Tuesday 2 April 2024

Why Is the Vagina Masculine? And What’s the Alternative?

“Vagina” is masculine

 I first came across this factoid thirty years ago in Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana Historic.  It came up again more recently in Episode Two of the Netflix's series Emily in Paris.  The word “vagina” is masculine in French.  It’s “le” (not ‘la’) “vagin.”


But Why?

Gender is notoriously arbitrary in French.  Still, “vagin” being masculine seems baffling.  Neither the novel nor the tv show explained why "vagina" is masculine in French.  The answer is that the origin of the word in French and Latin is distinctly masculine, as is the idea that this is the best word to describe female genitalia.  In French and Latin, “vagin” is the sheath or scabbard used to holster a sword.

What about English?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “vagina” entered the English language from French and Latin in 1682–which raises the question, what word was used before 1682? Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, had two daughters, so chances are he heard some of what women say when talking vulva.  

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has Mercurio mock Romeo by saying:  

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone. 

The Medlar 

The editors of The Norton Shakespeare gloss “medlar” as “a fruit thought to resemble the female sex organs.” The medlar  is a type of fruit that only becomes edible when it is overripe or bletted; in other words, rotten.  Here’s what a medlar looks like:

“A Rose by any other name . . .”

The red rose, symbol of romantic love, represents the vagina in a sanguine condition of sexual arousal.  Therefore, according to Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence, yellow roses are the appropriate gift between “friends.”

Reclaiming the Vagina

The paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe are widely interpreted as representations of the vulva.

The Japanese artist, Megumi Igarashi, was arrested, fined and even jailed for displaying 3-D renderings of her own vagina.

How Quaint!

The English word for female genitalia which predates “vagina” by about 400 years is “queynte.”  It derives from the verb “quenchen” which means to quench, and enjoys the ambiguity of being a homonym for nice, charming and clever.   Over time “queynte” has evolved into the English word “quaint.”

Modern readers typically miss the pun/double entendre in Andrew Marvell’s 1650 poem “To His Coy Mistress” as the suitor tells the object of his unrequited lust that if she fails to give herself to him: “then worms shall try / That long-preserved virginity,/ And your quaint honour turn to dust.”

And the Bible Says . . .

Adam's job in paradise was naming things.  The underlying principle is that whoever  owns it gets to name it.  Perhaps it's time we returned the vagina to its rightful owners.


“The Forgotten Fruit”

Friday 26 May 2023

"Three Days of the Condor" and the Tenth Anniversary of "The Sour Grapevine"

Sharing Intelligence

I'm still obsessing over "sharing intelligence."  May 15th was the tenth anniversary of this blog.  I wrote the first post 15 May 2013.  My original intention was to create a platform for whistleblowers, a space for all those insights and complaints about university education which circulated behind closed doors.  That collective participation never happened, and the project became the one-man band it is today. Rereading my first post I see my concerns about "education" haven't changed.  Over time, the blog has strayed from language, literature and the university per se,  into those questions I have found "curiouser and curiouser" like money and politics.

Three Days of the Condor

One of my favourite spy flicks, Three Days of the Condor, is approaching its 50th anniversary.  On this the tenth anniversary of The Sour Grapevine, I find myself reflecting on the naive optimism--my naive optimism--in interpreting the ending of Three Days of the Condor.  Here's the ending of the film:


On "Changing the World"

Condor (played by Robert Redford), a CIA analyst, has discovered a rogue CIA operation to invade the Middle East.  To protect the secrecy of the plan, the CIA hires a contractor to assassinate Condor and his colleagues.  Might sound farfetched but, then again, compared to the invasion of Iraq, it's small potatoes and somewhat more rational.  What catches my attention today is Condor's (and my) only slightly hesitant conviction that the New York Times would publish his story.  In 1975, I thought it was obvious that they would publish.  Today? Not a chance in hell.  Condor's (and my) other assumption was that publication of the story would change the world.  "Change the world" is what we tell kids these days, right around the time they are becoming suspicious about Santa Claus.  The last fifty years of humanity (as opposed to technology and physics) prove that stasis and apathy always prevail.  I find myself submitting to Sabine Hossenfelder's claim that "free will is incompatible with the laws of physics."

On Whistleblowers

Despite our romantic convictions that righteous individuals taking on the system are the heroes of modern times, whistleblowers,  in general, do not fare well.  Joe Darby blew the whistle on the torture and other crimes being committed by the US in Abu Ghraib prison.  Edward Snowden revealed that the USA was systematically spying on American citizens with a program called PRISM.  William Binney, a precursor of Snowden, created  ThinThread, and revealed that the NSA was fraudulently wasting billions on Trailblazer and, at the same time, ignoring the Constitution by collecting massive amounts of data on US citizens.  Katharine Gun revealed that the US was asking British intelligence to help blackmail UN diplomats into voting in favour of the invasion of Iraq. Gary Webb exposed that the CIA was allowing the importation of cocaine into the US in order to provide funding for the Contras in Nicaragua.  None of these whistleblowers have done well from the good they tried to do.

