Mar 2, 2015

The trouble with Russia

So far, the most likely explanation for Boris Nemtsov's death is Mark Galeotti's, and unfortunately it's also the scariest. I agree that it's highly unlikely Putin directly ordered this. Nemtsov is no Kirov, nor does Putin seem to need this kind of excuse for whatever it is he's planning. Instead, Galeotti raises the frightening possibility that Nemtsov, repeatedly denounced by the Kremlin as a traitor and a fifth columnist of the west, was killed by someone taking the law into their own hands - either rogue elements in the security forces or someone else entirely.

Before the assassination, I had planned to title this blog post "The trouble with Mr. Putin". I was going to make the argument that the trouble with Putin's Russia is that we don't know what he wants. To take an extreme example, if we knew - literally knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt - that Putin plans to start World War III when he feels his military is strong enough, then we - the West - should attack Russia now. The odds are only going to shift in his favor, and even now, NATO decisively outnumbers and outguns Russia, especially at a time when Russian forces are tied down in the Donbas.

But of course, we don't know beyond the shadow of a doubt that that's what he intends. I'd bet very few sensible people would even consider that remotely likely. The whole scenario is a complete fantasy, because we'll never know with total certainty what another person intends, much less a whole state apparatus.

But in Putin's case, we're really struggling. It's dauntingly difficult to interpret even a single act of the current administration. Why did Russia invade the Ukraine? To create a "frozen conflict" on their border? To cement the annexation of the Crimea? To carve up the Ukraine into smaller territories? To occupy the whole country? Or was it just to get the Russian people excited about his courageous stand against the nefarious West and restore Russia to her rightful place in the world hierarchy? I don't know, and neither do you. We all have guesses, and certainly some guesses are much better informed than others, but they're still guesses. I don't believe for a minute that anyone can reliably tell how much Putin's actions are aimed at his domestic audience, or perhaps audiences would be better, and how much they're part of a strategy directed outward. Certainly they're always to some extent both.

It's similarly impossible to understand what Putin's strategy toward Finland is. We've had him send over a general to threaten us and question our right to hold military exercises inside our own borders, and present a 2010's version of the Molotov-Ribbentrop accords masquerading as a missile defense arrangement (against who? Ze Germans?). There's a particular Finnish docent, better known locally as the десант, accredited both by some Russian institutions and the Donetsk People's Republic as their official representative, given to spinning ridiculous tales about the imaginary atrocities inflicted by the fascist Finnish authorities on innocent Russian children. There are the airspace violations, too clearly periodical to be accidents. What are we to make of all this? How much of Comrade десант's fulminations are aimed at discouraging Russians from moving to the Finnish near abroad, and how much are they an attempt to build a case for action against Finland? Clearly many of the actions of the Russian state are meant to frighten us - but into what? Is all this happening because Putin wants to maintain a level of tension on his northwestern flank, or in preparation for some strategic move here? If so, what move?

Again, we don't know. And the trouble is that if something that goes beyond the kind of provocations and testing of the guard that we've experienced so far does happen, we still won't know for a good while. Certainly keeping us on our toes and guessing seems to be part of the plan. But really, we have no idea what the plan is.

I firmly believe that the most dangerous aspect of the entire situation is that no-one in the West seems to know what Putin's plan is. Or even if he has one at all. This opens the door to all kinds of disastrous possibilities, the worst of which by far is that the West may dangerously overreact to one of Putin's provocations. Perhaps he'll pull some kind of stunt on the Baltic countries, hoping to score some easy political points at home through a largely symbolic action, and through some combination of mistakes and unfortunate coincidences, NATO interprets his provocation as an actual attack. Shots are fired, people are killed, a counterattack is mounted, and all of a sudden the world is at war. Think back to 1914. Putin's strategy of escalation and misdirection is a phenomenally dangerous nuclear gamble.

But maybe the problem with this analysis is that it may not be Putin's gamble. We see that Russia cannot be described as a democracy. We see the strongman's shirtless posturing, the nostalgic references to the Georgian fellow with the moustache. We identify this as a dictatorship. But is it really? Nobody, not even Stalin, ruled through personal force alone. And do we really believe Putin commands a cult of personality to rival Stalin's? Hardly. His pseudo-fascist program of national chauvinism, order and war on the weakling outsiders has become popular enough to sustain the regime - but is he himself necessary to it? Even the most merciless totalitarian dictators of the 20th century had to rule through a system, and had to game the system in order to remain indispensable to it: to stay in charge. How good is Putin at gaming the system? It's believed that some time ago he purged most of the remaining oligarchs from his inner circle, and relies on the siloviki: the alliance of the security services and organized crime. How well does he really control them? Or for that matter, the armed forces? If the murder of Boris Nemtsov was carried out against his wishes, what else might be?

