01:19 Stalinesque extravaganza (cont.). (Busby Berkeley does Congress.)
08:06 Fog of war. (So many experts!)
12:59 Plucky little Ukraine. (Good luck to them!)
18:01 1914 with nukes? (Churchill told us.)
24:49 Emotional exhibitionism. (Canceling Tchaikovsky.)
30:52 Russians resist. (A notable petition.)
32:19 China stands aloof. (But what about Mongolia?)
35:12 Are we in the Three Kingdoms? (A prediction long ago.)
36:34 Whither crypto? (Exchanges resist.)
38:38 Signout. (Belgium put the kibosh …)
01—Intro. And Radio Derb is on the air! Greetings, listeners, from your breathtakingly genial host John Derbyshire, bringing you news and commentary on the week's events.
What have we got? Oh yes: Another year, another State of the Union address … And so of course another opportunity for me to vent about what a repulsive, un-American, imperial ritual this has become.
Allow me to enlarge upon that yet again.
02—Stalinesque extravaganza (cont.) My loathing of the State of the Union ceremony is not at all party-political. I was venting it all through the Trump administration. I vented it in print in my 2009 book We Are Doomed, which was actually written in the Fall of 2008, so that the last State of the Union address in my mind when writing was given by George W. Bush.
My main beef is that this Busby Berkeley spectacular is not required by the Constitution. Edited quote from We Are Doomed:
This Stalinesque extravaganza has sprouted from a tiny seed: the requirement in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution that the President [inner quote] "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." [End inner quote] …
The "annual message" (as it was called until 1945) was not in fact a speech at all for most of the republic's history. Washington and John Adams made a speech of it, but Jefferson—correctly, of course—thought this too monarchical. The annual message was thereafter delivered in writing to Congress until Woodrow Wilson reverted to speech mode in 1913. There was partial re-reversion to the written presentation by the more modest presidents of the immediate post-Wilson era (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover), and then occasionally since (Truman's first and last, Eisenhower's last, Carter's last, and Nixon's 4th), but for most of this past three-quarters of a century the President has delivered a speech.
I once again pledge my everlasting loyalty and every erg of my dwindling energies to a presidential candidate who will return to the written mode. Just type the damn thing up and mail it to Congress by USPS.
Well, we have not yet reached that blessed state of small-"r" republican modesty. The House chamber is hushed in anticipation. Then, to a fanfare of trumpets … What, sorry? There isn't actually a fanfare of trumpets? Stick around a few more years, we're getting there.
Then the Dear Leader, Little Father of his People, appears with his retinue. As he makes his way to the dais, congresscritterrs jostle and maneuver to catch his eye and receive the favor of a presidential greeting.
Up on the podium at last, the president tells us of his achievements in safeguarding our lives and property and advancing the nation's interests. The chamber, or at any rate the part of it occupied by his own party, rises to applaud and cheer at the end of every declarative sentence.
That last imperative didn't go off as well this year as it usually does owing to the difficulty of telling where Joe Biden's sentences end. The congressfolk did their best, but Chuck Schumer got caught out on-camera applauding when he shouldn't have; and the senior of the two bimbos smirking and simpering on the dais behind the president stood and rubbed her hands instead of clapping them, for reasons we were left to speculate about.
The president's sentences themselves, when you could figure out the starts and ends, were still sometimes baffling. This one, for example, quote:
There are more corporations incorporated in America than every other state in America combined, and I still won 36 years in a row.
Somewhere in there is a strong argument for congressional term limits, but you'll have to untangle the president's diction to find it.
Then there was this one, quote:
You can't build a wall high enough to keep out a-a-a-a a vaccine.
Sure you can, Mr President. Build that wall!
The most depressing of the many, many depressing things about the State of the Union address is that all the congressweasels play along with it—including, I need hardly add, the big-"R" Republicans. Surely one or two of the more patriotic members could at least have had the decency to fall asleep while the filthy thing was under way.
Here I shall swear a solemn oath. If the State of the Union address is still being delivered in spoken form when I am elected to Congress, I shall boycott the event.
