Following Vladimir Putin’s ambiguously threatening “partial mobilisation” speech, this seems an appropriate time to remind everyone that a single letter transposition turns UNCLEAR threats into NUCLEAR threats.
The alternative to NATO
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.
Can’t look away
Many years ago I read to my daughter a children’s book in which a little girl learning to ride a bicycle keeps running into objects like trees and lampposts. A bicycle instructor explains to her that when you become too fixated on an obstacle it exerts a strong psychological pull, so that the very exigency of evading it leads to a crash.
I used to wonder whether this was a real phenomenon. I don’t anymore…
Actually, I’ve long thought the second Iraq War was an example of the same phenomenon. There was no possibility that there wouldn’t be a war, because once they’d started to consider it Bush and Blair couldn’t bare not to see how it would turn out.
You can’t fight in here! This is the war cabinet.
After the unfortunate decision of the UK press to call Theresa May’s European Union Exit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations) sub-Committee the Brexit war cabinet, we now have this:
Theresa May to hold Brexit peace summit for feuding cabinet
Maybe it should be called the civil war cabinet.
Warring factions seek EU mediation
That was my immediate translation when I saw this headline yesterday:
Theresa May and David Davis to travel to Brussels for urgent Brexit talks
Obviously the British are trying to create an impression of comity with the EU negotiators, to show that misunderstandings are being swept aside, and the negotiations are now going to run smoothly. An impression that is not fostered by this:
Though Downing Street insisted the dinner had long been in May’s diary, EU sources suggested it may have been more last-minute, but were not able to provide confirmation.
On the other hand, given the warnings about the security of post-Brexit food supplies, maybe they were just hoping to get a solid meal.
Meeting our Waterloo
From the Guardian:
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative, says the 23 June last year will be remembered as a great day in history. It is comparable with Agincourt and Waterloo, he suggests.
I guess that’s how people talk about it in Britain, but it seems to me everywhere else “Waterloo” is synonymous with a crushing defeat. I imagine the Brexit vote will be the same: Considered a victory in Britain, recognised as a crushing defeat everywhere else.
Foreigners in Britain and Germany
Many years ago, when I was hitchhiking through the US, I met a guy at a highway rest stop who, for no particular reason that I could discern, was agitated about foreigners. (My accent in English strikes some Americans as vaguely foreign, even though it is unmistakably American to any non-American native English speaker.) But I was surprised about why he was angry. I had always assumed that animus toward immigrants was directed at transients who have no roots or attachment, don’t speak English, are really oriented toward their home country. But this guy thought it was great to have people come and do unpleasant work for low pay for a few years, as long as they move on. What he didn’t like were immigrants who come and remain permanently.
Apparently the current UK government agrees. People like me are a failure of the system. Soon after they came into power the government announced the goal of “breaking the link between temporary and permanent migration.” Now, as net immigration ignores the government’s arbitrary goals and continues to rise, they are growing desperate, even forcing out highly skilled and expensively recruited foreigners who thought they had immigrated. They have introduced draconian fines and even prison sentences for landlords who rent to illegal immigrants; since landlords are hardly equipped to judge people’s immigration status, the effect (possibly unintentional) will be to make life difficult for everyone who looks or sounds foreign.
Most of Europe decided that “temporary workers” isn’t a category that you can reasonably force people into. As Max Frisch famously commented on the European experience of the 1950s through 1970s, “Wir haben Arbeitskräfte gerufen, und es sind Menschen gekommen.” (“We called for workers, but human beings came.”)
The contrast to Germany is stark. Universities are switching much of their lecturing to English, in an effort to attract bright students from around the world to study in Germany. UK universities scrabble for foreign students, too, but the justification is primarily mercenary: non-EU student fees are uncapped — typically they pay around £20,000 a year, whereas EU nationals pay £9,000. German universities, on the other hand, don’t charge fees.
We could call it plutocratic tolerance: Germans are, by and large, willing to live with foreigners as long as they can profit from them. Britons are willing to exploit foreigners economically, but only if they don’t have to live with them. (The Home Secretary has particularly identified students as people whose otherwise welcome money is tainted by their propensity to continue existing after they have spent it, and to impose their existence on the long-suffering British. “Universities should now develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students” she said.) Next year’s EU referendum will force the population to decide which of the famous “British values” — greed or xenophobia — has priority.