At one point during the Cuban missile crisis, when two seemingly conflicting letters from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev arrived in the United States, the US leadership had to seriously consider the possibility that they were no longer actually negotiating with Khrushchev but that there had been a coup and he had been replaced; only they had no idea by whom. Nor do we know now to what extent Putin is actually running the show. It's bad enough to think that we're facing a revisionist Russia run by a ruthless chekist determined to regain his country's pretended superpower status at the expense of its neighbors. What might be even worse is a Russia whose population is starting to feel the bite of the declining economy, becoming increasingly hostile toward foreigners and especially the West - and slipping from Putin's grasp.

It's the uncertainty that gets you. We don't know who killed Boris Nemtsov, or why, nor will we. We don't know what Russia intends to do next, let alone why. Nor do we know who, exactly, Russia is at any given moment. We have to prepare for the worst, but in doing that, we run a terrible risk of making the worst a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if we fail to prepare for the worst, we leave ourselves weak, which gives Russia all the more incentive to push us harder. All our options are bad. But some are worse than others.

None of this would happen if our current world system wasn't based on the idea of an anarchic collection of states all keeping their populations in line by scaring the crap out of them with both external and internal threats. Not to mention actually creating such threats with their behavior, both to themselves and others. The logic of this system of international politics is absolutely fucking terrible, but apparently we're stuck with it for the time being. And the only reasonable way to safeguard our rights and safety is to play along with it as best we can., because there's no opt-out clause. Neutrality is great if you're surrounded by mountains and lubricated by the most influential banking system in the world. We aren't. All we can do is prepare for the worst and do our damndest to avert it. I just wish we knew what that damndest was.

Jan 9, 2015

Non, je ne suis pas Charlie

I absolutely and unequivocally condemn the murderous attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. I also absolutely condemn any and all victim-blaming on the subject, if there's been any: the cartoonists weren't asking for it, they were exercising their rights to free expression, and nothing they wrote or drew in any way justifies an attack on them.

At the same time, I will not stand in solidarity with a racist and homophobic magazine. Charlie Hebdo was never just satire: when they satirize Islam, it's satire that directed against a small immigrant religion whose members face systematic racism in a country where the xenophobic extreme right is on the rise - funded by Putin, no less. Satire and humor can be powerful weapons with which to challenge oppression, but also means of oppression themselves. I refuse to accept the notion that racist mockery of less privileged minorities is an inherent social good whose producers must be valorized and stood in unquestioning solidarity with.

The right to mock religion in Europe is not threatened, and certainly not by Islam. In the few European countries where blasphemy is illegal, like Finland, the legislation has nothing to do with Islam, but is based entirely on Christianity. If there is a real threat to the freedom of expression in Europe, it comes from Christian political parties, not Muslims. So Charlie Hebdo's caricatures of Islam aren't defending some fundamental European rights that are under threat. It is inconceivable that terrorist attacks on cartoonists will change that.

After the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, there have been several attacks on mosques and Muslims in France. The attack was a boon for Europe's islamophobic far right, which uses incidents like these to bolster its claim that Islam is an alien ideology fundamentally incompatible with European values. This is nonsense: Islam is no less compatible with human rights and the European political system than Christianity or Judaism. Islamists, on the other hand, use the attacks on Muslims and Islam that their terrorism provokes to bolster their claim that the West hates Islam and is trying to destroy their religion. It rather helps their case that Western countries continue their indiscriminate violence against Muslim communities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and a number of other places, in the guise of the "war on terror".

It speaks volumes to the enlightened principles we are standing up for all across the social media that the right to draw racist cartoons is universally supported, but the rights of French Muslims are completely ignored. Media outlets are recycling racist collective blame by demanding that "moderate Islam" - as if some such monolith exists! - condemn the attacks. Yet no-one demands that Christian and secular Europeans condemn the attacks on Muslims. Whose freedom, whose speech?

The aim of the attack on Charlie Hebdo - if it was committed by Islamists - is not to stop us from mocking the Prophet. This is a ridiculously stupid narrative, based on racist notions of Muslims as irrational savages. The aim of the attacks is to sharpen contradictions: reinforce the notion that the West and Islam are implacable enemies. Both the Islamists and Eueopean fascists are followers of an apocalyptic faith. They want an existential war between civilizations, and they do their utmost to spread hate and violence to bring it about. Both champion an ideology that is threatened by peace, prosperity and mutual understanding, so their mutual objective is to attack those underpinnings of Western liberal democracy.

The terrorists don't win if we refrain from publishing racist caricatures of Muslims. The terrorists win if we subscribe to their narrative of the profound and inevitable clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world. I refuse to do that. The murderers who attacked Charlie Hebdo are criminals. Anders Breivik was a criminal. The men and women of Western armed forces who murder civilians in the Middle East are criminals, as well as the members of ISIS who do the same. I condone no murder of innocents, in uniform or outside it, for any ideology. I stand for free expression, but I refuse to stand in solidarity with racism, islamophobia and oppression.

