The old avant-garde has passed and left no successors (Dwight Macdonald)

Originally posted on Biblioklept:

The old avant-garde has passed and left no successors. We continue to live off its capital but the community has broken up and the standards are no longer respected. The crisis in America is especially severe. Our creators are too isolated or too integrated. Most of them merge gracefully into Midcult, feeling they must be part of “the life of our time,” whatever that means (I should think it would be ambitious enough to try to be part of one’s own life), and fearful of being accused of snobbishness, cliqueism, negativism, or worst of all, practicing “art for art’s sake” (though for what better sake?) Some revolt, but their work tends toward eccentricity since it lacks contact with the past and doesn’t get support from a broad enough intelligentsia in the present. The two currently most prominent groups, the “action painters” and the beatnik academy of letters, differ from the…

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Gary Snyder Interview – 5-14-2014

This is an interview with Gary Synder while he was back east for a joint presentation with Wendell Berry.

The Gary Snyder Interview: Buddhism, Beat Poetry and Environmentalism


Gary Snyder and WFPL’s Jonathan Bastian
Born in 1930, Gary Snyder is one of the last surviving writers of the Beat Generation — a generation that included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Snyder is a naturalist, an essayist and devout Buddhist. At the age of 26, he said goodbye to the Beats in San Francisco, and lived for seven years in Japan, studying at a Zen monastery. He won the Pulitzer prize in poetry in 1974.

His most recent book is a collaborative effort featuring Kentucky’s Wendell Berry. The book is called, “Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder.” Snyder and Berry met in the 1970s, and since then, have been corresponding regularly over myriad issues, while always circling back to nature and agriculture. They will be in conversation Wednesday at the Festival of Faiths, at 7 p.m., at Actors Theatre.

Gary Snyder joined me for a conversation at our WFPL studios. We discussed his early years in Washington state, where he developed a deep connection to the land. I also asked him about his love for Buddhism, his memories meeting Jack Kerouac, and much more.

Point Omega – DeLillo’s Literary Masterpiece

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photo – towards point omega –  rlw

06/00/1991. American Author Don Delillo DonDeLillo_154310390

This book is a meditation held together by the flow of time; time says that one thing must come after another, we do not will this, it is. We can will to erect things, language, to look as though we have arrested the flow but it is a writers’ or readers’ willing suspension of disbelief that allows it to be.

DeLillo has arranged a Haiku-like narrative on America’s preoccupation with 9/11 and has set this constellation of thoughts next to, and intermixed with, the process of making art today; the act of erotic attraction; and what it looks and feels like to loose the one relationship in life that gives one reason for participating, being, in this flow of time.

This is how he makes art:

“I had him babbling in unsequential edits, one year shading into another, or Jerry soundless, clowning, he is knocked-kneed and bucktoothed, bouncing on a trampoline in slow motion, the old flawed footage, the disturbed signals, random noise on the soundtrack, streaky patterns on the screen. He inserts drumsticks in his nostrils, he sticks the hand mike in his mouth. I added intervals of modern music to the track, rows of tones, the sound of certain re-echoing drone. There was an element of austere drama in the music, it placed Jerry outside the moment, in some larger surround, ahistorical, a man on a mission from God. I tormented myself over the running time, settling finally on a freakish forty-seven-minute movie that was screened at a couple of documentary festivals. It could have been four hours, six hours. It wore me down, I became Jerry’s frenzied double, eyeballs popping out of my head.”


We learn one character, the artist, Jim Finley, telling the story, an artist in America putting his entire being into developing art projects of unusual makeup and uncertain destiny. We experience through him, the film maker, the owner of Deadbeat Films. This is his design for his next project:

“No plush armchair with warm lighting and books on a shelf in the background. Just a man and a wall. The man stands there and relates the complete experience, everything that comes to mind, personalities, theories, details, feelings. You’re the man. There’s no offscreen voice asking questions. There’s no interspersed combat footage or comments from others, on camera or off …. Who you are, what you believe. Other thinkers, writers, artists, nobody’s done a film like this, nothing planned, nothing rehearsed, no elaborate setup, no conclusions in advance, this is completely sort of barefaced, uncut.”

