Episode 14

Hello, and welcome to No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. If you’re new to the podcast make sure to head to BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast to use the interactive transcript while listening to the show. You’ll find an embedded audio player along with annotations on all key words and chunks as well as a Quizlet set to review this vocabulary. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of regularly reviewing vocabulary. Studies have shown that the use of flashcards to learn vocabulary can more than double your language acquisition.

This is the first episode after a month-long break. This was not planned. My life simply became incredibly hectic and I simply couldn’t keep up. For the foreseeable future I’m going to cut back and produce one episode every two weeks so that I can keep a consistent yet realistic schedule. Now, on with the show!

A couple of weeks ago a friend invited me to tag along with him and have lunch with some friends from the church parish he used to go to. Manuela, the hostess, was a Catalan woman in her mid-eighties. A widow, she had spent most of her life married to a Protestant minister. It was hard to imagine her in that role, given how loud, opinionated – and funny – she was. And I don’t mean funny in an inoffensive, old lady way. As she brought out the roast calçots from the kitchen – calçots are a late-winter Catalan delicacy, a kind of long, skinny onion that you dip in a special sauce – she made dirty jokes about how eating them resembled a certain sex act.

She was entertaining and kind of overwhelming, and she would veer from uproarious laughter to incredible sadness quite unexpectedly. She started talking about the Civil War in Spain. Incredibly, three of the people present had lived through it. Manuela told us how her family had been forced to flee the country and seek asylum in France because her father was an anarchist. And she spoke of how they had not been welcomed with open arms by the French. What’s more, shortly after they arrived in France her father was imprisoned for a minor offence and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She ended up being sent off to a boarding school at the age of six. Here was an elderly woman suddenly transported back to her childhood as if it were yesterday, her eyes tearing up at the thought of being separated from her parents.

And it occurred to me that the traumas of the Spanish Civil war are still being played out today, more than 80 years later. And then my thoughts turned to the war in Ukraine, and I realised that in the year 2100 there will still be people recounting their stories of loss and suffering as they recall the war in Ukraine in 2022. What’s more, it occurred to me that many of the victims of this war have not even been born yet.

I say all this as a sort of preface to today’s episode. Horror, sadness and grief are all natural reactions to human suffering. And yet I feel strongly that we have a collective obligation to each other and to future generations to move beyond this emotional reaction and to really make a concerted effort to understand what is going on.

Slavoj Žižek, the world-renowned philosopher and cultural critic whose work has been heavily informed by Lacanian psychoanalysis, recently addressed the 5th congress of Levica (The Left), a Slovenian political party. In part his speech was intended as an expression of his support for Levica, but more importantly it is a shrewd analysis of the war in Ukraine and how it is being used to divert attention away from the West’s own moral shortcomings and internal contradictions. The following excerpt is taken from an unofficial translation of his speech on YouTube.

“Does this mean that we should demonise Putin? No. If we wish to truly resist Putin we must summon the courage to direct the critical view on ourselves. […] What games did the liberal West play with Russia in the past decades? How did the liberal West push Russia into fascism? Remember the 90’s. The Yeltsin years. When the Western experts with their suggestions literally destroyed the Russian economy and created the grounds for Putin. […] I think the West wilfully backed Russia into a corner.”

Aditya Chakrabortty, in an article in The Guardian, develops this argument in greater detail when he points out that it was the Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, backed by Western governments and institutions, who orchestrated the privatisation of the Russian economy and created a kleptocracy in which the former USSR’s valuable state assets were ruthlessly plundered. And where did the loot go? Why a good deal of it went to British and American financial markets. What’s more, Chakraborty cites a British Medical Journal study that stated that “An extra 2.5-3 million Russian adults died in middle age in the period 1992-2001 than would have been expected based on 1991 mortality.” The implication is that this massive drop in life expectancy was caused by the irresponsible market liberalisation foisted on Russia by Western elites.

None of this is meant to absolve Putin of responsibility for the atrocities he’s committing. But we need to be aware that Western intervention in Russia may well have had a hand in Putin coming to power. And if we’re not willing to see this inconvenient truth, well we’re going to buy into the dangerous story that the war in Ukraine is about “the civilised west fighting against barbaric totalitarianism” (Žižek’s words). As Žižek points out, by locating the political crisis outside of our own borders we shore up western liberal democracy – we can pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves for being a beacon of hope and freedom.

A worn out metaphor? The West as a beacon of hope and freedom.

And as he also observes, this war is crowding out other pressing issues like climate change. Is that merely a coincidence? I’m reminded of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, in which she suggests that governments take advantage of and may even create crises in order to distract their unwitting electorates. Žižek claims that “Western liberal democracy itself is in deep crisis” and that “we are like obsessive neurotics who talk all the time just so that nothing really can change.”