Dec 29, 2014

Finland's security future

The next parliamentary elections are coming up in April, and the big story leading into them is how the Stubb cabinet has effectively destroyed the Coalition Party's popularity. After their victory in the previous elections, the Coalition looked unstoppable, but they've since fallen behind the agrarians and in one recent poll, even the social democrats. I personally think the main driver of this has been the complete failure of the governing party to communicate to the electorate. Simply put, their economic and EU policies seem to make no sense, so they really could do a better job selling them. There's also been a surprising dearth of leadership: prime minister Stubb was one of the stronger anti-racist voices in his party around the time of the previoud election, but now that he's PM, we've had a moronic episode where one of his MPs went on national television to whip up a racist frenzy over immigrants supposedly getting money to buy new prams from social services. The thing in itself was ridiculous; what wasn't ridiculous but deeply distressing was the way in which she was allowed to carry on a completely demented racist campaign based on absolutely nothing without the party leadership interfering in any way whatsoever. Similarly, although Finland for some reason pretends the incumbent President has no party affiliation, the current head of state is a Coalition man, and his leadership has also been deeply disappointing, especially in foreign and security policy, which is supposed to be where the president exercises leadership. Ceterum censeo, I think it's high time we abolished the entire presidency.

The idiotic pram incident was transparently an attempt to get in on the explosion of populist racism that ushered in the tragicomical party that actually has the nerve to insist that its proper English name is "the Finns". That particular racist and agrarian populist party made a deep dent in the agrarian Center party and the social democrats last time around, which both have seemingly recaptured with a vengeance. Indeed, the rise of the agrarians is largely due to their current chairman Juha Sipilä beating the "Finns"' Soini at his own populist game. Sipilä basically promises to fix the Finnish deficit with populist slogans that compare Finland's supposedly high levels of bureaucracy and regulation to the German Democratic Republic. Economically, his few actual proposals are utter nonsense, but the media has ratched onto his theme of "regulation gone mad", just like last time around they fed Soini's "immigration gone mad" nonsense, and an agrarian victory looks like a sure thing.

It's psychologically interesting how so many Finns seem eager to believe that the state is completely irrational, literally "gone mad", on some subjects like alcohol legislation and immigration, yet totally uncritical of the same state when it comes to the blunt end of state power: the vast majority of Finns have a completely unrealistic view of the inherent goodness and incorruptibility of the police and judiciary, and a childlike faith in a mythical national defense.

Given the fall of the Coalition and the fading out of the "Finns", an agrarian-social democrat cabinet seems very likely. In terms of foreign and security policy, this is going to be a real blast from the past. Finland's NATO membership has effectively been stalled by the way in which the Left has created an entire myth of a supposed plot to smuggle Finland into the alliance, seemingly paradoxically feeding on both a powerful kneejerk anti-Americanism and the aforementioned faith in the magical effectiveness of Finland's so-called independent defense. Finns widely and completely incorrectly believe Finland was neutral in the Cold War, and that this neutrality was created and maintained in the face of Soviet pressure by the exceptional cleverness of our trickster-like autocratic president Urho Kekkonen. This is complete nonsense, but that's nationalism for you. Kekkonen was an agrarian, so that party is quite strongly committed to this version of history as well.

Both the agrarians and the social democrats are opposed to NATO, unhappy with the sanctions on Russia or at the very least willing to pander to an unhappiness about them, and have thoroughly unrealistic notions of Finland's diplomatic capabilities vis-a-vis Russia. What this means in practice is that the slim chance that Finland would actually do the sensible thing and seek NATO membership will effectively vanish with the coming election. It's symptomatic that agrarian stalwart Paavo Väyrynen, once groomed as Kekkonen's successor, recently published a blog post that parrots the Kremlin's narrative of a post-1991 Western assault on the rights of Russia and Russian minorities in Eastern Europe. That an old Finlandization hand like Väyrynen is - at least figuratively - still going to the Russian embassy on Tehtaankatu for his marching orders is hardly surprising, but unfortunately, also a sign of things to come.

Although they like to pretend they're in favor of a strong "independent defense", in reality the agrarians are incapable of addressing the ongoing collapse of the Finnish military, because the independent defense myth cannot be questioned: the actual state of the Finnish defence forces is such a powerful argument for NATO membership that it cannot be acknowledged in public. So the collapse will continue.

Overall, the likely result of the April elections will end any hopes of Finnish defence reform and a sensible security policy, and leave us at the tender mercies of Mr. Putin for at least four more years. The only thing stopping a new Finlandization seems to be Putin's overaggressiveness and the potential collapse of his economy, but four years of Center-social democrat stagnation and propaganda will go a long way toward dispelling any notions that Russia might be a threat and lulling the nation back into the security and defense complacency that has become our 21st century norm.

Dec 26, 2014

Seventh anniversary

I cannot believe I've had this damn blog for seven years. What's wrong with me? By my count, this is the 858th post published on this blog since 2007. You'd think I'd have had better things to do.

