Biden administration as nothing more than a ploy to throw Putin off balance. The Russians ended up complaining not about the substance of the predictions, but about the very real risk such an alarmist campaign may provoke among the Ukrainian population. “So all this has – may have – detrimental consequences,” commented Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, quoted by Reuters. “The daily exercise of announcing a date for Russia to invade Ukraine is a very bad practice.”
Peskov is right to call what the White House sees as a powerful tactic an “exercise” and a “practice.” For weeks on end, everyone in the State Department and the security apparatus has been focused on exercising and practicing, rather than addressing real issues or preparing for a tense future. As Peskov warns, such a practice will inevitably ratchet up tension on the ground, a tension over which the leaders themselves on both sides are likely to have no control.
Washington’s practice has already unnerved the Ukrainians themselves, the very people Biden claims to support. That includes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has repeatedly asked the Biden administration to tone down the rhetoric. With so much heat generated, at any point, a minor spark could set off a blaze. Putin’s decree is not quite the spark, but by encouraging the pro-Russian population of Ukraine to believe in its independence, the conditions for producing that spark have been immensely magnified.
NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly interviewed the US-educated Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner, who complained “that this whole drumming up of the possibility or the reality of Russia attacking Ukraine is something that the West is interested in and that Russia doesn’t want because Russia can win nothing by invading Ukraine.” Kelly has a hard time believing that. She also fails to react when Pozner correctly observes that “most people are … victimized by their media.” It is common knowledge that Americans are put off by their omnipresent media, but they are still victimized by it, especially when it uncritically plays the government’s game to create expectations of the worse rather than hope for the better.
In the same interview, Pozner cites the precedent of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, drawing a parallel between President John F. Kennedy, who focused on discreet negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He successfully avoided war by making a concession that was kept from the media concerning US missiles in Turkey. Kelly, who is certainly too young to remember, mistakenly objects that “that did not bring these countries to the brink of war.” Pozner corrects her, affirming that it “did bring the countries to the brink of war.” It required enormous skill and tact on Kennedy’s part to prevent the military’s insistence on an invasion of Cuba that could easily have escalated into nuclear war.
Kelly’s response to Pozner’s clarification is revealing: “To the brink of war but not to war.” Apparently, she fails to understand the distinction between the brink and what’s beyond the brink. Many people are now wondering whether the current team in the White House understands that distinction. The sanctions the US has promised and will certainly deliver are likely to have little effect if the aim is to prevent a civil war — that has already been smoldering for eight years — and ensure Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The situation was already complex and has now become more complex.
Washington still has the possibility of pushing diplomacy forward, though the latest events have weakened its position. The real question that needs to be asked is this: Does anyone inside the Beltway know how to conduct true crisis diplomacy. The theatrical performance that consists of standing on the stage like a failed magician trying to identify the card a member of the audience has drawn from the deck and constantly being foiled would seem to indicate that the art of US crisis diplomacy died with Kennedy on November 22, 1963. That may be the result of Biden’s State Department practicing and exercising too hard instead of assessing the stakes, thinking and discreetly preparing the move that could possibly avoid checkmate.
February 21: In Some Senses
In an interview with the BBC, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson demonstrated his talent for diverting attention from his own precarious situation that includes a growing lack of legitimacy even within his own party. He undoubtedly remembers how another Tory prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, reversed her waning approval numbers by going to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982.
The BBC headline sums up the prime minister’s message: “Russia plans biggest war in Europe since 1945.” In other words, Johnson wants the world (and voters in the United Kingdom) to understand his firm intention of stepping up as a national hero ready to wreak havoc on the enemy by promising to bring in even more far-reaching sanctions “against Russia than have been suggested before,” the BBC reports.
Johnson may have some difficulty convincing people as he attempts to step into the role of the valorous knight in shining armor prepared for the most challenging battle of his career. The observant will perceive someone more like the squire who tends to US President Joe Biden’s needs. Johnson has no hope of emulating Thatcher’s performance as the resolute and ultimately victorious wartime leader.
On the other hand, Johnson’s role of raising the alarm demands little effort. And delivering on his promises will entail no painful sacrifice as they only consist of playing the now traditional US game of imposing sanctions that will prevent Russian firms from “trading in pounds and dollars.” This phrase creating a false equivalence between the once mighty pound and the almighty dollar may impress a few people who cling to the image of a past empire, but it sounds hollow in today’s world.
The prime minister’s precise words merit a brief effort at close reading. “The plan that we’re seeing,” he insists, “is something that could be the biggest war in Europe since 1945.” At the most obvious level, this is simple alarmism. It evokes the most costly war in European history and, more implicitly, the specter of Adolf Hitler (played on the world state today by Vladimir Putin).
Johnson’s “plan that we’re seeing” evokes a great British tradition in entertainment from The Goon Show to Blackadder and Austin Powers. The dread of a diabolical plan — or the pride in a great strategic plan — has long been a standard melodramatic trope. But that too is risky, as in the British tradition those plans are almost always comically mocked.
Johnson claims that “we” are “seeing” the plan. Since by “we” he means the nation as a whole, this apparently refers to the media, including the BBC, that are only too happy to broadcast the news about the supposed plan. The fact that the plan is still only supposed is borne out by Johnson’s use of the now classically evocative but utterly uncertain “could,” followed by the superlative of “the biggest war.” The qualifying condition of “since” allows him to compare it with World War II, clearly the biggest of all time. It is clearly time to think about things more alarming than Friday night cocktail parties at 10 Downing Street.
“All the signs are that the plan has already in some senses begun,” Johnson continues, making sure the public understands that it’s all about a devious “plan.” He claims that the plan, whose details nobody knows, has begun, which is nonsense since plans do not begin or end, especially ones we know nothing about. What he means is that the execution of the supposed plan has begun, though it is impossible to say how. For the moment, and possibly for a long time to come, the only thing being executed on either side is a campaign to create fear and suspicion. And that plan has clearly begun in the West, led by the US and followed by Johnson.
