Philosophy instructor, recreational writer, humorless vegetarian.
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Voting Isn't Enough. You Also Have To Vote Enthusiastically

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For the past several years, a battle has raged within the progressive commentariat about the importance of voting. In 2016, quite a few influential left-of-center figures were very public about how they would sit the election out, or vote third party, because they just could not bring themselves to support Hillary Clinton. This approach is sometimes dubbed the "consumerist" theory of voting, where politicians are products you either like or don't like, and if you're not happy with the product, you don't buy it.

This approach seemingly was discredited by the 2016 election results (spoiler: it was also discredited before the 2016 election results), though a surprising number of people were insistent for years thereafter that they were entirely right and correct to sit out 2016. Voting is for suckers, voting doesn't change anything, voting is a distraction from something something grand proletariat revolution something. Incredibly, we're still seeing a permutation of this argument now, as people respond to Republicans reaping the fruit of their electoral success by literally arguing "I tried voting in 2020 and it didn't work". I barely know how to even respond to that level of narcissistic self-indulgence. Politics is hard. It's slow, and arduous, and often a game of inches, but it definitely won't be won by people who think that the failure to travel lightyears in a day means they're entitled to sit out in protest.

That said, over the past few days I have noticed a bit of a shift amongst people I'd broadly define as occupying these sector of progressive politics. They no longer say they won't vote in 2022. Instead, they issue long screeds contemptuous of voting and decrying voting and insisting that voting won't bring any useful change or benefits whatsoever. Then, somewhere in the middle of the diatribe, they will, with all the enthusiasm of a petulant child, agree that they will vote in 2022, but they won't like it and you can't ask them to like it, but if it will finally make you shut up okay they'll agree to vote.

Progress, of a sort. But not good enough.

The consumerist theory of voting treats voting as a matter of individual expression. This new permutation still fits that mold, only now voting only matters as a sort of civic duty checkbox one individually marks off (albeit reluctantly).

But the reason voting matters isn't to express your deepest emotions nor is it to validate one as  having satisfied an individual civic duty. The reason everyone is saying voting matters is because we need to win these elections in order to secure the changes we want, or at the very least to prevent things from deteriorating even worse. Democrats retaining control of government in 2022 might not be sufficient to arrest the damage the Supreme Court is doing to our public life, but it sure as hell is necessary. So your obligation isn't just to vote for Democrats, it's to take the steps necessary so that Democrats win. And one such step is projecting a sense of excitement about the prospect of Democrats winning.

 ("Excitement", to be clear, is being used here as a somewhat imprecise catch-all term encompassing any number of affective dispositions towards Democrats winning that view that outcome as a substantial positive and the opposite outcome as a substantial negative. So I would count "excited at Democrats winning" and "terrified at Republicans winning" as both falling into the relevant category; either way, someone who affectively holds those views should be enthusiastic in pulling the lever for Democrats come November. Perhaps "motivated" is better than "excitement"; insofar as it captures the sense that you care, deeply, about the outcome of the election. In any event, I doubt it matters too much what exact form that affective disposition takes, so long as it is in this broad category of substantial positive, as opposed to the sulky "I'll do it but it won't matter").

It is a truism to say that one vote rarely makes a difference. Voting matters as a collective endeavor where we unite to exercise power and self-determination together. Our decision to vote, and whether we do so enthusiastically or view it as a grim chore, influences those around us, and so has a multiplier effect that extends will beyond our one vote

People are more likely to vote if their friends and neighbors vote, and they're even more likely to vote if their friends and neighbors are excited about voting. Anybody who is talking about voting on Twitter almost by definition is on the bleeding edge of heightened political engagement, which in turn means they are well-positioned to influence multiple others in their circle who are more likely to fall towards the fat part of the bell curve of political apathy and are highly responsive to cues from their social environs. Your vote matters, but your affective disposition towards voting as a means of effectuating change also matters and arguably matters even more. Every voter has one vote, but the publicly excited voter carries in their wake the votes of a dozen friends and acquaintances. The publicly downcast and reluctant voter sheds a similar number of votes.

"I'm sorry, but I can't fake enthusiasm." Yes, you can! You shouldn't need to, in many ways I'm blown away that anyone needs to "fake" feeling positively disposed to Republicans not gaining another hammerlock on power, but yes, you absolutely can fake enthusiasm. Indeed, I'd argue that in the present moment it's self-indulgent not to. You're willing to call for a general strike but you're not willing exaggerate a smile to win an election? Are you kidding me? Sulking is not a strategy.

Voting is a tactic, and our obligation now is to take the steps most likely to make that tactic successful. One of those steps is being publicly enthusiastic about voting, so that other people who are less politically engaged than you also find the prospect of voting to be something worth doing. My basic rule of thumb here is that if you're politically engaged enough to be publicly complaining about how unfair it is that people are asking you to vote again, after you already tried that two years ago, then you're politically influential enough to carry the responsibility of publicly orienting to voting in such a way so as to maximize its likelihood of success.

This doesn't mean one doesn't pressure Democrats to do more or do better when they have power. I have hardly been blown away by the immediate Democratic response to the fall of Roe, though in part I think that's because Dobbs was a huge defeat and huge defeats are rarely pretty. There is no elegant way to lose in crushing fashion (I view the chaos after the Afghanistan withdrawal in much the same way). Nonetheless, I do not at all dispute there are plenty of criticisms one can make at the Democratic leadership in their immediate response to Dobbs. But it is entirely possible to level these critiques while also maintaining an affective disposition of strong positivity towards Democrats winning elections. Every bit of frustration I have towards Democratic decisions while in office - and there are plenty -- has not dampened in the slightest my strong and unwavering view that Democrats winning elections is far, far better than Democrats losing elections, and that we should view any moment where Democrats win and Republicans lose with absolute elation.

