This morning, as I sat down to write the fragments of this live journal, a flurry of confusing information war messages were planted by the American government in its favoured mass media outlets. American and its most servile allies declared they were evacuating their embassies – wouldn’t want another Fall of Kabul, would we? – and urged their citizens to leave Ukraine within 48 hours. Contradictory statements were attributed to the senior foreign affairs ministers of the United States: Putin has decided to invade next week; no, Putin has decided whether to invade next week; our earlier advice was wrong, but now it is right, and we are “entering a window where an invasion could occur” before the Winter Olympics ends.
I distracted myself for nearly an hour entering a deeper despair about the pathetic, incompetent and aggressive leadership the “Western democracies” suffer under today. A leading Russian intellectual and expert on foreign affairs tweeted out dialogue from Wag the Dog – even leading American intellectuals can see what is happening. Many people are speaking about the likelihood of the USA/NATO forces, in combination with the extremists in Ukraine, staging a false flag event in coming days that may force Putin’s hand.
This is a terrible disaster for the world, and I feel deeply sad about it. I feel appalled that my country might participate in a theatrical war that will be disastrous for Europe, disastrous for Ukraine, and disastrous for the world. I cannot imagine that America has the capacity to execute this adventure effectively. But an entrenched elite, surrounded by the illusions of power and control, imprisoned in the bubbles of situation rooms and think tanks, can easily imagine they can make their own reality.
Let us hope that next week I am not commenting on the start of another predatory American war.
These drums of war come following the farcical appearance of the British foreign minister, Liz Truss, still in her probation period, barely five months in the role, in Moscow, where she met with the 18-year veteran Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Ms Truss disgraced the British foreign service, the British state and indeed the British or Anglo-American political and educated class. Only a week or so ago, Ms Truss conflated the Baltic and Black Seas. When in Moscow, Ms Truss, despite the gravity of the security situation in Europe, chose to parade on an unseasonably warm Moscow day in a fur hat and fur coat, beside her bare-headed ambassador, in order to simulate the appearance of Margaret Thatcher in the era of Gorbachev. In the meeting with Lavrov, she talked over the translators, showing both her novice status and her mechanical performance of prepared lines, rather than real participation in an interactive dialogue. By all accounts, she spoke too loudly, as if she was forever on a pantomime stage, not a diplomatic conference. Then, butching up to Lavrov, acting out a caricature of the Iron Lady, she confronted Sergei Lavrov about the presence of Russian soldiers “near the border of Ukraine,” parked at their bases on Russian territory at cities like Rostov and Voronezh. Lavrov asked her, with diplomatic irony, whether Britain accepted Russian sovereignty over Rostov and Voronezh. There is a few moments pause: “Britain will never accept Russian sovereignty over those places,” Ms Truss says. Perhaps Britain wants to revive its support for the Whites’ during the Russian Civil War? In any case, a few moments later the poor British ambassador intervened to explain to Ms Truss that these regions were and always have been Russian cities of some significance.
Do watch this guide to the remarkable visit here.
Ms Truss’s gaffe is not only an individual error. It reflects decades of self-indulgent Russophobia among the political, media and cultural leading factions of Britain and America. These elites have deluded themselves with all their talk about the new Russian empire, Putin and all the ethnically prejudiced statements about Russians and Slavs, all those caricatures of gangsters, spies and kleptocrats. All of this is built on a pyramid scheme of ignorance.
The British media, like the spin doctors, not journalists they are, briefly tried to cover for Ms Truss. They claimed Mr Lavrov was boorish or that he stormed off at the press conference. These stories, however, were soon exposed by the video of Mr Lavrov patiently opening the door for Ms Truss’ exit and escorting her to private rooms, where perhaps he counselled her on the basic skills of diplomacy.
Coincidentally, Anatole Lieven wrote in Responsible Statecraft over the last week on the the role of journalists in spreading arrant misinformation and accelerating the decline of the governing class in post-democratic liberal states.