Blogging as a retirement hobby

I have no right to expect this blog to be influential.  I have always declared it "a hobby" and, as such, no more compelling for an audience than toy trains or a stamp collection.  Nonetheless, it is impossible to write a blog for ten years and not wonder what, if any, effect it might be having.  As a professor, I allowed myself the immodest belief that I had a modest effect on my students' thinking.   The blog allowed me to continue at least the illusion of this the most satisfying aspect of academia.


Influence online in social media is measured in metadata:  how many views, likes, comments, shares, followers, subscribers, etc.  Starting out I never imagine that this was how I might measure success.  I imagined each of my posts having a long shelf life, potentially being quoted by an avid reader from far afield even after I'm gone.  But that's not how the world rolls these days.  So here's my metadata:  Google tells me that my blog has been viewed 753,405 times.  I have written 204 posts.  I have published 150 posts, the rest are unpublished drafts and stubs.

Most Viewed

My most viewed post is Canadian Politicians Were Caught Like Deer in the Headlights, but Why Are Canadian Journalists Censuring any Discussion of the Merits of Meng's Case? (with 6,490 views).  It's not one of my better-written posts.  It's not even one of my better posts on the Meng extradition case.  However, in this most-viewed post, I criticized the Global journalist David Akin and he had the grace to share the post with his readers.  Additionally, Google sends me a report each month telling me what keywords brought readers to my blog and, apparently, some people end up on this post searching the fairly common name "Richard Donoghue."  Finally, with some reluctance, I must reveal that a substantial number of my readers (47,500 views all total) come from China. 

Least Viewed

My least popular post was If Men Could Get Pregnant . . .  with 39 views, and I did quite a bit of research for that post.  There might be a message in these numbers that I do better when I stick to my lane--education, language and literature.  The message isn't clear, but it doesn't matter.  Only an academic in my field would understand the elating freedom of being allowed to write what you really think.  I have managed to stay within the bounds of "education"; that is, adding something new to what is already known.  I also believe that "learning" frequently requires "unlearning."  The word "narrative" comes from the core of my field. Frequently, the work of the blog has been a resistant reading of dominant narratives.

 Influence and Influencers

In my anniversary reflections, I Googled the term "influencers."  Did you know that Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian each have 450 million followers?  Big-name singers, actors and soccer players each have hundreds of millions of followers.  Make-up, fashion and magic typically attract hundreds of millions of followers.  There are no followers on my blog, but I do have 1,221 followers on Quora, where my answers have been viewed over 5 million times.  (To bastardize a Marshall McLuhan quote:  "The platform is the message.")


I have always imagined that I was writing my blog for a Canadian readership.  My core audience is 68 friends, relatives and acquaintances that I shamelessly email posts to without their permission.  To my surprise, Canada (19,900 views) is fourth on the list of countries where my blog has been viewed.  Apparently, the blog is almost as popular in Russia (17,500 views) as it is in Canada--which is slightly disturbing. My dominant audience is in the USA (506,000 views).  (Should I flatter myself that I am being tracked by the CIA, NSA and FBI?)  The unflattering conclusion is that I haven't really been getting through to my imagined audience, my imagined community, Canada.

My guru has advised me that with so many people using VPN and proxies, I shouldn't take these geographical numbers too seriously.  No matter.  I remain undeterred. The world may not change while I am still in it, but I believe in chaos theory and the analogy of "a message in a bottle."  So stay tuned.


Wednesday 3 May 2023

On Sharing Intelligence

 By now we have all heard about how a young National Guard airman, Jack Teixeira, leaked classified Pentagon documents to a Discord chat group of a dozen people.  Eventually, some of the materials were promulgated by the Donbass Devushka (aka Sarah Bils) to 65,000 followers of her podcast.  What caught my attention in this story is how long it took for anyone to notice that these "top secret" files were available on social media.  The New York Times is now reporting that some of the documents have been available online for more than a year.

Uhhh, I write a blog see.  So I find myself asking, if you think you have valuable content to share and you make it available online, what do you have to do to get people to notice and read it?  It appears the answer is to get yourself arrested, like Teixeira, and have every major newspaper publish a picture on their front pages of you being taken away in handcuffs.  If you have seen the movie Snowden, you know that the major breakthrough was to get The Guardian to publish the fact that the USA was breaking its own laws and spying on American citizens.

