Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
My brother called me from Nouakchott yesterday. We had a long talk. Mauritania’s been doing an outstanding job with the coronavirus, by the way. They took this seriously way before any country in Europe did. When I flew in, on February 11, they were already wearing masks, taking everyone’s temperature on arrival, asking detailed questions of every incoming passenger about where they’d traveled before, and behaving like a country that sees a lethal global pandemic on the horizon. When I flew back to France, on February 24, exactly none of that happened. By early March, Mauritania had test kits and was able to test anyone with symptoms and give them the results of their tests within six hours.
I was amused by the story of the Italian tourists who thought they could evade Mauritania’s strict quarantine on Europeans—which they imposed just after I left—by slipping out of the hotel to which they’d been confined and wandering off into the desert. I could have told them—ain’t gonna work, fellas. Mauritanians know everything that happens in their desert. The téléphone arabe would have lit up instantly with the news that a bunch of Europeans in Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and designer desert gear were out there yelling at each other at the top of their lungs. “Ma siamo completamente bloccati nella sabbia, Bruno, quindi che cazzo vuoi che faccia?”Besides, there’s only one road from Nouakchott into that desert, and it’s paved with no-nonsense police checkpoints.
They were, of course, promptly apprehended and deported.
Anyway, Mauritania took the coronavirus dead seriously, right from the start. Their strategy for keeping it out of the country is actually very similar to their strategy for keeping jihadis out of the country, and both are a success. So now you’re much more at risk of being killed by a terrorist or the coronavirus in France, and when I speak to my father, I say things like, “Thank God they’re in Mauritania, where they’re safe.”
In the further annals of, “How quickly the worm turns,” 35 Italian tourists in Ethiopia, having overstayed their visas, have petitioned for asylum because their country of origin is not safe—giving rise to mirth among Ethiopians, of course, who have some experience of Italians overstaying their welcome. They’ve taken to referring to them as the “undocumented migrants from Europe.”
But that is not what we talked about. We talked about this newsletter. This is what he told me, and I think he’s probably right.
“Cut it in half. You’re just going on and on. Leo gets bored,” he said.
“Yeah, but he gets bored.”
“I am not going to start writing at a tenth-grade level because—”
“I am not—”
“Listen. It’s too long. It’s just not what I want from a newsletter. When Peter Zeihan’s newsletter shows up, I’m totally happy to see it. I know I’ll be distracted for exactly eight minutes. I want a newsletter to be eight minutes. It should be the same format, same length, same time of day—every morning, I wake up and it’s there. Twelve minutes at most. You could triple your success if you made it shorter. I will not read a 4,000-word newsletter—”
“Claire. This is my literary judgment. The point of a newsletter is that between taking care of the kids and telecommuting, people don’t have time to make sense of all that information out there. They need someone to summarize it and give them the right perspective. It shouldn’t take more time to read a newsletter than the original research paper. That’s why it’s a newsletter, not a newspaper.”
He had a point.
“Here’s what you have to do.” He was on a roll. “You need five sections. Just five. Every day. The same ones.”
“First, you need the daily denunciation. You gotta make people angry. People thrive on being angry. In most cases, you denounce Trump, but you’ve got to vary it—throw meat to the wolves. It shouldn’t be a long denunciation, but that’s how you have to start.”
“A daily denunciation. Okay.” I started taking notes.
“Then, second section, that should be the unusual question of the day. This is where you do your analysis. A paragraph. Like, ‘Why do people hoard toilet paper in a pandemic?’ …. No, I’m serious. That’s a fascinating question. Everything about it is fascinating. I want to understand this—sociologically, economically, psychoanalytically—”
“That will take more than a paragraph—”
“Well, okay, a long paragraph. But no more than that. Seriously, what’s up with Westerners and their toilet paper? Why do they love it so much? Why does it give them such a feeling of security to have a lot of it? Do you think it’s because using toilet paper gives them an outlet for their desire manually to stimulate their anuses?”
“Mischa, I can’t—”
“And stop going off on tangents. You’ve got to be disciplined.”
“Oh, and you need a chart of the day. People love charts. But here you need one, just one, personal anecdote of the day—or, I know! A recipe. People go bonkers for recipes. ‘Here’s an easy recipe you can make in lockdown that your whole family will love. You can make it with just a turnip after the food supply chain breaks down.” Or advice about exercising at home. Tell them, ‘So, this is the lockdown workout I just did.’
“Personal anecdote. Recipe,” I wrote in my notes.
“Then you should focus on one county. This is how it should work: It should be in terms of people’s experiences. Like, ‘Lately, I’ve been really into following Balazs Csekö, who really makes the experience of living in Hungary as it descends into a personal dictatorship come alive for me.’ Don’t do it in the voice-of-God style, just focus on one person. Or one essay. Like that New York Review of Books article about Bolsinaro , did you read that?
“It was excellent. It really made me understand Bolsinarismo. You should link to things like that. Or to a really great Twitter feed people don’t know about.”
“And then you finish by sharing letters from your correspondents. And your reply to them. People really like. And the chart of the day.”
“No photo of the day?”
“No, that’s stupid.”
“Why? I like photos.”
“No, just a chart. A chart.”
“And then you ask for money. At the end. The only limit is your pride.”
“Then you it over to the audience. Always end with a question.”
“Never more than 1,200 words.”
“Okay,” I said glumly.
I haven’t done a good job lately of telling Ricochet what I’m writing about and where to find it. I’ve resolved to change this. Sign up here for my free newsletter, which I’m now sending out every day (because I’m stuck in my apartment and I can’t go out to work).
These days, I’ve been writing about—what else—the pandemic. France is about ten days behind Italy and ten days ahead of the United States. So recently I’ve been writing about what Americans should expect, ten days from now, and unfortunately, this has proven very accurate.
I’ve also been writing about news that’s getting pushed off the front page because no one has the bandwidth right now, but this is news that really would be on the front pages of every newspaper, under normal circumstance. Around the world, eager despots are using this virus as an excuse to crack down on basic liberties. Russia and China are both acting in highly organized, effective ways to exploit the world’s confusion and chaos, and America’s distraction. Italy, for example—a NATO country—has invited the Russian military to come to Italy and run amok under the guise of “providing medical assistance.” So for the first time in history, the Red Army convoys are speeding through Italy—on NATO infrastructure. Usually, we’d think of that as a very big deal. These days? You have to subscribe to my newsletter to learn about it.
I’ve also invited readers to send me letters about their experiences of the virus and quarantine. I’ve published letters from Rome, Madrid, London, Delhi, Sydney, Paris, Singapore, Jerusalem, and from a very diverse sample of American cities. The letters people have sent me have blown my mind. I was expecting people to reply, but I wasn’t emotionally prepared for what they’d say. People seem to really need to tell this story, and tell it properly—I’m not receiving Tweets illustrated with emojis, I’m getting real letters—thoughtful, serious letters that might be source material, one day, for historians of the pandemic. They actually remind me of letters sent during the Civil War. This takes me aback, because I’ve always said the Civil War letters prove how illiterate we’ve become, and I’ve lamented that no one writes that way anymore, but clearly I was wrong. The letters are fascinating, terrifying, maddening, illuminating, and deeply moving. I plan to keep publishing them as long as my readers keep sending them.
If you like the newsletter, please sign up (it’s free), and if you love it, you can become a paying subscriber! That gives you access to the comments section, and, eventually, it will give you access to other good stuff, although for now, I’m putting all I’ve got into the free part. That means paying subscribers, for now, are only paying because they like the newsletter and want me to be able to keep writing it—or maybe because they like me and want me to be able to pay my bills. But I’ve been so touched by that support, and so relieved that other people value what I’m doing, because I’ve never felt more useless in my life. I’ve never more keenly felt the difference between the useful jobs and the jobs that only exist because people who do useful jobs allow the rest of us to live. There’s always been a big difference between a writer and an ICU nurse, or a garbageman, or a supermarket cashier, and I’ve always known that. But in recent weeks my awareness of this has been agonising: Why the hell didn’t I learn to do something more useful? So if people like what I’m writing enough to pay for it, even though they don’t have to, it helps slightly to relieve my sense of utter inadequacy and helplessness. Actually, one of the highest points of my career, maybe the highest, came a few days ago when I learned that one of my readers is a first responder in New York City.
I started this newsletter on a lark, because my brother suggested it, and I wasn’t very disciplined about it. But now it’s my full-time job, because I can’t leave my apartment. So I’m getting very serious about it, and it’s going to get better and better as I figure out how to do it right.
If you know someone who’s just lost his job, and is in dire economic straits, please send him my newsletter. (I seem to be the last writer on earth who uses “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun and finds it far more pleasing to the ear than any alternative, and Ricochet’s probably the last place left on earth where no one will object to it.) Free things are good at times like this. And forward it to all of your friends, including the ones who are still employed.
If you’re a healthcare worker, first responder, grain export inspector, or anyone else who’s now doing the difficult, dangerous work of keeping our civilization from collapsing, I’ll send you a gift subscription, which will give you access to a couple of boutique features, like the comments section. I guess you probably wouldn’t have time to use that. But I still want to give you a gift subscription–just on general principles.
I try to say at least one really interesting thing every time I send it out. So come on over and sign up—I’ll be waiting for you.
I presume that you’ve all received invitations to read what I’ve been publishing lately, haven’t you? Perhaps several times, even? If not, let me know right away. Everyone who contributed to my book campaign should be on my mailing list, but it’s possible your e-mail filters are rejecting my newsletters as spam, or that somehow I’ve accidentally deleted your address. It might help if I send the newsletters from a different address, so be sure to let me know. If you didn’t contribute, but want to be on the mailing list, just send me your address through the contact form on my website.
For those of you who are new to Ricochet, may I invite you? Please have a look, if you think it would be interesting, at the collection of essays I’ve been publishing recently the decline of liberal democracy in the West and the rise of the new Caesarism. When I’ve finished published them all online, I’ll be bringing out a print copy—these essays are chapters of a book. This is a crowdfunded projected of two years, now, one that would have been impossible without the support of Ricochet’s readers. It’s a tremendous tribute to Ricochet, and to its culture of civility and curiosity, that so many of you have not only sponsored the research and writing of a book, but a book full of ideas with which many of you, I know, don’t agree. These are the small things that make me hopeful for freedom of expression and the quality of American political discourse.
As for the latter: I’ve received a number of contributions to the campaign recently from people saying, “I may not agree with everything you say on social media, but I appreciate that you’re polite.” It’s notable that people say this. I think it’s my Ricochet background. I always smile and think, “Yes, that’s the Ricochet Finishing School effect.” In an upcoming essay about political polarization, I’ll be writing about lessons I learned from editing Ricochet—both about how the Internet and other new media technologies have accelerated the process of polarization, but also how to reduce polarization by adhering to a Code of Conduct everywhere on the Internet. I think everyone here will be interested in it.
If you’re just tuning in, or if you didn’t receive the newsletters, and you want to see the whole archive, you can find all the essays in reverse chronological order, here.
I was thinking that perhaps for Ricochet members who contributed to the book, I could do a private Q&A about these essays. Or a Reddit style AMA, even. Would anyone enjoy that? If so, when would be the best time to do it? Perhaps on a Sunday afternoon? Let me know if that interests you. (I could also do a podcast, if any of you would like to interview me about what I’ve been writing.)
For now, liberal democracy needs more saving, so I’m going to get back to work. I’m looking forward to hearing all your comments and questions. (Oh, by the way: I haven’t figured out how to enable comments on the newsletter. I think it’s a feature for paid subscribers, but the newsletter is free, so I can’t enable it. I’ll see if I can sort that out. For now, just leave your comments here. I may take a few days to read them all and reply, but I definitely will.)
Thank you for your warm, kind, and compassionate comments about the fire at Notre Dame. For most of the world, this was a tragedy in a far-away place; for me, it was a devastating fire in my neighborhood, one that’s left everyone here, including me, quite shaken up.
I’ve received several e-mails, and seen in the comments, suggestions to the effect that “it’s hard not to wonder if the fire were started by Muslim terrorists,” along with comments that say, “We’ll never know the truth,” because were this so, it would be hidden from “the likes of us.”
I think I can ease your concerns in this respect. Here is what is true. It is true, according to a report of the Ministry of the Interior, that in 2017, there were 978 attacks on religious buildings and graveyards in France, including 878 against Christian sites. It is also true that recently, thugs and vandals have done an extraordinary amount of violence and damage to buildings of every sort during demonstrations in Paris, Lyon, and many other cities. But yes, arsonists and vandals have been targeting French churches in a wave of attacks that’s lasted nearly two months. Some have been set on fire, while others have been desecrated or damaged. For example:
- The large wooden door on the southern transept St. Sulpice, the second-largest church in Paris, after Notre Dame Cathedral, was set ablaze on March 17. Investigators confirmed one day later that arsonists were to blame. Someone drenched rags in kerosene and threw them in the church. It’s still unclear whether it was a settling of accounts between homeless people—the clothes belonged to a homeless person—or a deliberate attack on the church itself.
- In early February, the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Enfants in Nimes, near the Spanish border, was invaded by intruders who drew a cross on a wall with excrement then stuck consecrated hosts to it. The tabernacle was broken, and other consecrated hosts were destroyed.
- The Church of St Nicholas in Houilles, in north-central France, was targeted by intruders who destroyed a statue of Mary and threw the altar cross to the floor.
- Statues of saints were broken and an altar cloth set on fire in Saint-Alain Cathedral in Lavaur, in south-central France. Hosts were stolen from the Church of Notre-Dame in Dijon, in eastern France, and scattered on the ground.
- French media reported a 35-year-old man has confessed to police to carrying out the attack in Houilles, but the mystery surrounding the identities of other culprits has fueled speculation that the offenses might have been carried out by Islamic extremists, secularists, radical feminists, or in response to revelations of sexual abuse in the clergy.
- In February, the French bishops expressed their solidarity with the country’s Jews following the release of figures that showed a 74 percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks the previous year, with 541 crimes documented in 2018. Most attacks involved physical violence and abuse, the profaning of shops, and the desecration of monuments and cemeteries.
- On February 6, vandals broke into the tabernacle at the church of Notre-Dame-des-Enfants, in Nîmes. (6 February). They scattered the hosts on the ground, drew a cross on the wall with excrement and damaged other religious items in the churchs.
- On February 9, fire broke out and a church was vandalized in Dijon.
- Fire and vandalism damaged the Saint-Alain Cathedral in Lavaur, south-central France, on February 5. An altar cloth was found burnt and crosses and statues were torn down or disfigured.
- From January 25 to February 25, Yvelines suffered repeated acts of vandalism. A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was found smashed on the ground, another on the tabernacle. Before that, the altar cross had been found on the ground and the celebrant’s chair was damaged.
- The church of Saint Nicolas in Maisons-Laffitte was vandalized on February 10. The tabernacle was opened and the Eucharist scattered. An altar cloth was stained and a missal book was torn.
The spate of vandalism recalls the series of attacks and vandalism committed by ISIS against the Catholic Church in France and Belgium in 2016, culminating in the unbearable murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel, killed by jihadists while celebrating Mass at a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy. NB: The suspects, in all the above cases, are not only usual ones. In some cases the motive for the attacks is not known; in others, the police have blamed anarchist and feminist groups. (Despite being a secular country, France has long been viewed as a culturally Christian one. So, any nut who’s keen to carry out an attack against authority and “the patriarchy” would think first of targeting a church. There has been some speculation, too, that the attacks may be connected to revelations of the sexual abuse scandal in Catholicism. That has not, at least, helped to reduce ambient levels of anticlericalism. The weekly orgies of lawlessness and vandalism associated with the Gilets Jaunes’ movement have also lowered the barrier to entry to anyone who wants to try giving vandalism for kicks a shot.
That said, I see no reason to think the fire at Notre Dame was started intentionally. Notre Dame is the country’s highest-value terrorist target — second perhaps only to the president and the Senate. It is under 24-hour security watch, with cameras trained on it from every angle; it’s patrolled both by the military and the counter-terror police, including plainclothes. Also, there are thousands of personal cameras trained on it at any given minutes because tourists take pictures there all day long. If an arsonist had done something as strange as scaling the church, Spiderman-style, to reach the place where the fire broke out, we’d have thousands of photos of it — and someone would have stopped him.
The fire started from the top (I saw this). Or more precisely, from the base of the steeple. No arsonist, however determined, could have made his way up there without anyone noticing. I’ve been up to the attic, with my grandfather. It isn’t easy to get up there—it’s nearly 60 meters above the ground, to get there you use a spiral staircase which is closed at the base by a heavy, locked door —and there’s just no way someone could have evaded detection to do it. The attic isn’t open to the public.
Their working hypothesis is the obvious one. They’d been carrying out restoration work in the spire to strengthen it. As part of the work, they installed elevators to the roof. The suspicion is that an electrical fault started the blaze. Negligence may have been involved: One of the fire alarms went off but in a different section of the building. The inspectors didn’t see the fire, so they dismissed it, losing precious time. By the time the security guards saw the first flames, they were already several meters high.
The authorities know exactly who had access to the attic. That night, even before the fire had been put out, prosecutors interrogated roughly 30 people from five different construction companies who had been there before the fire broke out. These people are not ordinary construction workers; they’re highly trained professionals who have trained for years in the painstaking art of restoring gothic cathedrals. You don’t make a career in restoring gothic cathedrals if you’re the sort who wants to see them burn. They interrogated them on the night of the fire and had probably already cross-checked their names in all their databases to see if any of them had a criminal record or a radical political past, Islamist or anti-clerical. That’s not a “too-quick dismissal” of the arson theory; it’s most than enough time to come to a reasonably strong conclusion that arson is not the lead hypothesis.
An arsonist would have done what the vandals did in the cases I cited above, or he would have thrown a Molotov cocktail into the nave. He wouldn’t have climbed to the attic, with everyone on the street watching, then set a tiny blaze that no one would notice for another half an hour.
Nor would the police here be in the least hesitant to say they suspected it was arson, if indeed they suspected it. The reason you know that the the fires at other churches were started by arsonists is because the police said so. You can’t hide something like that. Just like Washington, Paris leaks, and if there had been any decision to try to cover up the truth, you can be sure someone would have tipped off the press and the Senate and the opposition politicians. France, like the US, is a fractious, vibrant democracy, and it’s still under the rule of law. A cover-up like that would be illegal as hell. Being told to cover up the results of a lawful investigation would scandalize the prosecutors. They wouldn’t consent. It would leak, a thousand times over; or more likely, they’d just come forward, we’d see resignations on principle, and total political hysteria. They couldn’t even cover up what Benalla did, and that was a thousand times less significant. No government official, fire service official, or police service official in Paris has suggested any evidence of arson. That means there’s probably no evidence.
Now to be precise, they haven’t ruled out the idea that it was deliberate. They’ve said their chief investigative thesis is that it wasn’t, because there’s thus far no evidence that it was, and by appeal to Occam’s razor, “an accident” is the most obvious hypothesis. Great buildings are vulnerable to fire during restoration because of the tools and chemicals that must be used, and because they’re very old. Cathedrals like Notre Dame are at acute risk because of their ancient wooden roofs. If they weren’t so old and precious, they’d be condemned as firetraps. Construction work on a cathedral is always especially risky because of the open flames and sparks associated with welding and other construction hazards. Windsor Castle burned in 1992, IIRC; the fire began with a bright lamp and cleaning solvent. I don’t wager the workers would have been reckless enough to have smoked in Notre Dame, but then again, I notice that the workers who are right now carrying out restoration on my building sometimes smoke on the scaffolding.
As the cathedral burned on Monday, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and deliberate disinformation campaigns went viral on social media—many of them coming from Our Friends the Russians, as usual, and some even gaining mention on live US TV coverage. I suppose it’s inevitable. When you combine an international event of so much emotional significance with the rapid dissemination of news on social media, you’re going to get misinformation and, sometimes, completely fabricated conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, this is upsetting for people who lived through the event and who experienced it not only as the global trauma it was but as a personal one, too. Or to put it more plainly: It upsets me.
Catholic League President Bill Donohue told Neil Cavuto that, “if it is an accident, it’s a monumental tragedy. But forgive me for being suspicious.”
“Just last month, a 17th-century church was set on fire in Paris,” Donohue said. “We have seen tabernacles knocked down, crosses have been torn down, statues have been smashed.” In another interview with Host Shep Smith, Philippe Karsenty — the deputy mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine — said something similar: “We’ve had churches desecrated each and every week all over France” over the past few years. “You will hear the story of the political correctness which will tell you it’s probably an accident, but I don’t think,” he said before he was abruptly (but rightly) cut off by Smith.
Internet users speculated that it was a terrorist act, as did one video that made the rounds showing some guy walking toward one of the cathedral’s towers not long after the fire started with the caption: “No workers present at the time that the Notre Dame Cathedral fire started……So who is this guy dressed in Muslim garb??”
Well, first, he wasn’t dressed in “Muslim garb.” Second, he was a firefighter.