Johnson’s cluelessness, which he has tried to masquerade as strategic insight, becomes evident in his dodge when he uses the phrase, “in some senses.” It’s an expression as vague as the all-inclusive “could.” Though the evidence is invisible, the prime minister, whose own senses may be slightly out of whack, wants everyone to believe that they are “seeing” something real and active, not something that simply “could” happen. Because we can see it despite its being invisible requires bold action on the part of bold leaders, such as himself.
That is why only some of Johnson’s senses (but not actual seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or smelling) have perceived what he wants us to believe is an already “begun” invasion of Ukraine. In such a case, who wouldn’t be ready to have confidence in Boris Johnson’s sixth sense?
February 18: Defensive Alliance
Political will is a real thing. It defines geopolitics and international relations. Recognizing it is always useful, but in a civilized world (or a world that likes to think of itself as civilized), pure political will inevitably rubs against the duty political leaders feel they have to appeal to a rules-based order to justify their actions.
Everyone who manipulates power knows the value of invoking rules to legitimate any purely willful action. If there’s any contradiction between the act and the rule, you simply aim to impose the fait accompli. As the events since World War II have demonstrated, even in a respectfully observed rules-based order, the rules more often than not bow submissively to the force of political will. Political savvy consists of understanding when and how to bend the rules, if not simply to ignore them.
“Russia says it may be ‘forced’ to respond militarily if the US won’t agree to its unacceptable security demands on Ukraine” is the title of an article in Business Insider describing the standoff at the Ukrainian border between the US and Russia. “The US and NATO,” John Haltiwanger writes, “have firmly rejected Russia’s demand that Ukraine be forever banned from the alliance, stating that countries should be free to choose their own allies and defensive partnerships.”
This accurately described difference of interpretation has produced a curious and dangerous misunderstanding about respecting and applying rules. If it turns into a direct contest of wills, it could lead to a new world war. Russia’s idea of banning the further expansion of NATO isn’t just a willful attempt to expand its own influence. It is based on what any relationship-based culture considers sacrosanct: respecting one’s word and fulfilling one’s promises. Several US presidents, beginning with George H.W. Bush, promised not to expand NATO eastward after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their governments failed to take that promise literally.
The US invokes a different, more abstract rule. This is logical since the US culture eschews even the idea of relationships. Like marriage, they are too unstable. Instead, Americans place all of their faith in formal written laws or contracts. Every self-assertive American knows that promises are the stuff of sales pitches. They have no meaning. The only thing that counts is the text that finally appears in the contract.
But US insistence builds on yet another rules-based principle: that sovereignty means the freedom to sign any contract one wishes to, regardless of the immediate or long-term consequences. For the US State Department, as Haltiwanger writes, the basic iron-clad rule is that “countries should be free to choose their own allies and defensive partnerships.” That means that, as a matter of principle, neither the US itself nor NATO’s executives can contractually oblige Ukraine to accept being eternally excluded from NATO. US jurists cannot even imagine how such a thing can be done. It contradicts the very idea of law.
The geopolitical problem, however, is fundamentally linguistic and cultural rather than legal. Even the legally established idea of the right to select one’s “defensive partnerships” is ambiguous. Every realist knows that, when push (military buildup) comes to shove (acts of war), “defensive” means “potentially offensive.” They also know that in the hands of a powerful political entity such as the United States, defense routinely and pretty much exclusively manifests itself as offense, as happened when, to defend the American homeland, the US (dragging NATO along with it) spent decades attacking multiple nations on the other side of the world. All of those nations happen to be closer to Russia than to the US.
In other words, for three decades, Russia has been seeking to negotiate a relationship rather than a formal political solution. Paradoxically, that relationship, if anything, has a precedent in the Monroe Doctrine, which at the time no European nation had the means of countering, not only because of the geographical distance and the limited means of communication in the early 19th century, but because of Europe’s disarray following the Napoleonic wars.
The sad fact is that US culture has no time for relationships. Every question must be settled by a point of law or the signature of a contract. And quite literally, neither the US — which clearly controls NATO and uses it for its own purposes — nor NATO itself has the authority to change its own rules that allow it to weigh the merits of any nation’s candidacy to become a member. That is a rule it would be impossible to change since a just law admits no exceptions.
In other words, the key to understanding the current crisis may be less political and military than cultural and to some extent linguistic. Rudyard Kipling may have been right after all: “East is east and West is west, and never the twain shall meet.” Relationship and law are culturally incompatible. Russian culture, like all Asian cultures, is relationship-based rather than rules-based. The US is prohibitively laws-based, and not even rules-based, because the idea behind rules is that their interpretation and application can be negotiated and adapted whereas laws must be obeyed or canceled from the books.
That is bad enough already. But there is a further complication. European culture, from north to south and east to west, is a mix of relationship-based and rules-based cultures. Although it is literally impossible to guess what might come of the current showdown between Russia and the United States, it is easier to forecast that things are likely to get much more complicated for Europe itself in the next decade, and that the fiction of solidarity within NATO, on which the US now insists, will not survive. That alone, as a consequence of the current crisis, could represent a major geopolitical earthquake that would be further complicated by the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House in 2024.
February 17: Needless
US President Joe Biden really seems to need a war. But not a war that will actually be waged with guns, bombs and explosions — just a war that plays out in people’s heads. He may remember George W. Bush’s popular success when he called himself a “war president.” Or perhaps Biden is thinking of how media pundits expressed their excited praise of the suddenly “presidential” Donald Trump the day he launched missiles on Syria. To be thought of as a leader in the United States, the president must find a way of promoting the idea of American force. If Biden can’t really afford to wage war, he must show the public he is always ready to appeal to the specter of war in the name of American ideals.
Biden, of course, made headlines last year when he ended a war believed to be as interminable as it was futile. Unfortunately, his handling of it, which was bound to be messy, branded him in American eyes as both weak and confused. It produced a PR disaster that has seriously compromised the prospects of Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. In such circumstances, talk of war will always emerge as an attractive theme for the clever political strategists in the White House. Biden desperately needs to plant the idea of a war in the American public’s mind, even if he is convinced allowing war to happen is senseless.