And guess what? Enthusiastically voting doesn't stop you from enthusiastically going to protests, or enthusiastically supporting a mutual aid organization, or enthusiastically engaging in a union drive, or enthusiastically taking any number of other steps which might also be part of the collective endeavor of building power to effectuate positive change. It's not either/or, nobody is arguing that it is either/or, and using that false dichotomy to justify your sulky attitude towards participating in electoral politics isn't fooling anyone. So buck up, and get excited about winning in 2022. Fake it if you have to, or do what I do and find genuine enthusiasm for the prospect of fending off America's slide into fascism. Either way, you do what it takes to win.

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1 day ago
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Ways the Woke Mob Has Affected Me Personally

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I sent out dozens of résumés that made no mention of my pronoun preferences. I didn’t get a single interview.
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3 days ago
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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The Supreme Court That Transforms Right-Wing Grievances Into Law

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The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, allowing state governments to force women to give birth, is the result of decades of right-wing political advocacy, organizing, and electoral victory. It is also just the beginning of the Court’s mission to reshape all of American society according to conservative demands, without fear of public opposition.

Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson contains a classic Alito disclaimer—an explicit denial of the logical implications of his stated position. In this case, Alito declares that “nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion,” even as he argues that when it comes to rights “not mentioned in the Constitution,” only those “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” are protected. If you’re asking yourself who decides which rights can be so described, you’re on the right track.

This will not end with the determination, as the dissenters write, that states may decide that “from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of.” The conservative movement’s control of the Supreme Court, its success in skewing the electoral process in their favor through voting restrictions and gerrymandering, and the Democrats’ likely collapse in the coming midterms have bolstered their confidence that they can drastically reshape American society on their terms without losing power.

[Mary Ziegler: If the Supreme Court can reverse ]Roe, it can reverse anything

As the three Democratic-appointed justices note in their Dobbs dissent, more constitutional rights now are on the chopping block. “Either the majority does not really believe in its own reasoning. Or if it does, all rights that have no history stretching back to the mid-19th century are insecure,” the dissenters wrote. “Either the mass of the majority’s opinion is hypocrisy, or additional constitutional rights are under threat. It is one or the other.” It seems to be the latter: In his concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas writes that precedents establishing access to contraception, legalizing same-sex marriage, and striking down anti-sodomy laws should be “reconsidered.”

Setting aside the record of insincerity from Alito himself and the other conservative justices, the reason not to trust his disclaimer is that the Supreme Court has become an institution whose primary role is to force a right-wing vision of American society on the rest of the country. The conservative majority’s main vehicle for this imposition is a presentist historical analysis that takes whatever stances define right-wing cultural and political identity at a given moment and asserts them as essential aspects of American law since the Founding, and therefore obligatory. Conservatives have long attacked the left for supporting a “living constitutionalism,” which they say renders the law arbitrary and meaningless. But the current majority’s approach is itself a kind of undead constitutionalism—one in which the dictates of the Constitution retrospectively shift with whatever Fox News happens to be furious about. Legal outcomes preferred by today’s American right conveniently turn out to be what the Founding Fathers wanted all along.

The 6–3 majority has removed any appetite for caution or restraint, and the justices’ lifetime appointments mean they will never have to face an angry electorate that could deprive them of their power. It has also rendered their approach to the law lazy, clumsy, and malicious, and made the right-wing justices’ undead constitutionalism all the more apparent.

Many of the Court’s recent decisions, even before Dobbs, have demonstrated this. In the case over the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for employers, the conservative justices disregarded the explicit text of a federal statute allowing the government to set emergency regulations governing “toxic substances or agents” in the workplace, and employed soft anti-vax arguments that had only become prominent in conservative media since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. As part of its rationale, the majority wrote that “in its half century of existence,” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “has never before adopted a broad public health regulation of this kind,” which is true, because during that period there had not been a global pandemic that killed more than 1 million Americans.

In their decision earlier this week overturning restrictions on concealed carry of firearms in New York, the right-wing justices ignored historical examples of firearm regulations in order to argue that any such regulations—not just those in New York—were presumptively unconstitutional. The decision was a significant escalation in the Court’s gun-rights jurisprudence from the 2008 Heller decision, which found an individual constitutional right to possess a firearm. In the most recent ruling Thomas wrote that only those restrictions “​​consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” are constitutional, but he did so ignoring, as the writer Saul Cornell points out, a centuries-long history of closely regulating arms in densely populated areas. That record is irrelevant. The restrictions deemed consistent with tradition will be whatever the current right-wing consensus happens to be.

[Timothy Zick and Diana Palmer: ]The next fight over guns in America

In his concurrence in that case, Alito sneered, “How does the dissent account for the fact that one of the mass shootings near the top of its list took place in Buffalo? The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator.” The logic of the assertion suggests that laws against murder are useless because murderers continue to exist; it is a quality of reasoning that might come from a fifth grader. The argument is also not in any sense a legal one, just a paraphrase of culture-war blather one hears in right-wing media—which are a much more significant influence on the majority than the law or the Constitution is. Clearly Alito does not believe laws against abortion to be similarly pointless even though abortions will continue regardless.

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked by a single vote a Texas law forcing social-media companies to host content they do not want to host. That law is a textbook free-speech violation; but the right’s purported commitment to fundamental freedoms has been overtaken by a belief that its First Amendment rights are violated by the existence of social-media platforms that have moderation policies, which is essentially all of them. As such, Alito suggested in his dissent that such platforms did not actually have a First Amendment right to engage in editorial discretion. Why? It’s something that conservatives on the internet complain about a lot, so neither the explicit text of the First Amendment nor the Court’s prior jurisprudence on corporate speech matter.

These are recent examples, but hardly the only ones. In 2006, a Republican president signed an extension of the Voting Rights Act. By 2013, amid the backlash to the Obama presidency, right-wing justices had decided that the law was a “racial entitlement” and could be overruled on the basis of the states’ “equal sovereignty”—a concept that appears nowhere in the Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment barring racial discrimination in voting explicitly authorizes such legislation, and its explicit purpose was to prevent the kind of racially discriminatory voting schemes the Roberts Court has repeatedly accepted.