There’s a long history of church fires caused by renovation accidents (the easiest way to ensure that your church is burned down is to try to repair it) because welding and cutting tools are often in use, and large parts of older structures are made of wood. The roof of Notre Dame was made of 5,000 oak trees, felled some 750 years ago and now perfect tinder, so any spark or electric arc from the renovation could easily start a fire. So that’s probably what happened. There’s no evidence of foul play, and if there were, we’d be told of it. And there is some chance we will never know: Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said the investigation would be “long and complex,” explaining that approximately 50 investigators had begun a probe into the 12-hour-long fire. The evidence may have perished in the blaze.
I hope that sets your minds at ease. Alas, here, our complaint is with a much higher authority.
My father is safe, but he’s been evacuated—indefinitely—so he’s sleeping in my bed. I’m sleeping in the attic. “It’s twenty years, I’ve been looking out on Notre Dame. That building is completely part of my life,” he said, before falling asleep.
It’s devastating. To walk across the Seine and not see the spire is devastating. To some extent, you know the feeling: it’s like seeing the Twin Towers in flames. A sense at once that it cannot be happening, and yet it is. I’ve just heard that the rose windows — built in 1260 — exploded. They are lost I feel a grief I can’t describe: They won’t be there for the next generation. Passed on, and passed on, generation after generation, and now, forevermore, people will see replicas of those windows. Reconstructions. With a plaque that explains there was a fire.
In the crowd, as we watched it burn, someone tried to rally spirits by singing the Marseillaise. I joined him. We got to “L’étendard sanglant est levé,” and someone said, “Bah oui,” and then we both fell silent.
There is some good news: they have saved the structure. The North tower has been saved. There is bad: a fireman has been severely injured. The roof has almost entirely been destroyed. The upper rose windows have melted.
I tried to describe what I was seeing to my father, but couldn’t. “We use the word ‘cathedral’ as a metaphor for everything,” I said. “What metaphor do you use for this?” I pointed at the cathedral in flames.
“It’s not a good omen,” he said.
Happy New Year!
I woke up this morning and checked the headlines. This is what I saw:
In city after city around the world, people celebrated the new year in peace.
That didn’t happen by accident. Imagine the amount of work that went into ensuring that when we woke up, we saw only happy headlines.
The headlines we didn’t see were the real story. The real story: Around the world, hundreds of thousands of overworked, exhausted, and often unappreciated security officials — cops, soldiers, intelligence officials — did their jobs and did them tirelessly.
(And the dogs, too.)
Congratulations. Well done. Thank you. And a very Happy New Year to each and every one of you.
It’s that time of the year! The day when every mission-critical job–including Ricochet editor–is done by religious minorities. As many of you know, we have a longstanding tradition of celebrating Jewish Christmas on Ricochet.
Mollie tried, in 2012, bless her heart, but what does she know from Jewish Christmas?
Fortunately, Judith was here in 2013 to take over the solemn responsibilities …
So, as our long tradition demands, I shall be here all day, Ricochet, holding down the fort, ordering Chinese take-out, and complaining that there’s not much to do — oh, and wishing everyone a “Happy Holidays” like it’s still the Obama Administration.
In fact, there’s nothing to do. Christmas is stretching out ahead of me as a solid 24 hours of total boredom, folks. So if anyone else is celebrating Jewish Christmas with me, let’s have some fun. Shall we read some Lincoln together and argue about our favorite Civil War generals?
Based on a post I wrote here, I wrote a much longer piece about the Weinsteining phenomenon for The American Interest. (Warning: the language is not safe for work and not appropriate for Ricochet. That I used those words there doesn’t mean you can use them here. If you can figure out how to describe the Louis CK imbroglio in family-friendly language, more power to you.)
I was flabbergasted by the response. I had expected nothing but vituperation. I was fully braced for it, and had just decided, “Well, you’ll have an awful week, but it has to be said, so just stay off social media until it all blows over.” I pretty much figured I was Hal:
I was wrong. It seems to be the most widely-read and widely-appreciated article I’ve ever written, at least to judge from the site traffic and the mail I’ve received in response. Even the hate mail seemed a bit wan and pro-forma. The authors’ hearts clearly weren’t really into it.
I don’t know what this means. Vanity would prompt me to think, “I am the greatest writer in the world and I wrote the best article in history, that’s why everyone loved it.” But narcissism is never your friend when you’re trying to figure out why people are doing strange things that you did not expect them to do. That wasn’t the best or the most important thing I’ve ever written. I pretty much dashed it off. I didn’t do any research in the archives or sweat blood over the prose.
Still, I figure a quarter of a million people will have read it by the end of the week.
When last I checked the records at the Bodleian, I discovered that no one–literally not one single soul–had ever checked my doctoral thesis out of the library. I don’t think anyone has ever purchased it, either. I’m pretty sure this is not because my doctoral thesis wasn’t as good as that article. I’d like to think it was quite a bit better, actually. If not, I sure wasted a lot of time.
When something connects with readers this much, it says something about the audience, not the writer. So I’m wondering, hopefully: Perhaps this reaction means we’ve passed peak hysteria? Maybe it means people are truly longing to have a bit of common sense back?
I sure hope so. Because if you were to read all the mail I’ve received since I published that article, you’d weep. Hundreds of letters–most, but not all, from men–expressing sentiments no one in a free society should even have the vocabulary to express.
Some of the people who wrote were quite prominent, but most were, I think, just ordinary guys–guys who are now so scared of women, so broken-hearted, so baffled, that I wish I could just teleport them off our planet to a sane place where women are kind to them and the rules about sex are clear. That seems to be all they want, and it hardly seems an unreasonable demand. From one such letter:
Every rejection, every break-up, every dissolution of a union and you die a little more inside; less of a person, a broken wrecked empty shell of a man; weighed down by so many missed opportunities, so much baggage and misanthropic self-loathing. I had a fiancée once – then she cheated on me and I was never quite right after that. They say you grow with each relationship, but I’d argue the opposite; with each you lose a part of yourself, until nothing more than a torso with a head flopping around on the muddy ground.
Being accused of sexual harassment on the other hand for starting a conversation – or even the paranoid fear of this happening – would be life destroying. I respect women (the best relationships I’ve had have all been FLR); I love women, I hold all of them in such high regard; as an atheist, to be seen positively by a woman is to glimpse the face of God – and it is precisely for that reason that rejection or a negative reaction is so debilitating. It tells the person being rejected they are worthless garbage. Now, however, it also comes with a (possible) side order of accusations of being a harasser.
The price and danger of speaking with a woman has changed from being humiliated in public and having one’s self-esteem wiped out (which as much as I hate it, I have always begrudgingly accepted as the price men must pay in order to date – you want to have a relationship, fine, then be prepared to suffer excruciatingly for it or accept soul crushing loneliness), to now facing vitriolic accusations, extreme pillorying, and possible arrest.
Try to empathise with this fact – the current climate takes a pre-existing instinctive horror, found in nice but shy men, and multiplies it by 10,000 burning suns. It’s days like these I honestly wish I were a gay man. So much easier (based on observing the lives of gay friends). Heterosexual men have the hardest time. Of all the options available to us in life, none are without some kind of judgement by others and a prolonged feeling of agony. It’s honestly no wonder I drink so much.
What can I say? Yes, I did write back to tell him to take women off that pedestal–we’re no substitute for God.
The piece received very little of the criticism I expected. Only a couple of death threats, and these were from readers who were furious at my suggestion that the Trump presidency might be a source of general social anxiety. (I think they might be missing the point, or a bit too deep in their bubble — whether or not you think his presidency should be a source of anxiety, it’s incontrovertible that for many Americans, it is a source of anxiety. Receiving their messages sure didn’t reduce mine.)
One criticism I saw repeatedly is that I failed to appreciate what this was really about: equal opportunity in the workplace. I was referred, for example, to this article by Rebecca Traister, called “This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex.”
I read it closely. I genuinely, deeply disagree with her. For example, she writes,
What makes women vulnerable is not their carnal violability, but rather the way that their worth has been understood as fundamentally erotic, ornamental; that they have not been taken seriously as equals; that they have been treated as some ancillary reward that comes with the kinds of power men are taught to reach for and are valued for achieving. How to make clear that the trauma of the smaller trespasses — the boob grabs and unwanted kisses or come-ons from bosses — is not necessarily even about the sexualized act in question; so many of us learned to maneuver around hands-y men without sustaining lasting emotional damage when we were 14.
Rather, it’s about the cruel reminder that these are still the terms on which we are valued, by our colleagues, our bosses, sometimes our competitors, the men we tricked ourselves into thinking might see us as smart, formidable colleagues or rivals, not as the kinds of objects they can just grab and grope and degrade without consequence. It’s not that we’re horrified like some Victorian damsel; it’s that we’re horrified like a woman in 2017 who briefly believed she was equal to her male peers but has just been reminded that she is not, who has suddenly had her comparative powerlessness revealed to her. “I was hunting for a job,” said one of the women who accused Charlie Rose of assault. “And he was hunting for me.”
My response is that there is no contradiction between seeing oneself as smart and formidable and seeing oneself as an object of male attraction. They are not mutually exclusive. It is not a “cruel” thing to be reminded that one is a woman. Depending on the circumstances, it may certainly be awkward. It may require telling someone, “No.” If that doesn’t work, we are then in clear criminal territory, and of course I support laws against rape, or any similar bodily violation, and the enforcement of those laws.
But there is nothing about learning one’s colleagues find you attractive that should negate a woman’s self-esteem. It is entirely possible for a man to see a woman as smart and formidable and therefore desirable. Inherent to Ms. Traister’s argument is something like a Madonna-whore dichotomy–the very form of thought that feminists have long noted and deplored. If your male peers see you sexual, in her view, then they must not respect you.
But this is not so.
Of course it depends what kind of grabbing and groping we’re talking about — in her article she mentions accounts of rape in the workplace, which obviously is not in any kind of ambiguous grey zone, no less the zone I describe in my article. But an unwanted kiss? A hint that an employee may also have “erotic” or “ornamental” attributes in addition to her professional skills? There is no reason for any woman to feel degraded by this, unless she herself is insecure about her value as an employee.
By such logic, I would observe that even though I’ve spent my life thinking and writing about foreign policy, nothing I’ve written about foreign policy has ever made as much of a splash as an article I wrote about sex: I would thus be horrified. But I’m not. I get it. Sex sells. It will always sell. I chose to write about this, and now I’m going to go back to writing about foreign policy, because that’s a more important use of my time.
I do not feel horrified at the discovery that I can become very popular, very quickly, by writing about sex. I don’t think this entails I am only valuable to my readers when I write about sex. I think it entails that as always, sex is on everyone’s mind. And if I can use this fact to direct people’s attention to more important concerns — like Europe and the future of NATO — that’s a bonus, not an insult.
It’s not just men who are afraid. I’ve received many letters from women, too, who are deeply worried about what this will mean for us. They agree with me. The backlash will be terrible for women as a professional class. Any woman with an ounce of sense can see where this inevitably leads: strict sexual segregation. The number of men who have written to me that they now refuse to be alone with a woman unless there are witnesses is chilling. This is a Puritan, reactionary movement, dressed up as feminism.
To be clear, I was unnerved by all the attention that article received, even though it was overwhelmingly positive. But I was unnerved because of what it says about America right now, not because of what it says about me. It doesn’t seem healthy that Americans are thinking so much about this. I’m still at the top of The American Interest’s “trending” list. My article is sitting next to Adam Garfinkle’s reflections on the significance of the US recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He is a wonderful, deeply learned writer. Anything he has to say about Jerusalem is by definition more important than anything I have to say about sexual hysteria and moral panics. But readers are clicking on my article instead of his.
I appreciate that sex sells, but since when does Jerusalem fail to sell? What does this mean about the degree to which we’ve become insular and inward-dwelling?
I’d usually complain that far too much media attention was going toward Jerusalem–as opposed to all the other parts of the world that require attention. Yet it seems to me aberrant that Americans who read The American Interest, which is, after all, a foreign policy journal, would not first click on Adam’s article. His is a lot more important, in the big scheme of things.
Or maybe, as I wrote to Adam, “it’s for the better that the world is so busy being obsessed with sex that it forgets to be obsessed with Jews.”
Anyway, that’s all I want to say about this subject. I’m now going to go back to thinking about Europe and the future of liberal democracy.
Some of you have just received a lot of the post below in the form of a batch of updates from GoFundMe. But please keep reading, because I have questions for you at the end!
I wanted to share my progress as the book enters the final lap. I sent to everyone who’s contributed, so far, some of the flap copy, the Table of Contents, the book’s introductory paragraphs, and a bit of sample material — enough so you can envision what it would be like to pick this up in a bookstore and thumb through it (or skim through it on Amazon), trying to decide whether it interests you enough that you might buy it.
I also wanted to express my gratitude, again, to every one of you. Some of you have contributed to this book specifically; others haven’t, but every one of you has offered me so much food for thought, and offered it so generously, in the comments of Ricochet. Your comments, even when you’ve sharply disagreed with me, have helped to shape this book more than you’ll perhaps ever know.
To those who contributed to the book campaign: I’ll never know how properly to thank you, both for the honor — and it was an honor to find that so many of you trusted that I’d be able to write a book worth reading — and for giving me such a priceless luxury: time. Virginia Woolf thought that to write, women needed a room of their own. Yes, that’s probably true — but they also need time, and these days, that’s much harder to find. I used that time to read, to reflect and length, and to write — not only about what we’re now seeing in the world, but about what I saw personally, especially in Turkey. There’s been great catharsis in doing that. Of course, writing a book is not about catharsis. In the final draft, I hope, there will be no hint of these emotions. I write for the benefit of my readers, not as a form of psychotherapy. That doesn’t change the fact that I found it valuable, emotionally, really to reflect upon, and try to make sense of, everything I’ve seen in the world since the end of the Cold War. Thank you for giving me that time. That helped me, personally.
Now to the book. (Some of you have seen this already in the mailing from GoFundMe. Just skip down to the questions, below)
FLAP COPY. So imagine you’re picking this book and thinking, “Hmmm. Should I buy this?” Would this grab you?
THE PAST DECADE has seen a global authoritarian revolution. In the West, a very particular form of authoritarianism is triumphing — an entertaining but empty form of democracy denuded of everything that makes democracy meaningful.
This is the New Caesarism, so-called because it arises in circumstances reminiscent of those that destroyed the Roman Republic. The founders of the United States, avid students of classical history, knew intimately the story its downfall. They fully understood that democracy and freedom were not identical, and indeed in tension. They grasped the implications of this. Contemporary Americans do not grasp this, and this has had grave consequences. “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics,” Alexander Hamilton warned, “the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” What Hamilton feared is precisely what is now happening to established constitutional orders the world around — including ours.
Claire Berlinski argues that this is a genuinely new species of Caesarism, however, one even the founders could not have imagined. We have been slow to recognize the threat it poses because in some respects it is unlike anything humanity has seen before. We are confused because these regimes are genuine democracies, where rulers enjoy real popularity. But the rights and freedoms that Americans associate with the word “democracy” don’t exist — and the ruler’s popularity is based on a system of total surveillance and thought control, one we have made possible through the invention of the 21st-century’s revolutionary new communication technologies.
The New Caesars are learning from each other. The Internet has made their ideology — and yes, they do have a real, coherent ideology — virulently contagious. Such regimes, Putin’s in particular, harness formidable state security apparatuses to spread their form of governance. The New Caesars employ similar, almost stereotyped, strategies to gain power and keep it. This book will tell you what those strategies are and how to recognize them.
In the global war between liberal democrats and the New Caesars, Europe is the critical battlefield. Authoritarian movements and political figures now endanger Europe’s democracy and its long postwar peace, the basis of the postwar global order. We take this order, the only world our generation of Americans has ever known, for granted. But we cannot flourish, and may not survive, in its absence. The battle to control Europe’s future urgently demands our attention.
Understanding these events in Europe is the key to understanding what is happening to us, now. But the daily news cycle and its associated culture encourage us to understand these events and their relationship to our recent experiences poorly and superficially. This book makes the relationship clear: It places the headlines that flicker incessantly over our cell phone screens in their wider historical and global context.
The author’s understanding of New Caesarism as a distinct political phenomenon was profoundly shaped by the decade she spent reporting from Turkey on the rise and consolidation of the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkish politics tend to strike most Americans as distant, alien and irrelevant to them, but they are not: Erdoğan followed a template pioneered by the ur-Caesar, Vladimir Putin, and used by aspiring Caesars around the globe. Millions have recently lived through a similar authoritarian cascade in a long list of countries from Hungary to the Philippines.
The author has personally lived through every stage of the transition to New Caesarism, and she warns that America is not immune. Our constitution, culture, and geography are safeguards — they are what will save us, if we can be saved — but we cannot repose in them all our confidence. Turkey, too, had strong constitutional, cultural, and geographic safeguards. They failed.
To understand what is happening to us, we must begin looking, again, at the rest of the world. That is where we will find the insights we need to meet the 21st century’s challenges. If we fail to do this, and to draw the right lessons — we too are at risk of losing our freedom and meanly losing the last best hope of earth.
What do you think, would you keep thumbing through that book?
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: What the Hell?
Chapter 1. The Crisis of Liberal Democracy
Chapter 2. The Aquarium
Chapter 3. Old Caesarism
Chapter 4: New Caesarism
Chapter 5: Caesar, Globalization, and the Internet
Chapter 6: American Caesarism
Chapter 7: European Caesarism
Chapter 8: Russian Caesarism
Chapter 9: Caesars, Muslims, Migrants, and Myths
Chapter 10: A Tour of Caesar’s Europe
Chapter 11. How to be a New Caesar: A Case Study
Chapter 12. What is to be Done?
Conclusion: Against Despair
Here are the opening paragraphs:
WHEN THE BERLIN WALL fell, scholars spoke seriously of the End of History: the terminus of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universal adoption of liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
Thirty years later, things are not as we had hoped. The structures that made Western countries the world’s most envied, powerful, wealthy, free, and decent have been hollowed out from within and attacked from without. Authoritarian governments are coming to power not through coups or revolutions, but through the ballot box.
What does this mean?
An astonishing array of kooks, many cultivated and financed by the Kremlin, have gained prominence and power, from Ukip in Britain to Syriza in Greece, from the Corbynite wing of the British Labour Party to Spain’s Podemos, from Jobbik in Hungary to Golden Dawn in Greece, from the Northern League in Italy to France’s Front National Front. A race would seem to be upon the West to embrace history’s most comprehensively discredited ideologies. Adherents of these movements inhabit a morally inverted world where the European Union is the USSR and Vladimir Putin is the Moral Custodian of the West—even as Russia, relying on unreconstructed Soviet organs of statecraft, literally invades Europe …
Would you want to keep reading?
And here’s some sample material, something you might come across as you’re thumbing through, trying to decise whether this interests you. It comes from the chapter called New Caesarism:
POLITICAL SCIENTISTS HAVE TERMED the period from 2006 to the present the “decade of decline.” What is in decline is freedom. According to every index that may be tracked, the world is becoming more authoritarian—and strongly so, and quickly.
Freedom in the World, an annual and highly reliable report on political rights and civil liberties published by Freedom House, has shown that crucial measures of freedom have declined in each of the ten years in question. This is the sharpest and longest democratic recession since Freedom House began collecting data.
“Democratic recession” is their term, not mine. The phrase is poorly-chosen. It is a symptom of our confusion. By Freedom House’s count, more than 60 percent of the world’s countries are electoral democracies. This is anything but a recession; to the contrary, it represents a massive increase in democracy: In the late 1980s, fewer than 40 percent of the world’s nations were democracies. Nonetheless, as Freedom House show, 105 countries have, in the past decade, suffered net declines in freedom. Countries that were authoritarian to begin with became even more repressive. And a “parallel pattern of institutional erosion” has occurred among established democratic states, “pushing them into the category of ‘illiberal democracies.’
The category, under their definition, compasses countries where elections are held regularly, under reasonably fair conditions.
“But the state, usually under the control of a strong party or leader, applies much of its energy to the systematic weakening of political pluralism and the creation of a skewed electoral playing field. Opposition parties are often impotent, freedom of the press is circumscribed, and the judiciary tends to be dominated by the ruling party. Countries that fit this description include Hungary, Bolivia, Ecuador, and, if recent trends continue, Poland.”
This is the New Caesarism. There no other single, widely-recognized term for this form of governance, although political scientists have studied it extensively. Other terms in vogue include hybrid regimes, partial democracy, low-intensity democracy, or empty democracy; others have personalized it, calling it Putinism, Orbánism, or Erdoğanism. We now have a wealth of evidence about the way these regimes arise, their common characteristics, and what it is like to live in them. Most Americans are unfamiliar with this evidence. They do not realize how relevant it is to our own recent political experiences. They have no reason to be conversant with the academic literature about this regime type. They may sense that something unites the regimes in Russia, Turkey, or Hungary, but they will not know quite what it is.