This issue is not identical with, but obviously not entirely distinct from, the disgusting British government response to the refugee crisis in southern Europe — a combination of “it’s not my problem” and pompous moralising about the moral hazard of encouraging desperate people to make perilous journeys. Angela Merkel has resolutely refused to pander to anti-foreigner sentiment, and has even managed to pressure the UK into taking some small measure of responsibility for taking in some refugees — even if they’ll never accept that they, of all Europeans, bear the most direct responsibility for the Syrian disaster, which is part of the long-term aftermath of Tony Blair’s splendid little war in Iraq.
A tricky judgement call for the advertising agency
So you’re the head of the Adobe account, seeking to convince customers that Photoshop is a professional level software tool accessible to the masses. It’s used for important work by experts! It makes news! So now, the question is, do you seek an endorsement based on this news report (from Der Spiegel)?
Russland macht noch immer Kiew für den Abschuss von Flug MH17 verantwortlich. Doch die Fotos, die ukrainische Luftabwehrsysteme in dem Absturzgebiet zeigen sollen, sind offenbar gefälscht. Laut Experten hat der Kreml mit Photoshop manipuliert.
[Russia still claims that Kiev is responsible for shooting down flight MH17. But the photos that supposedly show Ukrainian air defence systems in the area of the crash are blatantly fake. Experts say the Kremlin manipulated them with Photoshop.]
Counting to zero
I was amused by the comments made by right-wing American TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, who referred to his time in the Falklands “war zone” because he reported on an unruly protest in Buenos Aires after the war ended. He supported his position by quoting a NY Times report that referred to a police officer firing five shots, without mentioning that the shots were fired “over the heads of fleeing protestors”.
Rich Meislin, the Times reporter who wrote the article, said on Facebook that as far as he knew no demonstrators were shot or killed by police that night. On Monday, Mr. O’Reilly said he was just reading clips from the piece during the Media Buzz interview and that official reports on casualties there were difficult to obtain.
One could imagine that in a dispute over the exact number of protesters shot or killed you might say that the official reports were “difficult to obtain”. It seems like an odd defence when people are claiming that the exact number was zero, since, of course, in that case there would be no reports on casualties to obtain. “I do remember that there was tension between the authorities and the crowd,” [CBS correspondent Charles Gomez] said, but added that he “did not see any bloodshed.”
Humans have a separate system for unconsciously apprehending the numbers of items under about four, called subitizing, that is distinct from the conscious process of counting. The idea of “counting” one or two items seems ridiculous, and counting zero items exaggerates the comic effect. I was reminded of a scene in the second volume Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, The Restaurant at the end of the Universe. Ford Prefect and his friends have accidentally stowed away on a space ship programmed to crash into the local sun (as part of the light show for a rock concert). Zaphod Beeblebrox yells “Ford, how many escape capsules are there?”
“None,” said Ford.
“Did you count them?” he yelled.
“Twice,” said Ford.
Update: In another interview O’Reilly continued to conflate the Falklands War with the unruly demonstration in Buenos Aires:
“A lot of people died,” said O’Reilly, nodding his head. “You bet.”
“On both sides, both the British and the Argentines,” Browne said, appearing to reference the broader war rather than the protests.
“Nine hundred deaths on the Island,” O’Reilly said. “And we don’t know how many in Buenos Aires.”
We don’t know how many. The number is generally reckoned to be around… zero.
It has often been remarked that, whereas the English word “debt” has a long history as primarily a financial term, with only optional moralistic overtones, in German “debt” and “guilt” and “sin” are represented by the single word “Schuld”, deriving from the Indo-European root skel, meaning “crime”. This surely reflects the exceptional German inclination — conspicuous in the current tussle over Greek loans — to view indebtedness as a moral failing, and moral failings need to be chastised, lest the sinner slide back into his old ways. At least, that’s the principle for other people’s indebtedness.
Their own debts are more nuanced. Particularly war debts, as this article from Spiegel makes clear. In 1942 Greece’s national bank cancelled Germany’s debt of 476 million Reichsmarks, out of pure gratitude for Germany’s contributions toward a unified Europe, into which Greece had just been integrated. In retrospect this deal — the debt would be worth something between 8 billion and 80 billion Euros today — seemed overly generous to some, given complaints about the quality of the services provided to the Greek public by the Wehrmacht. The 1953 London Agreement on German External Debt provided for the resolution of these customer-service complaints to be postponed until after a formal WWII peace treaty which, I was surprised to learn, has never been concluded.
But obviously the Germans don’t believe that a people should be forced to suffer economic devastation because of financial obligations undertaken by an irresponsible government that the people have since repudiated.