The decision overturning Roe is not an exception to these fluctuations in political and ideological identity. The conflict over abortion rights was once more ideologically fraught and less polarized by party affiliation. A majority of the justices who joined the opinions in Roe and Casey were appointed by Republican presidents. Being anti-abortion became an essential aspect of conservative politics over the course of decades; the level of ideological unanimity and discipline on abortion in today’s GOP has not always existed. Although a much longer process than the prior examples, overturning Roe was less a result of the partisan composition of the appointees than the ideological evolution of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

[Adam Serwer: Alito’s plan to repeal the 20th century]

Shortly after the court’s decision in the gun-rights case, Neal Katyal, the former Obama-administration acting solicitor generall, wrote, ”Gonna be very weird if Supreme Court ends a constitutional right to obtain an abortion next week, saying it should be left to the States to decide, right after it just imposed a constitutional right to concealed carry of firearms, saying it cannot be left to the States to decide.”

Well, no, that’s only weird if you assume that the right-wing majority’s intention is to consistently apply legal principles rather than to translate right-wing cultural identity into law. This is the purpose of the right-wing justices’ skewed historical analysis: to present discrepancies in which rights they uphold as inherent to the Constitution rather than as the product of their own undead constitutionalism.

I am not arguing that these positions are insincere. Rather, the purpose of this undead constitutionalism is to present contemporary right-wing positions on consequential matters as eternal and constant, and therefore the only legitimate interpretations, when they are entirely malleable and dependent on changes in conservative political identity. The majority’s supposed originalism is a means to affirm novel legal interpretations grounded in present-day right-wing grudges as what the Constitution demanded all along. Every time those grievances shift, the interpretations will shift with them, even as the justices scour history anew for confirmation of ideological conclusions they would never question even if they failed to find it. That is ultimately why no rights that Americans currently possess are safe from this Court. Decisions about which rights survive and which do not are highly dependent on what it means to be a conservative at that time. There will always be new right-wing grievances to ameliorate by judicial fiat, justified by new abuses of constitutional history.

The core conservative belief about the culture war is that there is a Real America that is conservative, and a usurper America that is liberal. This, not historical research, not legal analysis, is the prime means of constitutional interpretation for its current majority. And while the justices will both pretend and insist otherwise, the public need not flatter their imperious delusions. They should take the right-wing justices’ vow that other constitutional rights are safe for precisely what it is worth—which is to say, absolutely nothing.

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3 days ago
"The argument is also not in any sense a legal one, just a paraphrase of culture-war blather one hears in right-wing media"
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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How to Be a Good Person Without Annoying Everyone

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You’ve heard the joke: How do you know someone’s vegan? Don’t worry; they’ll tell you. The punch line to the punch line, though, is that they very deliberately may not.

Vegans and vegetarians are aware of their reputation as sanctimonious killjoys—so aware that nearly half of the non-meat-eating participants in one recent study declined to promote vegetarian options when in the company of unsympathetic meat eaters. Their caution is well founded: The people psychologists call “moral rebels”—those who depart from the status quo out of personal conviction—can, in fact, provoke irritation and defensiveness among like-minded peers. Their behavior is especially aggravating to those who are capable of making similar choices but have not yet done so. (How do you really feel about your cousin’s superior carbon frugality? Be honest.)

Although those rebelling on behalf of the planet have good reason to pipe down, we might all be better off if they didn’t. As the social psychologists Claire Brouwer and Jan-Willem Bolderdijk argue in a new paper, “moral threat may be a necessary ingredient to achieve social change precisely because it triggers ethical dissonance.” In other words, moral rebels can annoy the rest of us into joining them. To succeed, however, they must choose their language with care.  

One reason moral rebels inspire defensive reactions in so many of us, Brouwer and Bolderdijk say, is that their example highlights the gap between our own values and behavior. Maybe we’re worried about climate change, too, but we went ahead and bought that cheap air ticket to Europe; maybe we’re convinced of the importance of civic participation but we haven’t bothered to attend a city-council meeting. “Moral rebels tend to remind you of your inconsistencies, which can be very painful, because it can lead to the conclusion that you’re not a good and moral person after all,” Brouwer, a Ph.D. candidate at Pompeu Fabra University, in Barcelona, told me.

So while it’s common to perceive moral rebels as scolding or lecturing, that judgy voice we hear may be internal—our own minds pointing out our own shortcomings. And because those who care most about the issue at hand tend to be the most self-critical, they may also be the loudest scoffers. But these same strong emotions, Brouwer and Bolderdijk suggest, can act as “motivational fuel” for change. “That people react negatively doesn’t mean you’re not having an influence. It means you’ve struck a nerve,” Bolderdijk, an associate professor at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, told me. Rather than trying to avoid provocation, he said, moral rebels should seek to provoke more productively.

[Read: How bad is plastic, really? ]

Researchers have found that people face up to and address their moral inconsistencies when they consider themselves capable of improvement. Moral rebels can bolster this confidence, Brouwer said, by presenting their own behavior as the result of an ongoing process instead of an overnight transformation. Those who devote time to a political issue, for instance, might describe the small but meaningful wins that keep them motivated. Those who have given up a pleasure or convenience for ethical reasons might admit to occasional lapses or temptations. (Instead of “Meat makes me gag,” vegetarians might try “That smells so good—steak’s the thing I miss the most.”) Emphasizing the value of incremental steps, Brouwer said, helps convince listeners that change is attainable.

Brouwer added that moral rebels should also acknowledge the external pressures and realities that shape everyone’s behavior. By recognizing that dietary preferences are influenced by childhood experiences, for instance, or that transportation choices are limited by local availability and cost, they can make clear that their intent is to encourage particular actions, not pass judgment on individuals. After all, even those who set a moral example in one aspect of life may struggle to do so in another.

[Read: The greenest way to grill]

Why bother with moral rebellion in the first place, though? Despite ExxonMobil’s implications to the contrary, individual consumers cannot reverse climate change—or any other environmental ill, for that matter—and their choices are no substitute for systemic reforms. Yet collective action, consumer and otherwise, does have real power, and, as Bolderdjik pointed out, collective action begins with a solo act.