What unites such regimes is that they are democracies—real ones—where rulers derive their legitimacy from elections and the public’s widespread support. But they are democracies where citizens do not enjoy the rights and freedoms Americans associate with the word “democracy.” Such regimes come to power, and stay in power, in a very particular way.
Russia’s Putinization was the ur-Putinization—the template for New Caesars everywhere. The Kremlin is now endeavouring energetically to spread its form of governance throughout Europe. In many places, it is succeeding. Illiberal movements have gained enough power in Europe to pose a severe threat to established liberal orders. The New Caesars have conquered Europe’s periphery and they are making steady inroads on its heart. …
And now, here’s where I need Ricochet’s help.
The chapter that’s still undeveloped — the one that’s holding up the works — is the chapter before this one, the chapter called Old Caesarism. I’ll bet many of you would have interesting things to say about this subject, or suggestions for further reading that could help me make this chapter what I really want it to be.
I argue in this chapter that the forms of authoritarian governance and political moods now sweeping the world have ancient historical antecedents. Critics often evoke the fascist movements of the 1930s — and they’re not wholly wrong. But I argue that fascism is not the most relevant historic precedent, nor will studying it give us the insights we need to understand what’s happening. The more relevant precedents, in my view, are older — much older
The phrase “Caesarian democracy” comes from the great European historian Lewis Namier. It evokes, as it is meant to do, Roman imperial decay. I argue that to understand the new Caesarism, we must look, literally, to the old Caesarism — specifically, to the Roman Republic at the close of the 2nd Century BC.
Caesarian democracy has since reappeared, at regular intervals, in in Western history. As Namier wrote,
Such morbid cults have by now acquired a tradition and ideology, and have evolved their own routine and political vocabulary. … Napoleon III and Boulanger were to be the plagiarists, shadowy and counterfeit, of Napoleon I; and Mussolini and Hitler were to be unconscious reproducers of the methods of Napoleon III. For these are inherent in plebiscitarian Caesarism, or so-called “Caesarian democracy,” with its direct appeal to the masses: demagogical slogans; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political parties and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism; gigantic, blatant displays and shady corruption. Panem et circenses once more and at the end of the road, disaster.
In this chapter, I’m looking at notable historic examples of such “morbid cults” — their similarities, and the circumstances under which they have emerged. And I explore the theme of America and Rome.
As of course you know, the American founders were avid classicists. They consciously imitated Rome. So perhaps, I argue, we shouldn’t be so surprised that modern constitutional democracies are afflicted with Roman problems? I tell the story of the destruction of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire — a story with which, alas, far too many Americans are now unfamiliar.
But the problem is that I am not, myself, as familiar with that story as I ought to be. And here’s where you might be able to help. I’m not a classicist. I don’t read Latin. But I do believe we have among us some first-rate classicists, no? Or perhaps some enthusiastic amateurs? What books have proven most useful to you in understanding Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire?
And what books, in particular — or documents, or resources — have helped you better to understand how the Founding Fathers viewed these events? I want to know what they thought was the moral of this story, what lessons they drew from it, and how this shaped the world in which we now live.
Next, I wonder if any of you have read a 1958 book by a French scholar, Amaury de Riencourt, called The Coming Caesars. I read it for the first time recently and thought, “This is the most interesting thing a Frenchman has written about the United States since de Tocqueville.” When it was published, The New York Times said, “A few decades from now, some later historian may dig out this book and proclaim him a prophet.”
Well, here I am.
Here’s his prophecy:
Our Western world is threatened with Caesarism on a scale unknown since the dawn of the Roman Empire. It is the contention of this book that expanding democracy leads unintentionally to imperialism and that imperialism inevitably ends in destroying the republican institutions of earlier days; further, that the greater the social equality the dimmer the prospects of liberty, and that as society becomes more equalitarian, it tends increasingly to concentrate power in the hands of one man. Caesarism is not a dictatorship, not the result of one man’s overriding ambition, not a brutal seizure of power through revolution. It is not based on a specific doctrine or philosophy. It is essentially pragmatic and untheoretical. It is a slow, often century-old, unconscious development that ends in the voluntary surrender of a free people escaping from freedom to one autocratic master.
Doesn’t that sound just a bit too eerily accurate to you?
If you’ve read the book, what did you think of his arguments?
De Riencourt likened Europe to ancient Greece and the United States to Rome. Not only did the United States have a Roman culture, he argued, it had a Roman future:
With Caesarism and Civilization, the great struggles between political parties are no longer concerned with principles, programs and ideologies, but with men. Marius, Sulla, Cato, Brutus still fought for principles. But now, everything became personalized. Under Augustus, parties still existed, but there were no more Optirnates or Populares, no more conservatives or democrats. Men campaigned for or against Tiberius or Drusus or Caius Caesar. No one believed any more in the efficacy of ideas, political panaceas, doctrines, or systems, just as the Greeks had given up building great philosophic systems generations before.
Abstractions, ideas, and philosophies were rejected to the periphery of their lives and of the empire, to the East where Jews, Gnostics, Christians, and Mithraists attempted to conquer the world of souls and minds while the Caesars ruled their material existence.
Doesn’t that sound eerily familiar, too?
I’m wondering what caused Reincourt, in 1958, to make these predictions? Was it really baked into the cake as early as 1958? Why do you think he noticed what his contemporaries didn’t? (Mostly, the reviews dismissed him.)
I’d like to understand this better, because I think it may be the key to understanding a lot about our era that puzzles me. So I have some specific questions for Ricochet.
- If you’ve read him, do you think I’m right to him prophetic and relevant? If so, why?
- If not, why not?
- Do you think I’m right in saying that the process by which liberal democracies (including, but not limited to ours) are succumbing to authoritarian temptations in the 21st Century evokes the end of the Roman Republic? If so, how exactly?
- Who among the Founders, do you think, were most keenly aware of the example of the Roman Republic?How do you think this awareness shaped their views about how America should be safeguarded from the same fate?
- Who should I read, in your view, better to understand all three of these periods: The transition of Rome from Republic to Empire, the influence of the classics on the Founders, and the relevance of both of those epochs to ours?
Are you curious about this book, based on what I’ve shown you above? If not, I need to rethink the marketing. (It might be too late to rethink the book.) Please don’t be too harsh in the criticism, though: Constructive criticism is very welcome, but being totally depressed and demoralized for days probably wouldn’t be … so helpful.
So I’m reading this opinion piece in The New York Times (Yes, I confess! I read it!) and thinking — hmmm.
Sandy Parakilis, who used to work for Facebook, writes that she knows this behemoth from the inside because she led the effort to fix privacy problems on its developer platform before its 2012 IPO. And she knows for sure, she says, that they don’t give a toss about your privacy. Now, you can judge her arguments on their merits (I’m sure she’s right), but they’re not my point. My point is about this quote:
Facebook knows what you look like, your location, who your friends are, your interests, if you’re in a relationship or not, and what other pages you look at on the web. This data allows advertisers to target the more than one billion Facebook visitors a day. It’s no wonder the company has ballooned in size to a $500 billion behemoth in the five years since its I.P.O.
The more data it has on offer, the more value it creates for advertisers. That means it has no incentive to police the collection or use of that data — except when negative press or regulators are involved. Facebook is free to do almost whatever it wants with your personal information, and has no reason to put safeguards in place.
Okay, no surprise there. Of course I’m especially interested in this, for many reasons, but one of them is that I’d like to see serious, well-constructed research — not idle speculation — that would allow us to form reasonable assessments about whether this kind of targeted advertising on Facebook is effective. Might we be able to form non-totally-random conclusions about the probability that a Russian Facebook-ad buying blitz (or a Trump buying blitz, or a Hillary blitz) persuaded so much as a single voter to change his or her mind about anything, no less the way he or she would vote?
Don’t get distracted by “the Russians,” though — that’s a tangent: I’m just explaining why the question especially interests me. I assume this advertising works, or people wouldn’t spend money on it. But do I actually have any evidence of this? No. Facebook probably does. But does anyone else?
And here’s where I get especially doubtful. I don’t have access to their data, or to the data of other people they’re showing ads, but I do know what ads they show me. Judging by these (which, admittedly, is not the right way to judge, it’s a tiny anecdote in an ocean of data), their targeting is ridiculously bad. I reckon any human, even a child, who reads my Facebook page regularly would do way better. What might we hypothesize from this about the real state of their ability to microtarget ads effectively based on the extensive data they collect?
I put this question on my own Facebook page yesterday and then kicked myself, because obviously if I want a useful answer, Ricochet is the place to ask. The question below is roughly what I wrote. Maybe you guys can at least steer me toward the state-of-the-art academic research, or suggest who might know where I’d find that research.
Given that Facebook does know what I look like, my location, who my friends are, my interests, whether I’m in a relationship, and what other pages I look at on the web — not to mention what I buy — why on earth do they think Claire Berlinski’s going to go big time for “Zanzea Women Plus Harem Loose Pants?” (And I’m actually offended by that. They do have pictures of me, after all. “Woman Plus?”)
Why do they think Claire Berlinski would want to “Discover the London cultural season with the fashion historian Amber Butchart?” Why would she be entranced by “l’interprétation du Tourbillon de la vie par Keira Knightley pour la plus irrésistible des collections de CHANEL Joaillerie,” or keen to know more about “The Incredible Story Of The 61 Year Old Makeup Artist Turned Super Model Who Is Now Changing The Way We View Beauty with Her New Makeup Line?”
What on earth have I ever said or done on Facebook — or anywhere on the Internet, or anywhere in the world, for that matter — that would give anyone, even a machine, the impression that I’m remotely interested in that? Those of you who know me in real life will be doubly doubled-over with laughter at this point. You know that I’m to fashion and makeup as kryptonite is to Superman. I am not only the least chic woman in Paris but in all of the Milky Way. The only reason I don’t regularly head up Mr. Blackwell’s list of “worst-dressed women” is that you have to at least try to be well-dressed to make it. As anyone who knows me in person will confirm, nothing comes between me and my Calvins — just so long as by “Calvins” you mean “some cruddy old pair of sweatpants that isn’t so badly covered in cat yak and cat fur that I’m genuinely worried I’ll be sectioned if I go out to buy a loaf of bread wearing them.” (That’s my standard: “Will I be locked up in a mental hospital if I wear this?”)
As for expensive jewelry, you’ve got to be kidding me. The only valuable jewelry I’ve ever owned, my great-grandmother’s wedding ring, was stolen by Maoist-Kurdish-separatist-PKK-slave-urchins. (Probably.) I’ve never replaced it. Make-up? I’m allergic to it. That’s why you never see me in it, unless I’m on television — and it’s why whenever I’m on television my eyes are so red I look like I’m on PCP. Even if I weren’t allergic to it, I hate it. I own the same stick of concealer I’ve owned since I was fifteen. I keep it in case of a major zit and a television appearance. If I have to put it on, I count the seconds until I can wash it off.
Anyone who knows me at all, in person, would know these are ridiculous ads to show Claire Berlinski. What’s more, as far as I can see, my friends are no more interested in these things than I am. I mean, I don’t know them all in real life, but I sure know that if any friend of mine starts nattering on about celebrity makeup artists, I’ll lapse on the spot into a coma of boredom.
I don’t buy these things. I don’t post articles about them. And I never click on these ads. Because I am just. Not. Interested. So what does Facebook know about me that makes them think I’m not the woman I think I am?
If I wanted Claire Berlinski’s money, and if I had all the data Facebook’s got about her, here’s what I’d do: First, I’d look at all the book reviews she’s read lately and all the books she almost bought — to the point of putting them in the basket — but which she decided, at the last minute, not to buy. (They should easily be able to figure out, too, from my purchasing history and what I’ve done since my last impulse-splurge, that the reason I couldn’t pull the trigger was because I thought, “No, Claire, you can’t buy any new books until you finish reading the last ones you impulse-bought and never so much as opened.”)
If I were Facebook I’d be showing me ads, over and over again, not only for those books, but for the ones they could easily figure out — based on what I keep reading and writing and posting about — that I’d find near-irresistible. Why are they showing me Oversized Harem Pants when they could be tempting me with this?
I mean, you guys know me well enough that you know full well that if I see that ad often enough, I’ll crack, right? It’s so obvious. I’ve given them so much information that adds up to, “Show her that ad. Over and over. She can’t hold out more than a week. She’ll hit the button.”
One of my worries, based on the amount of data they clearly do have about me (because I no longer make even a desultory effort to keep it from them, or anyone) is that they actually do know something about me that I don’t. I mean, could they be right? You know how Facebook can supposedly figure out that you’re pregnant even before you do? What do they know about me and “Plus-Sized Loose Harem Pants” that I don’t? Are they checking out the number of times I order pizza and counting the minutes I spend reading The New York Times’ latest pumpkin pie recipes and figuring, “She’s gonna need them soon enough?”
Is there any way they could be checking my photos out against my friends’ profiles, and adding it up with my Twitter feed, weighing it up with time I spend almost-buying books on Amazon, looking at all the sites on the Internet where I waste my days flipping through article after article desultorily, and figuring, “Typical. Age 49. By February she won’t be able to keep her (increasingly fat) fingers off ‘l’interprétation du Tourbillon de la vie par Keira Knightley pour la plus irrésistible des collections de CHANEL Joaillerie.’ Start priming her now, because she’s so headed there. Didn’t you see the way she gobbled up that article about Martin Schulz’s fight for the future of the SPD? Not one woman in that demographic who read that whole boring article from start to finish failed to buy the Chanel jewelry within six months. And she devoured that “Stop sugarcoating the housing market” article in the Economist (which she read not just once, but twice), and she nearly — but didn’t — post it to her Facebook page. That’s solid. We’ve run this scenario often enough to know for sure that 87.3 percent of the white women in Paris with seven cats who read that article (twice) and who nearly (but didn’t) post it to Facebook will buy anything Keira Knightley flogs. Get Keira to sell her something expensive, too: She’ll be in for something big, don’t bother with the ads for a revolutionary new cat litter box or a microwave, no matter how much she thinks she needs a new microwave.” (And surely they know I need that: How many more times to I have to search “why is my microwave making that scary noise” and “microwave+consumer reports” before they get the hint?) But they never show me the ads. “Oh, and guys: check out her photos: The makeup? Seriously? We’d be doing her (and the world) a mitzvah if we got her to do something about that oily T-zone, that is is so totally unnecessary. Send in the 61-Year-Old-Makeup-Artist. She’ll crack. After all, she did post that article about the NSA’s data trove on Americans — twice! — and all the data tells us that women who read Conor Friedersdorff when they’ve got really bad insomnia and worry about the NSA hoovering up metadata on Americans just cannot resist make-up tips from a 61-year-old supermodel. Odds on a purchase: 77.86 percent.”
So am I doomed to buy this stuff? How exactly do they know?
And what on earth do they know — it’s clearly something I don’t — that made them show these ads to me today?
I mean … they do have access to information I don’t. So how do you imagine I should bring this up? “Honey, you seem great to me, but Facebook thinks you’re emotionally unavailable. And it kind of sounds like they think this thing we’ve got going here is a dumpster-fire-in-prospect. That’s a little worrying, since they know what you do when I’m not around. And I don’t. Maybe we should talk?”
But seriously — and some of you guys would probably have pretty good insight into the state of Facebook’s AI and the way these algorithms are apt to work — what on earth is keeping them from taking the information about me that any human who looks at my Facebook page would, putting it together with all the other information they have about what I read, what I buy, and where my attention lingers, and showing me ads that I would find utterly irresistible?
I bet every one of you could guess what ads might tempt me to push the button. Give it a try in the comments. And I bet none of you would think, “Oversized Harem Pants.” And you’d all be right.
What ads do you see on your Facebook pages — or on the other parts of the Internet where these ads are supposedly so perfectly integrated with your personal data, in such a diabolically cunning way, as to to make you unable to resist clicking on them?
Are they things you might ever buy? Do they even make sense?
If not, why do you think that is?
I was working all day on a response laying out my reasons for believing what I wrote in this post. I was taking the assignment very seriously. So much so that I didn’t check the news all day. I just checked. Trump has just said that he believes Vladimir Putin when Putin tells him he didn’t interfere in the elections.
The CIA “stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections. The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed,” according to General Michael Hayden.
We’ve entered the world of the utterly surreal.
I’m going to post what I wrote today anyway.
Let’s revisit the claims I made. I’ve separated them a bit for analytic clarity, and indicated my confidence in them:
1) Russia interfered with the 2016 election, and continues energetically to interfere with our political life, with the aim of destroying the United States and the ideals it represents, alienating us from our allies, and alienating our allies from each other. ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY
2) Russia interfered with the 2016 election with the intention of aiding Trump and harming Clinton. HIGH CONFIDENCE.
3) Russia has the ability to do us enormous harm, and may even succeed in the goals stated in Point 1. MEDIUM CONFIDENCE.
4) Russia is much more dangerous than Americans generally appreciate. ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY
5) Donald Trump wittingly and illegally colluded with Russia’s efforts to swing the election in his favor. MEDIUM-TO-HIGH CONFIDENCE.
6) Russian interference made the difference between “President Clinton” and “President Trump.” PLAUSIBLE, BUT INHERENTLY UNPROVABLE.
Note that I am making none of the following claims, and believe all the following claims to be prima facie absurd:
1) No voter had any valid reason to prefer Trump to Clinton.
2) All voters for Trump (or even many voters for Trump) behaved as they did as a result of Russia’s actions. (This is obviously categorically absurd, and the only reason I put it on the list is because some of the comments on my post seemed to suggest some of you believe I think this. I do not.)
3) Everything Trump has done in office has been bad.
4) Hillary Clinton is innocent of any wrongdoing or crime, including wrongdoing related to Russia.
Let’s start with 1).
I’m going to suggest some background reading, because I honestly cannot do this all in one post: This isn’t because “the evidence isn’t there,” but because “there’s too much evidence.”
Let’s start with Molly McKew’s Putin’s Real Long Game. It will only take you ten minutes. I wish I had written it, because it’s pretty much exactly my assessment of the nature of the conflict between the United States and Russia. Feel free to take her arguments as my arguments and challenge them as if I had written them.
McKew has lately been pilloried as “not a real Russia expert” by the professional Russia experts who are enraged that she’s taken charge of this debate. They whine that she “simplifies” things — as if anyone could write an article-length piece about the mystery-within-an-enigma-wrapped-in-a-riddle that is Russia without “simplifying” things. I think she deserves every bit of her success. First, she does know what she’s talking about. Second, she’s good at explaining it, which professional Russia experts tend not to be. So please start by reading that article to get a sense of where I’m starting—in fact, consider that article the formal introduction to my argument. What she is saying is entirely consistent with everything I’ve seen—some of it more personally than I care to detail.
Note that she wrote that when Obama was still in office and that it is a scathing criticism of the Obama Administration’s blindness, one with which I fully agree. Note also that she was (initially) hopeful that Trump might still be able to spot the danger and react to it with some agility. She was not a partisan critic of Trump, or at least, she didn’t begin as one. As the evidence has come in, she’s become less hopeful, to say the least.
Every paragraph of that essay is worth reading, but here are a few critical ones:
From Moscow, Vladimir Putin has seized the momentum of this unraveling, exacting critical damage to the underpinnings of the liberal world order in a shockingly short time. As he builds a new system to replace the one we know, attempts by America and its allies to repair the damage have been limited and slow. Even this week, as Barack Obama tries to confront Russia’s open and unprecedented interference in our political process, the outgoing White House is so far responding to 21st century hybrid information warfare with last century’s diplomatic toolkit: the expulsion of spies, targeted sanctions, potential asset seizure. The incoming administration, while promising a new approach, has betrayed a similar lack of vision. Their promised attempt at another “reset” with Russia is a rehash of a policy that has utterly failed the past two American administrations.
What both administrations fail to realize is that the West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests. …
Her capsule summary of Russia’s post 1989 history is exactly correct:
To understand the shift underway in the world, and to stop being outmaneuvered, we first need to see the Russian state for what it really is. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. This freed the Russian security state from its last constraints. In 1991, there were around 800,000 official KGB agents in Russia. They spent a decade reorganizing themselves into the newly-minted FSB, expanding and absorbing other instruments of power, including criminal networks, other security services, economic interests, and parts of the political elite. They rejected the liberal, democratic Russia that President Boris Yeltsin was trying to build. …
…. Today, as a result, Russia is little more than a ghastly hybrid of an overblown police state and a criminal network with an economy the size of Italy — and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. …
This is, of course, a complex history. Book after book has been written about it. If you’re looking for a good place to start reading about it, I recommend Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, written in 2008 and painfully prescient.
The key point: We did not win the Cold War. Lucas, you may remember, was a dedicated Cold Warrior who had spent his life as an anti-Soviet campaigner. He lays out the whole painful case in that book.