03—Fog of war. Meanwhile Russia's assault on Ukraine proceeded.
Proceeded … according to plan? Or not? There are plausible arguments on both sides of that.
Did Putin believe that Ukrainian resistance would collapse after a quick surgical blitzkrieg? And only then, when it didn't, fall back on major force? Or is he a master strategist who knew how things would develop and deployed his forces appropriately? Choose your expert.
Nigel Gould-Davies, Russia expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, thinks Putin screwed up big-time. Quote from him, March 1st:
After six days, it is clear that Vladimir Putin's invasion was based on delusions about Ukraine, the West and Russia. Whatever the outcome on the battlefield, Putin has unleashed forces that weaken his country's, and his own, position.
On the other side is the argument that Putin is proceeding methodically towards a rational goal; either to "gather up the Russian lands" or to totally neutralize Ukraine once and for all, with international recognition of the breakaway eastern districts. Daniel McCarthy makes that latter case in the March 3rd New York Post. Sample quotes:
As of now, the invasion still seems to be on its timetable, and its military objectives are achievable …
Seizing Ukraine's capital (and government, if possible), along with securing the east and establishing a line of Russian control perhaps somewhat west of the Dnipro River, would give Putin the assets he needs for the next phase of his plan, the political counterattack. Putin enjoys judo—he hopes to turn his opponent's strength, the relationship between Ukraine and the West, into leverage that he can use instead.
People who take the line that Putin is a master strategist, that all is going according to plan, point to the sheer quantity of troops and armaments he'd amassed around Ukraine before moving in. They also note that in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 it took three weeks to capture Baghdad, making the Russian army's advance to Kyiv look quite brisk by comparison.
I'm less sure than I was a week ago that I know Putin's objective, although if I had to bet it would still be on the "gathering up of the Russian lands."
There are hundreds of Russia experts and military analysts out there in the media and social media, though—far more than I would have thought possible—so you have a rich menu of opinions to choose from.
When you're watching the progress of a military campaign like this, especially nowadays with a blizzard of data, pseudo-data, and opinions coming in via social media, and double especially when the combatants are of cultures not your own, cultures for the study of which you can earn a university degree, the expression that keeps coming to mind is "the fog of war."
I'm trying to feel my way carefully through the fog. I can only envy the confidence of some of the other non-military-specialist, non-Russia-specialist commentators running through the fog at high speed.
04—Plucky little Ukraine. For sure you need to be careful about what you believe when reading about this war. Both sides are putting out misinformation and propaganda.
You should probably be double careful with news from the Ukrainian side; not because Ukrainians are better at propaganda or more duplicitous than Russians, but because our critical faculties are swayed by our emotions; and emotionally, when the biggest country in the world by land area attacks the 48th biggest on the dubious grounds that the latter country, whose president is Jewish, has been taken over by Nazis, we're on the side of the little guy.
In this case, we are right to be. Vladimir Putin is a very nasty piece of work. For sure, Ukraine is not run by a choir of angels; that Jewish president, who got elected on an anti-corruption platform, seems to have had his own hand in the cookie jar, although he is nowhere near as rich as Putin—practically no-one is.
Nor do you have to be a Putin shill to remember that in the matter of big countries assaulting small ones, the U.S.A. has form. Ilana Mercer, after calling Putin a savage and this current business a war of aggression, reminds us about that at length over at The Unz Review. Edited quote from her:
There is something utterly obscene—as rudely shocking as the front-row viewing of the "Shock and Awe" visited on Iraq—about watching the displacement of people and the destruction of innocent lives in real time, on television, without lending a hand …
The onus is on the U.S.A., the only so-called responsible superpower, to calmly negotiate with Putin on behalf of his innocent, weak victims. Instead, world leaders watch the suffering on TV and bemoan the fate of the sufferers. Both sides are a disgrace and a failure to have brought us thus far. Ditto NATO and the EU.
