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William Pitt the Elder

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William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), later 1st Earl of Chatham, was a chief minister of Great Britain (there was still ambivalence to the title of Prime Minister). He was bombastic, mercurial, confrontational and he may have been manic-depressive.

He changed Anglo-American politics forever. If you live in Pittsburgh, Pittston, Pittsboro or various Pittsfields or Chathams, your place of residence was named in recognition of William Pitt.

Paymaster of the Forces

Between 1746 and 1755, Pitt served as Paymaster of the Forces, effectively the treasurer of the British Army. At that time, the office was extremely lucrative for the holder, with two principle perquisites:

  • Ability to skim the interest in army funds, including the soldiers’ pay;
  • Ability to skim the profits of sale of military assets, such as the sale of old military supplies.

Although Henry Pelham, who has previously been paymaster of the forces, had refused these perquisites, he had been private about it. Pitt publicly renounced them. This example initiated a change in the way we conceive of the conduct of a political office holder. What had been looked upon as standard operating procedure, and remained so in many other countries, became viewed as corruption in the Anglo-American tradition.

Pitt initiated this change, and he did it not through introducing laws or launching a crusade, but by the simple force of his own example.

The Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War began in 1756 and initially went very badly for Britain and her allies. The Braddock Expedition had been smashed in 1755. In the early years of the war France took Minorca, Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry. Hanover, allied to Britain through the King, was forced to withdraw from the war.

I know I can save this country and that I alone can.
— William Pitt, 1756

In 1757, Pitt entered into a coalition government with a man who had been his enemy: Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle. They divided their responsibilities: Pitt managed the war against France in their colonies, while Newcastle managed the war in Europe. Pitt obtained the funding to support world war, while Newcastle handled the patronage needed to keep the coalition in power.

Our bells are worn threadbare with the ringing of victories.
— Horace Walpole, 1759

1759 is remembered as an Annus Mirabilis for the harvest of victories over the French. In North America, Britain captured Fort Ticonderoga and Quebec, and drove the French from the Ohio Country after taking Fort Duquesne the previous autumn. British forces captured Guadeloupe. In Europe, the Navy destroyed the French capacity to launch an invasion of Britain, establishing itself as the dominant naval power, and Britain with her allies won the Battle of Minden. In India, British forces relieved the Siege of Madras.

For the remainder of the war, Britain consolidated and expanded on these gains, collapsing French holdings in India and North America east of the Mississippi.

The American Colonies

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1763

Britain had become concerned about how to pay for the enormous army it had created during the Seven Years’ War. Sons of powerful landed families had purchased commissions as officers in new regiments. It would have been unthinkable to buy them out, but how were these regiments to be supported financially? A plan for an excise tax on cider, which would have landed principally on the country gentry, had gone down to dramatic defeat in 1763, taking George III’s favorite, the Earl of Bute, along with it.

George Grenville then became first minister, and sought to solve the problem by taxing the American colonies through the introduction of Sugar and Stamp Acts. More odious than their tax effects was their intent to bypass colonial legislatures in imposing taxation. Townshend and his allies maintained that the colonies had “virtual representation” in the British Parliament.

The Stamp Act led to riots in America and attacks on British agents who collected the taxes. By January, 1766, there was sharp division in Parliament. Grenville had worn out his welcome with the King, who replaced him with Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who brought Edmund Burke along with him as personal private secretary. Rockingham wanted to repeal the Stamp Act, but a substantial number of MPs were unwilling to yield the conceptual right of Parliament to impose taxes. Virtual representation was also seen as essential; the same doctrine addressed the representation of cities such as Manchester, which had no representatives of their own in Commons.

Pitt was not buying the idea of virtual representation, and foresaw the future of reform:

This is what is called the rotten part of the Constitution. It can not continue a century. If it does not drop, it must be amputated. The idea of a virtual representation of America in this House is the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man. It does not deserve a serious refutation.

The Commons of America represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of the exercise of this, their constitutional right, of giving and granting their own money. They would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed it! At the same time, this kingdom, as the supreme governing and legislative power, has always bound the colonies by her laws, by her regulations, and restrictions in trade, in navigation, in manufactures, in every thing, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.