The same cadre of KGB officers are still in power, “a powerful, feral, multi-headed, and obedient hydra,” as Mark Galleotti puts it in this useful analysis of Russia’s intelligence services. They are “locked in a Cold-War mindset where ‘If the West loses, we gain.’” The threat, he observes,
is not likely to materialise in military form. Rather, it comes from covert, indirect, and political operations, typically conducted, controlled, or facilitated by the numerous Russian intelligence and security agencies, which strike from every side but are driven by a single intent. …
many of the people closest to Putin hail from the ranks of the Chekists (veterans of the security agencies, after the first Bolshevik political police, the Cheka) or siloviki (“men of force” from the military, security, and intelligence services). This is especially important given that many of the formal institutions of Russian foreign and security policy making – the Foreign and Defence Ministries, the Security Council (SB), the cabinet – have become nothing more than executive agencies where policies are announced and applied, not discussed and decided. Instead, decisions are made informally by Putin and his confidants and cronies. The Soviet KGB security service was powerful and willing to use espionage, destabilisation, and subversion, but was tightly controlled by a political leadership ultimately committed to the status quo. Under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, the state was weak, but the intelligence agencies doubly so. The agencies began renewing their powers during Putin’s first terms as president, but his policy was one of pragmatic accommodation with the West. Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, though, the regime has unleashed increasingly powerful intelligence agencies in campaigns of domestic repression and external destabilisation, appearing to genuinely want to revise the structures of the international order.
.. The emphasis on coercive methods, active operations, taking chances, and risking international opprobrium reflects a wartime mindset across the agencies. (My emphasis.)
Galleotti, by the way, is a very serious and knowledgeable specialist in Russian security issues. This is no lightweight speaking.
Russia did not become “a normal country.” This is the same Russia we grew up fearing, but it is in many ways more dangerous, for the reasons above–and for many more reasons.
A point I argue in my book that Russia has pioneered a very particular kind of 21st century authoritarianism. It’s distinct from the totalitarian movements of the 20th century. This doesn’t look like an old-fashioned dictatorship, which is one reason we’ve been so slow to realize what’s going on. It rests on different structures—above all, its chief tool of control is not the gulag but saturation propaganda. That there is less terror is a very significant moral difference. Thank God for the Russian people that this regime is less cannibalistic than its predecessors. But this doesn’t indicate that Russia’s any less of an enemy, or a danger, to us.
I argue that Russia is, unfortunately, now the vanguard. Other countries are studying the Putin model for acquiring and keeping power, learning from it, emulating it. There is a real ideology behind it. This ideology, like the ideology that animated their communist forebears, is critical. Ideas matter, and Russia has again harnessed its formidable state security apparatus to spread this ideology. I say much more about this in the book.
I recommend all of Lucas’s books, including (especially including) his more recent ones. I also highly recommend David Stater’s The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin.
Those of you who have asked me to lay out the evidence for my beliefs should start with the first chapter of that book, at least: The significance of the Moscow apartment bombings can’t be understated. His is the most compelling marshaling of the evidence about this in print. Peter Pomeranzov’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible has also been helpful to me in shaping my understanding of Russia. It’s less important as “evidence,” but the book will give you a good feeling for what I mean by “saturation propaganda” and its integral relationship to the regime.
Pomeransov’s description of the way the regime speaks of information is critical: “not in the familiar terms of ‘persuasion,’ ‘public diplomacy,’ or even ‘propaganda,’ but in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert, and paralyze.” Understanding how critical the weaponization of information is to Putin is really key–as is understanding the particular way Russia has learned to control the Internet.
Here, I’ll have to digress a bit, but bear with me. As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has put it–and it is a profound observation–the Internet has created a world in which information is abundant but attention scarce. The large majority of the world now receives all of its information through a handful of technology monopolies: Google and Facebook, primarily. Facebook has become the world’s de facto public square. Facebook is designed—this is its business model, not a bug—to seize your attention and hold it as long as possible. The longer you’re on the site, the more likely it is that you will click on the ads. All of their exceptionally sophisticated algorithms serve this end, and this is why they collect an enormous amount of political and social information about you. They are collecting it so better to figure out what will make you click on the ads.
Putin’s insight—and it is pretty obvious, really, so perhaps we should not call it an insight of genius, but it was certainly an insight of significance—was that this technology, which everyone loves, and to which everyone is addicted, could be used to conduct surveillance on a hitherto unimaginable scale and transform the electorate’s view of reality. He realized he didn’t need gulags to ensure that no opposition party ever won an election, no protest movement ever got off the ground. All he needs to do is target his citizens’ attention by controlling key information networks—search engines, hosting sites, social media—and keeping them so distracted that they pay no attention to opposition and protest movements. In an attention-scarce world, you don’t need to kill a dissenter to suppress his voice. You just need to flood the Internet with something more entertaining—real or fake, it doesn’t matter, so long as it’s more interesting than a dissenting opinion. Atrocity stories are particularly good for this purpose.
He practiced the techniques on Russia for a long time before he started testing them abroad—but then he did start testing them abroad, and I’ll get back to this point in a minute. Key point: in the early 2000s, Russia established the “web brigade” (Веб-бригады)—the infamous troll army. The army churns out pro-government views around the clock. It simply drowns out voices the regime doesn’t want people to hear, usually with floods of pure distraction. The Internet Research Agency, in St. Peterburg, produces content for every popular social media network in Russia, as well as the comments sections of all its newspapers:
Every day at the Internet Research Agency was essentially the same, Savchuk told me. The first thing employees did upon arriving at their desks was to switch on an Internet proxy service, which hid their I.P. addresses from the places they posted; those digital addresses can sometimes be used to reveal the real identity of the poster. Savchuk would be given a list of the opinions she was responsible for promulgating that day. Workers received a constant stream of “technical tasks” — point-by-point exegeses of the themes they were to address, all pegged to the latest news. Ukraine was always a major topic, because of the civil war there between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army; Savchuk and her co-workers would post comments that disparaged the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and highlighted Ukrainian Army atrocities. Russian domestic affairs were also a major topic. Last year, after a financial crisis hit Russia and the ruble collapsed, the professional trolls left optimistic posts about the pace of recovery. Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.
“There are three hallmarks of the Russian approach,” writes Tim Wu of the Knight First Amendment Institute:
The first is obscuring the government’s influence. The hand of the Kremlin is not explicit; funding comes from “pro-Kremlin” groups or nonprofits, and those involved usually disclaim any formal association with the Russian state. In addition, individuals sympathetic to the cause often join as de facto volunteers. The second is the use of vicious, swarm-like attacks over email, telephone, or social media to harass and humiliate critics of Russian policies or President Putin. While the online hate mob is certainly not a Russian invention, its deployment for such political objectives seems to be a novel development. The third hallmark is its international scope. Although these techniques have mainly been used domestically in Russia, they have also been employed against political opponents elsewhere in the world, including in the Ukraine and in countries like Finland, where trolls savagely attacked journalists who favored joining NATO (or questioned Russian efforts to influence that decision). Likewise, these tactics have been deployed in the United States, where paid Russian trolls targeted the 2016 presidential campaign.
So we’ve got a regime that views this kind of information control as the key to its political survival and its central tool of war. Putin’s Russia sees conventionally military conflict with the West as stupid (though not out of the question), an obvious waste of life. They don’t think they need it. They believe they’ve mastered information warfare. They see themselves as a superpower without peer in this domain. They believe this will be sufficient to achieve their geopolitical ends.
They are absolutely clear that they see themselves as engaged in all-out, full-scale information warfare against the West. Every strategy document shows this. You don’t need 17 intelligence agencies to come to this conclusion, because Russia’s not remotely interested in concealing it. Read their December 2014 Military Doctrine, for example. I can’t vouch for the quality of the translation, but notice especially, on page 2, who they think the main enemy is — see (a)? — and by comparison where terrorists rank (See (i)? So if we have a president who seriously thinks we’re going to be teaming up with this country to “knock the hell out of ISIS”–well, I’ll be charitable: Maybe there is some entirely innocent explanation of this.
Then scroll down to page 4 and their list of the “characteristics of modern conflict.” What’s the first item? Where does information war rank, for Russians, vis-à-vis, say, “hypersonic weapons, their means electronic warfare, weapons based on new physical principles, comparable in efficiency with nuclear weapons, management information systems, and unmanned aircraft and autonomous marine vehicles controlled robotic weapons and military equipment?”
You see my point. If you pay any attention to Russia at all, you see that it views itself as in a war, already, with the West. They’re not obsessed with China, they’re obsessed with us. And they believe we’re losing. The “erosion of the global economic and political dominance of the traditional western powers’ is now a reality.” They see the West as being in a state of chaos (which they’ve helped along nicely), and they expect to use this window of opportunity to emerge as the architects of a new world order.
They believe, as General Gerasimov put it, that, “frontal engagements of large formations of forces at the strategic and operational level are gradually becoming a thing of the past.” They’re winning and will win by means of “long-distance, contactless actions against the adversary.”
They get it that their conventional military power lags and always will in size, spending, technology and personnel behind NATO. But they think — and have so far been proven right — that they can win with the tools they used in Crimea and Donbas. They used their military, yes, but it was secondary to the cyber-attacks, the political and economic pressure, and an astonishingly audacious disinformation campaign.
Gerasimov is perfectly clear: “non-military means to achieve political and strategic goals has [in recent years] significantly surpassed the force of arms.” He lists the stages: “political, economic, information, humanitarian and other non-military measures,” then “military measures of a covert nature—focusing on information warfare—and only then overt force, “under the form of peacemaking (mirotvortcheskaya deyatelnost) or crisis management, in order to achieve the final success in the conflict.”
So if you’re being Gerasimov-doctrined, please understand: It does end in force. But by that point they’ve already screwed you up so much that you welcome them as peacemakers.
Back to Molly McKew:
Even Russian policy hands, raised on the Western understanding of traditional power dynamics, find the implications of this hard to understand. This Russia does not aspire to be like us, or to make itself stronger than we are. Rather, its leaders want the West—and specifically NATO and America — to become weaker and more fractured until we are as broken as they perceive themselves to be. No reset can be successful, regardless the personality driving it, because Putin’s Russia requires the United States of America as its enemy.
We can only confront this by fully understanding how the Kremlin sees the world. Its worldview and objectives are made abundantly clear in speeches, op-eds, official policy and national strategy documents, journal articles, interviews, and, in some cases, fiction writing of Russian officials and ideologues. We should understand several things from this material.
First, it is a war. A thing to be won, decisively — not a thing to be negotiated or bargained.
She explains why she says this in the article. Above all, believe her about this: To grasp how hostile and determined Russia is, and to understand the strategy they’re pursuing, you only have to read the speeches, op-eds, official policy and national strategy documents, journal articles, and interviews of Russian officials and ideologues. If you do, you will, like me, like anyone else who has done this, find the things Donald Trump has said and done unfathomable.
I don’t read Russian, sadly, but we live in an age of miracles: The new Google Translate is a stratospheric improvement on any previous effort at machine-language translation. It’s more than good enough for anyone here to make quite good sense of the documents she’s talking about. They are part of the evidence you’ve been asking to see. It is grim. I don’t have space to reproduce these documents here, but a bit of time with Google Translate and the links I’ve given you here will tell you the story.
Russia wants — and is open about wanting — to re-enslave the nations on its periphery, corrupt and dominate the rest of Europe, and render the United States irrelevant. They believe they can achieve this, as was said of Reagan’s victory over the Soviet Union “without firing a shot”–or at least, not firing anywhere near as many as you’d think it would take.
They are not stupid to think this. They are not amateurs. They have been practicing and experimenting with this now for quite a long time. The Internet has allowed them to take all of the Soviet Union’s skills in this domain and increase their impact by orders of magnitude at a fraction of the cost. What they’ve already achieved, in quite a short time, is utterly extraordinary:
Borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun. Barack Obama, 3 September 201449
We cannot of course forget the events of Crimea. I wish once again to thank our Armed Forces. Vladimir Putin, 19 December 2014
If I were a Russian autocrat superintending over a country with Italy’s GDP and no other talents to speak of, of course I too would say, “Wow, it works. Let’s play to our strengths. There is one thing we’re really good at, and that’s infowar. (By the way, did you see that InfoWars has literally been recycling Russian propaganda, verbatim, for three years? So has Drudge. You just can’t look at that and say, “Heck, what do the Russians know about information warfare.” Give them some credit. They couldn’t build the technology they’re using against us to save their lives, but yes, they sure do know how to use it against us.)
One reason I say they’re more of a threat than the Soviet Union (I said this in a comment on my original post, but some of you may not have seen it) is that the USSR’s ideology was more constrictive. The Soviets had to limit themselves, for ideological reasons, to corrupting and co-opting the American left, while trying to move the center toward the left. Their ultimate goal was to foster a communist revolution — and while a “communist revolution” wasn’t an utter impossibility in the US, it was unlikely for many structural and cultural reasons.
New Russia? No such constraints. It targets the right and the left with equal zeal. The goal isn’t “a communist revolution in the United States.” The goal is “chaos in the US sufficient to turn us into a house divided, an ungovernable basket case, unable to form any kind of consensus on foreign policy.” Why? Because that would make our military strength irrelevant. However powerful our military, we can’t use it to defend our interests if there’s no domestic consensus about what those interests are and who’s legitimately in charge of it. Their other goal is to significantly diminish the prestige of the United States and the ideals it represents, negating our huge advantage over Russia in soft power. “Communist revolution in the United States” wasn’t a realistic goal. “Chaos in the United States so great that the US is almost incapable of acting in its interests on the world stage, coupled with the destruction of American soft power” is a much more realistic goal.
So let’s look a bit at the pattern of the way they do this. I’m again going to suggest some reading (you wanted the arguments and the evidence.) Start with this Chatham House report: Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power:
… the techniques and methods displayed by Russia in Ukraine have roots in traditional Soviet approaches. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s military academics have displayed an unbroken and consistently developing train of thought on the changing nature of conflict and how to prevail in it, including – but certainly not limited to – the successful application of military power. As a result, despite modern technological enablers, Russia’s intentions and actions throughout the Ukraine conflict have been recognizable from previous decades of study of the threat to the West from the Soviet Union. Today, as in the past, Western planners and policy-makers must consider and plan not only for the potential threat of military attack by Russia, but also for the actual threat of Moscow’s ongoing subversion, destabilization and ‘active measures’. •
Two specific tools for exercising Russian power demand close study: the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation; and the state’s capacity for information warfare. In both of these fields, Russia’s capabilities have developed rapidly in recent years to match its persistent intentions. The most visible demonstration of this has been the unprecedented near-total transformation of Russia’s armed forces since 2008. This transformation and the accompanying rearmament programme are continuing, and the Russian military is benefiting from ongoing ‘training’ under real operational conditions in Ukraine and Syria
Let’s now look at the ways they’ve applied these techniques in Europe to see why they’re so confident. This is from Galeotti’s report, above.
As far back as 2010, the British Security Service (MI5) warned that “the threat from Russian espionage continues to be significant and is similar to the Cold War […] the number of Russian intelligence officers in London is at the same level as in Soviet times.” Since then, security services across Europe have been registering a continued uptick in the scale and aggressiveness of Russian operations. For example, the head of the Norwegian Police Security Service warned that “Russian intelligence has the largest potential to damage Norwegian interests”, while Sweden’s security service, SÄPO, has characterised Russian espionage as its greatest challenge and warned of “preparation for military operations against Sweden”. The Russians are engaging in massive and voracious intelligence-gathering campaigns, fuelled by still-substantial budgets and a Kremlin culture that sees deceit and secret agendas even where none exists. …
Perhaps the most striking of the agencies’ external operations are their “active measures”: everything from assassination to political subversion. While many countries’ intelligence agencies sometimes conduct such operations, the Russians have put this at the centre of their concept of intelligence work. They also more readily integrate other institutions and individuals — from banks and charities to journalists and truck drivers — into their activities. …
… Georgia before the 2008 war and Ukraine since 2014 have seen killings and terrorist attacks aimed less at specific individuals than at creating a climate of fear and insecurity. This is meant to undermine public and political will and to support a Russian narrative that these countries are falling into anarchy. Where guns or bombs are not called for, sometimes a computer virus or directed denial of-service (DDOS) attack will work. As noted above, the FSB is especially involved with launching cyber attacks or commissioning them from Russian hackers. …
… Far more common is the use of the intelligence agencies to support political and other movements sympathetic to or simply useful for Moscow. This has long been practised in countries Russia regards as within its sphere of influence — for example, the FSB’s interference in Moldovan politics by backing populist candidate Renato Usatii in 2014. However, the Foreign Intelligence Service and FSB are now especially active in Europe, and the organisations they support include anti-fracking environmental movements (which, however genuine in their concerns, usefully maintain Moscow’s gas markets), nationalist and anti-federal political groups, Russian diaspora movements in the Baltics, and separatists from Spain to Scotland.
… Every external operation is first and foremost a domestic one: the single most important role of the agencies is to secure the regime. So it was under the tsars, then the Bolsheviks, and now the new Russians: defending not a constitutional order but a particular incumbent. This means carrying out operations to prevent foreign “interference” as the Kremlin sees it, as well as dividing strategic rivals such as the EU.
… As Putin loses his old basis for legitimacy – his capacity to guarantee steadily improving standards of living – he is seeking to shore up his position with a narrative of foreign threats and external triumphs. The agencies play a crucial role not just in supporting the narrative but also in conducting operations against enemies of the state, both real and constructed.
Now, Galeotti is optimistic:
The agencies are now engaged in a campaign of active measures in the West that, again, may often seem tactically effective but is strategically disastrous. Russia has not created the tectonic pressures currently opening fissures within Europe, from nationalism to the refugee crisis, but it is gleefully taking advantage of them. However, in the long term, it is vanishingly unlikely that Europe will become so divided that it can be dictated to by Russia. Indeed, whether or not some sanctions are lifted, Russia is declining and destabilising at an even faster rate. Furthermore, Russia’s heavy-handed tactics have galvanised NATO, alienated nations such as Germany, and dissipated what minimal soft power Moscow ever had.
I am not so optimistic. In part, I am not so optimistic precisely because I read Galeotti’s work carefully and do not see that his own work supports that conclusion; in part I am not so optimistic because we have a president who says he trusts Putin over our intelligence agencies as well as over those of all of our allies and over all the evidence marshalled by pretty much everyone who’s been studying Russia or even looking at it or even glancing at it for the past century.
Have a look at this report, for example: Controlling Chaos: How Russia Manages its Political War in Europe. What are the patterns he observes?
There is of course the deep cynicism which often sees Moscow cultivating rival extremes, all in the name of spreading chaos and division. In Greece and Italy, for example, it eggs on parties on both the left and right (the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord, Syriza and Golden Dawn, respectively). In its broader narrative it is happy to encourage anti-capitalist and liberal protest movements such as Occupy, as well as to play to social conservatives. One Russian journalist expressed amazement that “the methods, even much of the language is the same: left or right, radical or conservative, you can use the same approaches with both sides, just change some of the language.” More broadly, though, the evidence suggests different ambitions and expectations for Kremlin operations in different European countries. This has very significant implications not just for understanding Russian policy but also in shaping European responses. …
Often, Russian ‘soft power’ is confined to national leaders, to whom Putin’s image as the model of the decisive modern autocrat appeals. In south-east Europe, it can draw on shared religious faith in Bulgaria, Serbia, and the like, but also play up its historical role as defender, not least against the Ottoman Empire. Elsewhere, Russia has a certain cachet, even if often for mythologised and misunderstood reasons, as an obstacle to supposed American hegemony or as a bastion of traditional values. Organisations including Rossotrudnichestvo, notionally independent charities, and other structures, work specifically with Russian émigré communities. …
…. A crucial instrument of Russia’s active measures is its media, and its capacity to influence media narratives in target countries. That said, its role is often misunderstood and over-stated, perhaps precisely because it is by definition public, and also because it is easy to assume causation where it might not exist. It is not, after all, as though every Eurosceptic or even NATO-sceptic individual was made that way by Russian propaganda. Nonetheless, disinformation – the spread of often false or distorted news – and a deluge of alternative opinions meant to drown out the realities are undoubtedly central elements of the current political war.
Read the whole thing—it’s very useful, but note a few passages in particular:
Moscow is especially willing to make use of malign non-state actors such as insurgents, terrorists, extremist paramilitaries and, increasingly, organised crime groups. These last may not even know for whom they are working, but are typically Russian-based groups (who can thus be pressurised by the Kremlin) which, like ‘upperworld’ businesses, can occasionally be ‘asked’ to carry out missions large or small, from smuggling someone across a border to an outright murder, to avert Moscow’s ire and perhaps gain some advantage in the future. These assets also include computer hackers. Increasingly, the security agencies are building their own in-house cyber espionage capabilities, but for some time to come Russia will continue to outsource some activities to a motley array of individuals and groups: mercenary computer criminals and individuals working for money or under duress, and ‘patriotic hackers’ inspired by a sense of national pride and duty. They are generally used to provide ‘surge capacity’ in times of major cyber attacks (such as those experienced by Ukraine, Estonia, and Georgia), and also smaller-scale sabotage such as the defacing of websites perceived as ‘Russophobic’ or the persecution of individuals likewise considered hostile. Putin’s disingenuous claim that the US electoral hack could have been carried out by “patriotically minded” individuals fighting for a cause “which is right, from their point of view” only swelled the ranks of patriotic hackers in Russia.
