The New Statesman has published an extended interview of Tony Blair by… the Welsh actor Michael Sheen. I found it a bizarre prospect. I know nothing about Sheen — I saw him in a film once — but I’m pretty sure if I wanted to hear Blair’s opinions, an actor would be one of the last interlocutors on my list. (A judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on the other hand, would be right near the top.) What is it about actors, particularly film actors, that makes people want to rub up close to them and insert them into all kinds of roles for which they are in no way especially qualified or even interesting?
My use of the word role there may suggest part of the reason: Even if actors are generally not especially intelligent, or insightful, or capable of repairing a leaky faucet, and their life experience is less relevant to the concerns of average people than pretty much anyone else’s — academics such as myself excepted — actors are used to playing the part of people who are intelligent or insightful or capable of fixing a leaky faucet, and perhaps they convey the superficial image of holding an intelligent conversation, even when they are utterly banal. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying that actors are unusually stupid: I have met some reasonably intelligent and interesting actors, and heard interviews with an occasional few who seemed genuinely fascinating. Only that their professional accomplishments give me no more expectation of their competence in any other area — or of them having anything interesting to say on any subject other than theatre and film — than members of any other profession or none.
It occurred to me, that there is an analogy to the perverse role of the finance industry. Money is sticky. That is, a significant fraction of the money running through the banks sticks to the people who handle it. It’s not at all obvious that the people who are responsible for investing and manipulating rich people’s money should themselves become rich. There is a German expression about the opposite expectation, “Pfarrers Kind und Müllers Vieh/ Gedeihen selten oder nie”: The preacher’s child and the miller’s livestock/ Will as good as never thrive. But we accept that there’s no way to prevent the people who are close to the money day in and day out from siphoning much of it into their own pockets. According to some estimates financial services in the US absorb a full 20% of all corporate income in the US.
Actors have a similar position in the attention economy. Attention is sticky. Their main job is to attract attention. And once they have the attention of a large public, the attention sticks to them, personally, even when they transition to activities that no sensible person would want to pay attention to.
Apologists for Putin’s Ukraine atrocity point to NATO’s eastward expansion as the original sin that provoked Russian aggression. Proponents of Western innocence argue that this is a matter of autonomy of independent states whose need for the protection of the NATO alliance has been confirmed by Russian aggression not only against Ukraine, but also against Georgia and Moldova. Realism wouldn’t allow expansion to include former Soviet republics (except the Baltic states), they argue, but Western Europe had an obligation to go as far as it could to defend newly aspiring democracies.
In this telling, NATO has done as much as it could, taking on the burden of defending Poland, Hungary, etc. It explicitly decided not to make a commitment to Ukraine, and so has no moral obligation there — though it has gratuitously chosen to go beyond any obligation in assisting in the current crisis. But I’ve just been wondering… I haven’t heard any discussion of the alternative to NATO expansion. I don’t know what was realistic at the time, but I could imagine that following a rejection for inclusion in Western defense arrangements, the non-Russia former Warsaw Pact might have formed some kind of defensive alliance of their own, aimed at deterring Russian aggression, but sufficiently separate from NATO as to be recognised as a neutral buffer. These countries collectively have comparable population to Russia, and significantly higher GDP.
In this telling, NATO would bear significant responsibility for the current plight of Ukraine, not because it provoked Russia, but precisely because it couldn’t afford to provoke Russia too much. This led it to absorb Ukraine’s natural allies into an alliance that could never plausibly include Ukraine. It is then plausibly the fault of NATO expansion that Ukraine seemed to Putin a tempting target, defenceless and alone.
While looking up something else in Uriel Weinreich’s Yiddish-English dictionary I came across the expression לעבן ווי גאָט אין אדעס — to live like God in Odessa — translated as “to live the life of Riley”.
I was familiar with the German expression Leben wie Gott in Frankreich — to live like God in France — with the same meaning, and I’d always assumed it was a reference to the large number of opulent houses that God has in France. But Odessa? It’s not a city I associate with cathedrals — though I’ve never been there. And would a Yiddish expression locate God’s dwelling in cathedrals? Is it originally a Russian expression? Presumably it’s connected to the German expression, but which came first? Maybe they both have nothing to do with cathedrals, but with a general opulence of lifestyle, in which God figures only as a kind of ironic hyperbole.
So many questions…
(Including about Riley. According to some sources the phrase goes back to a Sligo landowner Willy Reilly who found his way through to a contented and prosperous life after some ballad-worthy marital complications. There are no records of him ever having visited Odessa.)
Sunday I went to a small demonstration in support of Ukraine, in Radcliffe Square in Oxford. One of the speakers recalled his experience hearing about the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, and himself being in Prague in 1968. The point being, the Russians are at it again, just like then.
But I couldn’t help but think, the invasion of Hungary was ordered by Khrushchev, who grew up in Ukraine. This is how it is with empires: No one has clean hands. The victims find their way to service of the empire, not actually to positions of power among the perpetrators. The same way, the Scottish and the Irish like to see themselves as victims of English colonialism, but their forebears were also fighting for and even leading the armies of British conquest.