After this, Grenville rose to voice his objections, and then Pitt returned in reply.

The gentleman tells us, America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.

Pitt concluded:

Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the House what is my opinion. It is, that the Stamp Act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately. That the reason for the repeal be assigned—viz., because it was founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time, let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend to every point of legislation whatsoever; that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever, except that of taking money from their pockets without consent.

[Full text of speech and rebuttal:]

The distinction between binding their trade and taking money from their pockets without consent escaped many of the members in attendance.

If you understand the difference, it is more than I do, but I assure you it was very fine when I heard it.
— Lord George Germain, 1766

Whigs were always having to navigate the treacherous space where liberty and order met; it would ultimately undo them. But that was more than a century in the future.

Rockingham yoked a Declaratory Act, asserting the theoretical right of Parliament to tax the colonies, to repeal of the Stamp Act, recognizing the impracticality of doing so in this manner.

Chief Ministry

Being responsible, I will direct and will be responsible for nothing I do not direct.
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1761

His time as chief minister was short: 1766-1768. He selected a cabinet of very capable men, but there were no precedents by which he could require them to work together or to all pull in the same direction. Pitt himself was too obstinate and too much of a loner to do the backstairs politicking that would have been necessary to bring the group together as a team. His term as chief minister is generally considered a failure.

In 1767, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the Revenue Act of 1767, first of a series of bills remembered to history as the Townshend Acts.

Pitt himself, now Earl of Chatham, had gone into seclusion in 1768. Only in 1770 did he return to his seat in the House of Lords. He was still an intermittent participant. Without his leadership, his allies — Rockingham, Burke, the Earl of Shelburne — were in disarray the government’s back-and-forth measures in America spun out of control.

Weakened by illness, Pitt played an increasingly marginal role in British politics, until he finally collapsed on the floor of Parliament in 1778.

Nevertheless, he had a profound effect on our political traditions.


Written by srojak

March 4, 2017 at 1:23 pm

US Constitiution 1.1

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In 1979, Theodore Lowi released the second edition of his book The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States. Lowi teaches at Cornell and would be characterized as a liberal; for example, he advocates government planning. However, he is also a proponent of the rule of law. The evolution of the political processes away from law and representative government toward bargaining and interest-group government began to trouble him by the time he wrote the first edition of the book ten years earlier.

Where contemporaries saw government departure from formalism as pragmatic, Lowi saw it as corrupt. Where reality deviates from formalism, we find arbitrariness, influence-peddling and injustice. He wrote the best defense of political idealism I have seen:

The gap between form and reality gives rise to cynicism, for informality means that some will escape their fate better than others. There has, as a consequence, always been cynicism toward public institutions in the United States, and this, too, is a good thing, since a little cynicism is the parent of healthy sophistication. However, when the informal is elevated to a positive virtue, and when the gap between the formal and the informal grows wider, and when the hard-won access of individuals and groups becomes a share of official authority, cynicism unavoidably curdles into distrust. Legitimacy can be defined as the distance between form and reality. How much spread can a democratic system tolerate and remain both democratic and legitimate?
The End of Liberalism, p. 297.

Although he did not use the term, the mechanisms that Lowi describes are that of corporatism: public-private partnerships in rule-making and governance. Although Lowi did not name it, he described it well enough:

The state grows, but the opportunities for sponsorship and privilege grow proportionately. Power goes up, but in the form of personal plunder rather than public choice. If would not be accurate to evaluate this model as “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor,” because many thousands of low-income persons and groups have provided within the system. The more accurate characterization might be “socialism for the organized, capitalism for the unorganized.”
Ibid, pp. 278-9.

For the second edition, Lowi reverse engineered a new constitution for the government from actual practice, in an attempt to highlight the spread between form and reality.

There ought to be a national presence in every aspect of the lives of American citizens. National power is no longer a necessary evil; it is a positive virtue.

Article I. It is the primary purpose of this national government to provide domestic tranquility by reducing risk. This risk may be physical or it may be fiscal. In order to fulfill this sacred obligation, the national government shall be deemed to have sufficient power to eliminate threats from the environment through regulation, and to eliminate threats from economic uncertainty through insurance.