(Keep that passage in mind when I get, eventually, to the motley crew surrounding Trump and to Manafort in particular.) He continues:
There are common themes to Russian propaganda, largely relating to the alleged iniquity of the US, the need for cooperation with Russia against terrorism, and the moral equivalence of Moscow and the West. There is also an overarching hope of kicking up a sufficient dust cloud of rumour, speculation, half-truth, conspiracy, and outright lie, to obscure the realities of Russian activities in Ukraine, Syria, and at home, and leave people feeling that it is impossible to know the objective truth. The next best thing to being able to convince people of your argument, after all, is to make them disbelieve all arguments.
Then he explores the ways these techniques are adapted from country to country—with goals ranging from “state capture” to “disruption.” But there is a consistent pattern:
the Kremlin has adopted an innovative and parsimonious approach that, in effect, mobilises the ambitions and imaginations of sundry actors and agencies. It sets broad objectives and aspirations: to assert Russia’s claim to ‘great power’ status; to consolidate dominance over its self-proclaimed sphere of influence; to weaken and distract the West such that it cannot offer any meaningful counters to Russian actions; to undermine hostile governments; and to shatter inconvenient structures such as NATO and the EU. The detail is left deliberately open, so individuals and agencies scramble to identify how they can use the instruments and opportunities at their disposal in ways they hope will further these ends and please the Kremlin.
And note his recommendation, with which I agree:
European responses to Russian active measures have in the main been strikingly limited, typically restricted to direct sanctions against those identified as directly involved, whether expelling spies or revoking press credentials. The only truly negative outcomes have been through unwanted effects, such as alienating Macron or Angela Merkel. In Moscow, the lack of clear and strong responses is considered a sign of extreme weakness and an inducement to continue: “we really have no reason not to carry on as we are”, mused one recently retired General Staff officer.84 Without being needlessly provocative, European countries and the EU as a whole should develop a strategy for consistent and meaningful retaliation. A key point is that they need not be defined by the form of interference: a disinformation campaign can be punished through targeted sanctions of political leaders, supporting opposition groups, or by expelling diplomats. This is, after all, a campaign driven by the Russian state, and so any arm of the state is fair game for retaliation.
But that’s a digression; what I want to point out is how much practice they’ve had, how successful they’ve actually been throughout Europe, and very simply how well-known this is. Here’s another report that I highly recommend, from Chatham House: Agents of the Russian World Proxy Groups in the Contested Neighbourhood.
Read the whole thing through, and you’ll sense the way the themes of Trump’s campaign fit in well with the narrative Moscow has energetically been trying to promote and the European goals it seeks to achieve. This is not proof of collusion, but it does suggest why Moscow might have been highly motivated to support his campaign. Be honest with yourself: Have you not seen those themes represented, increasingly, in the American right-leaning media in recent years? Kremlin talking points appear with uncanny similarity in almost every “alternative” political movements in the West, from the hard left to the hard right.
Again, we see the same observation about Russia’s use of information warfare and its goals.
Russia is attempting to dominate the information space by injecting alternative messages that are often based on manipulated information. The main aim is to obstruct decision-making in the West, especially in organizations where decisions are based on consensus. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs promotes proxy groups that spread the Kremlin’s message more widely in multilateral forums such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the UN, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, and makes efforts to discredit states by means of false human rights allegations. During the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation meetings in 2014 and 2015 Kremlin proxies – in this instance World Without Nazism and the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society ‘People Diplomacy’ – accused Ukraine’s government of ‘mass killings of dissidents’, and claimed that half of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians have no opportunity to learn Russian in state-run schools.96 They also accused OSCE member states of turning a blind eye to violations of human rights in Ukraine.
And we see how well these tools worked in Ukraine:
… Many of these groups also spread Russian state propaganda to radicalize the local population, using social media and Russian state television. Western journalists following the development of military operations in Donetsk and Luhansk reported a noticeable change of mood among the local populations; a more antagonistic attitude towards Kyiv developed in the space of a few weeks.Russian television and websites demonized the Ukrainian army and portrayed Kyiv as a threat to local identity. Once again, there was apparent evidence of the manipulation of information. For instance, media-watching organizations such as StopFake have identified the same witness appearing in multiple clips, posing as different Ukrainians at various protests around the region.133 A multitude of digital information projects have been set up to sustain the Russian narrative about the uprising in eastern Ukraine. Many use the .su domain, a known haven for cyber criminals. …
… While Russia’s gambit in Ukraine may have failed on the grand scale, it none the less succeeded in producing a new conflict in the east that is being used as a lever of Russian influence. Using state controlled media, Russia has apparently been able to marshal public opinion to the extent that 70 per cent of people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine polled in 2014 considered that the events of Euromaidan were an armed coup organized by the West; 45 per cent expressed the view that Russia defends the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine. Such people waved Russian flags, participated in illegal referendums and provided the false legitimacy for the various efforts of Kremlin-backed spin doctors, mercenaries and volunteer fighters to take control of parts of Donbas, intended to serve as a barrier to the future integration of Ukraine into Western institutions and to destabilize the post-Euromaidan government. The popularity of Russian media in the post-Soviet information space has clearly shaped public opinion in the wider region in line with the Kremlin’s narrative about the role of Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. In Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan the majority of citizens supported the Russian position in the conflict with Ukraine; 60 per cent of Belarusians and 80 per cent of Armenians agreed that the annexation of Crimea was a historically just restoration. Even in Moldova, where many have access to news from Romania, the majority of citizens blamed the EU, the United States and Russia equally for instigating the protests in Kyiv.
As Roman Skaskiw put it in a (good) article about Russian propaganda in in Small Wars Journal,
No matter how ridiculous their propaganda, no matter how many times it is proven to be false, it succeeds in shifting the conversation. Western journalists were consumed with determined if Russia was invading Ukraine, that they had little space left to examine how Russia was invading.
He also wrote, by the way, an excellent case study documenting the way Russia is particularly skillful at infiltrating and promoting its narratives among any “alternative” political grouping in the West: Putin’s Libertarians.
Right. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll see why I’m — speechless? no, obviously not, but distressed, surely, that Trump just announced he takes Putin at his word when he says Russia didn’t interfere with the 2016 election. (Even though Putin boasts of it.) Not only did Russia interfere, it continues energetically to interfere with our political life, with the aim of destroying the United States and the ideals it represents, alienating us from our allies, and alienating our allies from each other. So I find the President’s remarks–what’s that phrase they keep using these days? Problematic.
I’m going to rush through the rest of this a bit, because no one will read this far, but consider now the number of dark connections the Russians have had with Trump’s campaign and Administration. It is stunning. It is absolutely aberrant. Manafort worked for Russia’s man in Ukraine and is connected to the Russian mob. He was in hock to Russia to the tune of 17 million dollars when he joined the campaign.
Trump Jr.. was promised damaging information about Clinton by a “Kremlin-connected lawyer” — a Russian spy, in other words — and cheerfully replied, “If it’s what you say, I love it.” Not in doubt: documented in e-mail records.
Kushner has had to amend his foreign disclosure forms over and over. He met with head of a sanctioned Russian bank. He discussed creating a secret back channel to Moscow. He sat in on a meeting with Russian spies offering dirt on Clinton. Kremlin-connected interests invested in Facebook and Twitter through one of Kushner’s business associates.
Stone released his own DMs of his exchanges with Guccifer–who is Russia. He boasted of his connections to Wikileaks–which is Russia.
Caputo lived in Moscow for years, actually claims he worked for the Kremlin.
We know that Russian spies targeted Carter Page: Page himself now says so.
Michael Flynn–you know all about that.
Papadopoulos: You’ve seen the plea agreement.
On or about April 26, 2016, defendant PAPADOPOULOS met the Professor for breakfast at a London hotel. During this meeting, the Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials,” the Justice Department document reads. “The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that on that trip he (the Professor) learned that the Russians had obtained ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Clinton. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS, as defendant PAPADOPOULOS later described to the FBI, that ‘They [the Russians] have dirt on her’; ‘the Russians had emails of Clinton’; ‘they have thousands of emails.’
Tillerson was given Russia’s Order of Friendship–the highest state honor possible for a foreigner.
What’s especially notable is that everyone involved has exhibited a remarkable, repeated lack of candor about these connections. There has been constant deception and lying from this administration whenever anything Russian is involved. “I have nothing to do with Russia,” the president has said. “To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.” That is obviously–well, you be the judge.
The leaking of the so-called Paradise Papers has revealed even more of these connections:
Among the Trump administration officials implicated in the leaks is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who according to the documents concealed his ties to a Russian energy company that is partly owned by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s judo partner Gennady Timchenko and Putin’s son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov. Through offshore investments, Ross held a stake in Navigator Holdings, which had a close business relationship with the Russian firm. Ross did not disclose that connection during his confirmation process on Capitol Hill.
I just don’t know how anyone could doubt, at this point, that Russia wanted to help the Trump campaign and some campaign officials were open to this.
Then we have the sheer weirdness of the President’s behavior. He has never once (to my recollection) criticized Putin. The “We’ve got a lot of killers… you think our country’s so innocent?” line — that is unreal, unprecedented, unheard of. He harshly criticizes NATO. He’s cast doubt on our commitment to NATO allies.
The platform. It was the only thing the Trump campaign seemed to care about–making sure the Republican platform dropped the call to give weapons to Ukraine. It put Trump at odds with every other Republican foreign policy leader. And according to report after report, it is the only thing they really cared about. The rest of the platform? Whatever, they were apparently indifferent. But they were determined to strip language about supporting Ukraine from the manifesto. Remember: Thousands of hacked DNC emails were meanwhile published by WikiLeaks (Russia) on the eve of that convention.
Trump’s insisted he had no contact with Russia even though he hosted the Miss Universe pageant there — he was pursuing a deal for a Trump Tower in Russia during the campaign, even as he was saying “I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years.” He’s traveled extensively to Russia, everyone knows this, so why is he saying this? He’s done a lot of business there: It’s all amply documented.
He tried to stop Comey from investigating Flynn and then fired Comey, who was investigating the Russia connection.
He’s revealed highly classified information to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.
He refuses to acknowledge that Russia meddled in the campaign at all.
I’m done for the day. I could go on and on. I could write a book about this. I have. But I’ve only got enough energy left in me today to leave you with these words:
“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Mr. Trump said on the flight from Da Nang to Hanoi. “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
Edited: I took out the reference to the Alfa Bank story because I don’t have the technical expertise to make sense of it. I don’t want to muddle things up with an argument I don’t really understand and thus can’t really defend.
So this morning I was about to compose my brief, point-by-point summary of my Highly Unpopular Thesis (truly, I was), when the morning went horribly awry. My friend Arun Kapil posted a link on Facebook to this article: “Is ‘Weinsteining’ Getting Out of Hand?”
“Our current discourse on sexual harassment,” wrote Cathy Young,
not only conflates predation with “low-level lechery” but generally reduces women to sexual innocents who must be shielded not only from sexual advances but from bawdy jokes. This did not begin with Weinstein or the #MeToo movement; however, the current moral panic is making the situation worse.
I “liked” the post and wrote, “Yes, this is getting out of control and is clearly a form of hysteria.” Meant to leave it at that. But then Facebook told me that people had replied to my comment. And I discovered that I hold another Highly Unpopular view, it seems. Among the comments: “Keep your hands and comments to yourself. That is the lesson to be learned and if people lose their jobs over it, tough [redacted].”
Another: “Well, people need to be very thoughtful and very careful when they say or do something personal. WT[redacted] is so hard about that? If you are so clueless that can’t tell when a particular behavior is welcome or unwelcome, you shouldn’t be allowed in the sandbox.”
I wound up writing a post-length reply that of course I should have just published here in the first place. I’ll come back to my original Highly Unpopular Thesis tomorrow; today got spent defending this–apparently–Highly Unpopular view. I do think it’s an important issue, though.
I am now in a position to destroy many men’s lives, careers, and reputations by saying, “He harassed me.” Many men have, over the course of my academic and professional career, behaved in a way that I found charmingly flirtatious — but which, if I described it as unwelcome, or traumatic, would meet contemporary definitions of “harassment.” This category is now so broad and vague as to compass “the typical flirtation that characterizes the interaction of men and women and brings joy and amusement to so many of our lives–but as it happens, in this case, I didn’t like it.”
I could now, on a whim, destroy the career of an Oxford don I recall who one drunken evening danced with me when I was an undergraduate, patted my bum, and slurred, “I’ve been dying to do this to Berlinski all term!” That is in fact what happened. I was amused and flattered. I thought nothing of it. But if I truthfully recounted the details of this event now, merely changing the words “flattered and amused” to “traumatized and terrified,” I would destroy his life. Even if the charge couldn’t be proven, legally, the accusation is now the punishment in itself. Do you doubt this? That I have the power to destroy his life, and the lives of literally hundreds of men who have flirted me over the years — co-workers, employers, men who in some way held a position of power over me — by accurately describing a flirtation or moment of impropriety, one that in fact I either enjoyed or brushed off as harmless, merely by adding the words, “I was traumatized by it?”
The definition of harassment is now entirely subjective: The things men and women very naturally do — flirt, play, desire, tease — become harassment only by virtue of the words, “I was traumatized by it.” The onus properly to understand the interaction and its emotional subtleties seems always to fall entirely on the man: He should have understood that his behavior wasn’t welcome. Why is understanding the complex eternal dance between men and women entirely his responsibility? Perhaps she should have understood that his behavior wasn’t harmful? Perhaps she should have understood that it was sweet, or clumsy — or perhaps that he genuinely believed it to be welcome?
[Arun’s friend] asks, “WT[redacted] is so hard about [figuring out whether an advance is welcome]?” Seriously? WT[redacted] is so hard about figuring out whether someone is attracted to you? Everything is so hard about it! The difficulty of ascertaining whether one’s passions are reciprocated is the theme of 90 percent of human literature and every romantic comedy or pop song ever written. We’re talking about the most complex of human emotions, the most powerful of human drives, and you say, “WT[redacted] is so hard about that?” Google “Is she attracted to me?” to see how desperate men are to figure this out.
It is not a healthy situation when I have the power to ruin men’s lives simply by changing the way I feel about a memory. This is a sign of cultural hysteria. Anyone who imagines men and women will cease to be attracted to each other — and to behave as if they were — in the workplace, or any other place, is delusional.
I think Leon Wieseltier’s often a windbag, but I would have read any journal he edited with interest; I am sorry I won’t have the chance. From what I’ve read of the alleged facts of the accusations against him — and remember, these are not facts as a court of law would view it, we do not know for sure that this is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — it sounds as if Leon was a flirt. ‘The only problem with that dress is that it’s not tight enough,” he reportedly said. Countless men — some of them in a “position of power” over me — men who perhaps could have offered me work, or had offered me work — have said similar things to me. I literally thought nothing of it. I was amused. The comment sounds like the normal banter of men and women the world around.
At times, we have learned, when he was drunk, Leon made passes at co-workers. Who hasn’t? Seriously, who — in the real world — hasn’t been drunk and made a pass at a co-worker? But somehow from this we are to conclude that “Leon delighted in making young women sexually uncomfortable.” (Per the Atlantic.) Actually, we know no such thing from the facts as described: We know only that he was a flirt who made passes at his co-workers. These crimes are so unforgivable that without benefit of a trial his career must be destroyed; the accusation is itself the punishment — agonizing public humiliation, the exposure to the world of his human sexual foibles. I’m sure this makes him “uncomfortable” too — in fact, almost certainly more “uncomfortable” than any woman has a right to be under the circumstances described in these salacious articles.
Per the Atlantic: “One night most of the staff went out. Leon cornered me by the bathroom and kissed me. I clapped my hand over my mouth and he said, ‘I’ve always known you’d do that.’”
What do we have here: A man kissed a woman. He said, “I’ve always known you’d do that.” We know nothing else about this. It is only the grave prose surrounding this description that makes this sound sinister: “Decidedly not a joke” … “I felt terrible afterwards.” The only thing that transforms this story from “a drunken kiss at a party” to “a crime worthy of lifetime banishment from the public square” are the words, “I felt terrible afterwards.” But surely what she felt should be less important than what happened? — and what happened, apparently, is that he kissed her. We do not know why she felt terrible. We do not even ask whether he felt terrible: It feels terrible to be rejected; so I reckon he probably did feel terrible. But this perfectly normal thing, this thing that happens between men and women all the time, and always will, has been pathologized beyond all reason.
Weinstein, allegedly, raped women. There is a universe of difference between rape and Leon’s alleged crimes. He was prone to “passing along a mundane bit of office gossip, suggesting it was a great secret, and telling me that if I ever revealed it to anyone, he’d “tell people we’re [redacted].” This, apparently, is unpardonable. Gossiping and using the word “[redacted].” Casual, vulgar banter — typical of the way men and women in New York really speak to each other each and every day.
If saying such things is now an unpardonable crime, we will all go to the gallows. Or we will all cease to be human.
I’m really curious to know whether you agree. It’s just common sense, right? But some people seem to disagree with me strenuously. I mean, more than you guys disagree with me about Trump.
Do you guys agree with me about this?
I promised in early September that I would return regularly to post updates on the book to which many of you contributed. I have, again, been lax about doing this. It is troubling my conscience. I am sure some of you are wondering why, and I’m sure some of you have guessed exactly why.
The reason is exactly what some of you must suspect. I am in such profound disagreement with so many of you about the Trump presidency — and particularly about the significance of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — that I’ve come to feel deeply alienated from you.
A yawning and bitter chasm now separates Americans. As thousands of journalists and pundits have by now remarked, we seem to inhabit two epistemic universes. We do not agree on facts, let alone our interpretation of those facts.
I am in the camp that many here now view as the enemy camp. I believe not only that Donald Trump is inherently unfit to be president, but that it is highly likely that he wittingly and illegally colluded with Russia’s efforts to swing the election in his favor, that these efforts probably did swing the election, and that this is preventing him from now acting in the American interest in critical ways.
I believe that Russia has attacked our country with the intention of destroying it. I believe we, and the world, are in great peril because of this.
This is a view significantly at odds with the majority view on Ricochet.
I don’t want to rehearse, here, all the reasons I believe this. The point of this post is to explain, first, why I’ve been reluctant to post or join discussions recently. It’s also to give you an update on the book, where I do offer the reasons for these beliefs, in detail. I explicitly connect Americans’ recent political experiences to those of other countries that have come, in the past decade, to be similarly divided.
But my arguments aren’t suitable for a post on Ricochet. They really do take a book to make. I’m reassured by this, because as you’ll recall, I was at first unsure that what I had on my hands was really a book. My first draft too much resembled a series of Ricochet posts, strung together. Now, I can say that the manuscript is coherent. It advances a thesis about what, precisely, is happening to established liberal democracies in the 21st century, and why it is happening. There is a chapter devoted to Russia’s role in this. I do not argue that Russia’s role is the whole explanation. But I do argue it is a significant part of the explanation.
These aren’t arguments I can reduce to the length of a Tweet or a blog post, but they are arguments I desperately want you to hear and understand. On many occasions in the past few weeks, I’ve wanted to just hit “publish” on the manuscript and have it all out there. I’ve thought, “That’s enough, this book is done, people need to read this now.” I’ve been emotional. I’ve been frustrated that our national debate seems to be missing so much evidence from events overseas, evidence that is so significant. I’ve wanted to make my arguments, at last, instead of saying, “Wait for the book.”
But I haven’t done it. I know that my arguments, even if by now they’re in pretty good shape, won’t instantly transform this debate. That’s a narcissistic fantasy. If I write this book very well, and very carefully, there is a chance it may slightly inform or shape public opinion. It may help a few people better to view our domestic problems in their international context. It might offer a few people a way of looking at our situation that’s helpful to them.
But I do not think this manuscript would have even that impact if I press “publish” now. It would be too easy to attack and dismiss, because it’s still too sloppy. It is repetitive in parts, unclear in others, emotional in places where it should be cool in tone, and in some places cool in tone — boring, that is — where it absolutely can’t afford to be. I’ve not yet subjected all of my sources to sufficient scrutiny. Nor have I been rigorous enough in my fact-checking. I’ve written too much in haste, and too much in anger. It is so easy to dismiss someone’s arguments if they make careless errors — to say, “See, what does she know about this?” — and I don’t want that to happen to my book.
So that’s what’s going on. The book is going very well. I have a clear thesis. I am on schedule. I know what I wish the book to accomplish.
And I fear you will hate it. And I feel very, very conflicted and bad about this, so much so that I haven’t been around much.
But here is the other thing. I believe — and argue, in this book — that the extent to which we have been divided into two warring camps with irreconcilable views is, in part, the product of Russian information warfare. Not in whole — it only works because the divisions are real to begin with. But that is its aim. Russia’s doctrines are widely known. This is just how they’ve done it elsewhere. This is a textbook case.