The president needs a fantasized war for yet another reason, as all presidents do. The core business of the United States depends on the specter of war. The defense industry consumes more resources than any other industry, puts a hell of a lot of people on the government payroll and guarantees employment in most of the major industries. It also develops, with taxpayer money, the technology that future generations of billionaires — the people who finance political campaigns — will exploit essentially to feed their greed and their desire to participate in power. Even more importantly, the job of the entire military-industrial complex across the globe consists of protecting the supply chains and access to raw materials for all of America’s global businesses. The US always needs war. A fragile US president even more.
That is one explanation of the otherwise incomprehensible showdown taking place at the limits of Eastern Europe, nearly halfway across the globe from Kansas. The United States is facing off with Russia, a nation concerned about its relationship with its neighbors that says it does not intend to go to war or to invade Ukraine, itself a country that is uncomfortable with the prospect of war evoked by the US war machine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who otherwise accepts to be a vassal of NATO and in fact is given no choice, has expressed — both seriously and sarcastically — his personal disapproval of the kind of aggressive talk about war the Biden administration is now relying on to bolster its image.
So, we have reached a point of pure absurdity. Biden needs a climate of war, but not an actual war on the other side of the world. If it were to happen, he might be right about the dire consequences for Russia, but for the US and Biden, in particular, the effect would be worse. Apart from the short-term electoral advantage politicians seek, the experience of the past two decades should have taught them that wars easily get out of hand and produce a long and messy series of unintended consequences.
Biden has worked out a strategy for deflecting any blame if war does occur, but not many people outside of the US are ready to swallow it. The president claims the entire onus will fall on Russia. It’s useless to imagine, he tells us, that either Biden himself or the United States could be blamed. “If Russia attacks Ukraine, it would be a war of choice, a war without cause or reason.” Speaking of Russia’s “accountability” (yes, he uses that utterly inappropriate word), The Guardian reports that he claims such a “war would bloody the country’s reputation in the history books. The world, he said, would ‘not forget that Russia chose needless death and destruction.’”
Biden is right when he reminds us that the death and destruction of war is “needless,” though he might have mentioned the exception in cases where the leader of a powerful nation needs the war to bolster his electoral prospects. He makes it clear that he would never sanction a war that produces needless death and destruction. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he championed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but at the time, he clearly thought the death and destruction it was about to spawn was needful rather than needless.
If a war does break out on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Biden has made it clear that it will be the result of Russia’s choice. It will have nothing to do with Washington’s adamant insistence that Ukraine become a member in NATO. That would be nothing more than an insignificant convenience for a free nation. It has nothing to do with the idea of pushing the zone of authorized US military intervention right up to the Russian border.
Biden fully understands the core issue. The US is committed to peace in the world. Russia must be persuaded not to choose war. Vladimir Putin should abandon his evil ways and seek to emulate the US, a nation that never chooses war. The fact that, over the past two centuries, it has set the world record on the number of wars it has conducted causing “needless death and destruction” in practically every corner of the world should not distract us from the realization that, as Biden himself repeatedly said, the US must lead “by the power of example rather than the example of our power.”
February 16: Sarcastic
Jonathan Guyer at Vox has become justifiably fed up with the US State Department’s predictions of a date for evil genius Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that some feel could trigger the launch of World War III. In an article with the title, “Enough With the Ukraine War Predictions,” Guyer reveals a probable truth the rest of the overly solemn media has sought to avoid: that the origin of the decidedly hyperreal citing of today’s date, February 16, as the launch of Russia’s “imminent” invasion of Ukraine was a joke by the comedian-president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Before going into the background of a series of dire predictions proffered by the Biden administration, the Vox article summarizes the situation that reached its surreal culmination this week. “Monday afternoon,” Guyer writes, “American news outlets startled markets when they reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video, ‘We are told that February 16 will be the day of the attack.’”
The problem for the US government and, to a large extent, the media is that Zelensky may have been sarcastic when he cited the specific date. For weeks, the Biden administration has been using language that sounds more like promising than predicting a Russian invasion of Ukraine. By the end of last week, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan announced that the invasion “may well happen soon,” indicating that that meant before the Olympic Games end on Sunday.
“Any day now,” Sullivan told Fox News on February 13, “Russia could take military action against Ukraine or it could be a couple of weeks from now, or Russia could choose to take the diplomatic path instead.” He even called that absurdly imprecise time frame “the window.” The three examples of “could” in his prediction showed that, in fact, the US is clueless about a situation it can neither understand nor control. That is what impelled Zelensky to crack a joke at the expense of an administration that has no qualms about creating confusion and exaggerated anguish in the very country it has taken upon itself to defend against President Putin’s evil empire.
What Guyer describes is precisely the transformation of hyperreality — the controlled fabrication of a worldview designed to replace reality in the average person’s mind — into a complicated work of art worthy of the surrealists. Media coverage of this entire episode of history has come to resemble a Dali painting or the theater of the absurd.
The language solemnly intoned by the State Department appears as something akin to Andre Breton’s automatic writing. After promising a Russian invasion as some sort of divinely ordained fatality that is certain to take place “before the Olympic Games end,” with evidence of at least a partial pullback by the Russians, US President Joe Biden now says it merely “remains distinctly possible.” Citing the Russians’ “threatening position,” and invoking a time for evacuation “before it’s too late to leave safely,” Biden seems possessed by the fear that people may stop feeling sufficiently afraid. “Misinformation abounds,” Guyer notes, “and information is being used to tell stories that may not hold up.”
When this episode winds down — whether that is “any day now” or years into the future — it will generate some interesting insights about geopolitics and history to draw from it. For the moment, it’s a strange political pantomime presented on the stage by poor players improvising a script full of sound and fury but, as yet, signifying nothing.
February 15: Self-Supervised Algorithm
Back in January, only weeks before the spectacular decline of its stock price, at a time when the prospect of its future conquest of the soon-to-be-born metaverse was still in the air following the renaming of Facebook as Meta, Newsweek described the bold new vision of the platform’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg. The Menlo Park firm’s suitably autocratic and reliably narcissistic CEO “hailed the development of Meta’s data2vec, a new artificial intelligence algorithm that is capable of learning about several different types of information without supervision.”
