A Different Kind of War
Normal Words and Weapons no longer work. Ancient ones do.
The most terrifying thing I’ve heard yet about the Russia-Ukraine crisis is the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a puppet of Putin, saying this: "God forbid that the current political situation in brotherly Ukraine should be aimed at ensuring that the evil forces that have always fought against the unity of Russia and the Russian Church prevail.”
While the West has put its faith in a rationalist version of politics—and while its religious literacy and understanding plummets to historic lows—the old forms are emerging at the very point that we began operating within the Steven Pinkerian conceit of ‘Enlightenment Now’.
In this worldview, we’ve left those silly old things (like religious meaning) behind, and the ‘better angels’ of our nature are emerging—in large part due to our Reason.
From a New York Times Review:
“…the escalator of Reason leads us to it [an understanding of the Golden Rule, for instance]. It is this kind of moral thinking, Pinker points out, that helps us escape traps like the Cuban missile crisis, which, if the fate of the world had been in the hands of leaders under the sway of a different kind of morality — one dominated by ideas of honor and the importance of not backing down — might have been the end of the human story. Fortunately Kennedy and Khrushchev understood the trap they were in and did what was necessary to avoid disaster.”
That hasn’t aged well.
Today the dark powers are stirring—and they don’t give a damn about our rationality. They are mimetic, they are rivalrous, they are prideful, and they seek power at all costs.
Putin’s models of desire are old. They don’t just come from the 70’s and 80’s, when he was cutting his teeth in the former USSR, but from nineteenth century imperialist, nationalist Russia. Forfare Davis put it well to me in a tweet: “Modernity actively erases any memory of the pre-modern past, so Putin will continue to be unintelligible to our ‘experts’ and that is his most formidable advantage.”
Better science won’t save us from this threat so ancient and yet so new.
Ancient Weapons for a New War
The past few days I have been re-reading René Girard’s most important contribution to the psychology of war, “Battling to the End.” He writes this:
“The twilight of war could result in the worst, as it could in the best. There is no destiny involves because humans are entirely able to renounce their violence. Ancient India had a capacity for renunciation that the West does not imagine. There is an implacable Hindu view on this precisely because that culture does not fear to acknowledge that human activity essentially comes under the category of war. The Iliad is nothing next to the Mahabharata. This is not a question of believing in catastrophe at all cost or of comparing the number of dead today with that of yesterday in order bring the seriousness of our time into perspective. We have to understand the unpredictability of violence is what is new: political rationality, the latest form of ancient rituals, has failed. We have entered a world of pure reciprocity…”
There is so much to say about the unfolding situation in Ukraine from a Girardian perspective that I don’t even know where to begin. The world doesn’t need another Hot Take, and I don’t want this edition of the newsletter to consist of an extended commentary on Girard’s book. (You’re better off just reading it.)
I’m also aware that the ‘political rationality’ that Girard makes reference to—which our leaders think is a substitute for renunciation, even in the face of an irrational actor—would be the very trap I would be falling into by attempting to make the rational case against mimetic escalation.
I have been at a loss as to what exactly to do or write. As I walked around my neighborhood in Washington, DC, today (a beautiful one) I started to simply look forward to—actually long for—this coming Wednesday, which is Ash Wednesday: the beginning of Lent in my tradition. This provided me with the solace of hope.
I’ve never hungered for hunger so much in my life.