The next time the war comes up in conversation, ask yourself if you aren’t getting some secret satisfaction from the fact that you can be one of the good guys. The line between being right and being self-righteous is a thin one. Part of the problem is quite simply that understanding geopolitics requires an appreciation of complexity. It requires the willingness to read up on history. But part of the reason I’m talking about this today is to argue against the view that only a small minority of people are able to grasp this conflict in all of its complexity. When you think about it, that’s a profoundly elitist idea.

I don’t see any difference between following the complex plot lines of a series like Game of Thrones and those of the Ukrainian war. Well, except for the fact that the latter is arguably far more important to understand. A couple of hundred years ago universal literacy was considered a pipe dream, an unachievable and maybe even undesirable goal, and now we take it for granted. But what good is literacy if we don’t put it to good use? Our descendants, our children and grandchildren, at least those in that imaginary future in which society has managed to survive and evolve – they will look back on our acceptance of widespread ignorance of political complexity, much the way we look back at our feudal ancestors and their irrational customs with perplexity and even disgust. They will scratch their heads when hearing about how, despite our advanced communication technologies which allowed access to multiple perspectives, the average person abdicated responsibility for making sense of this information. Perhaps it will be talked about as a low point in the history of the world. They might call it The Great Abdication.

We need to remind each other that long form journalism is the only way out of this impasse. If you’ve been reading articles on how the war’s been unfolding on a daily basis I would urge you to rethink this use of your time. Reading about the death toll today in Mariupol is grimly fascinating, but it won’t actually help you understand the genesis of this conflict. These blow-by-blow accountsof the war are really a form of sick, morbid entertainment.

They appeal to our emotions and often inspire feelings of despair. The Ukrainian people do not need your despair. The world does not need your despair. What we need is understanding. And that means abandoning black and white, us versus them thinking.

I want to quote the conclusion to Žižek’s speech:

“Save Europe – which one? The one that does not let in non-white refugees? If this Europe wins, the one which excludes the uncivilised, then we do not need Russia to destroy us. We will successfully do it ourselves.”

I want to make something clear. None of what I’m saying is meant to minimise how evil this war is. What I do want to drive home is the fact that it is incumbent on us to make the effort to understand what has brought this situation about.

If you’re interested in other perspectives on the war in Ukraine and the West’s relationship with Russia, I would recommend looking into John Mearsheimer. He is one of America’s most prominent international relations scholars and back in 2014 his article Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault was published in the journal Foreign Affairs. You can read an interview with him in The New Yorker from earlier this month, in which he explains his position. There’s also a YouTube video of him setting out his ideas.

Another insightful figure is Masha Gessen. In fact, it was thanks to an interview with them on Amanpour and Company that I first started to research this whole topic. Born in the then USSR, Gessen moved with their family to the USA as refugees in the early 1980s. They then moved back to Russia as an adult and eventually became chief editor of Russia’s oldest magazine, Vokrug sveta, a popular-science journal. Gessen is non-binary and at one point was described as Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist. After protesting anti-gay legislation outside Russia’s parliament in 2013 they were publicly beaten. Fearful of losing custody of their children as a result of this legislation, Gessen and their partner left Russia. Gessen now lives in the US and has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2017. Oh, and did I mention that they wrote a book about Putin’s unlikely rise to power?

Anyway, I think this backstory is important because it illustrates that Gessen is not a Putin sympathiser. In fact, you could hardly imagine a more obvious nemesis. And yet even though Gessen must feel quite strong antipathy to the Putin régime, they are also interested in drawing attention to the USA’s contribution to the current situation. For instance, Gessen recounts the bombing of Belgrade in 1999, whose aim was to oust Slobodan Milošević. This military campaign, spearheaded by the US in cooperation with NATO, was never approved by the United Nations Security Council, nor did the US seek approval. Gessen draws attention to the fact that many legal scholars deemed the Kosovo War to be in violation of international law, and that the very concept of a war as humanitarian intervention is a contradiction in terms.

Gessen’s article is important for two reasons. Firstly, that Russia’s decision to justify the war in Ukraine using the language of human rights was actually inspired by America’s own, often questionable use of human rights as a pretext for going to war. Secondly, they also point out that when Russia’s then Prime Minister was informed by the US that Belgrade would be bombed, Russia’s objections to the war were ignored. Did foreign policy makers not think humiliating Russia in this way would not have long-term consequences on their relationship?

Now, I could go on, but I won’t. I still have plenty of unanswered questions. The war in Ukraine is an atrocity of massive proportions and Putin’s choice to wage war against a peaceful neighbour must be condemned. Yet as individuals and as a society we must move beyond anger and condemnation. I chose to call this episode “The road to Ukraine is paved with good intentions” as it echoes the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The idea is that even good intentions can have terrible consequences. In this case our natural inclination to condemn immoral behaviour cannot be allowed to cloud our judgement. Wanting a story with clear cut good guys and bad guys is emotionally satisfying but intellectually bankrupt. Wanting to understand how other actors apart from Putin may also be to blame for this situation does not make us apologists.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back again in two weeks.

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