From the Snowden story, we know the NSA used a program called PRISM to collect surveillance on US citizens and American allies.  From the Teixeira story, we know the US secret services are still collecting intel on American allies and have undisclosed info on the war in Ukraine.  From Snowden to Teixeira, the real story seems to be that nothing has changed, not even how the intelligence community protects its secrets from public disclosure.  In this era of massive social media, it feels like everybody is talking  . . . at once .  . . and nobody is really listening.

In fact, the much bigger story is the one that is widely available in the media and, I bet, you are less likely to have noticed:  William Binney.  Binney, an NSA intelligence officer, developed a surveillance program called ThinThread which allowed the government to collect metadata on foreign operatives without spying on American citizens.   In 2000, the NSA closed down Binney's in-house, inexpensive program; opting for a program call Trailblazer, developed by Boeing, Computer Sciences Corporation, and Booz Allen Hamilton. Trailblazer directly contravened the US constitution by collecting massive amounts of data on American citizens and cost billions of dollars by the time it was closed down in 2006.  Binney claims that ThinThread would have prevented 9/11 if it had been allowed to keep running. When Binney and a number of patriotic American whistleblowers--Diane Roark, Thomas Andrews Drake, J. Kirk Wiebe, and Ed Loomis--tried to inform their superiors and the US government about the abuse, mismanagement, fraud and other crimes of the NSA, they were arrested by the FBI.

If you have watch the recent Netflix release of Official Secrets, the Katharine Gun story, you are aware that nothing has changed because, above all, the secret services are designed to protect themselves and the government of the day.

Does anyone remember the ending of Three Days of the Condor?

Thursday 20 April 2023

The Corruption of Art and the Art of Corruption

What Is Art?  

"Can You Tell The Difference Between Modern Art and a Child's Painting?"  [It's a quiz.] How have we reached the point where we struggle to distinguish the crayon scribbling of a toddler from fine art?

The History of art

Nic Thurman offers a brilliantly succinct answer to the question. To summarize the already succinct:  the concept of "art" as used today is relatively new--less than three centuries old.  (The same can be said about "literature" by the way.)  While we, the guileless, might imagine that art has something to do with skill and craft and beauty, that is not the case as the concept is used today.  In the 18th century the German Romantic philosophers Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel respectively claimed that "art" was the product of "genius" and a reflection of the "spirit" of the age.  Consequently, anything that someone in authority deemed to show "spirit" and "genius" was art.  Skill, craft and beauty became passé.


Art Is like money

Money, as we've learned, is whatever people think is money.  And art is whatever people think is art.  In both cases we accept the judgment of the people who are supposed to know.  If it ends up on a museum wall, it's art.  If it ends up in a bank, it's money.  Eventually art became not just like money but, for all intents and purposes, art became money; that is, a way to store and exchange monetary value.  As art went from being objects of beauty to objects of fashionable genius, as determined by curators and auctioneers, it also soared as an investment instrument, a source of liquidity.

Blurred Lines

The documentary film, Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World, elaborates how the "art world" became a network of insiders, a bubble of artists, agents, curators, gallerists, collectors, museums, warehouses and auction houses--all focused on the wealthy .1% ready to spend multiple millions on the works of whoever was deemed genius.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled  The Art Market Is All About the 0.1%  reiterates the point.  

Art buyers are either the super rich .1% or wannabes trying to claim a place in that rarefied clique, or they may be of that most decried tribe, the speculators who buy a work of art for multiple millions one day and sell it for multiple millions more the next.  Owners of art, collectors of Andy Warhol, for example, have a vested interest in ensuring that the price of art works never drop and a Warhol, for example, is never allowed to sell for less than a million dollars.  The artists interviewed in Blurred Lines declare an absolute lack of interest in money.  (Methinks they protesteth too much.)  The exception is Damien Hirst, of shark-in-a-tank-of-formaldehyde fame, who argues that the money game, of which he is ultimate player, makes art more exciting.

The Art of Corruption

In terms of art facilitating corruption, look no further than the suspicious fact that the paintings of Hunter Biden, lawyer, drug addict, "novice painter" and son of the US President, are selling for between $75,000 and $500,000 in a New York gallery. Or, as reported in the Wall Street Journal this week:

An alleged financier of U.S.-designated terrorist group Hezbollah was charged with a scheme to evade American sanctions and illegally import and export hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fine art and diamonds.

The Goldfinch

 The novel, The Goldfinch, provides a coherent, fictional account of how works of art can be used as collateral in drug deals and other international crimes.


The novel references the 1654 painting. "The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius, now part of the Mauritshuis collection in The Hague, Netherlands.