“Except in extreme cases of illegality, government officials cannot act like journalists and constantly seek out and reveal confidential information. If they did that, government would soon grind to a halt. If something is being done that is against their professional ethics or personal conscience, they must resign. But if journalists start behaving like government officials repeating official propaganda, U.S. democracy will have taken a long step towards its grave.”Anatole Lieven, Responsible Statecraft, Feb 2022
“For a few years during and after the Vietnam War, U.S. establishment journalists did consider it their duty to interrogate the people and institutions making foreign and security policy, and the “information” that they pumped out. Since then, among all too many, this sense of duty has been undermined by a combination of personal advantage, editorial pressure, American patriotism, and an instinctive, unexamined identification of American policy with freedom and democracy in the world.”Anatole Lieven, Responsible Statecraft, Feb 2022
Regrettably, Australian journalists are no better.
During the week I dipped into a biography of Isabella of Castile – Giles Tremlatt, Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen (2017). I was reading this book to prepare for an episode on The Burning Archive podcast that I will be releasing next weekend on the Spanish and Portugese empires. I was aware of Isabella faintly, always paired with Ferdinand, but had no strong understanding of her significance for the founding of the Spanish Empire. Tremlatt walks delicately through the crusading zeal and violence of Isabella in his summary judgement of her legacy.
“She was, quite simply, the first great queen of Europe. In terms of the impact of her reign – and of her decisions – on the future course of world history. The unity of Spain’s varied kingdoms was initially both fragile and temporary, but it would eventually stick. By sending Columbus off on an extraordinary adventure of blind, chivalric daring, she helped to reverse the decline of western Christendom and to alter the course of global history in the second half of the millenium. Western civilization owes a lot to Isabella’s Castile, however much it now disapproves of her mistreatment of Jews, Muslims and conversos.”Tremlatt, Isabella of Castile, p. 485.
I also discovered during the week, via the Rest is History podcast, the work of Neil Price on Viking history and culture, including The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Viking World (2020). It is a remarkable account of the strangeness of the Viking World, and again will make its way into a podcast I will be releasing in a month or so.
It has been a week of discoveries in a way. I also learnt of the work of the German sociologist, Harmutt Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World (2018; transl. 2020). This work emphasises the difficulty that rationalist points of view have with the uncontrollability of the world. In an earlier work, Rosa had described the experience of resonance, and, in a way, it is only by accepting the uncontrollability of the world, that the fundamental experience of resonance with the world is possible. It can be compared to the experience of meditation or mindfulness – only by non-judgmental attention to the mind can we be most open to experience.
Rosa’s concept of “uncontrollability” is a translation of a German word: Unverfügbarkeit. It is also translated as unavailability.
Rosa writes that:
“modernity’s incessant desire to make the world engineerable, predictable, available, accessible, disposable (i.e. verfügbarkeit) in all its aspects…. This very desire alters our relationship with the world…. A fully engineerable world would be a ‘dead world’. Second this desire for control produces behind our backs, a world that in the end is utterly uncontrollable in all the relevant aspects. We cannot control our late modern world in any way: politicallly, economically, legally, technologically or individually. The drive and desire toward controllability ultimately creates monstrous, frightening forms of uncontrollability.”Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World
This strikes me as a profound insight that is as relevant to navigating life beyond the terror of the covidians, the crumbling of Anglo-American leadership of the world, and the domination of the past by the obsessions of the present.
Finally, also courtesy of the Rest is History podcast, its episodes 146 and 147 on disease I came across Kyle Harper, Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History (2021). I will read the book, and the discussion on the podcasts is splendid. But let me just note the well-chosen verse from John Donne, who surely understood resonance and the uncontrollability of the world, that Harper places in the epigraph of his fine history.
There is no health;
physicians say that we
At best enjoy but a neutrality.
And can there be worse
sickness than to know
That we are never well,
nor can be so?
This fragment from John Donne, An Anatomy of the World (1611) surely should be read 411 years later by all the victims of the illusion of control who have inflicted a post-democratic regime of public health on most of the world for the last two years.
Image Credit: Isabella of Castile, portrait c 1490, By Unidentified painter – 1. http://www.secc.es2. Unknown source3. Museo del Prado, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=242393