The truth is, I haven't. Back in 2007 I was still a dropout with no life whatsoever. I started my university studies in 2002, managed three years and then just sort of dropped out. I can't really remember anything from, say, 2005 to 2008 or 2009. I don't remember starting this blog. It's just here. I think it was because I'd lost my job writing, and wanted to keep my hand in at least a little. I'd also fallen out of the habit of writing in English. Having a blog also let me pretend I was doing something. I was suffering from fairly severe depression and social anxiety, and being able to put together a blog post was an achievement. I very badly needed achievements. Of any kind. But this is speculation; I genuinely can't remember.

I do remember that I've always felt I've written for an audience of two people. Looking at the statistics, that's still pretty much true, and I'm actually quite happy with that. My opinions on current affairs tend to be wildly unpopular; I can't even begin to imagine what would happen if I told people what I think of the TTIP treaty, for instance. As I do think it sharpens the mind to work out one's opinions in writing, and I wouldn't take writing seriously if it wasn't at least nominally public, I've appreciated having an opportunity to air my views to an audience that barely qualifies as one in terms of numbers.

At times, I have actually managed to reach wider. I continue to be amused that people are still coming across my Ancient Aliens post; given how short and limited in scope it is, I'm a bit surprised it elicited even that much comment. In the early days of the blag, I also got into a bunch of fights with people over racism, because back then that was what you did if you were Finnish and on the internet: get into fights with strangers over whether Muslims are people and does it count as racism if you make up a fancy word for it. Then we had an election and something like 20% of us voted for a vaguely anthropomorphic Catholic Innsmouth frog and his party of gibbering racists, so apparently this is a thing for us now. The gibbering racists are opposed by a cabal of left-wing loonies who think that Finland's multi-billion euro deficit either a) doesn't exist or b) will go away if we print enough money. You see why I don't like to talk about current affairs.

I also find it harder and harder to see the point. I think Farhad Manjoo hit the nail on the head in True Enough: the Internet does allow for an unprecedented transmission of information, but also gives people the ability to seek out information that matches their pre-existing biases and create ideological echo chambers by networking with the like-minded. When someone momentarily leaves their echo chamber and encounters someone who disagrees with them, the echo chamber has so completely naturalized their ideology that they simply cannot deal with any dissent and immediately resort to strawmen and childish vitriol. Having mentioned the gibbering racists, it needs to be said that there are people with whom it is not reasonable to have a civil discussion. I don't feel it's morally defensible to have a nice, calm, and friendly little chat with brutal neo-Nazis advocating white supremacism, or the particular variety of antifeminist who thinks the real problems in society all have to do with his dick. Fuck those people. But even with perfectly reasonable folks, it feels almost impossible to have a civilized exchange of opinions. It's as if we treat the Internet as some kind of collective subconscious where none of the conventions of ordinary society apply and we can give free rein to our thymoeides, which I suppose is geographically appropriate, but hardly makes for good conversation. If C. G. Jung traveled in time to today and saw the comments section of a major newspaper, he'd be astounded that we've invented a machine that prints out the id.

So my impression increasingly is that one can either preach to the choir or argue at people who aren't even listening in the first place. I'm sure they feel the same way about me. So I don't really see the point. I'm not sure I ever did; years ago, I think I got into this business of arguing with people on the Internet out of sheer loneliness and a burning need for anything even vaguely meaningful to do with my life. I think I can safely say that online arguments weren't very meaningful. People don't usually believe me when I say this, but I don't like to get into fights. I'm very conflict-averse. Being raised as a boy just means you have to get good at pretending you're not. This is also what has led me to question my use of the social media. I increasingly feel that there, too, you can toe the party line in terms of acceptable political and cultural opinions in your particular circle of online acquaintances, and get your likes or your favs or your whatnot, or break with consensus and suddenly the same people who seconds ago were liking your posts and recommending you to their friends want nothing more to do with you. I genuinely worry that we're becoming less tolerant of diversity, in ways far more commonplace than fascists with torches. Which, of course, we also have in Finland again these days.

Now that I'm on the topic, I really must add that I harbor a special dislike for the kind of people who use the social media for nothing except complaining and finding fault with everything. If every single social media post you make that isn't a vacation picture or an inanity can be fairly summarized as "look how much smarter I am than all these other people", consider the probability that you are an asshole. (A blog, in case you're wondering, doesn't count as a social medium.)

Since 2007, I've gotten a lot better. I went to prison, lost quite a bit of weight, got to collaborate with my brother on his game, returned to university and got a bachelor's degree - in theology, of all things. Comparative religion, to be exact. I studied conversion narratives on Finland's biggest online racist forum for my bachelor's thesis, and I'm currently working on a master's in contemporary history, with my thesis there on the development of Finnish armored doctrine in the 1920's and 30's. So in a sense, I'm now writing things that feel meaningful, and they're taking up quite a bit of my time. I also finally managed to get a pen-and-paper roleplaying campaign started again; I'm running a Rogue Trader game, and so far, it's been a terrifying, but rewarding, experience.

