I Might Be Wrong

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Topics may vary. Correspondence and criticism welcome: robert@thebrowser.com.

This week: Russia, Seymour Hersh, lying, George Orwell, and books I have been reading

Where to begin? Various medium-sized thoughts will succeed one another in this letter, all of which have been jostling in what I laughingly refer to as my mind over recent days.

Russia's war in Ukraine is still with us, one year on. My heart is with the people of Ukraine as they suffer through this terrible winter. My mind is wondering what sort of duty I have, at least so far as The Browser is concerned, to learn more about what the war looks like from the Russian side, how it looks to the Russian people.

Charles Crawford dealt well with this question, of trying to see the other country's point of view, in his article, Explanations Come to An End, which we recommended recently on The Browser. He argued that, in ordinary times, one could make whatever allowances one felt to be appropriate for Russian history, Russian interests, Russian beliefs and Russian illusions. But in launching a war of aggression, Russia was attacking, not only Ukraine, but also the continued existence of an orderly world; and for this there could be no justification, no mitigation.

I seek to be as complete a supporter of the Ukrainian people in this war as one can reasonably be from a safe distance (I donate through Stopify). But I can never get out of my head — not only in this context, but whenever I feel certain of anything — that remark of Bertrand Russell's: "I would never die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong".

An example of such momentary doubt: I was genuinely bewildered by Seymour Hersh's claim earlier this month that the United States had blown up the Nord Stream pipelines. I recommended Hersh's piece in my first draft of that night's Browser, saying that I thought it was a good read even if it was totally wrong. Then I deleted my recommendation, thinking that it would be far worse to spread a contagious lie than to share a guilty pleasure.

Even now I do not know what to make of Hersh's story (which is still a work in progress). It makes sense, if one is willing to swallow the far-fetched premise that America would decide to anger and alienate its European allies, to the point of fracturing Nato, in furtherance of supposed global and economic goals.

One cannot go halfway by saying only that there must be something in it. The story is so closely argued, and with so much detail, that either it is all true (save for some trivial errors of time and place) or it is a fabrication from start to finish.

I infer that somebody told Hersh the story in its entirety; and that the somebody was a person whom Hersh had good reason to trust; and/or it was somebody who had put enormous time and effort into winning Hersh's trust in order to deceive him. When and if the story of Hersh's story is ever written, I will be sure to recommend it on The Browser. I hope this is not long in coming. Does nobody even tap Hersh's phones these days?

On a slightly more abstract level, I was also musing yesterday about a piece called The First Year Of The Conflict, written by a Russian academic called Oleg Barabanov, published in the journal Russia In Global Affairs.

Barabanov is a professor at MGIMO, the most elite of all Russian educational institutions, a finishing-school for diplomats and spies. Russia In Global Affairs is meant to be to be a sort of Russian version of Foreign Affairs, house-trained and open-minded, welcome at Davos.

There is something going on in this article and I am not sure what it is. If I were to summarise it very crudely, saying what I think Barabanov to have been writing in invisible ink between the lines, it would go like this:

We have been lying about this war — not least by refusing even to call it a "war". This made things easier at the start. But when the war dragged on and we had to call up reservists, the official line became harder to sustain. Was this a war or not? What was really going on? The Russian people, habituated to trusting the government blindly, sensed that something was wrong. They began to express doubts and ask questions. Then, gradually, fortunately, the public grasped the truth: We were indeed in a war. Our soldiers had to be supported. Everybody must do what they can. As a result, Russians are now united in their patriotism, and willing to work for victory.

Barabanov's claim that there has been an uptick in the Russian public mood just lately sounds to me like something added in the course of a rewrite to make the piece publishable at all. But the rest is quite daring in its way: It does not say that the Kremlin was wrong to lie about the war, but it does question whether such lying was productive.

Not, of course, that the word "lying" is ever mentioned. The English text (I can find no Russian original) refers to "semantic euphemisms" and "Aesopian language". Here is Barabanov tip-toeing around usage of the word "war" itself:

The term “war”, as we all know, is being avoided in official Russian discourse. To a certain extent, how willingly this or that Russian uses this phrase “special military operation” in his speech can serve as a marker of his attitude to what is happening. Opponents of the military solution rarely use this official wording. On the contrary, people who have organically included this phrase in their vocabulary, as a rule, are supporters of the operation itself. But, in our opinion, the situation is more complicated with supporters. As the experience of communication over the past year has shown, a fairly significant number of people who support the actions taken by the Russian leadership, at the same time prefer, from their point of view, to call a spade a spade.

From which I take it that he would rather call the war a war and have done with it.

Professor Barabanov does not sound like a warmonger. He holds the Jean Monnet Chair in European Relations at MGIMO, a chair which has been partly funded in past years by the European Commission. If we were to meet him when the war is over, I imagine he would say that he was against the invasion, that he expressed what reservations he could, but that in time of war one cannot always say and do just what one wishes, one has a duty of solidarity with one's country, right or wrong. I wonder what I would be doing now if I were in his shoes.

Plans for a proposed debate between Henry Oliver and me about rules for writers, and particularly George Orwell's rules for writers, are advancing well. Henry and I are in discussion with an admirable institution in central London which has expressed interest in hosting the event. Henry and I are both champing at the bit. If all goes according to plan, we will have enough tickets available to satisfy all those who have already written saying that they would like to attend, subject to the final decision on time and place (we hope for London in late April).