“Social change is almost always initiated by individuals, whether they are consumers, activists, or politicians,” he told me. “All of them stand alone at first, and all of them face the struggles and social costs of being the first to deviate from a norm. We need these stubborn individuals, these people who are willing to stick to their guns and keep explaining their principles, in order to set change in motion.”

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6 days ago
Dumb title for a good short piece.

Better title: "You turn into a dick around vegans because you know they're right."
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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What If Russia Uses Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine?

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The 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense operates a dozen central storage facilities for nuclear weapons. Known as “Object S” sites and scattered across the Russian Federation, they contain thousands of nuclear warheads and hydrogen bombs with a wide variety of explosive yields. For the past three months, President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have been ominously threatening to use nuclear weapons in the war against Ukraine. According to Pavel Podvig, the director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project and a former research fellow at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, now based in Geneva, the long-range ballistic missiles deployed on land and on submarines are Russia’s only nuclear weapons available for immediate use. If Putin decides to attack Ukraine with shorter-range, “tactical” nuclear weapons, they will have to be removed from an Object S site—such as Belgorod-22, just 25 miles from the Ukrainian border—and transported to military bases. It will take hours for the weapons to be made combat-ready, for warheads to be mated with cruise missiles or ballistic missiles, for hydrogen bombs to be loaded on planes. The United States will most likely observe the movement of these weapons in real time: by means of satellite surveillance, cameras hidden beside the road, local agents with binoculars. And that will raise a question of existential importance: What should the United States do?

President Joe Biden has made clear that any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable” and “entail severe consequences.” But his administration has remained publicly ambiguous about what those consequences would be. That ambiguity is the correct policy. Nevertheless, there must also be open discussion and debate outside the administration about what is really at stake. During the past month, I’ve spoken with many national-security experts and former government officials about the likelihood of Russia using nuclear weapons against Ukraine, the probable targets, and the proper American response. Although they disagreed on some issues, I heard the same point again and again: The risk of nuclear war is greater today than at any other time since the Cuban missile crisis. And the decisions that would have to be made after a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine are unprecedented. In 1945, when the United States destroyed two Japanese cities with atomic bombs, it was the world’s sole nuclear power. Nine countries now possess nuclear weapons, others may soon obtain them, and the potential for things going terribly wrong has vastly increased.

Several scenarios for how Russia might soon use a nuclear weapon seem possible: (1) a detonation over the Black Sea, causing no casualties but demonstrating a resolve to cross the nuclear threshold and signaling that worse may come, (2) a decapitation strike against the Ukrainian leadership, attempting to kill President Volodymyr Zelensky and his advisers in their underground bunkers, (3) a nuclear assault on a Ukrainian military target, perhaps an air base or a supply depot, that is not intended to harm civilians, and (4) the destruction of a Ukrainian city, causing mass civilian casualties and creating terror to precipitate a swift surrender—the same aims that motivated the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

[From the July/August 2022 issue: We have no nuclear strategy]

Any response by the Biden administration would be based not only on how Russia uses a nuclear weapon against Ukraine but also, more important, on how Russia’s future behavior might be affected by the American response. Would it encourage Putin to back down—or to double down? Cold War debates about nuclear strategy focused on ways to anticipate and manage the escalation of a conflict. During the early 1960s, Herman Kahn, a prominent strategist at the Rand Corporation and the Hudson Institute, came up with a visual metaphor for the problem: “the escalation ladder.” Kahn was one of the primary inspirations for the character Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 film, and yet the escalation ladder remains a central concept in thinking about how to fight a nuclear war. Kahn’s version of the ladder had 44 steps. At the bottom was an absence of hostilities; at the top was nuclear annihilation. A president might choose to escalate from step No. 26, “Demonstration Attack on Zone of Interior,” to step No. 39, “Slow-Motion Countercity War.” The goal of each new step upward might vary. It might simply be to send a message. Or it could be to coerce, control, or devastate an adversary. You climbed the ladder to reach the bottom again someday.

The “escalation vortex” is a more recent and more complex visualization of a potential conflict between nuclear states. It was developed by Christopher Yeaw, who served as chief scientist at the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command from 2010 to 2015. In addition to the vertical aspects of the escalation ladder, the vortex incorporates horizontal movement among various domains of modern warfare—space, cyber, conventional, nuclear. An escalation vortex looks like a tornado. An illustration of one, featured in a Global Strike Command slideshow, places the worst outcome at the widest part of the funnel: “the absolute highest levels of permanent societal destruction.”

In October 1962, Sam Nunn was a 24-year-old recent graduate from Emory University School of Law who’d just gotten a security clearance and a job as a staff member for the House Armed Services Committee. When a colleague backed out of an overseas tour of NATO bases, Nunn took his place, left the United States for the first time—and wound up at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. Nunn remembers seeing NATO fighters parked near runways, each loaded with a single hydrogen bomb, ready to fly toward the Soviet Union. Pilots sat in chairs beside their planes, day and night, trying to get some sleep while awaiting the order to take off. They had only enough fuel for a one-way mission and planned to bail out somewhere, somehow, after dropping their bombs. The commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe told Nunn that if a war began, his pilots would have to get their planes off the ground within a few minutes; Ramstein Air Base would be one of the first NATO targets destroyed by a Soviet nuclear attack. The commander kept a walkie-talkie with him at all times to give the takeoff order.

The Cuban missile crisis left a strong impression on Nunn. During his 24 years as a United States senator, he worked tirelessly to reduce the risk of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. As the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he championed close cooperation with Moscow on nuclear matters. To continue those efforts, he later co-founded a nonprofit, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, with which I have collaborated on a number of projects. All of that work is now at risk of being undone by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the strident nuclear rhetoric accompanying it.