To make sure the public understood the significance of the breakthrough Meta has prepared for humanity, Newsweek cites a blogpost in which “Meta developers described data2vec as ‘the first high-performance self-supervised algorithm that works for multiple modalities.’” That’s an impressive string of adjectives: high-performance, self-supervised and multiple. Utopia is indubitably nigh.
In making such statements, Zuckerberg and his acolytes appeared unaware of the growing anxiety some people have concerning the “types of information” about them that his company is not only collecting, but of course exploiting for profit. If artificial intelligence (AI) is the agent executing the task rather than the brave souls trapped in human bodies that populate Meta’s Menlo Park offices, will the public be reassured?
Though most neurologists, psychologists and philosophers are likely to disagree, Zuckerberg holds to the unscientific belief that his AI is capable of thinking “the way we do.” What could that mean? Is Zuckerberg referring to the way he and his loyal team think? Or does he imagine he understands the way real people think?
The case could be made — and most anthropologists and psychiatrists would probably make it — that Zuckerberg lives in a world where thinking doesn’t quite mean the same thing it does for most of us. Yes, the instinct and the thought patterns that focus on optimizing one’s interest are things all humans and indeed all animals share. But when ordinary people think, promoting self-interest may not be the permanent obsession and unique motivation that regulates their actions and language. It’s true that our civilization wants us to believe that because there’s no such thing as a free lunch, we spend our lives calculating the price of the one we will have to pay for. But real people live their lives according to different, non-ideological principles. They simply do not conform to that model of homo economicus the ideological economists and politicians have foisted upon us.
In an attempt to prove that he too can be connected with the real world, “Zuckerberg predicted that the development could eventually be used to more effectively help people perform common tasks like cooking.” Will his AI know when to dip its finger in the broth to make sure it’s right for Aunt Leonine? Will AI’s self-learning capacity teach it how to duplicate the succulence of the madeleines that revived the associations and sensual memories of Marcel Proust’s childhood? No, it will help Meta’s customers to enjoy their experience of an essentially visual metaverse from which fragrance and taste are absent and in which sounds are never random but programmed. But man, what a trip for the eyes! You won’t want to miss it.
That conviction that the metaverse will connect with our lives gives us the first clue as to the radical difference between Zuckerberg’s and the rest of humanity’s thinking. For Zuckerberg, it’s simple. Put on a show, a feast for the eyes, and people will pay. First, the other billionaires (not Zuckerberg himself) and the venture capitalists who fund the creation of the tools. Then the public whom you can count on to always buy into novelty. Zuckerberg’s famed “business genius” is precisely that. He thinks exclusively about what people will buy, not like the rest of us, who think about what we need to get by. There can be no doubt that his AI will be programmed to think the way he thinks, not the way the rest of us think.
True to his shtick that began nearly two decades ago when he decided that all he was ever trying to do was “connect people,” Zuckerberg shows no hesitation in making an entirely erroneous claim about human perception, understanding, knowledge and insight. “People experience the world,” he writes, “through a combination of sight, sound and words, and systems like this could one day understand the world the way we do.”
No, Mark, people experience the world through the complex combination of sensations that come together to form our state of self-perception. When the promoters of AI talk about duplicating human intelligence and predict “the singularity” — the moment when AI surpasses human intelligence — the one basic physiological and psychological concept they carefully avoid thinking about is a phenomenon well known to science: proprioception. The medical term designates the sense of where our body is in space. It includes the notion of kinaesthesia, the combined effect of all our sensory input that tells us not only where we are in the world but, on another psychological plane, who we are in the world. It is the true root of everything we perceive and know.
To control the public that already funnels revenue to Meta, Zuckerberg wants the billions of customers already subscribed to platforms to believe that to achieve pseudo-social fulfillment, all they need is “a combination of sight, sound and words, and systems” the wizard of Menlo Park promises to deliver to our individual brains.
Even if Meta’s share price is taking a hit today, there is little doubt that Mark Zuckerberg and others like him will continue to push the idea that we are all destined to live at least part-time in their metaverse. They will do it not because it is good, not because people want it and not because people need help “performing common tasks.” The masters of the metaverse will do it because they know they can make money by doing it.
And there’s no doubt that they will make money. What they won’t do, however, is capture humanity’s mind, which is what they and all the commercial interests that are aligning with the opportunity of a metaverse hope will happen. One day they may have the humility to realize that proprioception is a more powerful force than any of their self-supervised algorithms. For the moment they prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist. When that day comes, unless we are all held prisoner in the future metaverse, humanity may once again feel free to return to its traditional business of trying to live reasonably harmoniously among other fully sentient beings.
February 14: Ubiquitous
Dictionary.com provides definitions of the words in the English language. It also keeps track of the words people look up and save. The website has just announced the winners for 2021. A quick glance at the list leaves us wondering why people think those particular words might help them talk about the world they are living in today.
Nine of the top 10 words were: pernicious, desolate, ephemeral, egregious, ostentatious, capricious, conspicuous, benevolent and ambiguous. At the top of the list was: ubiquitous.
If the selection can be seen as a barometer of today’s culture, it is worth noting that only one word has a strong positive connotation: “benevolent.” It’s reassuring to see that people want to keep thinking of benevolence. But it may simply indicate that it has become so rare in our dog-eat-dog hyper-competitive world that people need a dictionary to remind them what it means.
Four of the words are anything but reassuring: “desolate,” “egregious,” “ostentatious” and “capricious.” The first two are seriously negative, evoking destruction and something that is extremely reprehensible, while the other two belong to the category of behavioral failings.
The remaining words that appear more neutral are “ephemeral,” “conspicuous” and “ambiguous.” But even these words tell us something about the Zeitgeist. In an increasingly polarized society, like that of the United States, where people camp on their positions while refusing to consider even the slightest nuance of critique, could it be that they have begun wondering about the very real ambiguity that is always at the core of social life and political reality, especially in a pluralistic society?