If you have written, you are on the list. But we are now approaching potential capacity. So if you think you might like to hear me explaining why Orwell's rules are a decent stab at fool-proofing English, and Henry explaining why Orwell's rules are a slippery slope towards Newspeak, do drop me a line while there is still time: robert@thebrowser.com.  

It strikes me now that Barabanov's argument, and my argument with Henry, are not unrelated (a construction which Orwell hated, by the way, saying, “it should be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence”). Henry and I are both interested in ways in which language can reveal and conceal truths. Henry might argue that life is complex, and so language must be complex to capture life's truths. I might argue that truth is inherently simple, so complex language is only ever needed to obscure truth, not to express it. As for Barabanov, he seems to be saying that the truth will come out in the end, so you might as well admit it in the first place.

I am tempted at this point to write about the place of lying in Russian culture and history. I have never known a society in which lying has been so generally accepted — even expected — in all but the most trivial interactions. At the risk of exaggeration I would say that, during the Stalinist terror of 1937-38, every single word in the public domain was a lie, from the articles in Pravda about the course of Soviet life to the signs above the shops claiming that milk and beef were available for purchase.

But this would risk underplaying the role of lying at other times and in other places. In Plato's Republic, Socrates makes a strong argument that the mechanics by which the ruling elite of the Republic are selected and perpetuated should be concealed from the public at large, for the public's own good.

Utilitarians (with whom I am generally in sympathy) argue that lying may be justified if it produces a better outcome than telling the truth. Henry Sidgwick says as much in his Methods Of Ethics, and goes on to argue that rulers may justifiably seek to keep their programmes a secret from those whom they rule, whether by remaining silent or by claiming to be doing something quite different, on the grounds that if the public knew what was going on they would only mess it up:

The opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret; and similarly it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric. Or if this concealment be difficult to maintain, it may be desirable that Common Sense should repudiate the doctrines which it is expedient to confine to an enlightened few. And thus a Utilitarian may reasonably desire, on Utilitarian principles, that some of his conclusions should be rejected by mankind generally; or even that the vulgar should keep aloof from his system as a whole, in so far as the inevitable indefiniteness and complexity of its calculations render it likely to lead to bad results in their hands.

But this way madness lies, does it not? Segments of society cannot conduct themselves like double- and triple- secret agents, lying about lying and expecting lies about lies in return. No doubt Sidgwick meant well, but he loses himself in his abstracted and impersonal logic, which is made all the foggier by the hesitancy of his prose — "comparatively secret", "seems expedient", "it may be desirable", "mankind generally", "in so far as", "render it likely".

Orwell's idea of good writing was that, “When you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself”. I believe Sidgwick makes Orwell's case.

I have been thinking a lot about indexes lately, and had intended to write about them in this letter, but I have already gone on too long, so they must wait until next week. Let me conclude instead with notes on a few books that I have been reading:

The Visit Of The Royal Physician, by Per Olov Enquist. Historical fiction on a par with Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy. The story is set in the Danish royal court of the late-18th century. I knew nothing of the underlying history before reading, and felt at no disadvantage. I learned much, and pleasurably so. In brief: What happens when a physician, filled with the ideals of the Enlightenment, becomes the closest friend and counsellor of a weak-minded yet absolute monarch, and lover of the monarch's wife? Now read on.  

The Disappearance Of Josef Mengele, by Olivier Guez. I have yet to finish this, but I will be most surprised if it lets me down. Any book published by the doggedly left-wing Verso, and yet favourably reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, is worth a look for that coincidence alone. There are a couple of flashbacks to Auschwitz, but this is mostly about Mengele making his next life in South America. I would say that Guez wrote the book in a bid to show how the terrible possibilities of Nazism could act upon an otherwise mediocre man like Mengele. In spirit, therefore, not far from Arendt's Banality Of Evil. But with more plot and less moralising.    

A History Of Water, by Edward Wilson-Lee. A couple of weeks in Lisbon last month has left me fascinated by everything Portuguese. Portugal seems to be an extreme case of a country which produced more history than could be consumed locally. There is any amount of it left over, just lying around the place and crying out to be turned into novels like this one. The story is set in the 16th century when Portugal was peaking as a world power. Its heroes are a diplomat and a poet. The Guardian loved it. Me too.  

Valuable Humans in Transit, by QNTM. Science fiction. Blurbed by Charlie Stross as "a refreshing dose of existential despair". A collection of short stories, the first of which, Lena, is alone worth the price of admission. Suppose the futurists are correct, and we eventually work out how to create digital replicas of our minds which can go on functioning as minds up there in the cloud. What if somebody copies the copy, and the copies go viral, and soon there millions of versions of your mind in circulation, for people to do with as they please, rather like Henrietta Lacks's cancer cells?

And, finally, a book to which I have been listening. At last there is some Isaiah Berlin on Audible — The Hedgehog And The Fox, read by Peter Kenny. A fine start. Kenny's reading is pleasing if a touch spritely: I would have preferred Jonathan Keeble as narrator, or, better still, Berlin's editor, Henry Hardy. But that is just me, and if Princeton University Press favours Kenny, then I defer to their judgment, and I am delighted that they are doing this at all. There are 18 volumes of Berlin's writings in print, and four volumes of letters, so I trust that more Audible editions will follow.  

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