Before the attack on Ukraine, the five nations allowed to have nuclear weapons by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France—had reached agreement that the use of such weapons could be justified only as a purely defensive measure in response to a nuclear or large-scale conventional attack. In January 2022, those five countries issued a joint statement affirming Ronald Reagan’s dictum that “a nuclear war must never be fought and can never be won.” A month later, Russia violated norms that had prevailed under the NPT for more than half a century. It invaded a country that had given up nuclear weapons; threatened nuclear attacks against anyone who tried to help that country; and committed acts of nuclear terrorism by shelling the reactor complexes at Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya.

Nunn supports the Biden administration’s strategy of “deliberate ambiguity” about how it would respond to Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon. But he hopes that some form of back-channel diplomacy is secretly being conducted, with a widely respected figure like former CIA Director Robert Gates telling the Russians, bluntly, how harshly the United States might retaliate if they cross the nuclear threshold. During the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev both wanted to avoid an all-out nuclear war—and still almost got one, because of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and mistakes. Back-channel diplomacy played a crucial role in ending that crisis safely.

[From the October 2007 issue: A near miss]

Nunn describes Russia’s violations of long-standing norms as “Putin’s nuclear folly” and stresses that three fundamental things are essential for avoiding a nuclear catastrophe: rational leaders, accurate information, and no major blunders. “And all three are now in some degree of doubt,” he says.

Nunn argues that if Russia uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, the United States should not respond with a nuclear attack. He favors some sort of horizontal escalation instead, doing everything possible to avoid a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States. For example, if Russia hits Ukraine with a nuclear cruise missile launched from a ship, Nunn would advocate immediately sinking that ship. The number of Ukrainian casualties should determine the severity of the American response—and any escalation should be conducted solely with conventional weapons. Russia’s Black Sea fleet might be sunk in retaliation, and a no-fly zone could be imposed over Ukraine, even if it meant destroying anti-aircraft units on Russian soil.

Since the beginning of the invasion, Russia’s nuclear threats have been aimed at discouraging the United States and its NATO allies from providing military supplies to Ukraine. And the threats are backed by Russia’s capabilities. Last year, during a training exercise involving about 200,000 troops, the Russian army practiced launching a nuclear assault on NATO forces in Poland. “The pressure on Russia to attack the supply lines from NATO countries to Ukraine will increase, the longer this war continues,” Nunn says. It will also increase the risk of serious blunders and mistakes. An intentional or inadvertent Russian attack on a NATO country could be the beginning of World War III.

During the summer of 2016, members of President Barack Obama’s national-security team secretly staged a war game in which Russia invades a NATO country in the Baltics and then uses a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon against NATO forces to end the conflict on favorable terms. As described by Fred Kaplan in The Bomb (2020), two groups of Obama officials reached widely divergent conclusions about what the United States should do. The National Security Council’s so-called Principals Committee—including Cabinet officers and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—decided that the United States had no choice but to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Any other type of response, the committee argued, would show a lack of resolve, damage American credibility, and weaken the NATO alliance. Choosing a suitable nuclear target proved difficult, however. Hitting Russia’s invading force would kill innocent civilians in a NATO country. Striking targets inside Russia might escalate the conflict to an all-out nuclear war. In the end, the NSC Principals Committee recommended a nuclear attack on Belarus—a nation that had played no role whatsoever in the invasion of the NATO ally but had the misfortune of being a Russian ally.

Deputy staff members at the NSC played the same war game and came up with a different response. Colin Kahl, who at the time was an adviser to Vice President Biden, argued that retaliating with a nuclear weapon would be a huge mistake, sacrificing the moral high ground. Kahl thought it would be far more effective to respond with a conventional attack and turn world opinion against Russia for violating the nuclear taboo. The others agreed, and Avril Haines, a deputy national security adviser, suggested making T-shirts with the slogan Deputies should run the world. Haines is now President Biden’s Director of National Intelligence, and Kohl is the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

In 2019, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) ran extensive war games on how the United States should respond if Russia invades Ukraine and then uses a nuclear weapon there. DTRA is the only Pentagon agency tasked exclusively with countering and deterring weapons of mass destruction. Although the results of those DTRA war games are classified, one of the participants told me, “There were no happy outcomes.” The scenarios for nuclear use were uncannily similar to the ones being considered today. When it comes to nuclear warfare, the participant said, the central message of the 1983 film WarGames still applies: “The only winning move is not to play.”

None of the national-security experts I interviewed thought the United States should use a nuclear weapon in response to a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine. Rose Gottemoeller—who served as the chief American negotiator of the New START arms-control treaty with Russia and later as the deputy secretary general of NATO—believes that any nuclear attack on Ukraine would inspire global condemnation, especially from countries in Africa and South America, continents that are nuclear-weapon-free zones. She thinks that China, despite its tacit support for the invasion of Ukraine, would strongly oppose Putin’s use of a nuclear weapon and would back sanctions against Russia at the United Nations Security Council. China has long supported “negative nuclear assurances” and promised in 2016 “unconditionally not [to] use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or in nuclear-weapon-free zones.”

If the United States detects tactical weapons being removed from Russian storage sites, Gottemoeller thinks the Biden administration should send a tough warning to Moscow through back channels—and then publicize the movement of those weapons, using the same tactic of openly sharing intelligence that seemed to thwart Russian false-flag operations involving chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine. Over the years, she’s gotten to know many of the top commanders who oversee Russia’s nuclear arsenal and developed great respect for their professionalism. Gottemoeller says they might resist an order to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. And if they obey that order, her preferred option would be “a muscular diplomatic response” to the nuclear strike, not a nuclear or conventional military response, combined with some form of hybrid warfare. The United States could launch a crippling cyberattack on the Russian command-and-control systems tied to the nuclear assault and leave open the possibility of subsequent military attacks.