There is of course much more to be said than that—way more than I can fit into one podcast. When all's said and done, though, the Ukrainians didn't do anything to Russia—certainly nothing as provocative as 9/11. They really are the victims here.
A hundred and eight years ago this summer there was another instance of a big aggressive power sending its army into a small neutral one. That was when the army of Imperial Germany marched into Belgium on their way to conquer France.
That was what brought Britain into World War One. The Brits had guaranteed Belgian independence eighty years previously after Belgium seceded from the Netherlands.
The Belgian army held up the German advance for several days at the fortified city of Liège, exciting the admiration of the Brits. The talk in Fall of 1914 was all about "plucky little Belgium." Lines of young men wanting to enlist formed outside recruiting offices. The rest is history.
Now we have plucky little Ukraine. No, I'm not being sarcastic. There truly are some very plucky people there, risking everything for their nation's independence, just as there were in Belgium 108 years ago. Good luck to them!
05—1914 with nukes? Having raised a 1914 analogy there I have to post a notice that I shall not, no way, engage in arguments about who started World War One. It's one of those topics that every opinionated person has an opinion about; yet properly accredited historians still don't agree on it. Russia and France started it, says Christopher Clark. No, Germany and Austria started it, says David Fromkin.
If you buy me dinner at a nice restaurant I'll give you half an hour's argument across the table, but I have better ways to spend my unremunerated time.
Where all that is concerned, I take my exit with a famous negative by the French statesman Georges Clemenceau. When someone asked him asked how history would remember the start of World War One, Clemenceau replied "One thing is for certain: they will not say that Belgium invaded Germany."
On that same analogy with 1914, a lot of commentators are musing aloud whether we might be sleepwalking into a huge catastrophe, as the nations of 1914 did. If we are, say the musers, this one will surely be far worse because nukes will be in play.
I'm a pessimist by temperament, and you can't find many people with a lower regard than I have for the intelligence of the world's major-league national leaders. That said, I don't think this is 1914. Even stupidity on the Joe Biden or George W. Bush scale has its limits. I haven't driven by my local army recruiting office for a while, but I doubt I'd see there are throngs of mustachioed young men in cloth caps outside wanting to enlist.
The geostrategic lead-up to World War One was of several nations who regarded each other as more or less peers—France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Britain, Italy—all with grievances of various magnitude against each other, most with anxieties that their status was declining relative to this or that other peer nation. That was a highly flammable situation.
Sure, the nations of today have grievances and anxieties too. They are nothing like as intimate and hot as those of 1914 Europe, though.
Nor do we have the same attitude to war between major powers. The twentieth century sobered us up considerably. Those throngs of young men outside Britain's recruiting offices in August 1914 were expecting a short spell of dangerous fun. "It'll all be over by Christmas," was the expectation. Nobody foresaw the appalling massacres of the Western Front.
Around 1930 Winston Churchill complained that, quote:
War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid. In fact it has been completely spoilt.
Churchill knew what he was talking about. As a 23-year-old cavalryman in 1898, he had ridden into battle on horseback against the Sudanese at Omdurman, a German-made automatic pistol in his hand. Then, in the second year of World War One, he served with an infantry regiment on the Western Front.
World War One was the turning point. Nobody enlisted in World War Two expecting it to be cruel and magnificent. Nobody much enlisted at all with any enthusiasm; they had to be drafted. Indeed, When America joined in World War One, two and a half years along, by which time the horrors of trench warfare were pretty well known, even they had to be drafted. Twenty years later men went off to fight World War Two in a spirit of grim fatalism.
So it's not only fear of nukes that makes great-power war unlikely, although nukes are a factor. It's the nature of modern war itself.
It is also, as I mentioned last week, demography. By the time war broke out in 1914 my maternal grandmother had given birth to twelve children. Later she had one more. Grandma Derbyshire was a bit of a slacker on the childbirth front: she had only four.
In advanced nations nowadays, nobody has thirteen children, and four is considered an oddity. Battle deaths are correspondingly more feared, with the obvious effects on public enthusiasm for war.