When I say I'm better, I don't mean that I'm well. Returning to some semblance of normal life has been very difficult, and although recovering from my near-debilitating social anxiety has gone better than I had ever hoped it would, it's still massively stressful for me to go through a normal university semester. On top of that, I got into a relationship last spring that made me happier than I ever remember being, and that was then ended brutally and suddenly by the other person. I still don't understand what happened or why, and it still hurts. A lot. I may be up and about and at times managing to pretend I'm something like a normal person, but my mind was completely unprepared for the level of emotional violence that that breakup was for me. I'm not remotely over it.

I still struggle with depression and a deep feeling of loneliness. I feel so petty complaining about that, as by just about any criteria I have a whole bunch of friends and some loved ones, but I have an incredibly hard time being able to accept that people care about me. Especially since the last time I did, I got hurt very, very badly for it. In retrospect, I suppose I expected too much from my recovery. My life is now so much better than it was when I started blogging, and I'm far less depressed than I was then. But I'm still not well, nor do I think I ever will be. I vacillate between wanting to engage with the world and feeling thoroughly alienated from it. In many ways I think trying to be socially active is futile, but I'm haunted by a desperate loneliness that I don't know if I can live with. I keep going, not from any sense of purpose or meaningfulness, but because I don't know what else to do. I hope things will get better. I try to make them better. I'm just really bad at, well, everything. Nor do I know what to do if things don't look up.

So, to sum up, I'm very much in the middle of re-examining my relationship to society and public life in general. Right now, everything feels so completely pointless that I despair. In politics, we face a continuing European economic crisis and the rise of fascism, along with an aggressive and increasingly desperate Russia. While our economy and defense decay, our public debate consists of hordes of wingnuts and moonbats locked in a race to the lowest common denominator of moronic populism. I don't believe there's anything I can do to make a difference. In terms of my personal life, I'm finally getting somewhere, but none of it feels like it means anything. I'm still desperately, at times unbearably, lonely, and that doesn't seem to be changing. But I don't feel quite ready to give up, either. So I have no idea what to do. I guess I keep going. But I have no idea how much longer I can do this.

Aug 25, 2014

Comparative religion: the Daedric Princes and the Chaos gods

Now that I've got a degree in comparative religion, I feel I ought to do some. Let's get the easy ones out of the way first!

Hermaeus Mora = Tzeentch

The Daedra of fate and knowledge, Lord of Secrets, is clearly Tzeentch.

Sanguine = Slaanesh

Similarly obvious is the connection between the Daedric Lord of debauchery and the Prince of Pleasure.

Namira = Nurgle

The Lady of Decay is most definitely Nurgle.


The Four Corners of the House of Troubles

It would be extremely pleasing if each of the Four Corners could be matched to a Chaos God. And they can!

Malacath = Khorne

Malacath, who spurns physical weakness and is depicted holding a very large weapon, suggests Khorne to me.

Mehrunes Dagon = Tzeentch

Mehrunes Dagon, like Tzeentch, represents change.

Sheogorath = Slaanesh

I chose to identify Sheogorath with Slaanesh mostly because Dark Seducers serve Sheogorath, and because Slaanesh was the one Chaos god left over after the three easier matches.

Molag Bal = Nurgle

His realm is desecrated and ruined, his enemy is Boethiath.


The Anticipations

Azura = Tzeentch

The goddess of the magical realms of dusk and dawn, who interferes subtly in the affairs of mortals: Tzeentch.

Boethiath = Tzeentch

The Daedra of secret plots and conspiracies has a fairly easy match in Tzeentch.

Mephala = Khaine = Khorne

Mephala has aspects that could easily be matched with Slaanesh or Tzeentch, but founding an order of elven assassins to serve her makes her very much Khaine, and therefore Khorne.


Clavicus Vile = Tzeentch

Pacts and machinations are hardly alien to any of the Chaos gods, but are most emblematic of Tzeentch.

Hircine = Khorne

Hunting and werecreatures are something I would associate with Khorne, as one of the characteristics of werewolves is their inability to control their rage.

Jyggalag = Nurgle

As Tzeentch is the Lord of Change, so his opposite is the equivalent of the Daedric Prince of Order.

Meridia = Tzeentch

Meridia, Lady of Infinite Energies, has no direct counterpart in the Chaos pantheon, but if I had to associate the undead with a Chaos god, it would be Nurgle. Therefore, the enemy of the undead is Tzeentch.

Nocturnal = Tzeentch

For want of a Chaos god especially dedicated to thieves and the night, Tzeentch's interest in deception is the best match.

Peryite = Nurgle

Peryite's spheres are pestilence and order.