[Uri Friedman: Putin’s nuclear threats are a wake-up call for the world]

Scott Sagan, a co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, at Stanford University, believes that the risk of Russia using a nuclear weapon has declined in the past month, as the fighting has shifted to southern Ukraine. Putin is unlikely to contaminate territory he’s hoping to seize with radioactive fallout. And a warning shot, such as the detonation of a nuclear weapon harmlessly over the Black Sea, would serve little purpose, Sagan says. It would signal irresolution, not resolve—a conclusion that the United States reached half a century ago about the potential utility of a NATO demonstration strike to deter the Red Army. Sagan concedes that if Russia were to lose major battles in the Donbas, or if a Ukrainian counteroffensive seemed on the verge of a great victory, Putin might well order the use of a nuclear weapon to obtain a surrender or a cease-fire. In response, depending on the amount of damage caused by the nuclear explosion, Sagan would advocate American conventional attacks on Russian forces in Ukraine, Russian ships in the Black Sea, or even military targets inside Russia, such as the base from which the nuclear strike was launched.

Sagan takes issue with how the back-and-forth of military conflict is commonly depicted. As an image, an escalation ladder seems too static. It suggests the freedom to decide whether you should go up or down. Sagan thinks nuclear escalation would be more like an escalator: Once it starts moving, it has a momentum of its own, and it’s really hard to get off. He would be deeply concerned by any sign that Putin is taking even the initial steps toward nuclear use. “We should not underestimate the risk of an accidental nuclear detonation if tactical weapons are removed from their storage igloos and dispersed widely among Russian military forces,” Sagan warns.

I recently had lunch with former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry at his home in Palo Alto, California. Perry is 94 years old, one of the last prominent military strategists active today who witnessed firsthand the devastation of the Second World War. He served in the U.S. Army of Occupation of Japan, and nothing that he had read about the firebombing of Tokyo prepared him for what he saw there—a great city burned to the ground, the survivors living amid fused rubble, dependent on military rations. In Naha, the capital of Okinawa, the destruction seemed even worse. In his memoir, Perry writes that not a building was left standing, and includes a famous description: “The lush tropical landscape was turned into a vast field of mud, lead, decay, and maggots.” What Perry saw in Japan left him profoundly unsettled by the nuclear threat. Naha and Tokyo had been devastated by tens of thousands of bombs dropped in hundreds of air raids; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by a single atomic bomb each.

Perry later earned advanced degrees in mathematics and became an early Silicon Valley pioneer, specializing in satellite surveillance and the use of digital technology for electronic warfare. During the Cuban missile crisis, he traveled to Washington, D.C., at the request of the CIA, and scrutinized satellite photographs of Cuba for evidence of Soviet nuclear weapons. He helped prepare the morning intelligence reports for President Kennedy and wondered every night whether the next day would be his last. As an undersecretary of defense during the Carter administration, Perry played a crucial role in developing stealth technology, and as secretary of defense during the Clinton administration, he led the effort to lock up nuclear weapons and fissile material at locations throughout the former Soviet Union. After leaving the Pentagon, he earned a dovish reputation, joining Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz in 2008 in a plea for the abolition of nuclear weapons; opposing American plans for new ground-based, long-range ballistic missiles; and calling upon the United States to make a formal declaration that it would never be the first to launch a nuclear attack. But Perry’s views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine are anything but warm and fuzzy.

We ate sandwiches that Perry had prepared, with bread he’d baked, sitting on a large terrace where the planters overflowed with flowers and hummingbirds hovered at feeders, beneath a brilliant blue sky. The setting could not have been more bucolic, the idea of nuclear war more remote. A few days earlier, Perry had given a speech at Stanford, outlining what was at stake in Ukraine. The peace that had reigned in Europe for almost eight decades had been shattered on February 24, he said, and “if Russia’s invasion is successful, we should expect to see other invasions.” Putin was now engaging in blackmail, threatening to use nuclear weapons for offensive, not defensive, purposes, trying to deter the United States from providing the conventional weapons that Ukraine badly needs. “I fear that if we give in to this outrageous threat,” Perry said, “we will face it again.”

Perry’s manner is thoughtful, calm, and gentle, not the least bit alarmist or overemotional. I’ve known him for more than a decade, and though his voice has grown softer, his mind is remarkably undimmed, and beneath his warmth and kindness lies steel. Perry has met Putin on a number of occasions, dating back to when he was the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg—and thinks Putin will use tactical weapons in Ukraine if it seems advantageous to do so. Although the Russian Federation’s declared policy is to use nuclear weapons only when confronted with an existential threat to the state, public declarations from Moscow should always be taken with a grain of salt. The Soviet Union adamantly denied having any missile bases in Cuba as it was building them. It publicly vowed for years never to be the first to use a nuclear weapon, while secretly adopting war plans that began with large-scale nuclear attacks on NATO bases and European cities. The Kremlin denied having any intention to invade Ukraine, right up until it invaded Ukraine. Perry always found Putin to be competent and disciplined, but cold. He believes that Putin is rational at the moment, not deranged, and would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine to achieve victory and thereby ensure the survival of his regime.

During the Cold War, the United States based thousands of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons in NATO countries and planned to use them on the battlefield in the event of a Soviet invasion. In September 1991, President George H. W. Bush unilaterally ordered all of America’s ground-based tactical weapons to be removed from service and destroyed. Bush’s order sent a message that the Cold War was over—and that the United States no longer considered tactical weapons to be useful on the battlefield. The collateral damage they would cause, the unpredictable patterns of lethal radioactive fallout, seemed counterproductive and unnecessary. The United States was developing precision conventional weapons that could destroy any important target without breaking the nuclear taboo. But Russia never got rid of its tactical nuclear weapons. And as the strength of its conventional military forces waned, it developed very low-yield and ultra low-yield nuclear weapons that produce relatively little fallout. In the words of a leading Russian nuclear-weapons designer, they are “environmentally conscious.” The more than 100 “peaceful nuclear explosions” conducted by the Soviet Union—ostensibly to obtain knowledge about using nuclear devices for mundane tasks, like the excavation of reservoirs—facilitated the design of very low-yield tactical weapons.

