Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Where's the Outrage?

 Someone asked me in another thread why I’m not outraged about Ukraine.

Of course the question assumes that if a person isn’t obviously displaying an emotion, it follows that he isn’t experiencing it. But that’s trivia. What’s important is the underlying notion that outrage is desirable. My response:

"I don’t parade my outrage and in fact distrust outrage because of its inherent pleasures. I wish more people would do the same—the Internet, at least, would be improved by it.

"Here, I’m trying to approach as rationally as I can the problem of “How can we avoid having Russia’s invasion of Ukraine become the destruction of all humanity?” There’s more than enough war fever all over the west right now. If we get through this crisis without blowing up the world, it’ll be despite outrage, not because of it. And that in a nutshell is why I work hard not to join the outrage party but instead try to stand outside it."

The person also said, "But just once, I’d like to see you say: 'Goddamnit, this must not stand.'”

My response to that:

"I’m going to have to disappoint you. I find talk like that suspiciously onanistic. Worse, if it gets loud and contagious enough, it becomes dangerous. And regardless, it does nothing to solve problems.

Numerous voices in the west have been warning for years if not decades that NATO’s relentless expansion risked provoking a war with Russia. I’ll link to just one such article below; there are countless others, coming from left, right, former US ambassadors to the USSR and Russia and other Russia experts, even from Tom Friedman. My view is those voices have been proven right. Your view, I think, is that Russia was always going to invade Ukraine no matter what because Putin is at least as inherently evil as those countless Economist covers have depicted. For the moment, what matters more to me is getting through this without a nuclear war that would turn the entire planet into something that would make what’s happening in Ukraine seem like trivia. Again, if we get that lucky, the luck will have been influenced by reason, which is a struggle, not by outrage, which is a reflex.”

A few more thoughts:

If you want to see what war fever outrage leads to, it’s interesting to consider that at the outbreak of WWI, dachshunds were slaughtered in America because of their association with the Kaiser. That was a bit before my time, but I remember so much outrage in America at France’s reluctance to become part of what turned out to be America’s disastrous second invasion of Iraq (100,000 innocent Iraqis killed; 4,000,000 refugees created) that calling French Fries Freedom Fries was all the rage (you can’t spell outrage without rage).

(I didn't have a blog at the time so I don't think there's a record of it, but I was part of that outrage. I'm not proud of it, but I have tried to learn from it.)

I think that as a species we have a better chance of survival if we keep this kind of mentality as far as possible from questions involving nuclear weapons.

More recently, innocent Russians are being punished because…they’re Russian (or at least might be).

Reason takes work. Outrage is as easy as any other reflex, and feels good, too. Which is why reason is always scarce and outrage always abundant.

Of course, this time it's different. It always is.


Dan Grunberg said...

As always, a well-reasoned column. Without necessarily disagreeing with your main point about outrage, I do wonder about a strategy of "minimizing the chance of nuclear war" as it's sole objective. In that case, nothing prevents a (perceived) slightly crazy leader with nuclear weapons from taking over the world, one country at a time. At each country, we reason, "well, we don't want any chance of nuclear war, so let them have this one."

This fear has prevented much of the world from providing more active aid in Ukraine to date - they are balancing the risk of nuclear vs. something else, but not trying to make it zero risk.

I also find it interesting that your future column (to this one) makes the point that the threat of violence keeps some bad things from happening.

Keep writing, I'll keep reading. Love all your books.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for all that Dan. Can you tell me where you got your quote "minimizing the chance of nuclear war"? I don't think it, or your notions of "sole objective" or of "zero risk," appears in my post.

What I did say is, "What matters more to me [than how we got here] is getting through this without a nuclear war that would turn the entire planet into something that would make what’s happening in Ukraine seem like trivia."

Is that the sentence you disagree with?

Dan Grunberg said...

I apologize, I used quotes around "minimizing...war" not as a quote of yours but as a way of identifying the strategy I was talking about - my background in software programming is showing.

I don't disagree with the sentence you refer to.

I would say that your quoted problem "How can we avoid having Russia’s invasion of Ukraine become the destruction of all humanity?" is what lead me down the road of sole objective. Because, as stated, the solution to that problem would be the same as the one that minimizes the risk of nuclear war. I am equating here nuclear war with destruction of humanity, for the sake of argument. I understand that putting in all kinds of qualifiers would not make for a readable blog post.

So instead, I will not disagree with anything you said, but instead just wonder the following, assuming the various game theoretic realities, such as imperfect information, bluffing, etc.

How do we balance the risk of nuclear war with other concerns?

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for that--really appreciate it.

That's an important question, worthy of much more than just a comment here. But in general, I'd answer it by saying we should be very clear about what interests we're trying to advance or protect at the risk of nuclear war.

With regard to Ukraine, I think Obama had it about right:

"Obama’s response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in March 2014, and Moscow’s subsequent support of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine was economic sanctions. Although the measures had an impact on the Russian economy, they were seen as woefully inadequate by some Republican lawmakers in Congress. Senator John McCain of Arizona, a harsh critic of Obama’s foreign policy, wanted the U.S. to send arms to Ukraine. But Obama viewed the Ukraine conflict through another lens. As Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, wrote in the Obama Doctrine: 'Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.' Indeed, Obama told Jeff: 'The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.' Despite their criticism of Obama, the Republican platform ahead of the 2016 presidential election didn’t call for U.S. weapons to be sent to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed rebels." Link below (if Google will allow it).

Right now, the US and Russia are playing a game of chicken. Russia has far greater interests in Ukraine than the US does, and so is less likely to swerve and more likely to risk acceleration. It's the inverse of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where Khrushchev recognized that Kennedy would escalate to nuclear war to keep Soviet missiles out of Cuba. The world is fortunate Khrushchev also recognized that Soviet missiles in Cuba wasn't worth the destruction of the world, which of course would have included the obliteration of the USSR.

If our current rulers can't see the reverse asymmetry in play here, I don't think there's much hope of humanity surviving this crisis.