The main object of this project is the fleshing out of the character who was hired by the Pentagon to give the Iraq war, at the time it was being waged, “ words and meanings. Words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing.” One imagines this man, Richard Elster, this intellectual, in the midst of the Pentagon strategists obsessed with “priorities, statistics, evaluations and rationalities“, to be in an ecclesiastical position. We do not know his effect on the analytical warriors, only that he performed his services for two years, which, just based on duration, leads me to think that he made some contribution to the equation. Elster wanted a Haiku war, “a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things.” Thus he attempts to change their perceptions to cut through the abstractions and see “nothing beyond what it is”. Elster wanted a war because: “A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future. The force of the will, the sheer visceral need. We can’t let others shape our world, our minds. All they have are old dead despotic traditions. We have a living history…”

In the midst of making his next art film project, basically an interview, to capture, Elster the intellectual lobbyist, in the aftermath of his war conjugations, Elster’s daughter, who has come to visit her father at the remote house in the California desert disappears after having lived with the two for a short period of time. She vanishes one afternoon and leaves Elster in a world absent of relationships and meaning. His daughter is his only close human attachment and her disappearance is a symbol of his ultimate detachment from all things human. He is left “alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamily self-aware…”

In some respects it is the same consequence for the artist, he had developed an erotic attachment to the daughter based on imaginations he had for her for the short time she was with them – she did not reciprocate interest, she simply allowed him to use her as an object. Finely takes to her given that she spent thirty minutes ( an adequate amount of time to register validation of interest per Finely) viewing his Psycho film. Urges lead him on to eventual voyeurism, standing in the hall looking at her in bed, wondering if he should approach her. She sees him standing there and turns in bed away from his gaze.

Finally, this book, this meditation is about human beings, their nature, their essence, what makes them complex, having a range of refractions, with no clear idea of which surfaces are real and which are abstractions, calls into question the nature of abstractions. Are they, the abstractions, not as real as the sense data we get from he real world? Blood, rain, wolves, arms, twelve, pi squared, maps, words, metaphors, myths. “Human perception is a saga of created realities”. And DeLillo goes beyond understanding being, he posits that humans ultimately want to go back to being inanimate, to undo the millions of years of evolution: “Paroxysm. Either a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion. We want it to happen … Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have beings. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone.”

What a rush.

DeLillo inserts, one at the beginning and one at the end, two curious pieces in the book, both of which are called Anonymity. He uses these narratives to introduce the film Psycho and to explore some of its images and psychology that he thinks important and further that he uses in his film projects. We feel that his use of juxtaposition allows a seamless exploration of the dark and a maniacal edge to the American psyche and how this cultural development is exported to the world through film. It further illustrates the absence of anything close to a meaningful relationship. We see the influence of technology, introversion, divorce, science and egotism that literally shatters the human bond that naturally exists between animals developed on the earth.

We see an America displaying its cold analytical nature, especially through film exported around the globe, that the rest of the world reacts to with anger, opposition and passion. We are successful in blowing up other cultures civility and protocols with the ease and precision of our self-appointed role. DeLillo’s use of juxtaposition forms a new category in literary sub-structure.


rlw – June 2014

Ukraine – Summing Up – And the Role of the American Press

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An excellent story from N + 1, showing some of the roots and political forces of the Ukraine conflict. Given the history of the Ukraine as it is told here, it is clear why simple violence can cut through the web of historical entanglement that refuses to get clear for a life in the present. The editors then give the US intelligentcia a tongue lashing for helping to bring back cold war practices part of which is accomplished by demonizing Putin, accompanied by reflecting negatively on each move the Russians make. The article ends by admitting that Putin is a scoundrel and that we should be kinder and gentler.

THE EDITORS – N + 1 Magazine

Ukraine, Putin, and the West

Putin walks into a bar . . .