Two nuclear detonations have already occurred in Ukraine, as part of the Soviet Union’s “Program No. 7—Peaceful Explosions for the National Economy.” In 1972, a nuclear device was detonated supposedly to seal a runaway gas well at a mine in Krasnograd, about 60 miles southwest of Kharkiv. The device had an explosive force about one-quarter as large as that of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In 1979, a nuclear device was detonated for the alleged purpose of eliminating methane gas at a coal mine near the town of Yunokommunarsk, in the Donbas. It had an explosive force about one-45th as large as that of the Hiroshima bomb. Neither the workers at the mine nor the 8,000 residents of Yunokommunarsk were informed about the nuclear blast. The coal miners were given the day off for a “civil-defense drill,” then sent back to work in the mine.

[Tom Nichols: We need to relearn what we’d hoped to forget]

The weakness of Russia’s conventional forces compared with those of the United States, Perry suggests, and Russia’s relative advantage in tactical weapons are factors that might lead Putin to launch a nuclear attack in Ukraine. It would greatly benefit Russia to establish the legitimacy of using tactical nuclear weapons. To do so, Putin must choose the right target. Perry believes that a demonstration strike above the Black Sea would gain Putin little; the destruction of a Ukrainian city, with large civilian casualties, would be a tremendous mistake. But if Russia can destroy a military target without much radioactive fallout, without civilian casualties, and without prompting a strong response from the United States, Perry says, “I don’t think there’s a big downside.” Russia has more nuclear weapons than any other nation in the world. Its national pride is strongly linked to its nuclear weapons. Its propagandists celebrate the possible use of nuclear weapons—against Ukraine, as well as against the United States and its NATO allies—on an almost daily basis, in an attempt to normalize their use. Its military has already destroyed Ukrainian cities, deliberately targeted hospitals, killed thousands of civilians, countenanced looting and rape. The use of an ultra low-yield nuclear weapon against a purely military target might not seem too controversial. “I think there would be an international uproar, but I don’t think it would last long,” Perry says. “It might blow over in a week or two.”

If the United States gets intelligence that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon, Perry believes that the information should be publicized immediately. And if Russia uses one, the United States should call for international condemnation, create as big a ruckus as possible—stressing the word nuclear—and take military action, with or without NATO allies. The reprisal should be strong and focused and conventional, not nuclear. It should be confined to Ukraine, ideally with targets linked to the nuclear attack. “You want to go as little up the escalation ladder as you can get away with doing and still have a profound and relevant effect,” Perry says. But if Putin responds by using another nuclear weapon, “you take off the gloves the second time around” and perhaps destroy Russia’s military forces in Ukraine, which the United States could readily do with conventional weapons. Perry realizes that these escalations would be approaching the kind of Dr. Strangelove scenarios that Herman Kahn wrote about. But if we end up fighting a war with Russia, that would be Putin’s choice, not ours.

Perry has been warning for many years that the nuclear danger is growing. The invasion of Ukraine has unfortunately confirmed his prediction. He believes that the odds of a full-scale nuclear war were much higher during the Cuban missile crisis, but that the odds of a nuclear weapon being used are higher now. Perry doesn’t expect that Russia will destroy a Ukrainian air base with a tactical weapon. But he wouldn’t be surprised. And he hopes the United States will not be self-deterred by nuclear blackmail. That would encourage other countries to get nuclear weapons and threaten their neighbors.

As I listened to the recording of my conversation with Bill Perry, it was filled with the incongruous sounds of wind chimes and birds singing. Vladimir Putin can determine if, when, and where a nuclear attack occurs in Ukraine. But he cannot control what happens after that. The consequences of that choice, the series of events that would soon unfold, are unknowable. According to The New York Times, the Biden administration has formed a Tiger Team of national-security officials to run war games on what to do if Russia uses a nuclear weapon. One thing is clear, after all my discussions with experts in the field: We must be ready for hard decisions, with uncertain outcomes, that nobody should ever have to make.

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8 days ago
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Police Militarization Gave Us Uvalde


All my adult life I’ve been around policing, including working as a civilian cop, training and leading military police battalions, and studying police culture as an academic and a researcher. I’ve spent hundreds of hours riding along with cops, interviewing police leaders, and helping educate trainees. I love the police, and I love policing. Few professions will expose you to the gamut of human experience and emotion with quite the same immediacy.

It’s because I love the profession that the police response at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, has me so sick at heart.

There’s a lot we still don’t know, and hopefully the promised Department of Justice investigation (run by leaders from the Community Oriented Policing program, a hopeful sign) will fill in the gaps. What we do know suggests that this is among the most profound police betrayals of the public trust. For those who care about the policing profession, it should be an occasion for deep self-reflection. The adoption of aggressive, military-style tactics and weaponry put American policing on the wrong track for decades. Uvalde is the sickening dead end.

For two decades, a group of police analysts (myself included) have been warning about the corrosive effects of police militarization, which have been unfolding for more than 40 years. Through the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, the federal government has been dumping military weaponry, armored personnel carriers, even grenade launchers and drones on police departments large and small. People of a certain age should reflect: You probably don’t recall police regularly hanging out with armored personnel carriers and automatic weapons when you were a kid. But sometime after this nation embarked on the War on Drugs, these scenes became normal.

[Elizabeth Bruenig: The Uvalde police chose dishonor]

SWAT teams have proliferated in towns and cities across the country; almost every town with more than 25,000 people now has a SWAT team, as did the 15,000-person town of Uvalde. Those teams, far from responding solely to crises such as, well, school shootings, mostly serve drug warrants, employing flash grenades and no-knock entries—the methods of a wartime-Baghdad block search—to roust suspected drug dealers out of bed (or, as in the case of Breonna Taylor and many others, kill innocent people).

I focus on SWAT not because it is a substantial component of American policing, though it is large and growing, but because it plays an outsize role in the culture of policing, in its emotional makeup. A consistent theme in my research with local police has been the way SWAT sets the tone for more conventional officers. SWAT members are considered the elites of the profession; joining a SWAT team is many younger officers’ not-so-secret aspiration (some older hands’ aspiration, too). Esteem begets emulation, and the attitudes and tactics of SWAT often set the tone in the lower ranks.

