Prisoners of Our Own Device

(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

World leaders are acting like trapped men. Vladimir Putin, having begun what many would consider an ill-conceived invasion of neighboring Ukraine, is speeding down a road he probably realizes ends in disaster. Yet he cannot stop or exit on terms consistent with the basis of his power because any deals with Kyiv, except accepting its surrender, would be a sign of weakness. Since Russia lacks the material strength to compel submission, the only alternatives are to keep pulling the same ineffective levers harder, whatever the cost. The casualties mount even at the center. Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, already rumored to be in disgrace, has allegedly suffered a heart attack. Up to 150 senior Chekists are reputed to be under arrest or in disgrace. Twenty general officers are reputedly under investigation, including some close to Putin himself. While these reports may be exaggerated, the Kremlin has clearly chained itself to a runaway train.


But being stuck on a fixed course is not exclusive to Moscow. In Beijing, the Communist Party, having decided it would eliminate the COVID-19 virus from China, has embarked on a program of population-movement control unparalleled in human history. That it doesn’t work seems irrelevant. The New York Times writes, “Beijing has ignored experts’ advice that China abandon its costly strategy and learn to coexist with the coronavirus, especially a milder, if more infectious, variant. … As the Omicron variant spreads, about 373 million people in 45 Chinese cities were under either full or partial lockdowns as of Monday, according to estimates by economists at the investment bank Nomura. These cities account for 26 percent of China’s population and 40 percent of its economic output.” Like Russia, China’s rulers are trapped by the inability to admit error.

Therefore Xi will persist against the virus, just as Putin will continue to batter against Ukraine, not in the hopes of actually solving the stated problem but because in ideological totalitarianism, fallibility is not an option. Because they are in violation of the First Law of Holes (“if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”) the problem unsurprisingly gets bigger. Russia has threatened to deploy nuclear weapons to the Baltics if Finland and Sweden join NATO — which Putin’s invasion impels them to do. China’s COVID controls may fail to control the virus but still succeed in damaging its economy and stirring up political unrest. But no matter, gods cannot err.


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In the West, the defense of the infallibility of the political class takes a different but equivalent form. There too the gods cannot err, and mistakes are never acknowledged at all. The Narrative is simply airbrushed or explained by “fact-checkers” to make it seem like the favored political line has never been wrong. Thus Germany’s energy switch from indigenous coal and nuclear power to Russian gas never funded Putin. The Biden administration’s seamless resumption of approving oil leases on federal land was never an indictment of past policy. The COVID health mandates that were always necessary just suddenly became superfluous, especially for illegal immigrants at the southern U.S. border. Barack Obama was never fooled for an instant: declaring “Putin has always been ruthless … the danger was always there,” even though people remember he mocked Mitt Romney for saying it. Nor was the Washington Post deceived by Hunter Biden’s denials: headlining “inside Hunter Biden’s multimillion-dollar deals with a Chinese energy company,” denouncing it while pointing out it was only a private matter.

If anything is to blame for the sad state of the world with its energy shortages, looming famines, public health theater, inflation, and war, it is Bad Luck.


While there has always been a considerable amount of hack journalism in the West, not until the advent of digital social media has it been possible to manipulate publics of billions in near real-time. Now you can tell any damn fool story you want. No one, as in former times, fesses up their sins, acknowledges guilt, and resolves to mend their ways anymore. They simply redefine error out of existence. Social media made it as seemingly easy to abolish the facts as it is for Chinese and Russian authoritarianism to ignore them. It is social media’s power to create a virtual universe that makes it, after actual officeholding, the most coveted political object in the West and largely explains the bitter struggle between Twitter’s board and Elon Musk’s attempt to take over the company. It is Sauron’s ring, the one mechanism to rule the narratives and “in the darkness bind them”.

But narratives are not facts, nor is virtual reality, reality. Using Sauron’s ring, just as in the story, exacts a price. In exchange for the power of casting illusion, its wielders are gradually overwhelmed by the darkness. Moscow, Beijing, and the West are in the ironic position of being glutted with pundits and computers but starved of data. This hardly seems possible, yet as the Modern War Institute pointed out, the American position in Afghanistan collapsed because the army of experts tasked with understanding it didn’t have a clue what was happening on the ground. What they had in place of facts was models: a “comfortable mental model—what Russell Weigley described in The American Way of War.” Nobody asked about the Afghan way. If the Global World seems shaken to its foundations, China turned into a giant jail, and Russia trapped in auto-destruct, it is primarily because the rulers are too walled-in by their dominant paradigms to consider the facts.


Perhaps the real advantage of working democracies over tidy and “efficient” autocracies lies precisely in their weakness. In such societies there are no gods, no czars or emperors, no transformative politicians ready to lead the multitudes by the hand to the Green end of history; just people like ourselves, who strive, err, admit error and learn. Experience we can live with; it is only when we raise up the idol state that we stifle under the stone weight of perfection.

Books: The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy by Russell Weigley. “it has no rival in either scope or quality. For libraries, history buffs, and armchair warriors, it is a must. For political science students, career diplomats, and officers in the armed services.”


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