Vaermina = Slaanesh

This one isn't so obvious, as dreams aren't the exclusive sphere of any Chaos God; in the fluff, they all use dreams to communicate with their followers. Based on her relationships to the other Daedra, however, Vaermina can be identified with Slaanesh: her only ally is Sanguine, previously found to be Slaanesh, and her enemies include Ebonarm, Peryite and Hermaeus Mora, i.e. war, pestilence and knowledge.

Aug 18, 2014

Let's Read Tolkien 7: Queer Lodgings

The next morning Bilbo woke up with the early sun in his eyes.

We rejoin Thorin and company in the eagles' eyries, from where they're airlifted to a great big rock in the middle of Anduin, the Great River of Wilderland. It's actually a bit odd how little attention flying gets in the story; we're rather matter-of-factly told that an eagle grabbed Bilbo and they flew off, and then later he rode an esgle in another direction. As bourgeois as Bilbo is, I still don't think he can possible ever have flown before, so you'd really think that it would be a bigger deal, but for some reason Tolkien doesn't seem to think so. "What is finer than flying?" asks the eagle, and it's tough to reply, because we have very little idea what flying is like. Hell, we don't even get a landscape description. I'm a bit disappointed.

But land on the Carrock they do. The classic problem of airborne operations is supply, and that's true here as well: the dwarves have no food and no transport. To arrange some, Gandalf proposes to introduce them to one of his colleague Radagast's friends, a crazed hippie berserker. This is all the more necessary because Gandalf is going to be leaving Thorin and company to attend to business elsewhere, which, given their track record so far, honestly seems like a terrible idea. One gets the impression that dwarven expeditions that set off without wizards aren't going to get much farther than the first troll, who will probably see them less as a glorious adventuring party and more like a convenient food delivery.

But Gandalf is still with Bilbo and the dwarves, and he concocts a plot to get around the werebear Beorn's irascibility: he'll go up to Beorn's place with Bilbo, start telling him the story of how they got there, and sort of gradually work up to revealing that they have a bunch of dwarves with them as well. This is done, with Gandalf making the occasional off-hand reference to his traveling companions, at which point a couple more dwarves show up, until Gandalf has effectivrly tricked Beorn into letting the whole bunch of them into his hall. It's a particularly well-written scene, and Beorn enjoys the story and maybe even the subterfuge enough to make the travelers his guests for the night.

Memorable dialogue from Beorn: "Troop of ponies? What were you - a traveling circus?" Honestly? Pretty much.

This chapter is our first glimpse of Tolkien the environmentalist: Beorn lives with a bunch of animals he talks with, keeps bee-pasture and apparently doesn't take at all kindly to people who kill animals. The food at his table is vegetarian. It's an unexpected combination with the fact that the one thing that made Beorn well-disposed to the dwarves more than anything else was that they'd murdered orcs. But like I said, hippie berserker. Bechdel test update: I don't even think any of Beorn's animals were female.

The traveling circus hangs out at Beorn's for another day, and having ascertained that they really did murder hella orcs Beorn gives them vegetarian provisions and lends them ponies to ride to Mirkwood. He strongly entreats them to both send the ponies back when they reach the woods, and under no conditions whatsoever leave the path once they get there. They ride up to the edge of the forest, send the ponies back and say goodbye to Gandalf, who tells them several times that they have to remember that once they get into the forest, they must on no account leave the path ever.

Next time: you had one job.

Aug 11, 2014

Operation Snowden

It's now been over a year since Edward Snowden went to Russia, and I figure it's high time I finally set something down on the whole Snowden-Manning-Assange brouhaha.

Because this is such a polarized subject, I've been a little reluctant to address it, even on a forum like this, i.e. a blog that no-one reads. One of the things that depresses me about the whole discourse is the way in which people and their opinions are simply dismissed out of hand because they don't fit someone's preconceptions. At least from my point of view, a lot of people on Team Snowden seem to treat anyone who doesn't buy their narrative as a bad guy who is therefore Fair Game. The problem is that no matter what certain people may want you to think, there is not a single accepted narrative of events here; there is no scientific consensus. This entire can of worms that is Wikileaks and everything related to it is open to various interpretations, and that's putting it mildly. If you genuinely believe that on a topic like this one self-evident truth exists, you are wrong. So much of what's happened is secret or otherwise out of the public eye that what anyone commenting on this is doing is an interpretation of very sketchy information, a puzzle missing most of its pieces. This is my hypothesis on how the pieces fit together.


For me personally, my final breaking point with the pirate/privacy/digital rights crowd was the way the majority of people there reacted to the rape charges against Julian Assange. I wrote a couple of things about them back then, but the tenor of the conversation was such that I just didn't want to get involved. Most people took it as granted that obviously the rape charges were made up, obviously those women were lying, obviously it was all a CIA plot. None of which makes any sense, all of which is deeply disturbing for a feminist. It got to the point where Assange's supporters were actively spreading the most ridiculous lies about Swedish law and their justice system; MRA-caliber nonsense about Sweden's "crazy feminist" justice system where not using a condom meant a woman could charge you with rape and all kinds of pure idiocy. If you made the mistake of, say, citing an actual law that relates to the case, you were a brainwashed CIA stooge.