I agree with Clint Watts in his recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Please read the whole thing, but he concludes with these words:
It’s been more than a year since my colleagues and I described in writing how the Russian disinformation system attacked our American democracy. We’ve all learned considerably more since then about the Kremlin’s campaigns, witnessed their move to France and Germany and now watch as the world’s worst regimes duplicate their methods. Yet our country remains stalled in observation, halted by deliberation and with each day more divided by manipulative forces coming from afar. The U.S. government, social media companies, and democracies around the world don’t have any more time to wait. In conclusion, civil wars don’t start with gunshots, they start with words. America’s war with itself has already begun. We all must act now on the social media battlefield to quell information rebellions that can quickly lead to violent confrontations and easily transform us into the Divided States of America.
I believe this happened; I believe we are in danger because of it. Most of you don’t. That’s a big divide.
But for years, I happily thought of the members of Ricochet as my friends. I really enjoyed our daily conversations. I agreed with many of you about most things, and when I didn’t agree, felt that we could discuss our disagreements like adults. I felt, warmly, that you were my people — Americans (mostly) with common sense, people who looked at the world basically the way I did.
Now I feel otherwise. Now I feel deeply estranged from most of the American Right.
Now, oddly, this is almost exactly the feeling I had about the American Left in the wake of September 11. The Left seemed determined to deny the significance of what had happened, to argue that this was the natural consequence of our foreign policy, that we’d just got what was coming to us for meddling in places we had no business. A large part of America seemed to me unwilling to confront reality: Whether or not we “had it coming,” we sure had an enemy that meant to destroy us. We had to decide whether we would let that happen.
What do I conclude from this? Well, first, that I go berserk when my country’s attacked. I go stark-raving berserk. I have a history under such circumstances of becoming deeply alienated from other people in my country who react differently, who take such things more in stride–who believe, perhaps, that such things happen inevitably to powerful countries, and perhaps even that we do have them coming, from time to time–that this is the price of being a superpower. I have a history of becoming alienated from people who insist that it isn’t so easy to destroy the United States, so perhaps we ought not overreact, to the point of mocking and even demonizing those people in print, to the point of seeing them as enemies within.
But in retrospect, some of the people who said, “We ought not overreact” to 9/11 seem to me to have been right–they were not quite the moral cretins or the quislings I imagined them to be at the time. Some of the people who said, “The whole point of this is to provoke us into overreaction” were, in fact, right. I was wrong to think that everyone who said such things was blithely indifferent to the magnitude of the atrocity or incapable of grasping what it said about the nature and determination of our enemy. Some of them surely were indifferent or uncomprehending. But some of them were simply more strategic, more sensible, and wiser than I was.
What does this mean, in turn? It means that I should entertain the idea that people who disagree with me about the seriousness of this event might not be crazy. Perhaps I am–for the second time–overreacting. I don’t think I am, but I’ve done it once, so I might be.
There’s another parallel. All those cliches to the effect that “You can’t let yourself be terrorized because if you do, the terrorists win,” are grounded in the reality that yes, that is indeed exactly the point of terrorism. If you give in to it, you assist terrorists in their goals and you create incentives for them to do it again. Likewise, if I and people like me allow ourselves to be divided from our friends by Russian information warfare, Russia wins — and so does every other hostile actor in the world who sees how easy it is to divide us, and how much bang you can get for your information-warfare buck.
No, our disagreements in America are not only about Russia. But they are enough about Russia that my obstinacy kicks in: I refuse to react exactly the way the Kremlin want me to. I want to stay friends with my friends. The better angels of my nature tell me clearly that no, we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.
Right now, I disagree with most of you, profoundly, about the most significant political issues of our era. That is awkward. That is not how I expected things to be, at all. But it’s reality.
So I will continue to make my case against many of your ideas–although I’ll do it in a book, not here–but I will not make a case against you. I do not and will not accept the idea that Americans who don’t agree with me are deplorable. I will not allow Russia — or Trump — to turn you, my friends, into my enemies.
I’ve been too fond of too many of you for too long for that to make any sense.
When news of a quake such as the 7.1 magnitude temblor that just devastated Mexico City crosses the transom, I have mixed emotions. Like everyone, I’m horrified. Like everyone, I’m especially horrified by the deaths of children in a collapsed school. But more than most people, I’m outraged.
I grew up on fault lines in San Francisco and Seattle, which are generally, albeit imperfectly, prepared: Both cities have strong building codes, and in both places, those codes are enforced.
I’ve been working on earthquake preparation campaigns since I moved to Istanbul in about 1995. Istanbul is neither generally nor imperfectly prepared. It has a strong building code, but one that is not always enforced at all. It is on a fault line. It is very obvious that too little of the city’s construction is built to withstand the inevitable earthquake.
If you’re considering donating to a disaster relief organization in light of the many recent, heartbreaking natural disasters in North America, may I suggest this one, Geohazards? Their focus is on preparation, and that is the stage when donations of money and time can save far more lives than the same amount can in post-disaster recovery.
An earthquake didn’t kill Mexicans yesterday. Buildings did.
Crushed school buildings will kill school kids in Istanbul, just as they did in Mexico City. I can’t tell you the date it will happen, but I can tell you for sure that it will happen. I’ve seen multistory buildings there that wouldn’t stand up even to minor shaking. I know that quite a bit of the EU grant money that was donated to reinforce school buildings in the wake of the Izmit quake in 1999 was pocketed by corrupt officials. Some school buildings don’t even remotely comply with local regulations.
So if you’re in Turkey or know someone who is, it’s worth looking into that. I kept a list of dubious buildings and contractors, starting with the one whose negligence collapsed the building I lived in (while I was still inside it: Sargin Inşaat). Ask me for it. Sargin’s not even the worst, by any means: They at least aren’t taking money to reinforce foundations for schools and then not reinforcing a thing. The contractors who took money to reinforce a school in the neighborhood of Kağıthane apparently did just that, as I mentioned in the meeting notes of a group I convened to discuss ways to mitigate seismic risk in Istanbul.
By far the most disturbing point was this. A member of the group is certain that a school in Kağıthane that is said to have been retrofitted has not in fact been made secure. He said that 350,000 YTL was spent to retrofit the school, but the foundation is still only 16 cm. deep. He also said that the engineer who supervised the work told him, “I wouldn’t send my children here.” He believed this to be true of many schools that have supposedly been retrofitted.
He wasn’t willing to discuss the details of this. I can’t confirm, immediately, that the story is true. But the possibility that it’s true is enough to make me think this should be investigated aggressively. The parents of those 1,100 children believe their kids are safe in that school. If they’re not, those parents are entitled to know. And those children shouldn’t be in there.
If you’re not in Turkey, as you probably aren’t, it’s worth being cautious about how you donate. You don’t want your money going to the kind of crook who took the money to retrofit that school in Kağıthane and spent it on God-knows-what.
So I recommend Geohazards. They’re well-established and serious. They understand this problem. They work around the world, and they’re not naive.
Meanwhile, if you have the political or social clout in Mexico, lend your voice to campaigns to see that the owners of collapsed buildings in Mexico face swift, severe, criminal prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. It is important that this happen. Those kids were not killed by the earthquake. They were killed by people who committed negligent homicide.
After Chile’s big quake, its legal code, and justice system, were good enough that the families of the victims were able to put the slumlords and crooked developers behind bars. That must happen in Mexico, too. And it should happen in Turkey. And should happen now, before another soul perishes.
I wrote about this for City Journal in 2011. We will see more and more such calamities in the coming decade, not because there will be more earthquakes, but because the world is urbanizing:
Two hundred years ago, Peking was the only city in the world with a population of a million people. Today, almost 500 cities are that big, and many are much bigger. That explains why the number of earthquake-caused deaths during the first decade of this century (471,015) was more than four times greater than the number during the previous decade, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. National Earthquake Information Center. If the fatality trend continues upward—and it will, because the urbanization trend is continuing upward, as is the trend of housing migrant populations in death traps—it won’t be long before we see a headline announcing 1 MILLION DEAD IN MASSIVE EARTHQUAKE. Indeed, we’ll be lucky not to see it in our lifetimes.
And few of those deaths will be acts of God. Most will be acts of human negligence.
… we understand enough about seismology to be sure that certain cities face a high risk of earthquakes with enormous death tolls, and we understand enough about engineering and disaster management to say exactly what should be done to protect the residents of those cities. What we don’t understand—or rather, what we’re seldom willing to say plainly—is why some governments take the risk seriously and take aggressive steps to mitigate it, while others shrug and say, Que será, será. …
… Economist Charles Kenny’s definitive 2007 study argues persuasively that the construction industry is the most corrupt sector of the world economy. And the more corruption there is in construction—whether it consists of companies’ using substandard materials or of governments’ granting permission to build in zones unsuitable for habitation—the likelier you are to die. In China, the buildings that crumble during earthquakes are schools and hospitals, while the Party’s headquarters and the houses of its functionaries remain standing. In Turkey, building inspectors work on the contractor’s payroll, creating a massive conflict of interest. Changing that system could save countless lives. But the construction companies, for obvious reasons, don’t want that to happen—and all of Turkey’s major political parties run on construction money.
The absence of outright corruption isn’t enough to keep countries safe; it is also essential to have in place a particular kind of legal regime. Strong tort law is the key, and Chile is a model here as well. During the recent earthquake, a new building in Concepción collapsed. Its surviving inhabitants took the builders to court, charging fraud and, in some cases, murder. Chilean law holds the original owner of a building liable for any earthquake damage that it suffers during its first decade, even if ownership has changed during that time. Because of this law, owners often exceed the provisions of Chile’s already strict building codes in their eagerness to avoid liability. And accountability in the Chilean legal system goes to the top. In February, a Chilean court declined to dismiss a lawsuit against the former president, Michelle Bachelet, and other senior officials for malfunctions in the country’s tsunami-warning system. ….
… Spin the wheel: Bogotá, Cairo, Caracas, Dhaka, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Katmandu, Lima, Manila, Mexico City, New Delhi, Quito, Tehran. It will be one of them. It isn’t too late to save them. But we need to say the truth about why they’re at risk in the first place.
Feel free to read the whole article. You might also find interesting these two pieces my brother and I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the quake in Port-au-Prince. My brother and his family were there and survived. I wrote about the horror and panic of trying to figure whether they were alive.
Earthquakes are terrifying. But our ability to survive them is entirely a matter of preparing for them seriously and intelligently. We can and should judge a society by how well it prepares for earthquakes. It’s a direct measure of its concern for human life, ability to control corruption, capacity to plan for the future, and ability to carry out that plan.
A collapsed building in an earthquake zone reflects premeditated murder, or at least manslaughter. The sight of such a building should outrage us.
Last week I shamefacedly checked in after a long absence. I promised to do so regularly and to cut my snark-time on Twitter down to fifteen minutes a day. Front Seat Cat’s observation — about Twitter being nothing but a contribution “to the volume of nothingness” and “a waste of your talent and soul” — seemed right to me. I took it to heart. So in the comments, I made this resolution:
I find my fingers itching to hit that button — and I don’t even know why. Habit, perhaps. I’m going to try sweeping the floor whenever I’m tempted to see if I can break the association between “mild restlessness” and “filling the void with Twitter.”
I’m pleased to say that I kept my vow! I expanded the replacement activity from “sweeping the floor” to “housework, generally.” Here’s the result, after a week: I have no idea what’s happening in the world, but my apartment is sparkling clean. Thus today I’ll check in by opening a thread for sharing our best housekeeping tips (seeing as I have nothing else to talk about).
I’ve been a sucker for housekeeping hints since childhood, which is particularly strange because I was a thoroughly slovenly kid who had to be coerced into cleaning her room. But I always spent the week in eager anticipation of Heloise’s Hints, which I read diligently every Sunday morning when the paper arrived. (Anyone else remember the Sunday paper and what a big deal its arrival was?) To this day, I’m the target customer for infomercials that peddle magical cleaning devices. I watch them, transfixed, eagerly envisioning the arrival of my new Turbo Scrub, my Hurricane Spin Mop, my Fur Wizard, my Dutch Glow Cleaning Tonic. I fantasize about how my apartment will look just like the “after” pictures as soon as I open the box and point my new device at the mess. Needless to say, few of these products ever live up to the hype. The spin broom is only the latest crushing disappointment.
So, I have to be realistic. I live with seven cats in a small apartment in an old, dusty, moldy building in an old, dusty, moldy city. The only thing that works — the only thing that keeps this place from degenerating into outright piggishness — is non-stop housework. The fur, dust, kitty litter, and shredded cat toys fall on the floor so fast that by the time I finish sweeping , it’s time to start again. And despite all my labors, the best I can ever achieve is “not so horrifying.”
That said, replacing Twitter with housework really helped. And since I can’t comment on Russia — because I’m not keeping track of the Kremlin on Twitter — here instead are my top five tips for keeping a really old, dusty Parisian apartment with seven cats in it “not so horrifying,” instead.
1. In between moppings, you can keep the dust and fur to a tolerable level by safety-pinning a clean rag to the broom and sweeping with it. It’s way easier to throw the rags in the washing machine (with bleach and a bit of tea-tree oil, to disinfect) than it is to clean the mop in a bucket, which never seems to get the mop truly clean. So every morning, after sweeping, I go over the floors with my broom-rag combo.
2. After years of experimenting with every floor cleaner on the market, I have concluded that this is the best: a mix of vinegar, dishwashing detergent (not too much), and lavender oil. It’s less expensive than anything else I’ve tried, and it works better, not only at picking up the dust and fur, but at neutralizing cat smells.
3. One of the few cleaning products I’ve ever discovered that genuinely approaches magic is Mr. Clean Wonder Gum. I used to think nothing but repainting the apartment would ever get the walls really white. I don’t have a “before” picture, but from the “after” picture, above, you can see that there’s no need to repaint. The cleaning gum picks up everything.
4. The litter genie was worth every Euro, too, especially since to take out the trash, I have to go the basement, which is six flights of stairs down–and I don’t have an elevator. Also, the basement is creepy and scary, so it’s easy to get lazy. The genie holds a week’s worth of cat litter, and it really does trap the odor. Mind you, it doesn’t work unless the used litter’s in the genie. So you’ve just got to scoop the boxes as soon as they’re used. (In a seven-cat household, this means scooping approximately 28 times a day.)
5. Marie Kondo is right about how to fold clothes. There is only one correct way. Every other way is factually incorrect and morally wrong. If you do it so that the clothes stand up, though, as she demonstrates below, the clutter in your closet disappears. You never have to search for anything again.
So there you go — that’s my top five!
Please share yours, especially if you have pets. I’m eager to learn how other people on Ricochet get black cat fur and vomit stains off of their white and cream-colored furniture. (Beg pardon, you say? White and cream-colored furniture? What kind of insanity was that, Claire? Well, admittedly, it was quixotic. In my defense, I have both black and white cats — as well as brown, orange, and grey ones — so no matter what color it was, the fur and the barf were going to show. But basically, yes, I made the willing choice to live on the edge.)
A few days ago I was winding down after a long day of work when I thought, “You know, I haven’t checked my messages at Ricochet in ages.” This didn’t seem strange to me, because I figured everyone knew I was taking a book sabbatical, and knew that if it was urgent, they should write to my Gmail address.
Why did I figure everyone knew that?
Well, honestly — I don’t know.
So when I read this message from FrontSeatCat, telling me in very frank terms that no, everyone didn’t understand why I was gone, I was absolutely stunned and horrified. She gave me permission to quote from it:
My face on reading FSC’s e-mail.
Hi Claire, I’ll make this quick.
What started as enthusiasm for your book project has dissolved into a big question mark. Writer’s block? Ok. Your long absence from Ricochet? Ok. I (we) don’t care if your views have changed, politics, whatever – it’s all good. But if I look for new stories (Google) from you, I get Twitter snark and sarcasm. That’s it. Where are your political posts, journalistic stories? I don’t care if you are not a Trump fan – don’t you have something to contribute regarding Russia, etc., anything other than snark? … You asked all of us upfront – investment or donation – specify. We would be part of the process, cheer you on, see the progress. What happened?
Don’t do it to get more donations – if your heart is on pause, say so. Be honest. Take my investment and change it to a donation. If it helped you and the cats eat another week, as you were describing, I am more than happy. I mean that sincerely. I loved your books. I loved your stories, your posts, whether I agreed or not. You mentioned something about having SAD, the condition that befalls some in winter. My nephew has that. Winter is coming. I mean that realistically and metaphorically. I don’t know where you went, but the snarky person on Twitter that adds to the volume of nothingness is a waste of your talent and soul.
Please come clean with your friends and supporters on Ricochet, and even elsewhere. It’s a slap in my face to think you have to cover up who you are because it’s a conservative site. It’s a slap to think I invested in your dream and you have lost interest in it and us. I think we can all benefit from your insight into current Russia and world events. It wouldn’t hurt to try to understand what is happening in America either – both sides – all sides – you’ve been away a long time. … I hope you can level with us, even if it is only on the Member Feed. We invested in you and I would like to have an honest from the heart update, even if it’s the last one. Thanks.
Front Seat Cat (Linda) – sending a hug
First, thank you again, FSC, for telling me what you were thinking. Had you not been so candid, I would have continued to plug away imagining that everything was copacetic and everyone knew I was hard at work.
Now, you might ask, “Why exactly, Claire, would you think that? What did you think people would think if you just took a long unannounced break?”
Well, actually, I didn’t figure anyone would notice! It’s silly, but it just didn’t occur to me. But the instant I read that, I realized that of course just disappearing — without explaining why — looks awful, and of course people don’t magically know, by osmosis, that I stopped posting so I could devote that time and energy to finishing the book.
I’m so sorry. I should have announced that I was taking a book break. I’m so embarrassed that it didn’t occur to me.
I’m horrified, actually. Reading that e-mail felt worse, at least for a few hours, than reading that North Korea detonated a hydrogen bomb. That last sentence is actually and literally true. I’m not proud of this, but it’s fascinating to see my own neurosis — my primal fear of being thought a slacker and a failure — mapped out so plainly.
A small point in my defense, and I mention this just so I don’t sound so painfully clueless, is that I didn’t just disappear. I talked about it with TPTB; I told them I needed a break to prioritize finishing the book. “No worries, we understand, come back anytime,” the Yeti said. So in my mind I’d told the boss, who’s the person you need to tell if you’re not going to show up for work, right? I guess I reckoned if people were wondering where I was, TPTB would tell them. No need to make a big announcement since I wasn’t sure how long I’d be gone.
Sidenote: What mental age do you revert to when you suddenly think people are thinking bad things about you? I’ve now had a couple of days to reassure myself that no, I didn’t just run off with everyone’s money and spend it on Verveine de Vénus scented candles — I really didn’t, so I don’t need to feel guilty that I did! But the unalloyed shame I felt on realizing that people might think that is a straight-up a relic of me at age eight. I’m in trouble! Everyone thinks I’ve done a bad thing! The whole class is talking about me!
But I’ve pulled myself back together and reassured myself that I’m in fact nearly fifty, and all I need to do is explain this like an adult.
Here’s the update I should have posted a month ago. When last I wrote about the book, I’d just finished the first draft. I was very pleased with it, as you’ll recall, but then I showed it to a friend, a professional editor, and she gently told me it had a long way to go.
It was another one of my dear friends, Norah Vincent, who long ago introduced me to an expression that’s not Ricochet-friendly but so relevant here that I’ll introduce it in bowdlerized form: “the merde sandwich.” That’s what editors do when they need to tell you your book isn’t very good but don’t want to demoralize you completely. Writers tend to have Fabergé-egg morale, so editors the world around use the same merde-sandwich technique. You know you’re being merde-sandwiched when the e-mail begins, “Your work is so vital, so passionate, so urgently important!”
Me after reading the first paragraph of my merde sandwich.
Why, thank you. … [preen, preen!]
You get a whole paragraph like that, telling you how brilliant you are, how penetrating your insights, how unique your voice. It all feels so right.
Then you get to the paragraph that begins, “In places, however, I felt that the structure … “
In layman’s terms: “This is unreadable. Start over.”
She merde-sandwiched me but good.
And, of course, she was dead right. I’d sent her a disorganized, wordy, and self-indulgent draft. The tone was wrong: It sounded as if I’d put a series of Ricochet posts back-to-back, which is unsurprising, because I did. But the style that works for a blog post doesn’t work at book length. The draft was about 50,000 words too long. And as she put it, “It feels as if you’re writing four books here instead of one. Maybe you need to decide which one you’re writing?”
My face on reading my friend’s e-mail.
As she said, “You’re using the word ‘I’ too many times. I’m distracted by your focus on you.”
As she said, “Your argument in Chapter Six seems to contradict Chapter Two.”
Yikes! She was right. And I couldn’t even decide which version of me I agreed with.
“I don’t think these chapters will still be relevant in a few months.”
Yikes! She was right, though. A whole chapter on the French election? The election is long since over.
I took a selfie. Can you see me?
