Andrew Potter: The intellectuals are far too sophisticated to see the truth in Ukraine
Supporters of Ukraine are doing nothing more than picking good over evil. To suggest otherwise is to see endless shades of grey where there is only black and white.
By: Andrew Potter
Not for the first time, Elon Musk spent a few days earlier this week as the Main Character on Twitter. It all began on Monday after he tweeted out his big plan for what he called “Ukraine-Russia Peace.” The terms of his proposal included holding UN supervised votes in the annexed regions of Ukraine, recognizing Crimea as “formally part of Russia,” and Ukraine becoming a “neutral” country.
The Musk Accord was not widely hailed as a masterstroke of diplomacy; aside from the relentless dragging he got across the twitterverse, the world’s richest man got outvoted in his own online poll by a healthy 60-40 margin. Indeed, by day’s end there were only two corners of the internet where you could find strong endorsement for Musk’s plan: Amongst those sympathetic to the Kremlin (if not obviously on its payroll), and amongst intellectuals who claimed, variously, to be trying to avoid nuclear war, to be working for Ukraine’s best interests, or advancing the interests of the West more generally.
Musk himself falls firmly into the intellectuals camp. Until he pulled his Neville Chamberlain impression, he was widely seen as one of Ukraine’s biggest defenders, largely thanks to the thousands of Starlink terminals that had been deployed to the country. Even as he was being slammed online he professed to still be on Ukraine’s side, and there’s no reason to think his rationale for proposing a solution to the war — namely, avoiding mass deaths — wasn’t sincere.
The problem is, intellectuals don’t deal well with the sort of brute moral clarity that is on display with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Elon Musk fell into a trap common to members of the intellectual class (real or professed), which is a resistance to the idea that things might be as simple as they appear, a deeply-rooted tendency to see both sides of any dispute, and to insert nuance into situations where there appears to be none.
It’s a tendency familiar to philosophers, whose job description amounts to coming up with ingenious arguments for preposterous conclusions. It doesn’t matter much when you’re arguing about the nature of the forms, or free will versus determinism. But when you take that habit of mind and try to apply it to real world problems, you get something much more potentially dangerous, such as Elon Musk’s little exercise in armchair international relations. It was clear from his proposal that Musk knows virtually nothing about Ukraine, its history, or anything that has gone on in that part of the world over the last 30 years. Before Russia invaded back at the end of February, he probably hadn’t given that part of the world more than a minute of thought.
But for all his fame and wealth and Twitter following, Elon Musk is an amateur at this sort of pidgin intellectualism. A much more potent (if less overtly irresponsible) version comes from the economist/futurist/polymath Robin Hanson, in a recent blogpost he wrote entitled “Beware Mob War Strategy.”
Hanson opens with some musings about the role of moral indignation, backed by a clear “commitment plan” (i.e. sanctions), in enforcing moral norms. As he observes, collective indignation probably played a useful role in enforcing a stable set of moral norms in small tribes or societies. But it might not work so well in the more complicated world in which we live, where we “don’t share norms as closely as we think, mob members are often more eager to show loyalty to each other than to verify accusation accuracy, and some are willing to make misleading accusations to take down rivals.” Hanson is obviously talking here about the use of moral indignation to stir up online mobs in the service of cancel culture.
Fair enough. But then Hanson shifts to the subject of peace deals in war, in particular the war in Ukraine, where he observes that most supporters of Ukraine seem morally offended by the prospect of making peace. The problem with this, he argues, is that these feelings of moral indignation are not accompanied by anything close to a credible commitment plan — that is, a clear statement of what will happen if Russia uses nuclear weapons. And since nuclear war is a big deal, and we don’t have an obvious way of deterring Russia from using them, we should make peace, instead of “following the vague war strategy inclinations of our mob-inflamed moral outrage.”
Stripped of the intellectual superstructure about game theory and commitment strategies, Hanson’s post amounts to a long exercise in concern-trolling, via the claim that the war in Ukraine is being fuelled by a “mob” of “war-mongers” (his terms) who are refusing to sue for peace out of a misplaced sense of moral justice. In so doing, they are endangering us all.
This is the sort of argument that is so bizarre only an intellectual could believe it. It’s hard to know where to begin here, but let’s begin with a few simple points. First, “war monger” is a term typically used to describe someone who, say, invades a country for no reason, massacres the population, destroys the cities, and encourages his soldiers to rape and loot and pillage, and that person’s supporters. Using the term to refer to those who fight or oppose such a person is curious. Second, the suggestion that Ukrainians are still fighting because they are being egged on by a mob of morally indignant but unfocused supporters, and not, say, because they have seen what happens to Ukrainians when Russia occupies their land, is just ignorant.
But the most astonishing aspect of Hanson’s effort here is the implication that Russia is in some sense the victim of Western cancel culture. The analogy between Twitter’s cancel mobs and the army of Ukraine supporters you find online right now is the epitome of what philosophers call a Clever Argument — an ingenious construction that leads to a preposterous conclusion. You can almost see the lightbulb going off in Hanson’s head as he wrote his blogpost. Intellectuals love Clever Arguments, because it allows them to bring to bear the full intellectual tool kit of hair-splitting, definition-mongering, nuance-inserting, clarity-obscuring.
And that’s the ultimate travesty of Hanson’s comparison of Ukraine supporters to an online mob: Unlike the typical woke mob (which has all of the flaws Hanson identifies, such as lack of shared norms and a healthy dose of bad faith), the supporters of Ukraine are doing nothing more complicated than picking good over evil, siding with justice against injustice. To suggest otherwise is to claim to see endless shades of grey where there is only stark black and white.
The war in Ukraine is terrible. We should be frightened by the prospect of escalation, of a wider conflict, of a nuclear exchange. But there is only one set of villains here, and it isn’t the people with Ukrainian flags in their Twitter profiles dragging Elon Musk and tagging their posts with #slavaukraini. But when it comes to figuring out what to do about it, it is worth asking yourself “how would Vladimir Putin respond to my argument?”
By this measure, it is telling that the Kremlin responded quite positively to Elon Musk’s peace plan this week. And as for Robin Hanson’s argument that Russia was a victim of mob justice and cancel culture, it is worth pointing out that it’s an argument some bright light already made back in March. The intellectual in question? One Vladimir Putin.
Andrew Potter is the author of On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever, a book that draws heavily on a brilliant blogpost by Robin Hanson.
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