Democracy was not meant to be about which group should dominate another or all others, but how some consensus may be found. That means tolerating ambiguity. The fact that many people have to look the word up in a dictionary reveals how much they may have lost touch with the idea. The trend from the past in US culture has been to see ambiguity as something that impedes progress toward a goal rather than as the clue to understanding complexity. Can the fact that people now want to explore the meaning of the word mean that they are beginning to recognize the value of ambiguity and the appreciation of nuance that provides the key to understanding ambiguity?
Ephemeral evokes a similar reflection. In the consumer society, nothing is meant to last and everything to be exploited in the short term. The ephemeral has become the normal, to the point that people no longer need the word because there is little to contrast with it. Whether it is in business (quarterly results) or social life (fulfilling desires), value is typically measured only in the short term.
Then there is “conspicuous,” a fairly rare adjective that nevertheless entered the general conversation at the dawn of the 20th century when the sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen, in his book, “Theory of the Leisure Class,” launched the concept of “conspicuous consumption.” It is the notion that drove the growth of the consumer society in the 20th century, defining the modern economy. Veblen described behavior that, in his day, was limited to a small leisured class. During that century, everyone in the US strove to be a conspicuous consumer, dedicated to purchasing their leisure. It is a concept Madison Avenue and companies like Apple became experts at fostering.
The winner, however, was “ubiquitous,” a concept that becomes quite literally inescapable in our connected world thanks to a new generation of speculators, investors and techies who are now seeking to invite us to live our lives, not in this boring real world, with all its annoying physical and material constraints, but in the spotless metaverse they are creating for us. It is filled with imaginary products they expect us to consume and represents the final stage in the triumph of hyperreality. Their commercial interests and the ability these companies have to dictate our tastes endow provide them with a literally ubiquitous character; ensuring that their reality will replace our own.
It is important to bear in mind that the list contains not the words people most often looked up, but the ones they chose to save. That presumably means that people who saved these words felt a need to use them in their conversation or writing. It is worth noticing that every one of them is an adjective. That alone tells us that people are struggling to find ways of describing the reality or hyperreality — or the mix of the two — they are currently living in. Things (nouns) don’t matter so much anymore. Neither do verbs (actions), when in the metaverse even ostriches can fly without restriction and human avatars have unlimited powers. None of the parts of speech of our traditional language matters quite as much as the qualities we attribute to things and the adjectives — dominantly negative — required to designate those qualities. Evidence, perhaps, of our civilization’s troubled mind.
February 11: Not Flaky
When politicians and political parties find themselves in difficulty, a condition shared currently by US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, their language begins to be encumbered by negative formulations whose tortured logic sounds as if it is describing something seriously concerning, but when analyzed ends up saying nothing at all.
Johnson is under a concerted attack especially within his own party for a litany of sins that former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has taken the trouble to list in great detail. The Ukraine crisis has provided Johnson with the opportunity to deviate attention from his failings by responding to something he wants the public to believe is so important they need to rely on his leadership.
Following Biden’s game plan that consists of proclaiming an imminent invasion of Ukraine by the evil empire of Vladimir Putin, Johnson offered a brilliant affirmation of nothing thanks to his ability to twist a series of negative ideas into a solid knot. “I don’t think,” he said, “a decision has yet been taken but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible that something absolutely disastrous could happen very soon indeed.”
Between not thinking and not meaning, he has managed to say that what he is saying contains no substance. Major himself might agree with the beginning of Johnson’s statement when he says, “I don’t think.” No thinking politician in Major’s view would make all the mistakes Johnson has made. But the key phrase in the prime minister’s pronouncement is “that doesn’t mean that it is impossible,” a stale circumlocution for saying that way he envisions is unlikely but requires insisting that it is real. “Absolutely disastrous” could of course describe any of the documented actions from Johnson’s past, which is why he wants the public to focus on a not impossible absolute disaster in the future.
Johnson was seconded by his defense secretary, Ben Wallace, who explained: “What this is really about is saying to President Putin [that] NATO is not flaky. NATO will stand by its members, big or small.”
Business Insider notes the obvious, that “Ukraine is not a NATO member” before relating Wallace’s justification when he “said an invasion of the country would affect its NATO neighbours including Poland by prompting a refugee crisis.” Following this reason, in our globalized economy anything anywhere will affect NATO countries, so why even bother to explain whatever aggressive action NATO undertakes anywhere in the world. But Wallace’s most interesting negative formulation was that “NATO is not flaky.” It is typically one of those denials politicians utter when they know everyone understands that what they are denying is fundamentally true. In any case, this may be the first time or at least rare times anyone has used the epithet flaky with NATO.
February 10: Dovetail
The respected journalist Anderson Cooper at CNN is carrying on what has become a great media tradition of accusing of treason anyone who questions official US foreign policy under President Joe Biden and fails in their civic duty to frame Russia as the evil empire that meddled fatally in the 2016 election and is now seeking to reconstitute the Soviet empire. These accusers have found various ways of designating heretical Americans as useful idiots rather than conscious tools of the Kremlin.
But the implication of their remarks is clear: They are seeking to incite the public to question the patriotism of anyone with a voice in the politics or the media, from the left or the right, who dares to suggest a nuanced reading of the dilemma at the Russian border. The most prominent targets have been easy ones on the right like Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson, but also more complex ones on the left, such as Glenn Greenwald and Tulsi Gabbard.
Following the State Department’s lead, the media invented a convenient expression to dismiss anything that seems to correlate with the interests of Russia as an act of disinformation straight out of the “Russian playbook.” Last week, Cooper accused Fox News host Tucker Carlson of pleading in favor of Russia when he claims that the US has no reason to engage militarily over Ukraine. The CNN journalist offers a subtle stylistic variant: “It is striking how neatly Kremlin propaganda seems to dovetail with Carlson’s talking points.”
Democratic strategist Alexandra Chalupa was more direct and aggressive when she tweeted: “Tucker Carlson needs to be prosecuted as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation and treason under Article 3, Sec. 3, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution for aiding an enemy in hybrid warfare against the United States.” Business Insider followed a similar line of thinking when it offered this headline: “Tucker Carlson told The New York Times he’s not a Russian agent amid controversy over his pro-Kremlin stance.”