And on it went, and on, until the merciful final paragraph, in which she again told me again that I was the sparkliest and frostiest little snowflake in the snowbank, and it would be a great book–once I’d started all over again and written it from scratch.
Now, anyone who’s ever written a book (or at least, anyone who’s ever written a book anyone else would want to read) knows this is a normal part of book-writing. But why? It’s not true of other professions. Pilots don’t just accept that you just have to crash a few 747s before you get the hang of it. I mean, this isn’t my first rodeo: I’ve written books before — four of them, plus a doctoral dissertation and other long works — so you’d think I’d be further advanced on the learning curve. But for reasons I don’t really understand, well-written books never emerge on the first draft, or even the second or third. You just have to get the bad arguments, lousy narrative structures, and authorial tics out of your system before something professional emerges.
I just read an article about exactly this in the Atlantic, by the way. By one Thomas E. Ricks, author of Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. The article’s called The Secret Life of a Book Manuscript, and goodness, it sounded familiar:
… But two weeks after I sent [my editor] the manuscript, I received a most unhappy e-mail back from him. “I fear that the disconnect over what this book should be might be fundamental,” Scott wrote to me, clearly pained to do so. What I had sent him was exactly the book he had told me not to write. He had warned me, he reminded me, against writing an extended book review that leaned on the weak reed of themes rather than stood on a strong foundation of narrative. I had put the works before the two men [Orwell and Churchill], he told me, and that would not do.
There was more. But in short, he pissed all over it. It was not that he disliked it. It was that he [redacted] hated it. I was taken aback—I had enjoyed the process of researching and writing the book. So, I had expected, a reader would too. No, Scott said, the way you’ve done this doesn’t work. …
… I spent the next five months, from mid-January to mid-June of 2016, redoing the whole book, rethinking it from top to bottom. … Writing is a lot like carpentry, hammering and sawing and sanding. In this case, I was like a builder taking down a house I had just finished constructing. Scott had persuaded me that my blueprint was off, so I disassembled the whole thing. I stacked my lumber, bricks, window frames, glass, and cement. And then, after a couple more weeks of taking notes on how to do it differently, writing signposts on my new blueprint, I set to reconstruction.
I dug a new foundation, lining it with solid chronology. I wrote a second note to myself at the top of the manuscript: “If it is not chronological, why not?” That is, I would permit myself on occasion to deviate from the march of time, but I needed to articulate a pretty strong reason before doing so.
So that’s what I’m doing: Pretty much exactly the same thing Ricks did. Roto-rootering the whole book. And not only have I not lost interest in it, I’m so involved in it that I didn’t even think to let people know — because I assumed they’d know this by magic. That was silly of me. I’m sorry, FSC, for worrying you. Thank you for your candor and for shaking me out of my reverie.
I’ll post weekly updates from now on!
PS: I’ve set a rule for myself limiting my use of Twitter 15 minutes a day. I fully agree that time spent on Twitter just adds to the volume of nothingness and is a waste of one’s soul.
John Adams thought the day of celebration would be the Second Day of July, 1776 not the Fourth, but otherwise got it exactly right:
I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.
In looking for those lines, I got caught up in the John Adams papers. It’s just an astonishing thing to be able to peruse the entire Adams archives from my couch. For all that I grow increasingly sure that the Internet will be the undoing of the Republic, I’m thankful for the gift. Let me share, on Independence Day, some remarks from our Second President. In no special order and for no special reason but that they seemed like something to share.
Aug. 28, 1774, from John to Abigail: I am anxious for our perplexed, distressed Province-hope they will be directed into the right Path. Let me intreat you, my Dear, to make yourself as easy and quiet as possible. Resignation to the Will of Heaven is our only Resource in such dangerous Times. Prudence and Caution should be our Guides. I have the strongest Hopes, that We shall yet see a clearer Sky, and better Times. …
The Education of our Children is never out of my Mind. Train them to Virtue, habituate them to industry, activity, and Spirit. Make them consider every Vice, as shamefull and unmanly: fire them with Ambition to be usefull-make them disdain to be destitute of any usefull, or ornamental Knowledge or Accomplishment. Fix their Ambition upon great and solid Objects, and their Contempt upon little, frivolous, and useless ones. [It] is Time, my dear, for you to begin to teach them French. Every Decency, Grace, and Honesty should be inculcated upon them.
Oct. 9, 1774, from John to Abigail: This Afternoons Entertainment was to me, most awfull and affecting. The poor Wretches, fingering their Beads, chanting Latin, not a Word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Maria’s. Their holy Water-their Crossing themselves perpetually-their Bowing to the Name of Jesus, their wherever they hear it-their Bowings, and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar. The Dress of the Priest was rich with Lace-his Pulpit was Velvet and Gold. The Altar Piece was very rich-little Images and Crucifixes about-Wax Candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the Picture of our Saviour in a Frame of Marble over the Altar at full Length upon the Cross, in the Agonies, and the Blood dropping and streaming from his Wounds. The Musick consisting of an organ, and a Choir of singers, went all the Afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted-most sweetly and exquisitely. Here is every Thing which can lay hold of the Sight Eye, Ear, and Imagination. Every Thing which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.
July 17, 1775, from John to Abigail: I never observe in the World, an Example, of any Person brought to Poverty from Affluence, from Health to Distemper, from Fame to Disgrace by the Vices and Follies of the age, but it throws me into a deep Rumination upon Education. My poor Children, I fear will loose some Advantages in Point of Education, from my continual Absence from them. Truth, Sobriety, Industry should be[perpetually] inculcated upon them. Pray my dear, let them be taught Geography and the Art of copying as well as drawing Plans of Cities, Provinces, Kingdoms, and Countries — especially of America. I have found great Inconvenience for Want of this Art, since I have had to contemplate America so much, and since I had to study the Processes and Operations of War. But their Honour, Truth, in one Word their Morals, are of most importance. I hope these will be kept pure.
October 29, 1775, from John to Abigail: Human nature with all its infirmities and depravation is still capable of great things. It is capable of attaining to degrees of wisdom and of goodness, which, we have reason to believe, appear respectable in the estimation of superior intelligences. Education makes a greater difference between man and man, than nature has made between man and brute. The virtues and powers to which men may be trained, by early education and constant discipline, are truly sublime and astonishing. Newton and Locke are examples of the deep sagacity which may be acquired by long habits of thinking and study. … It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to a excel in [illegible] every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.
July 3, 1776, from John to Abigail: Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony “that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.” You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days.
When I look back to the Year 1761, and recollect the Argument concerning Writs of Assistance, in the Superiour Court, which I have hitherto considered as the Commencement of the Controversy, between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole Period from that Time to this, and recollect the series of political Events, the Chain of Causes and Effects, I am surprized at the Suddenness, as well as Greatness of this Revolution. Britain has been fill’d with Folly, and America with Wisdom, at least this is my judgment. — Time must determine. It is the Will of Heaven, that the two Countries should be sundered forever. It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadfull. If this is to be the Case, it will have this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonour, and destroy Us. — The Furnace of Affliction produces Refinement, in States as well as Individuals. And the new Governments we are assuming, in every Part, will require a Purification from our Vices, and an Augmentation of our Virtues or they will be no Blessings. The People will have unbounded Power. And the People are extreamly addicted to Corruption and Venality, as well as the Great. I am not without Apprehensions from this Quarter. But I must submit all my Hopes and Fears, to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable [ as] the Faith may be, I firmly believe.
July 21, 1776, from Abigail to John: Last Thursday after hearing a very Good Sermon I went with the Multitude into Kings Street to hear the proclamation for independance read and proclamed. Some Field peices with the Train were brought there, the troops appeard under Arms and all the inhabitants assembled there (the small pox prevented many thousand from the Country). When Col. Crafts read from the Belcona of the State House the Proclamation, great attention was given to every word. As soon as he ended, the cry from the Belcona, was God Save our American States and then 3 cheers which rended the air, the Bells rang, the privateers fired, the forts and Batteries, the cannon were discharged, the platoons followed and every face appeard joyfull.Mr. Bowdoin then gave a [illegible] Sentiment, Stability and perpetuity to American independance. After dinner the kings arms were taken down from the State House and every vestage of him from every place in which it appeard and burnt in King Street. Thus ends royall Authority in this State, and all the people shall say Amen.
May 18 1777, from Abigail to John: Infidelity has been a growing part of the British character for many years. It is not so much to be wonderd at that those who pay no regard to a Supreeme Being should throw of all regard to their fellow creatures and to those precepts and doctrines which require peace and good will to Men; and in a perticuliar manner distinguish the followers of him who hath said by this shall all Men know that ye are my deciples if ye have love one towards an other.
Let them reproach us ever so much for our kindness and tenderness to those who have fallen into our Hands, I hope it will never provoke us to retaliate their cruelties; let us put it as much as posible out of their power to injure us, but let us keep in mind the precepts of him who hath commanded us to Love our Enemies; and to excercise towards them acts of Humanity, Benevolence and Kindness, even when they despitefully use us.
And here suffer me to quote an Authority which you greatly Esteem, Dr. Tillotson. It is commonly said that revenge is sweet, but to a calm and considerate mind, patience and forgiveness are sweeter, and do afford a much more rational, and solid and durable pleasure than revenge. The monuments of our Mercy and goodness are a far more pleasing and delightfull Spectacle than of our rage and cruelty, and no sort of thought does usually haunt men with more Terror, than the reflexion upon what they have done in the way of Revenge.
If our cause is just, it will be best supported by justice and righteousness. Tho we have many other crimes to answer for, that of cruelty to our Enemies is not chargable upon Americans, and I hope never will be — if we have err’d it is upon the side of Mercy and have excercised so much lenity to our Enemies as to endanger our Friends — but their Malice and wicked designs against us, has and will oblige every State to proceed against them with more Rigor. Justice and self preservation are duties as much incumbant upon christians, as forgiveness and Love of Enemies.
May 22, 1777, from John to Abigail: I believe there is no one Principle, which predominates in human Nature so much in every stage of Life, from the Cradle to the Grave, in Males and females, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, high and low, as this Passion for Superiority …. Every human Being compares itself in its own Imagination, with every other round about it, and will find some Superiority over every other real or imaginary, or it will die of Grief and Vexation. I have seen it among Boys and Girls at school, among Lads at Colledge, among Practicers at the Bar, among the Clergy in their Associations, among Clubbs of Friends, among the People in Town Meetings, among the Members of an House of Reps. [Representatives], among the Grave Councillors, on the more solemn Bench of justice, and in that awfully August Body the Congress, and on many of its Committees — and among Ladies every Where — But I never saw it operate with such Keenness, Ferocity and Fury, as among military Officers. They will go terrible Lengths, in their Emulations, their Envy and Revenge, in Consequence of it.
So much for Philosophy. — I hope my five or six Babes are all well. My Duty to my Mother and your Father and Love to sisters and Brothers, Aunts and Uncles.
Pray how does your Asparagus perform?
June 29, 1778, from John to Abigail: Tell Mr. John, that I am under no Apprehensions about his Proficiency in Learning. With his Capacity, and Opportunities, he can not fail to acquire Knowledge. But let him know, that the moral Sentiments of his Heart, are more important than the Furniture of his Head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great Virtues of Temperance, Justice, Magnanimity, Honour and Generosity, and with these added to his Parts he cannot fail to become a wise and great Man.
Does he read the Newspapers? The Events of this War, should not pass unobserved by him at his Years.
As he reads History you should ask him, what Events strike him most? What Characters he esteems and admires? which he hates and abhors? which he despises?
No doubt he makes some Observations, young as he is.
Treachery, Perfidy, Cruelty, Hypocrisy, Avarice, &c. &c. should be pointed out to him for his Contempt as well as Detestation.
My dear Daughters Education is near my Heart. She will suffer by this War as well as her Brothers. But she is a modest, and discreet Child. Has an excellent Disposition, as well as Understanding. Yet I wish it was in my Power, to give her the Advantages of several Accomplishments, which it is not.
August 20, 1777, from John to Abigail: I feel an Inclination sometimes, to write the History of the last Three Years, in Imitation of Thucidides. There is a striking Resemblance, in several Particulars, between the Peloponnesian and the American War. The real Motive to the former was a jealousy of the growing Power of Athens, by Sea and Land . . . . The genuine Motive to the latter, was a similar Jealousy of the growing Power of America. The true Causes which incite to War, are seldom professed, or Acknowledged.
December 15, 1777, John to Abigail: One Evening, as I satt in one Room, I overheard Company of the Common sort of People in another, conversing upon serious subjects. One of them, whom I afterwards found upon Enquiry to be a reputable, religious Man, was more eloquent than the rest-he was upon the Danger of despizing and neglecting serious Things. Said whatever Person or People made light of them would soon find themselves terribly mistaken. At length I heard these Words — “it appears to me the eternal son of God is opperating Powerfully against the British Nation for their treating lightly serious Things.”
June 3, 1778, from John to Abigail (from France): It would be endless to attempt a Description of this Country. It is one great Garden. Nature and Art have conspired to render every Thing here delightful. Religion and Government, you will say ought to be excepted. — With all my Heart. — But these are no Afflictions to me, because I have well fixed it in my Mind as a Principle, that every Nation has a Right to that Religion and Government, which it chooses, and as long as any People please themselves in these great Points, I am determined they shall not displease me.
There is so much danger that my Letter may fall into malicious Hands, that I should not choose to be too free in my Observations upon the Customs and Manners of this People. But thus much I may say with Truth and without offence, that there is no People in the World, who take so much Pains to please, nor any whose Endeavours in this Way, have more success. Their Arts, Manners, Taste and Language are more respected in Europe than those of any other Nation. Luxury, dissipation, and Effeminacy, are pretty nearly at the same degree of Excess here, and in every other Part of Europe. The great Cardinal Virtue of Temperance, however, I believe flourishes here more than in any other Part of Europe.My dear Country men! how shall I perswade you, to avoid the Plague of Europe? Luxury has as many and as bewitching Charms, on your Side of the Ocean as on this-and Luxury, wherever she goes, effaces from human Nature the Image of the Divinity. If I had Power I would forever banish and exclude from America, all Gold, silver, precious stones, Alabaster, Marble, Silk, Velvet and Lace.
Oh the Tyrant! the American Ladies would say! What! — Ay, my dear Girls, these Passions of yours, which are so easily allarmed, and others of my own sex which are exactly like them, have done and will do the Work of Tyrants in all Ages. Tyrants different from me, whose Power has banished, not Gold indeed, but other Things of greater Value, Wisdom, Virtue and Liberty.
November 12, 1778, from Abigail to John: I will not finish the sentance, my Heart denies the justice of the acqusation, nor does it believe your affection in the least diminished by distance or absence, but my Soul is wounded at a Seperationfrom you, and my fortitude all dissolved in frailty and weakness. When I cast my Eye thoughts across the Atlantick and view the distance, the dangers and Hazards which you have already passd through, and to which you must probably be again exposed, e’er we shall meet again, the Time of your absence unlimitted, all all conspire to cast a Gloom over my solitary hours, and bereave me of all domestick felicity. In vain do I strive to through of [throw off] in the company of my Friends some of the anxiety of my Heart, it increases in proportion to my endeavours to conceal it; the only alleiviation I know of would be a frequent intercourse by Letters unrestrained by the apprehension of their becomeing food for our Enemies. The affection I feel for my Friend is of the tenderest kind, matured by years, sanctified by choise and approved by Heaven. Angles can witness to its purity, what care I then for the Ridicule of Britains should this testimony of it fall into their Hands, nor can I endure that so much caution and circumspection on your part should deprive me of the only consolation consolor of your absence — a consolation that our Enemies enjoy in a much higher degree than I do.
December 2, 1778, from John to Abigail: Last Night a Friend from England brought me the Kings Speech. Their Delirium continues, and they go on with the War, but the, Speech betrays a manifest Expectation that Spain will join against them, and the Debates betray a dread of Holland. They have Reason, for both.
They have not, and cannot get an Ally. They cannot send any considerable Reinforcement to America.
Your Reflections upon the Rewards of the Virtuous Friends of the, public are very just. But if Virtue was to be rewarded with Wealth it would not be Virtue. If Virtue was to be rewarded with Fame, it would not be Virtue of the sublimest Kind. Who would not rather [illegible] be Fabricius than Caesar? Who would not rather be Aristides, than even [William] the 3d? Who? Nobody would be of this Mind but Aristides and Fabricius.
These Characters are very rare, but the more prescious. Nature has made more Insects than Birds, more Butterflys than Eagles, more Foxes than Lyons, more Pebbles than Diamonds. The most excellent of her Productions, both in the physical, intellectual and moral World, are the most rare. — I would not be a Butterfly because Children run after them, nor because the dull Phylosophers boast of them in their Cabinets.
Have you ever read J. J. Rousseau. If not, read him — your Cousin smith has him. What a Difference between him and Chesterfield, and even Voltaire? But he was too virtuous for the Age, and for Europe. I wish I could not say for another Country.
May 13: Some hints about Language, and glances about Women, produced this Observation, that there were two Ways of learning french commonly recommended — take a Mistress and go to the Commedie. Dr. Brookes in high good Humour Pray Sir, which in your Opinion is the best? Answer in as good Humour — Perhaps both would teach it soonest, to be sure sooner than either. But, continued I, assuming my Gravity, the Language is no where better spoken than at the Comedie. The Pulpit, the Bar, the Accademie of Sciences, and the faculty of Medicine, none of them speak so accurately as the french Comedie.
May 14: On Board all day, ill of a Cold. Many Gentlemen came on board to visit me. A Dr. Brooks, Surgeon to the Poor Richard, drank Tea with me. He seems to be well acquainted with Philosophical Experiments. I led him to talk upon this subject. He had much to say about Phlogiston, fixed Air, Gas &c. About absolute and sensible Heat, Experiments with the Thermometer, to shew the absolute and sensible Heat in Water, Air, Blood &c. Finding he had Ideas of these Things, I led him to talk of the Ascent of Vapours in the Atmosphere, and I found he had considered this subject.
May 16: My Son could not comprehend why they should be so fond of Iron. He was told that Iron made the principal Difference between savage and civilised Nations. That all Arts and Manufactures depended upon Iron &c.
June 12: Beggars, Servants, Garcons, Filles, Decroteurs, Blanchisseuses. Barges, Batteaux, Bargemen. Coffee houses, Taverns. Servants at the Gates of Woods and Walks. Fruit, Cakes. Ice Creams. Spectacles. Tailors for setting a Stitch in Cloaths. Waiters for running with Errands, Cards &c. Cabbin Boys. Coach Hire. Walking Canes. Pamphlets. Ordonances. Carts.
June 23: Is there not one Catholic, said M.M.? Not a German Church said I. There is a Roman catholic Church in Philadelphia, a very decent Building, frequented by a respectable Congregation, consisting partly of Germans, partly of French and partly of Irish. — All Religions are tolerated in America, said M.M., and the Ambassadors have in all Courts a Right to a Chappell in their own Way. But Mr. Franklin never had any. — No said I, laughing, because Mr. F. had no — I was going to say, what I did not say, and will not say here. I stopped short and laughed. — No, said Mr. M., Mr. F. adores only great Nature, which has interested a great many People of both Sexes in his favour. — Yes, said I, laughing, all the Atheists, Deists and Libertines, as well as the Philosophers and Ladies are in his Train — another Voltaire and Hume. — Yes said Mr. M., he is celebrated as the great Philosopher and the great Legislator of America. — He is said I a great Philosopher, but as a Legislator of America he has done very little. It is universally believed in France, England and all Europe, that his Electric Wand has accomplished all this Revolution but nothing is more groundless. He has [done] very little. It is believed that he made all the American Constitutions, and their Confederation. But he made neither …
Monday July 1. 1776. I am not able to recollect, whether it was on this day, or some preceeding day, that the greatest and most solemn debate was had on the question of Independence. The Subject had been in Contemplation for more than a Year and frequent discussions had been had concerning it. At one time and another, all the Arguments for it and against it had been exhausted and were become familiar. I expected no more would be said in public but that the question would be put and decided. Mr. Dickinson however was determined to bear his Testimony against it with more formality. He had prepared himself apparently with great Labourand ardent Zeal, and in a Speech of great Length, and all his Eloquence, he combined together all that had before been written in Pamphlets and News papers and all that had from time to time been said in Congress by himself and others. He conducted the debate, not only with great Ingenuity and Eloquence, but with equal Politeness and Candour: and was answered in the same Spirit.
No Member rose to answer him: and after waiting some time, in hopes that some one less obnoxious than myself, who was still had been all along for a Year before, and still was represented and believed to be the Author of all the Mischief, I determined to speak.
