Very few people read. Readers make the investment of precious time and energy need a return on that investment. In thinking about this website, I wonder if I’ve had a good sense of what people want to read. I think it’s fiction–but that takes me a long time. And I think it’s essays–but I’m bad about being timely.
I’ve always been a slow learner. That is especially true as I’ve toiled midlife in a liminal state: not old, not young; still working in the last years of a professional career while trying something new. I’m under no illusions about the lack of traffic on this website, but as a budding historian I think truth telling can create a useful article of social history. And as an amateur writer of fiction, I think there’s value in following my imagination.
This is a reflection on last week. We’ll see where these go.
Last week the world remained transfixed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now there’s breathless excitement over “the new world” created with the invasion.
Establishment media was primed for this kind of coverage and hype. We all lost interest in Covid. Inflation will never be a sexy topic. Culture war topics are largely exhausted (and exhausting). Conditions were ripe for a new obsession. Plus, center left media would rather not dwell on the blundering domestic agenda of the Biden administration.
After four weeks of this I’m worried there’s a growing eagerness to intervene. “Do something” is always the media refrain (see my post entitled Overreaction). Both coverage and commentary have all the feeling of a panic, laden with groupthink, motivated reasoning, etc. To be clear, I think Putin in a criminal and the invasion of Ukraine is a war crime; however, I think Ukraine has a long way to go before it can be considered a true liberal democracy, and I don’t readily dismiss Russian security concerns. But what may be the most alarming part of this mess is the consensus that internal regime change in Russia as the only way out–in other words, ignore the lessons of history and “just hope it resolves itself.” And we don’t know if someone worse replaces Putin.
I’m concerned trusted pundits are falling into the anti-Russian/pro-Ukraine hysteria. The Fifth Column–one my favorite podcasts–has had a few episodes (including a recent Patreon episode) in the wake of Michael Moynihan visiting Ukraine. The Fifth Column guys have been uniformly pro-Ukraine (but Kmele Foster, whose ideology I identify with the most, has been pretty quiet in these discussions). Admittedly, I’m sympathetic to the right-wing arguments–after all, I’m a liberal (traditional sense of the word) and believe in conservative decision making on the margins. I do love TFC’s critiques of US media narratives “that make it all about the US.”
The Dispatch and Commentary seem to be reverting to Cold War tropes–though, in fairness, there’s been acknowledgment that “no fly zones” are tantamount to war. However, both groups of editors have urged Biden to step-up rhetoric and do everything short of a shooting war. They want to call Putin’s bluff in a game of brinksmanship. I think this is exactly what the Russians want: get to the brink of war with NATO and then keep control over Ukraine as part of the settlement. Let the Americans and Europeans declare “peace in our time” and believe they walked away with a win by avoiding nuclear war.
Glen Loury had a conversation with foreign policy historian Daniel Bessner. Overall the podcast felt stilted. Loury was not particularly engaged in the discussion (foreign policy doesn’t really energize him, so this podcast felt like filler). Worse, after the 25 or so minutes on Ukraine the balance of the podcast was just Bessner spouting progressive positions on income inequality and public schools. Loury was in no mood to argue. Still, I like Bessner and the Quincy Institute for trying to challenge the Blob and advance American foreign policy. After writing the piece on the origins of US global strategy in the late ’30s to mid ’40s, the intellectual history of US foreign policy theory and analysis has fascinated me and will likely be the focus of my graduate history work. On the other hand, outside of foreign policy Bessner is only half-baked as a public intellectual–I wish he would stick to his area of expertise instead of trying to act like Ezra Klein.
Finally, I wonder if Ukraine and the deteriorating relationship with China since 2017 may have some silver linings. US grand strategy has been in need of an update since the early ’90s. With no peer military rivals and the US at the nexus of a growing international economy, conditions at the end of the Cold War allowed liberal internationalism to persist. “America First” is not the way to go when there are international rivalries with emerging, revisionist powers. On the other hand, the US can no longer throw its weight around and potentially alienate countries like France and Germany. What distinguishes the US from Russia and China are the quality of its allies and the level of integration with those allies. All of this points to the need for a rules-based international order comprised of liberal democracies which would combine security, trade considerations, responses to climate change, and international law. This is not at all my idea–I think I first heard this idea described by Robert Wright 5 or 6 years ago.
On the lighter side of life, spring has reached Chicagoland and it feels like the life has renewed itself (despite the awful news in Ukraine). The time change, St. Patrick’s Day, Covid masking rules finally being relaxed last month–all of these contribute to the feeling that we turned a corner.
I watched the first three episodes of WeCrashed on AppleTV. So far it’s been a good show. Jared Leto’s performance as Adam Neumann has been incredible. But even better, Anne Hathaway has brought depth and complexity to Rebekah Neumann, making for a character arch central to the drama. On the other hand, the financial nerd in me wanted to hear about how the hot air got pumped into WeWork (I’d rather see scenes of lawyers and investment bankers arguing over lease financing and bank loans than yet another montage of Millennial bacchanalia in the tech world).
Less entertaining was my commitment to the AppleTV show Suspicion which had its first season finale last week. What a fucking disaster. The story made very little sense and had a twist anyone could have predicted. I think the writers’ imagined the big confession at the end to be more meaningful and dramatic than it ended up being in production. This is one of those shows that insults the intelligence of its viewers. It’s almost as if you can hear the show’s writers dismissing plot holes and unrealistic ideas, “The average viewer will not notice that! The average viewer doesn’t know that!” Here’s hoping season 2 never happens.
Finally, The Last Kingdom wrapped up on Netflix. I enjoyed all five seasons of the show. The last battle over Bebbanburg was a bit of a disappointment, mostly because it looked like they cut corners on the production and kind of hurried the battle (unlike past episodes where the battle sequences were pretty compelling). Still, the actor Alexander Dreymond’s role as Uhtred was what made that show, and I think the show runners and writers brought the story to a satisfying end.