Published in
Issue 19: Real Estate
Publication date
Spring 2014

IN NOVEMBER OF LAST YEAR, a spirited protest took place in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv after the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, declined at the last minute to sign an association agreement with the European Union. The agreement would have been a very small first step toward a still hazy, far-off EU membership, but it had major cultural and symbolic significance, and its sudden rejection, under clear pressure from Russia, brought people to the streets.
The initial protest, on central Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, has since been estimated at around a thousand people—hardly impressive, especially in a country where since independence the citizenry has been willing to take to the streets. The difference this time was the surprising ham-handedness of the authorities, who first ignored the protest, then tried violently to disperse it. This, to many people who’d been growing weary of a corrupt and incompetent regime that had imprisoned political opponents and enriched itself and its friends while the country’s economy stagnated, was too much, and they too came out into the streets.
The massive, sustained, courageous protests that followed were anomalous for the post-Soviet space in that they did not revolve around rigged elections, as did the successful 2003 and 2004 protests in Georgia and Ukraine (the Rose and Orange “Revolutions,” respectively), as well as the large, ultimately unsuccessful protests in Moldova in 2009 and Moscow in December 2011. They were also anomalous in that Yanukovych, bad as he was, was a typical post-Soviet leader: a man who’d used his ties to the old nomenklatura and the rising criminal-capitalist class to consolidate power, often through the use of violence. Yanukovych would have been very much at home as a regional governor in Russian Krasnoyarsk or Irkutsk. And yet here were people, formerly docile and frightened and cowed, out in the streets against him.
In the American press, the protests were initially greeted as “pro-Western”—as were the earlier Georgian and Ukrainian protests, and protests in Lebanon, Iran, and Egypt. The protesters, the story went, were people who wished to pull Ukraine into a 21st-century European future, rather than back toward a 20th-century Soviet past. We’re not saying we saw it personally, but if no one wrote an exuberant article about the use of social media on Maidan, we will eat our laptop.
Eventually the picture became more complicated: Svoboda, a small but rising nationalist political party (10 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections) and the Right Sector, a gang of right-wing street fighters, were taking the lead in some of the violent confrontations with police, and so it was reported that the protest did include some “extremist right-wing groups,” though just as often it was reported that there were “extremists from both the right and the left.” There were leftist activists on Maidan, but when, early on, they tried to set up an organized presence, they were attacked with knives by the right-wing groups. After that they kept their presence low-key.
As the protests stretched on, despite the freezing cold, some supporters began to worry that talk of right-wing groups was giving Maidan a bad name. A group of Ukrainian, Russian, and Western scholars circulated a strange petition urging Western media outlets to stop talking about the right-wing groups. In the US, this campaign was taken up by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder. In a series of articles and posts in the New York Review of Books, Snyder insisted, misleadingly, that the right-wing groups had a marginal presence at the protests, and that to say otherwise was to toe the party line being issued from the Kremlin, which was, it’s true, filling the national airwaves with talk of Ukrainian fascists. Snyder was answered by Stephen Cohen of the Nation, who argued that the American media was simply taking its usual anti-Russia line, regardless of the content of the protests. As usual, Cohen went too far, suggesting that rather than criticize Vladimir Putin, the US should be grateful to him for all he’s done. Snyder answered that Cohen, a noted historian of the anti-Stalin opposition, was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And on it went.
THERE’S A REASON Ukraine is at the heart of the most significant geopolitical crisis yet to appear in the post-Soviet space. There is no post-Soviet state like it. Unlike the Baltic states, it does not have a recent (interwar) memory of statehood. Nor, unlike every other post-Soviet state aside from Belarus, does the majority population have a radically different language and culture from the Russians. In many cases, for these countries, the traditional language suggests a natural political ally—Finland for the Estonians, Turkey for the Azeris, Romania for the Moldovans. These linguistic and cultural affinities are not without their difficulties, but they do give a long-term geopolitical orientation to these countries.
Ukraine has this to some extent in its western part, formerly known as Galicia, which has cultural and linguistic affinities with Poland. But the country’s capital, Kyiv, has much stronger ties to Russia: Russians consider Kievan Rus, which lasted from the 9th to the 13th century (when it was sacked and burned by the Mongols), to be the first Russian civilization. Russian Orthodoxy was first proclaimed there. Most people in Kyiv speak Russian, rather than Ukrainian, and in any case the languages are quite close (about as close as Spanish and Portuguese). On television, it is typical for any live broadcast—whether it’s news, sports, or a reality-TV show—to go back and forth seamlessly between Russian and Ukrainian, with the understanding that most people know both. Russians all too often assume that these cultural affinities mean that there is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian people. There is. But the closeness of the two peoples makes forging an independent path for Ukraine extraordinarily difficult.