Again, we shouldn't under-estimate our leaders' capacity to do dumb, crazy things. In important respects, though, this is not 1914.
06—Emotional exhibitionism. In some less important respects, this is 1914, or perhaps a year or two later.
That was when everything German was being banished from public life in the allied nations, or at least renamed. This was, I think, more of a thing in Britain than in the U.S.A. The breed of dog called "German shepherd" in America is the one I grew up in England calling "Alsatian," a World War One renaming.
The biggest renaming of all was effected on Britain's ruling dynasty. They were of German origin. (My father, who was born in the 19th century and an anti-monarchist, referred to them as "those bloody Germans"—a bit unfairly. Queen Victoria's first language was German and she married a German; but all later monarchs had English as their first language.)
In 1917, though, as the war looked set fair to go on for ever, King George the Fifth changed the name of the dynasty from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, and Windsor it has remained. The German Kaiser, who was not much given to humor, managed to get a joke out of this, quote:
I look forward to the next performance of the play The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg Gotha.
Well, since the Russians marched into Ukraine there has been something similar going on with regard to Russia. Last Friday, the day after the invasion, the philharmonic orchestra of Zagreb in Croatia removed two works by Tchaikovsky from a concert they were giving, "to voice solidarity with the Ukrainian people," they explained.
In the same spirit, a university in Milan, in Italy, suspended a course of lectures on Dostoyevsky on March 1st, although I believe they have since reversed their decision.
Oh, here's one from The New York Post, March 1st, quote:
As the war in Ukraine escalates, customer traffic is drying up at the Russian Tea Room.
The opulent eatery on West 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan—a mecca in its heyday for A-listers like Frank Sinatra, Raquel Welch, Liza Minelli, and John Derbyshire—stood nearly empty on Tuesday.
Over three hours at lunchtime, a mere 16 customers filtered in and out of the restaurant's lavishly decorated dining room, famously outfitted with red banquettes, ornate samovars and old paintings on the walls. At the height of the lunch hour, a table of eight was outnumbered by twice as many staff.
End quote. I may have embellished that slightly … there is always the temptation.
Most distressing of all for us opera lovers, the wonderful Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, with whom I once engaged in some playful banter, will no longer appear at the Metropolitan Opera this season or next. That's after failing to comply with the Met's demand that she publicly distance herself from Putin, for whom she has expressed support in the past.
I deplore this kind of thing. It's well-intentioned, I know, but it does nothing to improve things.
In fact it's counter-productive. By boycotting the Russian Tea Room and booting out Anna Netrebko you are doing nothing for the Ukrainians while alienating that educated, cultivated segment of the Russian population that is the most anti-Putin.
As the late Robert Wesson showed, Russia's national personality is schizophrenic. Culturally they belong to the West; politically, to the East. In our dealings with them we should always pull on the Western inclination—try to get them away from the inclination to oriental despotism.
The Tea Room boycotters and Tchaikovsky cancellers aren't pulling on Russia's Westernizing tendencies, they are stomping on them.
07—Miscellany. And now, our closing miscellany of brief items.
Imprimis: One encouraging feature of the Russia-Ukraine war is the resistance to it in Russia. There have been demonstrations, protests, and petitions.
A favorite of mine among the petitions is a February 24th open letter in the popular science magazine Troitsky Variant signed by more than 130 Russian scientists and science journalists.
They don't hold back. Sample quotes:
There is no rational justification for this war. Obviously, Ukraine poses no threat to the security of Russia …
We demand an immediate halt to all military operations directed against Ukraine. We demand respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state. We demand peace for our countries.
This is not your grandfather's Russia. In your grandfather's Russia no-one would have dared sign that, or publish it.
Item: As I predicted, China is striking a pose of lofty detachment from the Russia-Ukraine war. The closest they have come to public support for Russia was abstaining in the U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution deploring Russia's actions.
Behind the scenes you may be sure the ChiComs are helping Russia as much as they can, both nations having as their primary geostrategic principle anything that vexes the U.S.A.