Unlike Chalupa or Business Insider, Cooper discreetly avoids implying Carlson may be guilty of treason. His much gentler use of the metaphor “dovetail,” borrowed from carpentry, is doubly intriguing. The dove is a symbol of peace. Carlson argues in favor of peace and decries the folly of war. He makes it clear that his position concerns the interests of Americans and implies no alignment with Russia’s policies or ambitions. He simply claims that there is no historical or political justification for preparing for war with Russia over Ukraine because it entails no threat to US security.
If we really want to find a metaphor to describe what is going on here, it could be this: CNN’s suspicion of anything short of blindly obedient, aggressive militarism could be said to “hawktail” with the propaganda of the military-industrial complex.
Whether it’s State Department spokesman Ned Price implying that AP reporter Matt Lee was looking to “find solace in information that the Russians are putting out” or Cooper pointing out that Carlson says things that dovetail with Russian talking points, the government and the media appear to have devised a concerted campaign to discredit any voice that counsels prudence or even prefers peace over military intervention and eventually war.
Carlson is of course an easy target. His platform is Fox News, and on domestic issues, he is known to voice outrageously xenophobic and even potentially racist opinions. But, if they had the courage, there are other more serious targets they could have taken on: respected and historically important diplomatic thinkers such as the late George Kennan and the political scientist, John Mearsheimer. These two men are known for producing fundamental ideas about diplomacy, while avoiding the realm of everyday politics that the media prefers to cover.
Kennan is credited with defining the “Truman doctrine” based on the idea of communist containment. It set the diplomatic tone at the start of the original Cold War. But Kennan, unlike the Washington establishment, remained a realist, eschewing the Cold War hysteria that began to define an epoch in which Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Soviet paranoia could emerge and in which the Dulles brothers — John Foster, the secretary of state under the Eisenhower administration, and Allen, the Harry Truman-appointed director of the CIA — became the duo who had a free hand in defining and executing US foreign policy.
Kennan never lost his sense of perspective. He deplored the policy of the Soviets but saw a mirror image of it in US policy. “But what about my own government,” he wrote in his diaries, “and its state of blind militaristic hysteria? It has not only convinced itself of the reality of its own bad dreams, but it has succeeded in half-convincing most of our allies, and that to such an extent that anyone who challenges that view of the world appears to them as dangerously subversive.” The “dovetailing” rhetoric of Tucker Carlson is mild in comparison to Kennan’s acerbic but realistic critique.
Several years ago, assessing the complex situation in Ukraine, Mearsheimer — in 2015 — analyzed the question of Russia’s security with regard to NATO. Like Ian McCredie in these columns, he made the case that Russian President Vladimir Putin is devious and unscrupulous, but it cannot be doubted that he is a clever operator. Most of what he says dovetails with the strategic concerns for Russia’s security that has led Putin to his current aggressive posturing at the Ukrainian border.
Kennon died in 2004 but his analysis, which was true in 1950 (the year he left the State Department) and again at the time of his death, has remained as pertinent as ever. Mearsheimer is very much alive, but the media would never even think of inviting him onto their programs to explain the “realistic” view of geopolitical issues. They prefer hiring former intelligence directors like James Clapper and John Brennan, who can be counted on to hawktail with their former agencies. Mearsheimer can be relegated to the category of an irrelevant, eccentric academic. Because he is a respected thinker, like Noam Chomsky, he can simply be ignored rather than accused of treasonous thoughts.
February 9: Binary Exclusion
Thanks to Ned Price, Joe Rogan and Whoopi Goldberg, the curious relationship between language and culture in the US has exploded into the headlines.
“False flag,” “the N-word,” “race” and “apartheid” reveal an emotional and coercive power that goes far beyond their literal meaning.
More to come (read here).
February 8: Not Completely Wrong
French President Emmanuel Macron may be seeking the spotlight in his initiatives regarding the Ukrainian border crisis, but it isn’t only to bolster his fragile lead in the polls ahead of April’s first round of the presidential election, as he hopes to earn a second term. That is undoubtedly a strong motivating factor, but Macron’s attempt to single-handedly solve the world’s biggest diplomatic crisis, one deemed to bring humanity to the brink of nuclear war, is perfectly consistent with his historic commitment to redefining Europe’s security order that has for three-quarters of a century been defined by NATO and largely controlled by the US.
Nobody knows exactly what Macron has in mind or even what is possible in a situation where both Russia and the United States have declared incompatible red lines. Apart from the difficulty he will have getting the rest of Europe on board with anything initiated unilaterally by France, his margin of maneuver is so limited that any prospect of success seems unlikely. After talking with Vladimir Putin, unless Macron manages to persuade US President Biden that giving ground in the name of resolving a crisis with Russia — as John F. Kennedy did in secret to defuse the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when he agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey — there is little hope for a negotiated solution to a standoff that cannot reasonably be prolonged indefinitely.
So, what is Macron trying to accomplish? The New York Times quotes the head of the Paris Peace Forum, Justin Vaisse, who believes it may just be a question of how the complaints about Putin’s posturing are framed. Promising to “take a step toward Putin,” Vaisse recommends that the West “recognize he is not completely wrong,”
Does that mean accepting that President Putin is partially right? Is it even possible to identify what part or percentage of Putin’s putative wrongness may be right? The Times opines that “Macron wants to explore whether American offers last month could be complemented by further confidence-building measures that permit a way out of the crisis.” Can anyone hope to build confidence with someone they qualify as being “not completely wrong?”
Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department official, had a more realistic suggestion that consists of going beyond the existing the arms control offers by the US and combining them “with some sort of consultative mechanism for changes in NATO status, or some sort of moratorium on NATO expansion, or some creative interpretation of the Minsk agreement that gives a Donbas constituent assembly veto powers over what the government will do.”
Any of those solutions would constitute an acknowledgment that Putin was basically right in his analysis, rather than being “not completely wrong.” The only reason any of those outcomes remains unlikely to be adopted or even put forward is similar to the principal motivating reason for Macron seeking the spotlight. Any of Shapiro’s solutions would appear to show Biden backing down to Putin. Democratic presidents — especially when the election prospects for their party are on a depressingly downward incline, as they are today for Democrats — must never back down. Kennedy did back down, but he did so in secret. That will likely be impossible for Biden. Could the US president be hoping that Macron will get the job done for him, sparing Biden the suspicion that he caved to Putin?