Bitcoin for Billionaires

According to The Black Box of the Art Business, one of the largest collections of fine art in the world is housed in a warehouse in Switzerland, the Geneva Freeport.

 As elaborated in the documentary, this "black box" of art, jewels and collectables, allows the super-rich to hide their wealth from the tax collector as well as facilitating theft and fraud.  Remember the panic when were were told that bitcoin would facilitate a universe of dark-web crimes?  Art has become bitcoin for billionaires.



Friday 17 March 2023

Do Facts Matter?

Facts Aren't truth

People confuse facts and the truth.  Truth only applies when there is meaning.  Facts only have meaning when they are connected.  When all the relevant facts are assembled in a logical and coherent fashion, the result is the truth or at least some degree of truth.

"Agreed-upon Facts":  say what?

In the everyday world, facts are hard to come by.  I find myself repeatedly forced to use the expression "the agreed-upon facts."  Is this expression redundant (a pleonasm) or a contradiction in terms (an oxymoron)?  If whatever is "a fact" doesn't that mean that everyone cogent must necessarily agree?  If whatever must be "agreed upon" doesn't that mean it is something different from if not the opposite of "a fact"?


The problem gets worse.  We live in an increasingly polarized world.  Beneath this polarization is a world where feelings trump facts.  We accept as fact whatever happens to support and assuage our feelings of the moment, and dismiss those facts which don't fit with our opinions, beliefs and emotions.

How We learn that reason is wrong

The situation isn't accidental and it isn't natural.  Beginning in elementary school we teach children slogans like "follow your heart," "pursue your dreams" and "be true to yourself" without stopping to consider what these instructions might actually mean.  Outside the classroom, we are bombarded with romance, the notion that human desire can overcome reality.  The hero will sacrifice the world--literally--to save the unrequited love of his first sight.  And fiction always proves him right.  The character who displays reason and logic, if not the villain, will be the weaselly egoist we know to despise at first glance.

Does Fiction affect how we view the world?

We can pretend that our perceptions and vision of the world are unaffected by romantic fiction.   But everywhere I look I see pandering to prejudice and naive melodrama--endless "news" stories implying virtuous heroes, innocent victims and evil villains.  The binaries of absolute good and evil only survive when they are scrubbed of facts and challenging details.  Still, the stories survive and propagate because we have all been taught to believe whatever it is that we already happen to believe . . . until a generation later and the story changes.

Thursday 2 March 2023

Is Donald Trump the Lesser Evil?

"This Thing has to stop"

In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Donald Trump is quoted as saying "This thing [the war in Ukraine] has to stop, and it's got to stop now.  [ . . .] The United States should negotiate peace between these two countries, and I don’t think they should be sending very much.”  Trump has pledged "to clean house of all the warmongers and America-Last globalists."  The editorial goes on to mock Trump's "foreign policy" as "mercurial at best" while noting that the "ever-more-populist Mr. Trump" has set himself apart from his political competition--not just Joe Biden but declared candidate Nikki Haley, and potential primary entrants Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton who are all on record backing Ukraine.  The question mark is Ron DeSantis who is the focus of the editorial.

Trump's Opposition to arming Ukraine

Trump's opposition to the war has the look of spur-of-the-moment, opportunistic populism.  However, according to John Bolton's White House memoir, Trump has long been reticent about arming Ukraine.  Trump was explicitly concerned that arming Ukraine against Russia could provoke World War III which, despite the guffawing of his critics, is a possibility before us today.  Americans learned of Trump's hesitance to sign off on a 250-million-dollar, military-aid package to Ukraine during the impeachment inquiry in 2019.  At the time, to anti-Trumpists like me, leaked minutes of the telephone conversation between Trump and Zelensky seemed irrefutable evidence that the President of the USA was trying to extort the President of Ukraine to get dirt on his political rival.  However, a close focus on a few sentences of the notes taken of that conversation leaves out much of the context.  Trump might well have wondered why the newly-elected President of Ukraine, a Russian-speaker from the east of Ukraine, a multi-millionaire media celebrity like himself, who had campaigned on a promise of peace with Russia and supported the Minsk Agreements, was now asking for weapons to confront the Russian-backed militias in the eastern provinces.  Trump also rankled at giving un-scrutinized military aid to a notoriously corrupt nation which was supplying military technology to China. 