A thing that I haven't seen commented on anywhere is the fate of Mongolia. The territory currently making up the nation of Mongolia was part of the last Chinese Empire, which disintegrated in 1911. The Republic of China, which was the successor state to the Chinese Empire, went on claiming Mongolia as part of its territory, although they were too weak to enforce the claim.
The Mongolians had other ideas, anyway. From the early 1920s on they aligned with Soviet Russia. They were a Soviet satellite all the way through to the end of the Cold War.
China—neither the Republic nor the People's Republic—weren't happy about this. When Nikita Khrushchev visited Mao Tse-tung in 1958, Mao's opening statement was a demand for the "return" of Mongolia.
Mongolia today is an independent nation with a democratically-elected government and more personal freedom than either Russia or China. On the Freedom House rankings, in fact, it's slightly freer than the U.S.A.!
Everybody's wondering whether Russia's move on Ukraine has given China ideas about moving on Taiwan. What if it's given China ideas about moving on Mongolia? There are lots of tasty mineral deposits there … And with Russia ever more dependent on China, it's not likely they would dispute Chinese action.
Does Radio Derb have any listeners in Mongolia? I'd like to know what they think about this.
Item: I think everyone knows that one of the classics of Chinese literature is the 14th-century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a grand historical saga about events in the third century.
I recall a conversation I had forty years ago with a well-educated Chinese gent. He told me that for clues as to how the next few decades of world history would play out—the eighties, nineties, and so on—the best guide was that novel. "America, Russia, China, see? The Three Kingdoms, struggling for supremacy!"
I pooh-poohed that at the time, with America and the U.S.S.R. locked in nuclear stalemate and China just staggering out from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
Now I'm not so sure. I may pull down my copy of the Three Kingdoms and do some refresher reading …
Item: And then, crypto. Might the Russians use crypto-currency as a way of evading the financial sanctions we've imposed on them?
Our government apparently thinks so. Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was testifying in front of the House Financial Services Committee this week. Asked precisely that question, Powell said the Fed is looking into it. The Russia-Ukraine war has, quote from Powell, "underscored the need for Congressional action on digital finance including cryptocurrencies." End quote.
That may be easier said than done. On Tuesday, the day before Powell's testimony, the ZeroHedge website reported that when the Biden administration asked global crypto exchanges to help monitor transactions by Russian individuals or entities trying to avoid sanctions, at least three exchanges, one of them Coinbase Global, refused to cooperate.
That shows a healthy spirit on the part of the exchanges. The whole point of crypto is to be free of manipulation or control by governments.
Can the exchanges keep their independence in the teeth of concerted action by the U.S.A. and EU? You don't have to be a fan of Russian oligarchs and their financial interests to hope the exchanges can.
08—Signoff. That's this week's ration, ladies and gents. Thank you very much for your time and attention, and welcome to Women's History Month—or, as some call it, "March."
To World War One buffs the phrase "plucky little Belgium" summons up an earworm, an actual song on the theme from early on in the war. There's my signout music, right there.
This is an actual 1915 recording, so it's hard to make out the words. To help out on that, I'll read 'em off before playing the clip.
The Kaiser, full of sausage
Dreamt Napoleon he'd be,
Then he went and broke his promise,
It was made in Germany.
He shook hands with Britannia
And eternal peace he swore.
The naughty boy, he spoke of peace
While he prepared for war.
He stirred up little Serbia
To serve his dirty tricks
But dirty nights at Liège
Quite upset this Dirty Dick.
His luggage labelled "England,"
His programme nicely set,
He shouted "First stop Paris,"
But he hasn't got there yet.
For Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser;
Europe brought the cane and made him sore;
And on his throne it hurts to sit,
And when John Bull starts to hit,
He may never sit upon it any more.
But Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser;
Europe brought the cane and made him sore;
And now he's landed in the woods,
We won't buy his German goods.
And we'll never taste his lager any more!
There will be more from Radio Derb next week.
[Music clip: Mark Sheridan, "Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser."]