In a statement made to France’s Le Journal de Dimanche, Macron appeared to deviate rather significantly from Biden’s position when he affirmed that Russia’s “geopolitical objective … today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the European Union.” This appears to contradict the State Department’s insistence for weeks that an invasion of Ukraine was imminent, with Putin’s implicit goal of taking over at least part of the nation. State Department spokesman Ned Price has insisted that intelligence has determined how the invasion will play out, starting with a false flag operation for which he refuses to provide any evidence. There is clearly a difference in the intelligence assessments of France and the United States. Would it be wrong to think that, despite the NATO alliance, each nation simply fabricates its own brand of propaganda? Public messaging on international issues always tends to target voters at home. They hold the key to any incumbent’s hope of maintaining power. And most observers would agree that is not completely wrong to insist power is still the only real priority of politicians, however statesmanlike they may seek to appear.
February 7: Noble Act
In a world that accepts money as the indicator not just of worth, but of worthiness and the accumulation of wealth as a measure of all value, including moral value, Melinda French (formerly Mrs. Bill Gates) stands out as one of the rare multi-billionaires willing to admit publicly what the male members of her elite class, seconded by the media, consistently deny. “It’s important to acknowledge,” Fortune quotes French as saying, “that giving away money your family will never need is not an especially noble act.”
She adds a particularly cutting observation, that “philanthropy is most effective when it prioritizes flexibility over ideology.” Could this be an implicit critique of her ex-husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose actions as a philanthropist have consistently reflected a deep sense of greed, a strong touch of narcissism and an all too obvious ideological commitment to privileging corporate profit over the human needs philanthropy is believed to address?
Melinda French represents a small, select club composed of the divorcees of overweening hyper-wealthy men who see themselves as masters of the universe. Two years before the Gates couple’s divorce, MacKenzie Scott, formerly Mrs. Jeff Bezos, had already set the tone for sincere rather than cynically calculated, self-interested philanthropy. Without trying to show up Scott, French takes the rhetoric a step further in the analysis of the reigning masculine style of philanthropy, designed fundamentally to serve the philanthropist’s ego and broaden his power over society and its institutions.
In an article on Medium last December, Scott expressed a similar idea concerning the role of ideology, explaining that “the gifts will do more good if others are free from my ideas about what they should do.” In other words, it isn’t only the self-interested ideas of men that must be avoided, but the women’s own as well. Though it cuts across the grain of today’s competitive, self-aggrandizing culture, in these women’s minds, humility trumps hubris. Especially when you say you are doing things to help other people.
According to Vanity Fair’s Bess Levin, MacKenzie Scott’s discreet generosity has led her, with zero fanfare, to give away “at least $8.6 billion to worthy causes” since her divorce in 2019. Levin points to “the uncomfortable fact that, by comparison and as a proportion of his wealth, Jeff Bezos is kind of a cheapskate!” Bezos may wish to send rockets to another world, but he himself already lives in another world. Between space travel and building a superyacht too big to leave the port of Rotterdam without having to dismantle a historic bridge, Bezos, like Gates, believes that monopolies, not spontaneous generosity, will save the world. Like Gates when weighing in on vaccines, Bezos claims that “for-profit models improve the world more than philanthropy models.”
This contrast between the men and their ex-wives may point to a possible solution. Society (rather than government) should find a way to oblige any family that holds more than $1 billion in assets to put every dollar above the first billion in the stewardship of the lady of the house. This would not only mean that philanthropy could live up to its promise of helping humanity, but it would also relieve men of the fastidious task of feeling the need to parade in public as benefactors of humanity.
With rare exceptions, super-wealthy men seem stricken by a pathology that induces them to believe they have been chosen by the almighty (whose name is now Mammon) to guide the benighted masses toward fulfilling their personal vision of a better world. Society would be wise to let the men of this world — whether they are called Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or even the less narcissistic Warren Buffet — build their wealth to the symbolic level of $1 billion and not a penny more. Anything in excess of this amount should then be removed from their hands and entrusted to the women who will use it to meet humanity’s needs. For the men themselves, this will have the salutary effect of preventing the fantasy of power bred by excessive wealth from rotting their brains, as it apparently never fails to do.
February 4: Level of Consciousness
In an article on Ondalinda, a winter festival in the tropics designed for a class of people that could be called the “superwoke international elite,” Sheila Yasmin Marikar, writing for The New Yorker, quotes Filippo Brignone, a member of the Italian family that founded a festival for the wealthy that takes place every year on the Pacific coast of Mexico: “At one time, my father didn’t want any Americans. You want people who have a certain level of consciousness.”
“It’s rich people with an intellectual level,” Brignone says. “Artists, successful businessmen—you know, opinion leaders.” That is, the custodians of hyperreality.
Marikar quotes philanthropist Gillian Wynn: “It’s not an unsavory thing like Las Vegas. There’s a wholesome component. Everything is tasteful.” For example, “a polo field illuminated by ten thousand candles and towering neon mushroom puppets with red-rimmed eyes. L.E.D. lassos swirled.”
For these people having consciousness therefore appears to mean: wealthy, self-indulgent and narcissistic but weaned of the vulgar, plebeian tastes. Donald Trump would not qualify.
February 3: Anti-Western Tropes
Anton Troianovski at The New York Times — perhaps following the lead of our dear friends, Atul Singh and Glenn Carle — believes that the showdown at the Ukrainian border can be explained by President Vladimir Putin’s ideology that sees “Russia as a bulwark of ‘traditional values.’”
Singh and Carle identified Vladislav Surkov as the actor who, honoring the Tsarist tradition, stepped up to the role of Putin’s Rasputin and shaped Russian politiidentified Surkov’s successor, Putin’s latest Rasputin, the spiritual enforcer of the traditions that some believe are at the core of Putin’s politics. “Mr. Putin is known for indulging misleading, anti-Western tropes, but his main national security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, espouses them with even greater ardor,” Troianovski writes.