The Conspiracy theory:  Bidens in Ukraine

Trump had also come to accept a conspiracy theory spun by John Giuliani that Ukraine was the source of disinformation undermining his presidential campaigns.  We now know that some of the details of the conspiracy were not entirely theoretical.  In April 2014, Vice-president Biden was in Ukraine--one of his three visits to Ukraine that year--to announce that "we, the United States, stand with [. . .] all the Ukrainian people" and encouraging a "real fight against corruption and victory over corruption."  In May 2014, less than a month after Joe's anti-corruption preaching to Ukrainians, Joe's son Hunter Biden was invited onto the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, and paid $400,000, despite Hunter's being, in his own words, in his "deepest skid into addiction."  Even when George Kent, a Secretary of State official, informed the vice-president's office that Hunter Biden was accepting payment from a Ukrainian company whose chief executive was under investigation for bribery and money-laundering, no action was taken, and the details suppressed.  Hunter's infamous lost-and-found laptop revealed that he had failed to pay the required US taxes on the $400,000-dollar Ukrainian payment and, by 2020, he was two million dollars in arrears on payments to the IRS.  Perhaps most importantly, this information was available prior to the 2020 US presidential election and was published in the New York Post.  However, the FBI labelled the claims as Russian disinformation and executives at Twitter blocked the information from being circulated.

Stormy Daniels versus Navy Joan Roberts Biden

Prosecutors are twisting themselves in knots trying to figure out how to turn Trump's paying Stormy Daniels $130,000 into a crime.  In the meantime, Hunter Biden, having denied paternity and balked at child support, has now gone to court to try and prevent his four-year-old biological daughter from using the name Biden.  If Hunter is a "deadbeat dad," does that make the President of the USA a "deadbeat granddad"?

"Avoiding a Long War"

Far beyond conspiracy theories and the melodrama of dysfunctional families, what really matters is the war in Ukraine.  Trump's run for the presidency in 2024 will consequently be a referendum on the war in Ukraine, first within the Republican Party and, if he is the Republican candidate for President, then in the US electorate at large.  No doubt we will hear Trump's plans for a negotiated peace described as farfetched.  However, they do align with a policy paper published by the Rand Corporation entitled  "Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict."  The paper is a clearheaded, pragmatic and comprehensive analysis of the war.

American Interests and priorities

The authors of the paper declare straightforwardly that "This Perspective focuses on U.S. interests, which often align with but are not synonymous with Ukrainian interests." The highest priorities, in terms of US and western interests, are: 1) avoiding a nuclear war (the authors reason that Russia's use of nuclear weapons "to prevent a catastrophic defeat" is "plausible") and 2) avoiding escalation of the war into a Russia-NATO conflict.  Their thesis is that the longer the war goes on the more likely these worse-case scenarios become.  Additionally, the authors argue,  a lengthy war in Ukraine diminishes American preparedness to confront China. 

Negotiated Peace is the likely and perhaps only possible outcome

Perhaps the paper's most important conclusion is that "Since neither side appears to have the intention or capabilities to achieve absolute victory, the war will most likely end with some sort of negotiated outcome."  In fact, the best possible guarantee of peace is a negotiated outcome.  Even if the most optimistic of Ukrainian predictions come to fruition and Russian forces are driven out of all Ukrainian territories, Russia could and likely would repair its military and launch another invasion in four or five years.  To guarantee peace, a Ukrainian victory would have to include not only regime change but the dismantling of the Russian state--a possibility which returns us to the worst of all possible hypotheses:  nuclear war.

Lines on a map

Virtually all wars are about where to draw a line on the map.  Where to draw the line between Ukraine and Russia may be a crucial question for Ukrainian nationalists, but the territorial issue matters little to the USA.  Russia is not a threat to the USA unless of course the situation reaches a level of total madness and a nuclear holocaust.  In 2014, Barack Obama dismissed Russia a regional power and therefore no threat to the USA, which raises the question, why has the USA and, in particular, Joe Biden continued to encourage this conflict?  Biden will need to have a convincing answer for American voters before November 2024.  Will the rhetoric of good against evil, right versus wrong, and democracy versus dictatorship prevail against Trump's pragmatic appeals to American self-interest?  As "Avoiding a Long War" outlines, the world-wide costs of this war far outweigh its potential benefits.   In a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Trump's Best Foreign Policy:  Not Starting Any Wars," Republican Senator J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegies,  announces his support for Donald Trump in 2024 "because he won't recklessly send Americans to fight overseas." Amazingly, American voters may come to decide that Trump, campaigning for a negotiated peace, is on the side of the angels.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

The World Has Never Been Closer to Nuclear War! Big Deal! So What?

Being born in the decade following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my entire conscious life I have lived in fear of nuclear war.  Fear is a healthful response to danger.  It's what keeps animals alive.  It allows species, including humans, to survive.  Unfortunately, we humans have always been a suicidal species. Since we discovered that just two atom bombs were enough to kill 300,000 of our fellow humans, Russia and the USA (not to mention China, France, the UK, North Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan) have stockpiled enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the planet multiple times over.  Fear of MAD (mutually assured destruction) has allowed the planet to survive for over seventy years. However, in recent months our enlightened leaders have been displaying signs of great courage and the world has been celebrating their valour.  All this unbridled, suicidal bravery is truly frightening.