It has been said by some of our Historians, that I began by an Invocation to the God of Eloquence. This is a Misrepresentation. Nothing so puerile as this fell from me. I began by saying that this was the first time of my Life that I had ever wished for the Talents and Eloquence of the ancient Orators of Greece and Rome, for I was very sure that none of them ever had before him a question of more Importance to his Country and to the World. They would probably upon less Occasions than this have begun by solemn Invocations to their Divinities for Assistance but the Question before me appeared so simple, that I had confidence enough in the plain Understanding and common Sense that had been given me, to believe that I could answer to the Satisfaction of the House all the Arguments which had been produced, notwithstanding the Abilities which had been displayed and the Eloquence with which they had been enforced. Mr. Dickinson, some years afterwards published his Speech. I had made no Preparation beforehand and never committed any minutes of mine to writing. But if I had a Copy of Mr. Dickinsons before me I would now after Eight and Nine and twenty Years have elapsed, endeavour to recollect mine. …
January 3, 1797, From John to Abigail (as President): I had a Visit Yesterday from Mr. De L’Etombe which I consider as an intended beginning of Intercourse. He disclaimed all authority. It was a Visit of a Man, a Philosopher and an Acquaintance of Eighteen Years. It was to assure and convince me that the Directory never had a thought of interfering in our Election, not a Wish to oppose me or impose any other &c. A long Conversation ensued too long to state now at length. I told him in Brief that I must Support the Courts taken of the United States, and the system of impartial Neutrality but, if belligerent Powers, untill it should be other wise ordained by Congress — consistent with that Duties I should be allways friendly to the French. He went away professing to be well satisfied. …
Editor’s note: I had a lot I meant to get done today, including sending thank-you notes to many of you. And chores that have been piling up for the past month. But I seem to have lost the entire Fourth of July to the Adams archive.
Ah, well. There are worse ways to spend the Fourth of July.
Please enjoy the Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations. I’ll just stay right here with John, having a good long chat with him about the delights of Paris and the highly overrated Benjamin Franklin.
(Further note: Abigail repeatedly implores John to burn her letters. She meant it, I think. I feel badly about this, as if I’m invading her privacy over the centuries.)
(Further further note: What’s up with John and Benjamin? Why was he so jealous? Does anyone know?)
I’m sorry to worry you: I’ve seen all the messages asking where I’ve been, all the speculation about my absence, all the posts clamoring for my return, and — what’s that, you say? You haven’t written any?
Yeah, I know. What’s up with that? I disappear for a month and no one misses me?
I’d be awfully demoralized by that, except that I’m feeling good — despite the unravelling of the West and the curious lack of clamor for my opinion about it — because I’ve been gone for a good reason. I’ve spent the past month working from dawn to dusk on the book formerly known as Brave Old World: Europe in the Age of Trump. It is now called Stitch by Stitch: The Unraveling of the West.
At last, the first draft is complete.
I live at a northern latitude, and the Solstice has just passed, so when I say “dawn to dusk,” I’m describing a very long work day: I’ve done nothing but work on this book for days and days, barely even emerging to eat.
Parenthetically, I owe this, I think, to what’s come to be called Seasonal Affective Disorder, although I don’t know that it’s really a “disorder.” I have a great deal of creative and almost obsessive energy in the summer, when the days are long. Psychiatrists might call this mania, or hypomania, but since I use this energy to write books — rather than go on wild spending sprees, crash the stock market, or pose for naked photos while wrapped in an albino boa constrictor — I don’t think it needs to be pathologized. I might differ if you ask me again in the dead of winter, when I go into near-hibernation and can scarcely be roused from my depressed torpor, but in the summer, my mood is bright enough to accept with equanimity that this is the rhythm of my year, and I need to make good use of it.
Anyway, the point is that I’ve written the first draft. Many of you contributed, generously, to the book campaign, so I wanted to give you an update. It’s about 100,000 words, and it still needs a lot of filling-in. Some chapters are still skeletal. And of course, it needs massive revision; it’s still very far from being polished and readable. But that’s normal. All of my books began as drafts like this, and from here on, I know what to do with it.
The first draft is by far the hardest part. Or it is for me, anyway. I’ve heard some writers love the blank page, but I don’t. The first draft is a nightmare of confusion, false starts, and self-doubt. But once I’ve got something to work with — as I now do — I can begin the part I like: refining the argument, fixing deficiencies of logic, supporting the argument with examples, re-writing every sentence, over and over, and getting rid of the boring stuff. From here on, it’s work I enjoy.
I could not have written any of this, and could not continue to write this, without your financial support. You — entirely — made this possible. From dawn to dusk, literally, I feel grateful to everyone of you who contributed, and every single contribution has helped. Some of you sent me sweet notes when you contributed, apologizing for “only” chipping in five or ten dollars. Believe me, ten dollars is not “only” ten dollars when that’s exactly the amount you’re short on the electricity bill. You’ve kept me afloat, and you’ve given me the chance to do something I simply could not have done otherwise.
This 100,000-word draft could easily become a 300,000-word book. I can see how that happened to Gibbon. The theme is so broad, and the story so complex, that telling it properly seems to require writing at length. But I’m not Gibbon, so I have to figure out how much of what I’m writing is actually worth saying, and whether it’s worth making such a huge demand of my readers: Asking them to commit to a book that’s much longer than most on the market is perhaps asking too much..
I’m hesitant about suggesting this, but I’m going to suggest it anyway. Would any of you who contributed to the campaign like to read the draft? It is almost at the place where it could benefit from editorial scrutiny, and since it’s your money that’s supporting this project, it seems to me you’re entitled to know what’s happening to it.
Also, I’m hoping that seeing evidence that this book is really being written might prompt some of you to contribute again. On GoFundMe, it shows that I’m halfway toward the goal — but I’m actually much closer, because some of you (my Super-Patrons, and you know who you are) sent money directly to my bank account. So I’m in fact two-thirds of the way to the goal — even slightly above that.
The goal was based on my estimate of the expenses I’d incur writing the book, and that estimate has so far been accurate. I’m not sure I can stretch out the amount I’ve got until the finish line, so once again I’m passing around the cup. Some of you have, perhaps, now seen me ask for funding so many times that you’ve come to wonder if this book will ever be finished. Reading the draft will show you that it’s well on the way, and (I hope) worthy of your support. I’d be delighted to send it to anyone who’s on the fence about sending more money. If reading a whole first draft sounds daunting, I can send a chapter, instead. Just send me a message with your email address.
I’m hesitant about suggesting this, though, for two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to be demoralized by criticism — yet. That wouldn’t be helpful — yet. There’s a lot to criticize, still, and I’m well aware of it. The best time for editorial criticism would be when I’ve revised it to the point that I can no longer easily see, by myself, what’s wrong with it.
Second, I don’t want to be corrupted by criticism — yet. The point of raising money like this was to give myself the editorial freedom to write what I think is true, without the obligation to conform to anyone else’s idea of a bestseller. I’ve realized, though, that self-publishing only liberates you from those constraints to a certain extent. If you don’t like this book, you won’t support the next one.
If I know too much about what you want to hear, my desire for your money might cause me to focus overmuch on pleasing you.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Writing is a job, like any other. You can’t disregard what your customers want.
Yes, I agree. But paradoxically, if you try too hard to anticipate or reinforce your readers’ opinions, you’re no longer writing a book — you’re engaging in a marketing exercise. Since one of the themes of the book is that our intellectual life has been corrupted by this impulse — to the point that we’re destroying everything that has made Western societies the world’s most successful — I’m not sure it’s a good idea to show the draft around: I’m as easily corrupted as anyone.
Still, on balance, I think if I’m asking for financial support, it makes perfect sense for you to say, “For what, exactly? What have you done with it so far?”
So if you’d like to see it, just drop me a note. I might ask that you hold not offering criticism or advice for the time being — the time will come when that will be very helpful, but that time isn’t quite now. But if you think seeing what I’m doing would help you decide whether your money has been well-spent, or whether spending more would be a good idea, I’d be delighted to show it to you.
Polling stations have opened and voting is on. (Many have already voted by post.) Here’s a basic guide to how a general election in the UK — and this one in particular — works:
The last-minute polls have converged on a Tory lead — but are wildly at odds about “how big.” Survation has Conservatives taking 41.3 percent and Labour 40.4 percent. ICM has Conservatives taking 46 percent and Labour 34 percent. All of the other major polls show the Tories ahead, but they vary in the spread from five to ten percent. The polls close at 10:00 pm, after which broadcasters are permitted to publish the BBC/ITV/Sky exit poll, which is usually quite close to the final results. But it won’t be entirely clear what’s happened until about 7:00 a.m. tomorrow.
When May called the election, the Tories held 330 seats and Labour held 229. “She will be satisfied with a majority of more than 50, pleased at 70 and delighted with 80 to 100,” writes the Guardian. My prediction is that if it’s lower than 50, the Tories will get rid of her promptly.
The scale of Labour’s defeat — barring a historic upset not predicted by any poll — will determine the future of the Labour Party. If Labour does credibly well, it will be a huge setback to anti-Corbyn forces in the party, which is effectively now in a state of civil war. Miliband took 30.4 percent of the vote in 2015, so that’s the magic number: If Labour does better than that, they’re apt to be stuck with Corbyn (and out of power) for the long haul.
You’re probably already well aware of everything wrong with Corbyn, but if you’re not, Jamie Kirchick sums it up here:
The list of dubious relationships, crackpot proclamations, and leftist sympathies for some of the vilest governments and political movements on Earth is endless. In a 2003 book, Corbyn insisted the Soviet Union was “no real threat” and that North Korea is “not a rogue state.” Western sanctions on the totalitarian Kim dynasty, which starves and tortures its own people to death by the millions, comprises a plot to “force some kind of integration between North and South Korea,” an outcome that, according to Corbyn, would bring about a real horror: “the spread of free market capitalism into North Korea.” Corbyn has contributed many articles over the years to the communist newspaper Morning Star, which recently hailed the “liberation” of Aleppo by Assad and his Russian patrons. (While stating he disagreed with the headline, Corbyn nonetheless avowed he would continue to read and “no doubt will probably write again” for the paper.) After Hugo Chávez died in 2013, Corbyn eulogized the Venezuelan strongman for “showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared.” (Thanks to Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela has so much wealth today that its citizens riot over toilet paper.)
Labour is of course not running on this platform. They’re running on “comfortable middle-class people who can afford to decorate their homes with orchids should have more free stuff.”
Although in some places, they’re running straight-up on “We hate Jews.”
A giant left-wing political banner in one of Britain’s biggest cities has been condemned as antisemitic for portraying Theresa May wearing Star of David earrings.
“Condemned as antisemitic?” I’d say, “is as antisemitic as it gets, really.” But you be the judge:
(I’d say on a scale of one to ten, I rate that a solid antisemitism 8. To score higher, you have to depict a Jew eating a gentile baby.)
If you’re curious about the (remote) possibility of a hung parliament — what that means, exactly, and what it would entail — here’s a guide from the New Statesman:
That’s it, the election is over, and the winner is not Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, but nobody. Parliament is “hung”: that is to say, no party is able to command a working majority in the House of Commons. A “working majority” means having more seats than the other parties added together, plus one. Think of that as the magic number.
What that magic number is varies slightly. The absolute most it could be is 325, as the Speaker of the House has a seat but does not vote. But as Sinn Féin do not take their seats in Parliament, any seat they win in Northern Ireland reduces the magic number still further. …
A blogger named Paul Wood pointed out, and I agree: “What Claire Berlinski said of Marine Le Pen and France applies more aptly to Jeremy Corbyn and England.”
Only if she’s humiliatingly defeated will France be able to return to the two-round election system around which its constitution is designed. By making it to the second round, the Front confronts French voters with a choice not between two candidates with different, but respectable and defensible, views of France’s future, but with a choice between sanity and the abyss. Like passengers on a long-haul flight, colicky infants on either side, they find themselves trapped with a flight attendant cheerfully offering them the chicken or the plate of raw monkey eyeballs dipped in Ebola. No one can properly debate the future of France, because everyone’s too busy shrieking, “Monkey eyeballs? Ebola? No monkey eyeballs!”
Actually, I don’t know if it’s more apt, but it’s certainly just as apt.
Jon, I was prompted to write this when I saw your post this morning.
I spent the day yesterday with two friends who were visiting from London. They live quite close to London Bridge. One used to be a Ricochet member. Both were, until recently, solid Atlanticists — and still are — but they’re both offended beyond words by the tone of hostility and contempt for Britain that’s oozing, non-stop, out of the US these days, starting with the President, and echoed by many Americans on social media. I don’t blame them for being offended.
“Instructing Londoners to run, hide, and tell,” Jon writes, “is a dramatic departure from the can-do, stiff-upper-lip, globe-striding empire of a century ago.”
Actually, it’s not.
This guidance has been in place since 2014. It’s not a dramatic departure from anything, although it is a response to studying hundreds of similar situations around the world, including many in the United States. You’ll note that Britons are being told, explicitly, not to surrender or negotiate. The reason they’re emphasizing the seemingly obvious — run — is that we now, unfortunately, have a lot of evidence about how civilians (everywhere) behave during terrorist attacks and other emergencies. Some small percentage of them do behave as we all like to fantasize we would: They become superheroes who defeat the terrorists using any implement available. Unfortunately, in reality, many people don’t do that. They freeze.
“Freezing” seems to be something like a biologic default. It’s a cross-cultural reaction to fear. So people do in fact need to be told, specifically, not to obey that instinct. They need to be warned that their first response may be to deny what’s happening, or be confused by it, and freeze. They need to hear (often, repetitively) that this is not the reaction most likely to result in their survival.
This is why we get a lot of seemingly-obvious warnings about what to do and not do in other kinds of emergencies — e.g., “If you need to evacuate this plane, do not stop to get your luggage.” The reason we hear that all the time isn’t because the airline officials condescendingly suspect we might be idiots. It’s because they know we are. There’s evidence, and a lot of it, that a significant number of people will try to get their luggage, even though every second matters when you’re trying to evacuate a smoke-filled plane, and even though people who try to get their luggage put everyone behind them in mortal danger. And yes, this happens in the US as well as the UK. An NTSB study found that 50 percent — yes, 50 percent — of the passengers in emergency evacuations tried to take their bags. Now, why would they do such a stupid thing? Because most people have no experience of situations like this, and most people don’t respond heroically — or rationally — to them, unless they’ve had a lot of training. No matter what you think you would do, the reality is that in emergencies, many people do dumb things, and unless you’ve been in the situation yourself, you don’t know for sure you wouldn’t be one of them.
“Run, Hide, Fight” is standard protocol for active-shooter situations in the US, too. Are Americans wimps because we, too, need to be told to run and hide? Ah, but you say, part of the advice we get is to fight. Well, no one is telling the British not to fight: And indeed, they fought — they fought back with everything they had on hand: chairs, pint glasses, bottles, discarded bicycle parts. They’ve emphasized “Tell” over “Fight” because that actually makes a lot of sense if you’re living a country where the cops are armed and the terrorists aren’t, and it makes even more sense if the cops are able to get there and kill all of the terrorists within eight minutes. That is, by the way, an impressive achievement, and the appropriate reaction from allies to that news is, “Well done,” not “You remind us of Neville Chamberlain.”
Larry Barton, an American researcher at the University of Central Florida, is the highest-rated instructor at the FBI Academy and US Marshals Service. His research supports both the “run” advice and the giving of the advice. He analyzed 61 deadly assaults in public places from 2006 to 2016 — mostly in the United States. Among those who survived, 73 percent did so by running. Those who ran wound up with no no injuries or only moderate injuries, e.g., a sprained ankle. Of those who survived by hiding — 20 percent — a third were more seriously injured. “Running” is generally the best strategy. It is not always and everywhere the best strategy; there is no such thing as a universally successful solution. But it’s statistically likely to be the best strategy. A highly pro-Second Amendment group, The Truth About Guns, ran simulations of the Charlie Hebdo attack, for example, in which one or more of the civilians were armed. The civilians “died” in every scenario except immediate flight from the scene. So overall, based on evidence, the responsible advice to give the public — whether it’s armed or not — is “run.”
When Americans respond to an event like this by insinuating that the victims of the attack are wimps, or that they would have performed better under the same circumstances, it — unsurprisingly — offends the victims. It offends them terribly, in fact. And pointlessly. As one of the friends who was visiting me yesterday wrote on my Facebook page (in response to an offensive comment to this effect):
Before you sneer at us, may I remind you that the UK has the longest continuous experience of terrorism on its soil of any western country, and the greatest expertise in stopping it. Yes, we have had far too many terrorist incidents, but they are a drop in the ocean compared with the myriad plots that have been foiled. I think it’s fair to say the 9/11 plot would probably have been detected here. A little respect for us might be in order, too.
I agree. A lot more respect might be in order.
Many Americans believe the British were offended that Obama moved a bust of Churchill. Obama denied that it had been moved. Whether or not it was moved, I’ve never spoken personally to anyone in Britain who was offended by this story. Many have never even heard it. But everyone I know in Britain — and remember, I lived there for seven years, so I do know many people there, and I stay in contact with quite a few of them — is wildly offended by this kind of sneering. It causes real harm to our relationship with the people of Britain. What we say, in fact, on social media and other public fora, causes more offense than anything our politicians say: A politician’s comments can be dismissed, by people with a generous nature, as unrepresentative of the American character. But when ordinary Americans use social media to sneer at our allies, it really leaves a bad taste — and let’s not pretend we would not feel precisely the same way were the situation reversed. We would.
More than 220,000 British personnel have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Ministry of Defence figures, 456 Britons have died in Afghanistan. More than 7,300 have been treated for battlefield injuries, non-combat wounds, or disease related to their service. In Iraq, 179 British service personnel were killed. Some 5,800 were treated in field hospitals. This is a heavy toll. Britain wasn’t attacked on September 11. We were. They are in Afghanistan because we asked them to be. They entered war in Iraq because we asked them to. They did so despite believing it would increase the risk of terrorism on British soil. They did it because they are our allies.
When in response they hear sneering contempt from Americans to the effect that they’re sheeplike, cowardly wusses reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain — illustrated by wartime enlistment posters, clearly meant to suggest that Britons no longer enlist — they respond exactly as Americans would were the situation reversed. They did enlist, and do enlist, and they have been fighting, by our side, since September 11. Here are photographs of British men (and a woman) who died in 2010 in Afghanistan. In this link, you can see more photos of the British men and women who’ve died in every year of that war since it began.
So why would an American, in the wake of an attack on British soil, taunt the British for failing to enlist? Every one of the men above died because they took seriously the promise that an attack on any one of us would be an attack on all of us. Is taunting the British for being “sheeplike” and unwilling to enlist in the fight the right way to show our respect to their families?
Jon posted a photo of the famous “Keep calm and carry on” poster, intimating that the Britain of calm, dignity, and resilience is dead, replaced by a bunch of cowering ninnies. As it happens, that poster — precisely — has been widely circulating on British Twitter in the wake of the attack. But I suspect that if it were a new poster, Americans would be mocking the British for urging calm and normalcy. Our president would be Tweeting, ‘At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and the British are saying, “Keep calm and carry on!”‘
President Trump’s tweets caused grave offense. You may think the offense misplaced, but I can promise you they did cause offense, and I don’t find that offense at all hard to understand. What on earth would possess him to use an occasion like this to criticize the Mayor of London? Jennifer Rubin’s description of this is accurate:
After receiving blowback for that obnoxious missive, he tweeted out, “Whatever the United States can do to help out in London and the U. K., we will be there – WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!” But then he decided to slam the mayor of the city attacked, who had calmly warned his fellow Londoners: “Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. There’s no reason to be alarmed.” Trump took the second part out of context and responded viciously, “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” (The mayor, of course, was telling them not to be alarmed by the heightened police presence.) Trump was not done, however, inanely tweeting, “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!”
The offense caused by this kind of boorishness has real consequences — for us. It’s insane, right before a British general election, to hand ammunition to a politician like Jeremy Corbyn. But that’s exactly what this kind of behavior from Americans does. It puts defenders of the Anglo-American alliance in a terrible position. And this time, the people who are offended aren’t the usual suspects — they’re not British leftists who have always hated Americans and always will. We’re offending people who have always considered Americans their closest allies. And it isn’t because they’re delicate snowflakes, either. It’s because we’re being offensive. The tone of contempt from Americans, above all, is one no amount of rational argument can counter. If American voters didn’t care for being called “deplorable,” how do you imagine British voters feel about being called cowardly, sheeplike, and a disgrace to their heritage?
The UK has committed 1,250 military personnel to the fight against ISIS. Apart from us, the Royal Air Force has conducted more airstrikes in Iraq and Syria than any other Coalition country. It provides intelligence and surveillance to Iraqi Security Forces. It’s trained 39,000 Iraqi soldiers in engineering, medical skills, and infantry. In Syria, UK armed forces are training Syrian opposition groups in infantry, emergency medicine, and explosive disposal. How does undermining this alliance help us?
Why would we mock the British in the wake of a terrorist attack that killed seven innocent people on their soil? We know what it means to be the victims of terrorism. Why would we spit on our friends? What do we get out of it?
My answer: We get nothing out of it. So I suggest we not do it. It’s not in our interests to harm the friendship between the United States and Britain. And more importantly, it’s just not decent.