Alongside the expected “misleading, anti-Western tropes” that are the bread and butter of propaganda, there may also be a few fact-based anti-Western tropes, the kind that the suppliers of equally misleading, anti-Russian tropes at The New York Times prefer to ignore in favor of more vaporous ones, like the Havana syndrome that finally appears to have been put to bed. The two rivals of last century’s Cold War appear to be busy refining the fine art of trope dissemination they perfected in the aftermath of World War II.
“Mr. Putin,” Troianovski reports, “paints a picture of enemies bent on falsifying Russia’s glorious past, but his foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, has taken on the fight over history as a special priority.” The journalist seems surprised that a government might try to engineer a reading of history that reflects its particular interests. He implies that might include the scurrilous practice of mischaracterizing one’s enemies. How very Russian that is. Nothing like that could occur in an enlightened democracy.
The simple truth is that projecting a misleading understanding of national history is the duty of the government of every nation-state, especially ones that achieve the status of hegemon. In the US, a Democratic president such as Joe Biden has less need to make the effort. He counts on Republicans fulfilling that role. The Democrats seem quite happy to have delegated to their rivals that ungrateful task. Republican senators such as Tom Cotton not only militate to excuse the taste for slavery of the republic’s founders, Cotton’s fellow Republicans have traditionally dominated the publication of US history books to make sure that the undiminished glory and unanimously proclaimed “exceptionalism” of the nation is the only message taught in schools and, implicitly, transmitted by the media.
In 2010, during Barack Obama’s presidency, The New York Times reported that the Texas Board of Education “approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.”
Democrats may occasionally carp in the background at Republicans’ super-patriotism, but they have never even acknowledged, let alone championed, the one historian who dared to state a case closer to their party’s supposed commitment to people rather than power: Howard Zinn. Zinn’s flair for and delight at exposing the American conquerors’ crimes was uncompromising, to the point that even today it can embarrass the unimpeachably leftist commentator Matt Taibbi. But the facts he reported were real and had for generations been locked out of the curriculum. Just like the old Cold War, but this time with a reversal of roles, the new one features a nation that is guided by traditional values (Dwight Eisenhower’s “under God”) against a nation that disdains them (Soviet atheists). For Putin’s Russians, the US undermines marriage and everything else that binds a traditional culture together. For the US, Russia refuses to join the enlightened, inclusive modern world. For both, the president of the adversary is being called, through their media, a modern version of Adolf Hitler.
February 2: Choreography
Commenting on the situation at the Russia-Ukraine border that is much too complex for any commentator to fully understand, Yahoo cites the artistic opinion of Retired Army General Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The choreography of our actions matter, because you want to enable and empower diplomacy, while at the same time not being seen as indecisive,” he said. “And I think we have the choreography and sequence of moves about right.”
As Dempsey describes it, the dance sequence managed by US President Joe Biden may not be that similar to the art of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but it may prove reasonably effective in the short term. The diplomacy is directed at the Europeans, who can be cajoled into a formal alliance, rather than Russia. The image of decisiveness is held firmly by the White House. But for the medium term and an even longer term, the prospects are more ambiguous. Some of the dancers are showing signs of looking into the future for a new dance master.
Even today, contradictions abound. An unnamed expert described as “a retired four-star general with long experience in NATO” expressed an opinion at odds with the discourse coming from the Biden administration. “At the end of the day,” he explained, “I don’t think [Putin] plans to invade Ukraine so much as force it back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.”
If the wisest sages in the US military, as well as the Ukrainians themselves, believe that Russia will not invade, why does the White House keep insisting the invasion is imminent? On the geopolitical front, it doesn’t even make for good diplomacy. It has already diminished the trust the Ukrainians themselves have in their American protectors.
Most likely, Biden is calculating the posture required to look tough, the “true grit” Americans expect from their president. If, as most anticipate, Russia does not invade, as both the Ukrainians and the military’s top brass contend, Biden can then say it was because he stood up to Vladimir Putin and flexed Uncle Sam’s powerful muscles. It’s what the pundits in the US call looking “presidential,” something even Donald Trump managed to do when he bombed Syria.
February 1: Multiple Audiences
CNN reports that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is feeling some discomfort in the face of US President Joe Biden’s eagerness to create panic around the idea of a Russian threat. Zelensky himself describes Russia’s actions as “dangerous but ambiguous.”
“Earlier in the day, another source from the US side said there is a recognition in the White House that Zelensky has ‘multiple audiences’ and is trying to balance them. ‘On the one hand, he wants assistance, but he has to assure his people he has the situation under control. That’s a tricky balance.’”
Though the source cited only two of the audiences, there are certainly a few others that were not mentioned. It could be said that nearly every relatively powerless country has at least two audiences: its people and whatever hegemonic power has decided to support it. The United States is by far the most prolific hegemonic “audience” of countries across the globe, though some fear China may surreptitiously catch up. The idea of being an audience, of course, implies an attitude of listening attentively, usually through the hegemon’s diplomats but just as significantly, through its spies.
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Why Monitoring Language Is Important
Language allows people to express thoughts, theories, ideas, experiences and opinions. But even while doing so, it also serves to obscure what is essential for understanding the complex nature of reality. When people use language to hide essential meaning, it is not only because they cynically seek to prevaricate or spread misinformation. It is because they strive to tell the part or the angle of the story that correlates with their needs and interests.
In the age of social media, many of our institutions and pundits proclaim their intent to root out “misinformation.” But often, in so doing, they are literally seeking to miss information.
Is there a solution? It will never be perfect, but critical thinking begins by being attentive to two things: the full context of any issue we are trying to understand and the operation of language itself. In our schools, we are taught to read and write, but, unless we bring rhetoric back into the standard curriculum, we are never taught how the power of language to both convey and distort the truth functions. There is a largely unconscious but observable historical reason for that negligence. Teaching establishments and cultural authorities fear the power of linguistic critique may be used against their authority.
Remember, Fair Observer’s Language and the News seeks to sensitize our readers to the importance of digging deeper when assimilating the wisdom of our authorities, pundits and the media that transmit their knowledge and wisdom.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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