In elementary school we were told that in the event of a nuclear attack we should crouch under our desks.  By the age of eight or nine, we were cynical enough to add to the instructions:  "place your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye."

I was ten years old during the Cuban missile crisis.  I still remember the day the local alarm sounded announcing incoming nuclear missiles.  Before word came down that it was just a test, I had time to think about what to do when the world was about to end.  I realized then and I remember now when (to quote Waiting for Godot) "there is nothing to be done," you become deadly calm.


In recent days, people in positions of privilege and power talking fearlessly about nuclear war has become commonplace. In fact, we are explicitly told it is a mistake to fear Vladimir Putin and his threats of nuclear war.  To those many advocates of escalation telling us that Russia must be defeated, I have one question:  How do you know Vladimir Putin will not use the Russian nuclear arsenal?

Perusing the narratives against a negotiated peace and the Minsk Accords in search of an answer to this question, I can't see any credible logic in the responses.  "Putin is bluffing" simply means that he will continue to bluff until he is forced to act.  "The American response will be dire."  What could the Americans do, that they aren't doing now? Are we threatening the Russians with a nuclear holocaust?  Does anyone believe that if Russia is attacked with conventional forces, the Russians will restrain from a nuclear response?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has re-set the "Doomsday Clock" to 90 seconds before midnight--a level of "unprecedented danger," the closest to midnight it has ever been.  Bookies at Polymarket are offering 20-to-1 odds on Russia using nuclear weapons in 2023.  

The bravura I see everywhere these days reminds me of General Thomas Power, commander in chief of the US Air Command, who infamously responded to the threat of nuclear war saying "At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win!"

As we stand before the precipice, the big news in Canada and the USA is that American "Top Guns" shot down some Chinese balloons.  Balloons for gawd sake!  Who could've imagined that Nena's 1980s satiric pop song, "99 Red Balloons," would end up sounding like it was written in February 2023?

Monday 13 February 2023

On "Putin's American Cheerleaders"

Critical Thinking skills

I have to preface this post by revisiting "critical thinking skills"--that phrase used by university programs in the humanities and social sciences as a core justification for their existence.  The vast majority of university students graduate from these programs.  In theory,  millions upon millions of university-educated Americans and Canadians can claim an expertise in identifying arguments based on logic and evidence and, conversely, immediately spot logical fallacies:  the ad hominem, the straw man, guilt by association, and rhetorical obfuscation.  

"Putin's American Cheerleaders"

I read Adrian Karatnycky's Wall Street Journal article, "Putin’s American Cheerleaders: How Jeffrey Sachs, Mark Episkopos and Dimitri Simes contribute to the Russian propaganda effort" against the grain, as a string of logical fallacies light on rebuttal evidence.  The headline makes obvious the ad hominem intent to attack the authors rather than their arguments.  

We Are at war

But let's be clear:  we are at war.  The war is being fought by Ukrainians, but it is a war between Russia and the collective West, led by the USA.  The war has caused global precarity, massive destruction and the deaths of thousands.  Beyond the concrete devastation, the war in Ukraine is, above all, a propaganda war.  Arguably, propaganda will determine the outcome of this war.  In this context, we shouldn't be surprised that we are all likened to soldiers on the battlefield, and any deviation from the Western narrative is collaborating with the enemy, if not betrayal and treason. 

And yet . . .

Even if we are all conscripts in the propaganda war should we accept "to do and die" in a nuclear Crimean War without stopping "to reason why"? Is it unreasonable to invoke "thinking skills" in the midst of this war?  No-one knows the whole story of this war.  Even in Kyiv or Moscow or Washington or Berlin or London or Ottawa, even on the battlefield, even with drones and satellites, people know as much and as little as they can see and hear and read.  In a war, especially in a propaganda war like this one, enormous effort is put into controlling what is seen and heard and read. 

The Dominant Western narrative

The dominant Western narrative, primarily in the legacy media, is that escalation is the only acceptable solution to the conflict in Ukraine.  The argument is presented that Russia must be defeated because failure to defeat Russia now will lead to Russian expansionism and greater escalation somewhere down the road.  Overlaying this argument is an appeal to morality.  Russia must be defeated because the invasion and the conduct of the war are immoral, criminal and evil.  Anything less than total Russian defeat would be a victory for evil.    

Does the Western narrative hold up under scrutiny?