Adding to this difficulty has been the Soviet legacy, which in Ukraine as everywhere else is always and everywhere visible. The Ukrainian historian Giorgy Kasianov has written that Ukrainians are forced to exist in several historical and semantic fields simultaneously: the roads they drive on, the factories they work at, the social relations they engage in—all are part of the Soviet heritage. As in the rest of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, this heritage is crumbling, but in Ukraine in particular it remains formidable.
As a result, Ukraine has essentially been frozen in time since independence. Nationalist and pro-Russian political parties (each bankrolled by a handful of oligarchs) have passed the presidency back and forth between them, neither getting much done while they ruled. The country’s two countervailing forces—Ukrainian-language nationalists in the west, and Russian-language nationalists in the east and Crimea—have ensured that neither maintains the upper hand. Because of this, Ukraine has consistently had a better, more lively public sphere than most of its neighbors—more freedom of speech, more freedom of assembly, more diverse political actors. Ukraine was also distinguished by the repeated, and usually peaceful, transfer of power from one party to another (something that post-Soviet Russia has still not achieved more than two decades in). And yet these positive democratic indicators did not, as contemporary dogma would predict, lead to positive economic results. Instead, Ukraine, a country that in 1991 had hope that, left to its own devices, it could flourish—with its highly educated workforce, proximity to Europe in the west and the Black Sea to the south, and many industrial enterprises inherited from the USSR—has instead lagged miserably behind its neighbors. Its per capita GDP is half of Russia’s, one fifth that of the US. Its economic performance is worse than that of its authoritarian neighbors Kazakhstan and Belarus. It is a country about as poor as El Salvador. And the poorest regions are in the west, which sends many undocumented migrant workers farther west, to Europe, and north to Russia. It is the disjuncture between Ukraine’s solid democratic performance and its miserable economic one that provided the protests with much of their pathos and durability.
The issue of Ukrainian nationalism must be treated separately. Two major 20th-century events play into contemporary Ukrainian nationalist conceptions. One is the Holodomor, or “hunger famine,” unleashed in the early 1930s by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. The other is the Second World War, during which a group of paramilitaries in western Ukraine, known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, collaborated with the Germans to clear the region of foreign (Polish, Russian, Jewish) influence.
That these events of the past are not dead and buried was revealed most vividly by the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, the man brought to power on the waves of popular protest known as the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko, whose wife is from the Ukrainian American diaspora that kept alive the flame of Holodomor consciousness, spent much of his political capital and time raising the issue of the Holodomor. The goal was nation-building on the example (diaspora theorists had made this clear) of the Holocaust, so that the death of millions of Ukrainians could do for Ukraine what the death of millions of Jews had done for Israel in solidifying national identity. The problem was twofold. First, a terrible famine is not the best basis on which to build a new, modern nation; second, Stalin’s “hunger famine,” while a massive crime, was directed not at Ukrainians as such but at the Soviet peasantry—much of which was in Ukraine, but large portions of which were also in southern Russia, where they died just as horribly as their Ukrainian counterparts. For Stalin, the destruction of Ukrainian culture and its attendant nationalism was a bonus in the war against the peasantry, nothing more. And so to shape this into a specifically national story Yushchenko and his historians had to twist the truth. They had to insist on the Russians’ genocidal intentions, and implicate by extension the people who were often charged, in the Soviet 1930s, with carrying out collectivization: Ukrainian Jews working for the NKVD.
The second aspect of Yushchenko’s concept for a Ukranian national narrative focused on rehabilitating the memory of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the Ukrayinska Povstanska Armiya, or UPA). The leaders of the UPA remained active after the end of the Second World War, and were hunted down and assassinated by Soviet agents. Soviet propagandists then worked assiduously to remind citizens that small-nation nationalism (as opposed to Great Russian nationalism) led to fascism, as demonstrated by the collaboration of the UPA with the Wehrmacht. Soviet propagandists loved this story. The Chechens, Ingush, Volga Germans, and Crimean Tatars had all been accused by Stalin of working with the Germans, but with the UPA it was actually true. The Soviets loved this story so much that they couldn’t leave it alone; where necessary, they forged documents to prove the UPA’s guilt. The result was a multilayered story that changed depending on who was telling it and how much they knew; it was like that episode of The Simpsons where the family gets kidnapped by aliens, who may or may not be planning to eat them, and Lisa and the aliens take turns blowing dust off an old cookbook, which seems to say, with each bit of dust removed, How to Cook Humans, then How to Cook for Humans, then How to Cook Forty Humans, then How to Cook for Forty Humans. When Yushchenko was told that the UPA had committed massacres in western Ukraine, he responded that this was KGB propaganda. And some of it was! But some of it, unfortunately, was not. This, too, set Yushchenko against and alienated him from his neighbors to the north. (Not coincidentally, this argument paralleled the later argument about the presence of the right wing on Maidan. The protests were massive and varied and full of ordinary people with either no political affiliations or a commitment to “democracy,” which, however vague, they were willing to defend with their lives; but there were also groups raising the red-and-black UPA flag and chanting the old UPA slogan, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!” Nonetheless, ideological defenders of the Maidan protests repeatedly pointed to overheated Russian propaganda as proof that allegations of a right-wing presence must be false.)