Some of the people spreading this idiocy were fanatics, pure and simple. They hate America and capitalism and what have you, and saw everything in those black-and-white terms. But several others were entirely sensible people who for reasons I couldn't understand just chose to believe the pro-Assange nonsense 100%. In some cases I was personally shocked that people I had thought were competent critical thinkers had suddenly abandoned all criticism and judgement. Were they really that naive? In retrospect, yes. They were.

There's a funny inversion of critical thought that happens with people when they start veering into tin foil hat territory. Many of them start out from very sound notions of critical thinking, which leads them to question the established narratives on how the world works. This is an incredibly good thing and we need more of it. But for some reason I haven't been able to understand it often comes with a problem. You become very critical of the established ways of thinking, but for some reason, as you become aware of the varioud alternative epistemologies that are out there, your critical thinking doesn't extend to them. Instead, once you find an "alternative" worldview you like, it's placed above and outside all criticism. This is how we get the astounding spectacle of Ancient Aliens idiots screaming at their audience to think critically, while seemingly completely unable to do so themselves. In these cases, what starts out as critical thinking athropies into a mindless faith that "the man" is wrong about everything, and anyone who disagrees with "the man" must therefore be right.

This is what you see all the time with the Wikileaks fans and the whole Team Snowden crowd, and it's exasperating. America is bad; Assange is against America: therefore Assange is good and must be innocent. It's just mindless partisanship, and when you have that, confirmation bias will always let you find some way to justify your beliefs. I don't buy this equation where the world divides easily into the terrible bad guys and the heroes fighting against them. As far as Assange is concerned, we don't know if he's guilty or not. All I can say is that out of all the justice systems of the world, if I had to be tried in one, any of the Nordic countries would be my first choice. That Assange refuses to do this, and that his fans circulate a ridiculously implausible list of made-up reasons why he shouldn't, very strongly suggests to me that he's guilty and he knows it. The point-blank refusal of his fans to even entertain this possibility speaks volumes to their capability for any actual critical thought whatsoever.


The story doesn't end with Assange, of course. First there's Chelsea Manning, who according to the Wikileaks crowd is a heroic whistleblower. Another way of looking at what Manning did is that she leaked tons of classified material to anonymous people she met online. How did she supposedly know who these Wikileaks people were, who they work for and where the material is going? The answer is that she didn't, and in fact, we still don't. I'm baffled by the way in which people simply accept that Wikileaks is a benevolent organization.

I'd accept that Manning was a courageous whistleblower if she'd taken the videos and documents on human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan and delivered them to a reputable media outlet. Instead, she took that stuff and a huge pile of other classified material, most of it in no way related to any kind of human rights violations, and dumped it indiscriminately on some people she'd met online. That's not only incredibly irresponsible, but a crime. And for good reason, too. So yes, the way Manning was treated before her trial was shameful and amounts to torture, and some of the information she leaked was vital to proving serious human rights violations by the US. But she also behaved in a completely reckless manner and deserves some consequences for it.


So who are these Wikileaks people Manning dumped all this classified material on? That's an interesting question, because they have some fascinating connections. Back in 2012, Julian Assange hosted a show for the Kremlin's occasionally entertaining propaganda channel. Clearly our champion of human rights, privacy and free speech has no problem co-operating with a government whose record on all those things is nightmarish. His Wikileaks party is even more interesting: in the Australian parliamentary elections they contested, the self-described libertarian party supported local fascists, and later sent a delegation to Assad's Syria to show solidarity and support for his regime - a key Russian ally.

It's interesting that if you look at the list of information published by Wikileaks, it's mostly US material, with some stuff on some other countries thrown in. It includes things like the unredacted Afghan war documents, from Manning, which recklessly released the names of hundreds of Afghans who had co-operated with US forces there. There's also the State Department cables, also from Manning, which have little or nothing to do with human rights or privacy, but do seem to be calculated to maximally embarass the US government. So, any guesses as to which major power has been completely unaffected by the Wikileaks revelations, because they've published pretty much nothing at all that might make them look even slightly bad? It's Russia.

And then Edward Snowden comes along. Snowden, the NSA contractor who flees to China for asylum. Because, you know, if what you believe in is transparency in government, privacy for citizens and human rights all around, obviously you go to China. The Chinese government blocks a US request for extradition, and Wikileaks advises Snowden to flee to Russia, apparently paying for his flight there.

