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You Can Go Home Again
This week's theme: coming back.
Hi there! Jack from Discourse Blog here. (The other Jack from Discourse Blog, that is—yes, there are two of us.) If you’ve been reading us for any period of time, and you click the link in that previous sentence, you might notice that our site looks different than it did this time last week. That’s because, after about a year-and-a-half away, we have now returned to our old home at Substack.
We had a bunch of reasons for deciding to do this, and if you want some more detail about many of them, you can read this blog I wrote last week. But I wanted to briefly touch on one of the motivations for our latest move: Discontents itself.
We’ve been members of Discontents from the beginning, but coming back to Substack means that we’ll have a new opportunity to nurture our links with everyone else in this community, and to collaborate in ways that we couldn’t before. And that matters a lot to us, because, as Discourse Blog’s Jack Crosbie wrote a few months ago, journalism can be a very bleak place, and Discontents is a small but important response to that bleakness—a group of good, smart people working together to promote good, smart writing and (hopefully) help make some kind of sense of the eternal mess this world seems to be in. Discontents matters, we’re proud to be a part of it, and we’re excited about what the future holds. If you want to support our work, you can subscribe here.
OK, onto that work. We’ve just been back on Substack since Thursday, but we’ve hit the ground running. Speaking of Jack Crosbie, he has been in Ukraine for the past few weeks, covering the horrors of the Russian invasion while proving that it is possible to write about war without dissolving into hyper-hawkish freakery or colonialist myopia. Instead, Cros has been putting the focus where it belongs: on the ordinary civilians trapped in the middle of a conflict they didn’t choose.
But now, Cros is leaving Ukraine, and headed home. On Saturday, I spoke to him as he waited in the city of Lviv, near the border with Poland, along with thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the country. We talked about what it had been like to cover the war, and what it feels like to be leaving it behind when so many people can’t, and his answers were full of the kind of thoughtfulness and empathy we have come to expect from him. We love Cros, and we’re very relieved that he’s come through everything safely, and I urge you to read what he has to say.
We also had blogs about two long-running Discourse Blog themes: people losing their minds and birds. The losing their minds blog was by Katherine Krueger, who wrote about the Freedom Fries-level weirdness that’s sweeping the world in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Piece of advice: maybe check that the vodka you’re selling is actually Russian before you rush to ban it?) Katherine also notes that it’s…interesting that cultural and academic boycotts suddenly appear to be a legitimate and proper way of responding to acts of illegal invasion and occupation. Looking forward to all those BDS laws suddenly being scrapped!
The bird blog was by me. We write about a different cool bird every week, and I asked readers to send us some suggestions of new birds we can tackle. (Some of the recommendations have knocked my socks off.) If you have a bird suggestion, please get in touch.
OK, thanks for your indulgence, onward, upward, all that good stuff. Here’s some of what the rest of the crew has been working on.
Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine.
I covered the war on three episodes of the podcast last week.
First, I hosted a panel discussion featuring Sam Sacks, Sana Saeed, and Bryce Greene on how the Western media is covering the conflict.
On February 26, CBS reporter Charlie D’Agata compared Ukraine to other conflict spots around the world, differentiating the Eastern European country from the implicitly “savage” lands of the Global South.
“This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades,” D’Agata said. “This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”
Then, I talked to denuclearization expert Jessica Sleight and nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein about the potential for disaster.
“As the war in Ukraine has proven more difficult for Russia and as the international community condemns the Russian government and puts unprecedented pressure on Russia through sanctions and military aid to Ukraine,” Sleight said, “Putin has leaned more into nuclear threats and increased the risk of nuclear use by miscalculation or unintended escalation.”
Finally, Nikki McCann Ramirez and I discussed how figures in the right wing media, particularly Tucker Carlson, are covering the conflict.
“The kind of somersault pivot we're seeing right now fits very much into Carlson's established model as a pundit,” Ramirez said. “Which is saying whatever he believes will rally his audience at a particular moment in time without regard for consistency, factual clarity, or consequences—and holding that position until it becomes untenable.”