As all this was being argued about in the West, not always in good faith, and as Russian and Ukrainian leftists engaged in much more honest self-criticism about the lack of a leftist presence in the protests, events in Kyiv continued to develop. In mid-January the Ukrainian parliament, controlled by the ruling party, passed a draconian law to punish the protesters, including sanctions against driving in a motorcade, wearing a helmet, setting up a tent, refusing to block access to internet services (for ISPs), “blocking access to personal property,” et cetera. In response, protesters overran administrative buildings throughout western Ukraine, where police refused to intervene. Yanukovych meanwhile managed to squander his significant advantages—the fact that he was a legitimately elected president, for one thing, and that he controlled the army, for another—through a mixture of indecision and stupidity. Sometimes it seemed he was brilliantly waiting out the protesters—and it was very cold out—until suddenly he would send the riot police to try to clear the square again. Activists began to be kidnapped and tortured and sometimes killed. The determination of the protesters hardened. What had once been a crowd with iPhones was transformed into men in battle fatigues, balaclavas, orange construction helmets, welder goggles, knee pads, shin pads, greaves, metal shields, and all sorts of improvised weaponry—two-by-fours, Molotov cocktails, flails, the occasional hunting rifle, sticks, and rocks. They looked like some army of the damned, out to fight zombies—but in fact they were facing down their own police.
FIGHTING DIED DOWN in early February, as the Rada worked toward an agreement to amnesty the protesters. As a gesture of goodwill, the protesters agreed to clear out some of the government buildings they occupied in Kyiv; when one group of right-wing protesters refused to leave the Ministry of Agriculture, another group of right-wing protesters forced them out anyway.
But the cessation in hostilities did not hold. On February 18, during a vital session of the Ukrainian Rada, a large column of protesters headed for the parliament to voice their support for the parliamentary opposition. The march led to fierce clashes with police, with the latter opening fire on the protesters. People fell, wounded, some of them dead. The crowd fired back. Some policemen were also killed; on Maidan, the occupation held.
The situation had reached unprecedented levels of violence, and the international community stepped up its pleas for a peaceful resolution. Yanukovych, too, seemed frightened by what had occurred (and possibly by his inability to clear the square) and agreed to talks. At the end of this process came an agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders, witnessed by the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany, as well as a Russian representative, to hold early presidential elections and guarantee amnesty to the protesters. It seemed like finally the standoff was over.
But things had gone too far by this point, and the agreement did not hold. Events began to develop very rapidly. It was reported that Yanukovych and his cronies were trying to flee the city, whether because (as Yanukovych later claimed) his car had been fired on, or because it was clear that their situation was hopeless. In response, thousands of people blocked the road to the airport. Yanukovych fled the city anyway; this became clear when his palace, just outside the city limits, was left unguarded. Curious, people started going in. Yanukovych had left in a hurry—papers clearly showing massive corruption were left in his office. The internet was soon flooded with photos of the luxurious estate; one showed the self-defense forces of Maidan—in their weird outfits, with helmets, unshowered—trying to play golf on the presidential course.
The parliament assumed power and quickly appointed a new government. Yanukovych was laughed out of Ukraine—unable to leave on a chartered plane because he lacked the proper documents, he was reduced to heading for Crimea, where he was able to board a Russian military vessel and be spirited to the friendly neighbor to the north.
Less than a week later, in gross violation of the conditions of their long-standing lease on Crimean territory, Russian troops left their bases in Crimea and began to take up positions around the peninsula, disarming Ukrainian troops where they could. More Russian troops arrived, and the Putin administration began to make noises that this was just the beginning; that Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine—ten million people, give or take—could also, perhaps, use Russian protection from Ukrainian nationalists.
How did it come to this? If there was one thing everyone agreed on just five years ago, it was that, say what you would about post-independence Ukraine, it was a country. “Ukraine exists,” was the understated but undeniable election slogan of the (failed) 2010 Yushchenko presidential campaign. Crimea, Ukraine’s most restive and most beautiful area, was finally settling in for the long haul—better to be a strange, anomalous, mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainian appendage than to be inside a paranoid, authoritarian Russia. That the revolution against Yanukovych, a triumph of human fortitude, should result in the loss of territorial integrity is sad but comprehensible. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and here is this one.