Jeffrey Lewis has a good writeup on why the Team Snowden version of events is incredibly hard to believe. I also recommend John Schindler's writings on the topic. But to make a long story short, if Snowden is what he says he is - a whistleblower concerned with human rights and privacy - his actions are inexplicable. He decides to flee the United States to avoid prosecution, and goes to China. The Chinese decline to extradite him. Why? They must have gotten something in return. One of the things they certainly got was that Snowden revealed many details of NSA operations against China. Why did he do that? That's the NSA doing its legally mandated job. There is no way in which the Americans spying on China violates the constitutional rights of Americans. China itself mounts a massive espionage effort against the US, but apparently that's just fine to Team Snowden. A cynic would say that Snowden bought himself passage through China, with those revelations and probably something more. By going to China he placed himself entirely in the power of the Chinese government and their security services, who would be very, very interested in a renegade NSA employee. They could easily have picked him up when he arrived in China and done what they liked with him. Ed could be in a Chinese prison camp right now and few people would ever have been any wiser. Going to China on the run from the US authorities, as a person of extremely high interest to Chinese intelligence, is utter madness. Unless there was an arrangement in place. And there almost certainly was.

Then he goes to Russia. If an employee of the Russian secret services developed a sudden interest in human rights and tried to leak material on their operations, he would be extremely lucky to only end up in a prison camp in Siberia. The Russian government murders its dissidents. But for some reason Wikileaks felt that the smartest place for Snowden to go was Russia, where he could subject himself to the attentions of the various successors of the KGB. And Russia is where he is today. Again, it is difficult to believe that the Russians are giving him asylum out of the goodness of their hearts, or from a sudden passionate commitment to human rights and privacy. Claims by various Swowden supporters that Russian intelligence doesn't have full access to Snowden's materials and hasn't thoroughly debriefed him are too naive to believe. Russia is where he's staying, at least for as long as he continues to be useful to Russian intelligence.

Back in the 20th century, we had a word for what Snowden did. It was defection. I agree with Lewis that the most credible reconstruction of what happened to Snowden is that he was recruited by Russian intelligence as a spy, and defected to Russia as part of a major operation to discredit the United States and alienate them from their allies. They've done it before, after all, and it's difficult to imagine any other motivation for Snowden to disclose completely legal and, in the current international system, essentially legitimate intelligence operations.

So on the whole, it's difficult to disagree with John Schindler: Snowden is a lot of things. Yes, to some extent he's a whistleblower who released documents pertaining to surveillance on Americans and others that was at best of questionable legality. He then defected to Russia, and has also released material on US intelligence-gathering that has nothing whatsoever to do with any civil rights violations. And he was almost certainly a Russian spy. And Wikileaks may have facilitated that whistleblowing, but is also - at the very least - an organization with definite sympathies for Russia, a somewhat problematic notion for a supposed champion of human rights. Overall, this just isn't the kind of situation that lends itself very well to simple notions of good guys and bad guys.


One important context in which to see Operation Snowden is as a part of Russia's ongoing information warfare against the West. It doesn't take a genius to see how portraying the US as a horrible dystopian threat to civil liberties everywhere, while simultaneously ignoring far more serious abuses by governments like Russia and China, is to their advantage. And when you can pull people deeper into tin foil hat territory, suddenly they start thinking that while the Western media always lies, a government propaganda network like RT is somehow a reliable source of information. I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm aware of several people who emblazon their online presence with catchphrases like "Free Manning" and are also busy raging against the "fascist junta" in Kiev and tweeting links to utterly surreal websites that "prove" how the US and their Nazi Zionist allies shot down a passenger plane in East Ukraine. They've certainly picked their side in all this.

What worries me more is that entirely reasonable people, or at least people who used to be entirely reasonable, are getting swept up in the good-against-evil mentality. It obliterates nuances, details and, taken far enough, facts. It's nothing short of irresponsible to imagine that this whole Wikileaks-Manning-Snowden saga is a story of courageous citizens fighting against evil governments. To imagine the whole thing was manufactured by Russian intelligence or something like that would be just as stupid; if I ever see anyone make that argument, I'll let them know. The previous fallacy I see on a regular basis. It ends up in a place where people claim to support human rights, and parrot the propaganda of a brutal authoritarian dictatorship. The word Orwellian gets thrown around far too much these days, but if ever it was justified...


We live in an information society. We have the knowledge and the tools to resist simplistic good-versus-evil scenarios, and we must use them. To identify either side - any side - in this whole Wikileaks mess as intrinsicslly good represents a complete abandonment of critical thinking. The most fundamental lie of all propaganda and all conspiracy theories is that things are simple. When it comes to intelligence and international relations, they very rarely are. This is especially the case when there are so many things we just don't know. Was Snowden a Russian spy? What's the relationship, if any, between Wikileaks and Russia? Is Assange actually a rapist? I don't know when we'll ever have answers to these questions, but they're of essential importance to any kind of judgement on Snowden, Manning or Assange. Until we have those answers, all we have is questions. To pretend we have answers to them, or to maintain that they shouldn't be asked at all, is just plain wrong.