I also wrote about the experiences of trans people in Britain and their warning for the US:
The Conservative Party has bought fully into demonizing trans people for political gain as they push austerity policies and dodge scandals of their own creation, Dan said. And the targeting is a way for the far right to recoup some of their waning influence over the country’s politics. “They’ve wanted to repeal our Human Rights Act since at least 2011, if not before—we’re just a good excuse,” Dan said. “On top of that, for evangelical and religious right-wingers, we’re a perfect wedge used to make up for the losses around gay rights, something they’ve explicitly admitted to.”
Thanks for reading and listening!
Wars of Future Past
Kelsey D. Atherton
The future-war beat has spilled over directly into the present war beat. Everyone with any familiarity with anything military is poring over images shared online out of Ukraine, inferring the viability of the Putin government from the levels of mud on truck tires. It is hard to know, exactly, how much any of this matters, but I’m also going to try and file a story about the pickled tomatoes reportedly used to disable a drone, so maybe I’m the problem, too.
Last week, I wrote the Discontents on watching my beat journalism turn into general interest journalism. On that beat, this week I wrote about how nukes constrain the war, and about the small arms flowing into Ukraine. In addition, I’ve picked up main writing duties for Inkstick’s and The World’s Critical State newsletter. The full form only exists in inboxes, but you can read the main essay, on recent political science research looking at how leadership transitions in closed political systems can constrain or fail to constrain the centralizing impulse of would be dictators. Or, more plainly, a theory for how Putin was able to preserve and expand his power over the Russian state, to the point that no skeptical elite could stop him from launching a bad war of choice.
Welcome to Hell World
Last week I wrote about ospreys hunting fish and On the Beach and Raised by Wolves, and war and funding the police and stepping off a spaceship onto a new habitable planet. Read it here.
Would you want to do that if you could? Maybe the world is ending or maybe you have an idea it is going to soon and someone tells you you could get on a ship and while there is no guarantee what will happen — this is a very dangerous business this space travel stuff — you have a very good chance of reaching another Earth-like planet. Of getting out and walking around for who knows how long. Maybe the rest of your natural life. Then again perhaps you’ll be immediately snatched from the ground by a space pterodactyl or whatever and hoisted up into the sky screaming but you still made it to Earth 2. In those last terrifying seconds you might see the expanse of the new planet for miles around you toward the horizon and think my god this is beautiful.
Last week Sam wrote an instant classic about liberating the assets of every oligarch and not just the Russian ones. I wrote about the immorality of making ordinary Russians suffer for the invasion of Ukraine. A couple hours after our DISCONTENTS newsletter goes out, I'll have a piece up at FOREVER WARS about last week's Supreme Court decision against torture survivor Abu Zubaydah. And remember: if you buy a year of FOREVER WARS you'll get six months of Luke O'Neil and Derek Davidson at the subscriber tier.
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
Just one week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. designated Temporary Protected Status for the country and halted all deportation flights not only to Ukraine, but also to Russia and seven other nearby countries. This is undoubtedly a good thing; there’s no good reason to deport people to a country being torn apart by war or to neighboring states that are taking in an unprecedented number of refugees. (It’s also worth noting that under Trump, Ukrainian made up a disproportionate amount of refugees resettled in the U.S. each year, largely due to bans on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.) Still, the swiftness with which the Biden administration made these decisions is indicative of two things: the first is that the executive branch can basically stop deportations whenever it wants. The second is that most of the time, the people with the power to make such decisions simply don’t want to.
Last week’s edition of the newsletter was a deep dive into this hypocrisy. While, again, it’s good to stop deportations to an active war zone, there are plenty of examples of the U.S. deporting people to dangerous and unstable countries. In the past few years, there have been numerous reports of deportees being retaliated against—and in some cases, even killed—in Cameroon, Yemen, El Salvador, Eritrea, and Mexico. The question isn’t why the Biden administration halted deportations to Ukraine but why it hasn’t taken similar measures for other countries. The answer is simple: a lack of political will.