WHAT ROLE HAS the American intellectual community played in this saga, if any? Certainly we failed to prevent it. But there is more. For the past two years, since Putin reassigned himself to the Russian presidency, we have indulged ourselves in a bacchanalia of anti-Putinism, shading over into anti-Russianism. We turned Pussy Riot into mass media stars. We wrote endless articles (and books) about how Putin was a mystery man, a terrible man, a KGB ghoul who lived under your bed. It got to the point where Western journalists in Sochi for Putin’s overpriced Olympics were cheered like heroes for tweeting about how the curtains in their hotel rooms were falling down. It was funny, but it was also not funny. Should Putin, the president of a country with inadequate hospitals, schools, and housing for its 150 million people, have spent $50 billion to host the Olympics? Absolutely not—especially when a third of the money was apparently expropriated by various officials. But the gleeful complaints about Olympic conditions seemed mostly bent on humiliating Russia in toto.
It’s hard to know how much of what gets written in various places leads to American policies. Does it matter what’s in the Nation? What about the New York Review of Books? The New Yorker? It’s impossible to say. And the media or publishing game has its own rules, irrespective of politics. Evil Putin is just going to get more airtime than Complicated Putin or Putin Who Is Running a Country in a Complex Geopolitical Situation.
Perhaps the way to put it is that an intellectual mistake was turned into a political mistake. The intellectual mistake was to fixate on Putin as the bad man who came along and suddenly undid the good work of Boris Yeltsin. (Bill Clinton’s Russia hand Strobe Talbott the other day tweeted an inadvertent reductio ad absurdum of this position: “Putin has for years been systematically reversing reforms of Yeltsin, Gorbachev & Khrushchev, whose gift of Crimea to Ukraine he’s nullified.”) But as the Russian left has been telling us for years, Putin has not gone back on the Yeltsin-era reforms. In most spheres of Russian life, he has continued them—undoing the Soviet safety net and replacing it with nothing. That he has become an authoritarian ruler while doing so is a result of the fact that these reforms are cruel and unpopular.
An obsession with Putin—shared, by the way, by the Russian liberal opposition, which continues to pine for Yeltsin and refuses to admit the destruction he wrought on the country and its populace—was the intellectual mistake, and it created a political atmosphere. Why did Obama refuse to meet with Putin at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg last summer? Was it because the Russians had been intransigent and unhelpful on various foreign policy questions, or was it because Evil Putin had become such a media fixture in the US that meeting with him would have been politically poisonous, a “sign of weakness”? No doubt it was both.
And it was this atmosphere, too, of blind rage against one man, through which the events in Ukraine were filtered. Were there right-wing militants among the protesters? Not if the Kremlin says so! Should the Western ambassadors, formal and informal, so eager to give the Ukrainian opposition advice, counsel them to keep in mind the sensitive Russophone population of eastern Ukraine and Crimea? No—that would only give comfort to the Russian enemy. If the protests nonetheless remained pluralistic, committed to democracy, often in its most direct form, it was not because of any advice from the US, which tended, as usual, to be focused on zinging the Russians.
Putin has a habit of talking tough. In televised interviews, and in the strange staged televised cabinet meetings he likes to hold, he sometimes seems like he’s talking through clenched teeth. It’s irritating—to Russians more than anyone—but the American political establishment, and the American intellectual establishment right behind it, got dragged into it. If the US were truly strong—or rather, if the US understood that it is strong, much, much stronger than Russia in every conceivable way—would it not have found a way to placate this tough-­talking man and his proud but troubled country, and direct Russia’s energies somewhere useful? If a man who is weaker than you walks up to you aggressively in a bar, what do you do? Do you humiliate him? Do you write articles about how scary and mysterious he is? As is, Putin talked tough, and so the American media and then American politicians decided to talk tough, too. And now we find ourselves plunging, perhaps, into a protracted period of international standoff—a “new cold war”—with increased military budgets, decreased understanding and interaction, and once again the kinds of restrictions of movement that we thought we’d left behind. As for Russia’s fledgling opposition, both liberal and left, which could not help but be inspired by the courage and persistence of the Ukrainian opposition regardless of its political makeup—it will not be strengthened if Russia becomes, as it will inevitably, even more aggressive and paranoid during a period of intense reaction and retrenchment. The opposition may even be destroyed. The same goes for Ukraine, which, now partly occupied by a foreign power, is likely to shift politically toward its nationalist right.
None of this is to say that Putin doesn’t have a lot to answer for. Under his leadership Russia has failed to demonstrate, to its own citizenry and even more so to its neighbors the Ukrainians, anything positive, anything admirable, anything that they would want to gravitate toward except, occasionally, some cold hard cash. No, Putin, who lost whatever democratic legitimacy he may have enjoyed when he returned for a third term, is to blame. But did we on our side do everything we could to avoid this scenario? The answer, obviously, is no.