And so, with the sanction of the courts, departments have reworked their tactics to define American communities as battle spaces, and citizens in them as potential enemies. We have for years told American police officers to regard every civilian encounter as potentially deadly, and that they must always be prepared to win that death match. This is not an exaggeration; there is extensive academic literature on the “danger imperative” as a cornerstone of police training. An entire industry of grifting ex-cops have made themselves rich training police departments in fear and loathing of civilians, quite literally telling officers that they must always have a plan to kill everyone they encounter.  

This has always had a touch of morbid self-indulgence about it. Policing can indeed be dangerous; Uvalde is proof. But it is not pervasively or uniformly so. Less than one-quarter of officers ever discharge their weapons a single time in their careers. Ambush killings of police have fallen by 90 percent over the past several decades. Labor statistics suggest that fatality rates for police (for all causes, not just in the line of duty) are far less than those in logging, commercial fishing, and trash collecting. This is not to say that police don’t face real dangers—they do, but the large majority of policing is routine, and the large majority of encounters with civilians are completely innocuous.

The self-indulgence itself isn’t problematic, but this “danger imperative” can have tragic consequences. I served as both a civilian police officer and a soldier in combat. It was always obvious to me that military tactics, training, and weaponry had little place in civilian policing. The goal of the military is to overwhelm enemies, regardless of whether any particular individual on the other side “deserves” to be overwhelmed. It seems clear that police should not approach fellow citizens, rights-bearers, with the same attitude. Yet a profession’s tools and tactics will not-so-subtly define its attitude and culture. When you repeatedly drill officers that everyone is out to kill them, some will shoot first and ask questions later—and not just the weaker or undertrained officers at the margin, either.

[Rosa Brooks: Stop training police like they’re joining the military]

I think back especially to the death of Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2019. An officer on a routine wellness call approached a house with his gun drawn and fired into a window at the first sign of movement, barely pausing. Ordinary citizens were dumbfounded: Why was this officer so aggressive, without the slightest evidence that he was in danger? But this incident made instant sense to me. That officer didn’t need evidence that he was in danger to draw his weapon. Like so many others, he had been trained to believe that he was always in danger.

The cost of aggressive policing tactics and training can be measured in bodies: Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others, I believe, died in part because of a policing culture that sanctions unnecessarily aggressive tactics in everyday policing situations. But there are other consequences. Thoughtful police leaders will tell you that frayed police-community relations—especially with communities of color—have become an impediment to good policing, and the problem is growing. Effective policing always depends on buy-in from the community. Every unnecessarily aggressive policing encounter, every viral video of people begging for their life, causes individuals to withdraw their willingness to aid police. A critical mass of everyday citizens at odds with their police is a disaster for effectiveness and democratic legitimacy.

What does this have to do with Uvalde—an event in which more, not less, aggression was called for? It would be insufficient to chalk up the tragedy at Robb Elementary to bad individual decision making. I think it reveals a hollowness that has always lurked deep within police militarization.

Having served in both, I can tell you that police aren’t the military. The intensity of the training, the resources put into developing unit cohesion, the careful cultivation of competent junior officers, the physical demands, the singular focus on obedience—military training is not simply “tougher” (in some ways) than police training; it is different in kind. This reflects the differing purpose and goals of the two institutions. That’s good; we shouldn’t want police to treat Americans like the military treats America’s enemies, and we shouldn’t train them to do so.

But in our ill-conceived attempt to refashion police into a cadet branch of the military, we have somehow managed to get the worst of both worlds. We have trained a generation of officers that being casually brutal in everyday encounters is acceptable, but these same officers show a disturbing tendency to fall back on jargon about “battlespace management” and “encounter tempo” to explain a slow reaction in the rare circumstance that really does require a rapid, all-out response. Especially in poor communities, the result has been the strange dynamic of “over-policing and under-protection” described by the criminologist David Kennedy, in which police are hypervigilant about petty offenses but unresponsive to more serious criminal activity.

Police militarization, it turns out, is largely swagger, and short on substance. What strikes me as I study the Facebook photo of the Uvalde SWAT team, standing in their tactical gear, is the theatricality of the whole thing. Any thoughtful observer of policing over the past 20 years has come to recognize the increasing childishness of the rhetoric about police militarization generally, and SWAT specifically. The journalist Radley Balko and others have documented police units’ use of military insignia and tough-guy mottos totally unsuited to civilian agencies (examples: “Hunter of men,” “We get up early, to BEAT the crowds,” “Baby Daddy Removal Team,” and “Narcotics: You huff and you puff and we’ll blow your door down”). Police education and training standards are abysmally low. In Texas, more training hours are required to be a hairdresser than a cop. National standards for SWAT training and tactics are essentially nonexistent.

[Elizabeth Bruenig: 78 minutes]

So much of this turns out to be LARPing: half-trained, half-formed kids playing soldier in America’s streets and schools. Many of the thousands of SWAT-team members in this country don’t have the training and expertise to respond like they’re SEAL Team 6. It’s time to stop pretending that they do.

After this tragedy, some people will call for pumping more weapons, more training, and more money into the rotting edifice of police militarism. Resist that temptation. The New York Times has reported at length on the school-security drills that local Uvalde police conducted just months ago. The Uvalde SWAT team’s Facebook page shows that it was drilling in schools to learn their layout as recently as 2020. The materials reviewed by the Times suggest that local police were working with up-to-date training and tactics manuals. Everything necessary was in place for police militarism to fulfill its promise last month. Its failure stems not from a lack of training, but from a fundamental misapprehension of the purpose and goals of policing. The solution is not more militaristic training, but attention to police professionalism.

Above all, Uvalde is a clear sign that the benefits of police militarization have been profoundly oversold. Any police leader who does not recognize Uvalde as a foundational challenge to police legitimacy is a fool. The rationale for creating thousands of SWAT teams across the United States was that the good guys with guns would stop the bad guys with guns. For that promise, we have accepted a more and more militarized and aggressive police culture, with serious damage to basic constitutional liberties. What we got in return is 19 cops standing outside a classroom while children were slaughtered. We cannot continue to accept this culture.

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11 days ago
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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