Under the microscope of critical reasoning skills,  the arguments for escalation do not hold up well.  Let me quickly insert that this does not mean that they are wrong or untrue.  They are simply unproven, counterfactual, hypothetical, and speculative.  We will inevitably try to imagine what Russia might do after the war, but there is a weakness in trying to be too specific and too certain about what might happen in the distant future.  We can say with fair certainty that a negotiated peace--what the Western narrative qualifies as a Russian victory--would include some sort of autonomy if not outright Russian control of Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine; that is, those regions with significant populations of ethnic Russians where President Viktor Yanucovitch, who was overthrown in a bloody coup in 2014, had his strongest democratic support.

The Moral argument

The moral argument for escalating the war is equally weak.  The argument depends on our accepting as axiomatic that the war is between absolute evil and pure goodness.  The goal of propaganda is to promote this vision, but even cursory scrutiny of the context of the war makes this absolutist vision impossible to maintain.  Some 13,000 people were killed in the Donbas region in the aftermath of the bloody coup overthrowing President Yanocovitch in 2014 and before Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022.  Even the US Congress has banned the sale of weapons to Ukraine's Azimov Battalion on the grounds that the battalion openly includes neo-Nazis in its ranks.

Naming and Shaming

I first read "Putin's American Cheerleaders" because it provides a list of a half dozen Americans who question the proxy war between Russia and the West going on in Ukraine--which isn't generally easy to come by.  The article is a telling example of widespread, ham-fisted attempts to discredit, shame and silence anyone who dares to question the war. Articles of this ilk are emotionally evocative and are based on an underlying presumption of moral superiority shared by writer and reader.  The vocabulary is emotionally charged but logical consideration of risks and outcomes is avoided.  For potential outcomes, the war in Ukraine should be compared to other recent wars spearheaded by the USA--Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Vietnam and Korea--but these are comparisons which the dominant narrative tends to avoid.

Guilt by Association

While Mr. Karatnycky concedes that "experts are free to challenge the pro-Ukraine views held by the vast majority of Americans," he decries the fact that these American experts have appeared on a Russian program hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, whom he describes as a Russian propagandist. Karatnycky has more to say about Solovyov than about the "American cheerleaders."  The Americans' failure is guilt by association with Solovyov.  According to Karatnycky, what Jeffrey Sachs said on Russian media was

that a “massive number” of Americans “wish to exit the conflict in Ukraine,” condemned the U.S. administration for “disinformation,” and called President Volodymyr Zelensky’s conditions for peace “absolute nonsense.”

None of these claims about American attitudes are obvious errors of fact.  Zelensky's conditions for peace go beyond total Russian defeat and surrender.  They sound a lot like the "conditions" imposed upon Germany after the First World War. The Washington Post has reported that the Biden administration has been asking Zelensky to dial down his "conditions for peace." 

Framing the War as exclusively between Russia and Ukraine

Karatnycky's awkward--and therefore revealing--attempts to frame the war as between Ukraine and Russia leaving the USA and even NATO out of the equation is typical of the dominant narrative.  People who dare to suggest a negotiated peace are not identified as critics of the war but "Ukraine critics." Americans who endorse escalation of the war are identified as "pro-Ukrainian."

NATO Expansion isn't a threat!  Really!?

Jeffrey Sachs is characterized as a "Putin cheerleader" because, as with a number of other "foreign policy realists," he "has long argued that the West provoked Russia into invading Ukraine in 2014 by virtue of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 'threatening' expansion toward Russia."  Karatnycky's quotation marks around the word "threatening" are intended to display a tone of sarcasm.  Still, no matter what your politics, how can anyone look at the ongoing expansion of NATO to Russia's borders and logically conclude that the expansion of an inimical military alliance to a nation's very borders is not "threatening"?

What Jeffrey Sachs said . . .

Furthermore, beyond the threatening posture of NATO, as Sachs points out in an interview on Democracy Now, [ . . .] the United States, very unwisely and very provocatively, contributed to the overthrow of Mr. Yanukovych in early 2014, setting in motion the tragedy before our eyes."  

What Cannot be said:  Ukraine is ethnically divided between east and west

One argument which shaming the authors is designed to preclude is that Ukraine is ethnically divided.  As Sacks elaborates:

The "Minsk Accords" must also be denied

The resulting Minsk Accords, as we have seen, are quashed and denied in pro-war editorials, even when the narrative requires contradicting its own sources.  Sachs argues:

What happened — and this is crucial to understand — is that, in 2015, there were agreements to solve this problem by giving autonomy to these eastern regions that were predominantly ethnic Russian. And these are called the Minsk agreements, Minsk I and Minsk II.

John Bolton was in Ukraine in 2019 and reports that Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected promising to end Ukrainian corruption and make peace with the eastern regions,  "was determined to get the Donbas back as soon as possible and end the war within the Minsk agreements" (457 The Room Where It Happened).  However in the intervening years there has been consistent repudiation and denial of the Minsk Accords in Western and Ukrainian media.  It is as if they never existed.

The Zeitgeist:  Preparing for the historical dialectic

Karatnycky claims that "Most U.S. guests on Russian media come from the fringe."  He names Virginia State Sen. Richard Black and former United States Marine Corps intelligence officer, former United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspector Scott Ritter.  However, the first name on his list of "Putin's American Cheerleaders" is Tulsi Gabbard, a former American Congresswoman and candidate in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primaries.  In her interviews, she has a very simple and clear message:  "The world has never been closer to a nuclear war."

The rule of the historical dialectic is that the Zeitgeist will change over time and the dominant thesis of the age will give way to its antithesis.  If the rule of the dialectic holds in this case, those "fringe" arguments against escalation, which are everywhere on social media in blogs and vlogs and interviews but nowhere in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or Globe and Mail, may soon become the dominant Western narrative.

Wednesday 8 February 2023

Is the War in Ukraine about Democracy?

The number of articles, essays and editorials on the war in Ukraine is overwhelming.  They also tend to be quite tedious because the vocabulary--the word choice and adjectives--invariably announces in advance what the authors are going to say.  Any fact can be spun in one direction or another to fit an established narrative.  Is it possible to say anything about this war without surrendering to spin?  I have decided that on this subject less is more.  My ambition is to present a few facts and let you, dear reader, decide what conclusions or interpretations should be derived from those facts.  Hmmm, already I'm being disingenuous.  I'm choosing the facts, so my choice of facts already implies a particular interpretation or conclusion.  Let me try again.

It is a common claim that the war in Ukraine is being fought to preserve democracy both in Ukraine and, in some accounts, more widely in Europe and the Western world.  In his State of the Union this week, President Biden called the war in Ukraine "the defense of democracy." I have come across a number of agreed-upon facts that may not contradict this claim but should at least invite us to consider the question.  These are uncontested facts.  They may be avoided or re-spun or buried beneath a mountain of verbiage, but no-one is denying that they are true.

1.  Viktor Yanucovitch was elected President of Ukraine for a five-year term in 2010.  The election was overseen by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR).   According to the organization's final report:   "The presidential election met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections [ . . . .] The process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views."

2.  In 2013, President Yanucovitch pursued a trade agreement with the EU but pulled out of the negotiations before it was signed.

3.  Demonstrations began in Maidan Square in reaction to the news that the trade agreement would not be signed.  Demonstrations continued for months and eventually became violent.  Over 100 people were killed.  President Yanucovitch fled the country in February 2014 for exile in Russia.

4.  In February 2014, Russian forces seized control of Crimea.  

5.  In May 2014, Petro Poroshenco was elected President of Ukraine and signed the EU trade agreement June 2014.

6.  In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine, winning 73.22% of the vote over the incumbent Poroshenco with 24.45% of the vote.  Later Poroshenco had to flee the country accused of corruption and treason.

7.  In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In this selection of facts, I have dutifully avoided any claim which might be contested.  Recently I came upon this web site which offers a breakdown of election results in Ukraine.

Here is a breakdown of the 2010 election results in which Victor Yanucovitch won the presidency.  I invite you to consider the names of the areas where Yanucovitch had the greatest support.  If you have been following the news on the war in Ukraine, I invite you to compare the sites where battles are being waged with the areas where Yanucovitch had his strongest democratic support.

 Note, for example, these particular regions where Yanucovitch had strong democratic support and battles are now being waged.

Crimea:           78.24%

Donetsk:           90.44%

Luhansk:           88.96%

Kherson:          59.98% 

Odessa:            74.14%

Zaporizhzhia:    71.50%

 Yanucovitch's opponent in the presidential run-off, Yulia Tymoshenko of the All-Ukrainian Union – Motherland Party, challenged the results but her complaints were eventually withdrawn. The OSCE/ODIHR report noted that "During both rounds, Ms. Tymoshenko misused administrative resources for campaigning, thus blurring the line between her roles as candidate and state official and skewing the playing field in her favour."  The report also points out that

In the most recent census, 67.5 per cent of the population declared Ukrainian as their mother tongue, while 29.6 per cent named Russian. As official voter information and election material was available only in Ukrainian, an insufficient command of Ukrainian may have formed an obstacle for minority voters to gain full access to election related information.

Nonetheless, Viktor Yanucovitch of the Party of Regions eventually won the democratic vote, and held office until he was overthrown in 2014 and the war began.

Ironically, in his White House memoir, John Bolton claims that "The State Department didn't want me to meet with Tymoshenko separately because they thought she was too close to Russia [. . . .]" (448 The Room Where It Happened).





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