Article II. The separation of powers to the contrary notwithstanding, the center of this national government is the presidency. Said office is authorized to use any powers, real or imagined, to set our nation to rights by making any rules or regulations the president deems appropriate; the president may subdelegate this authority to any other official or agency. The right to make all such rules and regulations is based upon the assumption in this constitution that the office of the presidency embodies the will of the real majority of the American nation.

Article III. Congress exists, but only as a consensual body. Congress possesses all legislative authority, but should limit itself to the delegation of broad grants of unstructured authority to the president. Congress must take care never to draft a careful and precise statute because this would interfere with the judgment of the president and his professional and full-time administrators.

Article IV. There exists a separate administrative branch composed of persons whose right to govern is based upon two principles: (1) the delegation of power flowing from Congress, and (2) the authority inherent in professional training and promotion through an administrative hierarchy. Congress and the courts may provide for administrative procedures and have the power to review agencies for their observance of these procedures; but in no instance should Congress or the courts attempt to displace the judgment of the administrators with their own.

Article V. The judicial branch is responsible for two functions:
1. To preserve the procedural rights of citizens before all federal courts, state and local courts and administrative agencies, and
2. To apply the Fourteenth Amendment of the 1787 Constitution as a natural-law defense of all substantive and procedural rights.
The appellate courts shall exercise vigorous judicial review of all state and local government and court decisions, but in no instance shall the courts review the constitutionality of Congress’ grants of authority to the president or to the federal administrative agencies.

Article VI. The public interest shall be defined by the satisfaction of the voters in their constituencies. The test of the public interest is re-election.

Article VII. Article VI to the contrary notwithstanding, actual policymaking will not come from voter preferences or congressional enactments but from a process of tripartite bargaining between the specialized administrators, relevant members of Congress and the representatives of self-selected organized interests.

How did he do? How closely did he bring the form of his constitution to matches what actually happens?

Written by srojak

October 15, 2016 at 2:48 pm

How Neville Chamberlain Went Wrong

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I believe it is safe to say that most Americans who have ever heard of Neville Chamberlain associate him with appeasement of Hitler and selling out Czechoslovakia at Munich. Why did Chamberlain think that appeasement was a good idea?

Chamberlain had been a managing director of a ship berth manufacturer for 17 years. He had also been Lord Mayor of Birmingham, as had his father before him. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer twice, from 1923-24 and again from 1931-37, at which time he succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister.

Britain had not prospered after World War I, and the Depression had hit hard. Known in Britain as The Great Slump, it was a time of technological progress but economic distress. Official unemployment reached 25%, but some areas in the industrial North of England experienced 70% unemployment. Entire towns, such as Jarrow in Durham, were plunged into hardship as industries closed; the most famous of the hunger marches was the Jarrow Crusade. Chamberlain concluded that the country could not afford to keep up with Germany in military spending.

It was a decision that Chamberlain had reached mostly by himself. Ian Colvin researched the proceedings of the Chamberlain cabinet and found little policy discussion. Ministers who disagreed with Chamberlain, such as Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper, were ignored until they went away in frustration. He is known to have preferred to surround himself with people who would ratify his decisions, such as Samuel Hoare and John Simon.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.
— Neville Chamberlain, radio address, 27 Sept 1938.

Chamberlain had believed that war would be disastrous both for Britain and the Empire, and he was right. What he was wrong about was how to prevent that war. Chamberlain believed that Hitler was a rational statesman with whom one could negotiate rationally. Hitler only respected strength, but Chamberlain did not want to hear that. Because of the way he managed his cabinet, there was no one to persuade him otherwise.

So Hitler had to show Chamberlain the error of his ways. On 15 Mar 1939, contrary to his claims to have no further territorial demands in Europe, Hitler invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia. This area was not ethnically German and there were no legitimate German ethnic claims to it. The action shattered the illusion that Hitler was only seeking redress of the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles.

Britain now belatedly recognized the seriousness of the menace and guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity. When Hitler violated that on 1 Sept, after two further days of “you better or I’m gonna,” Chamberlain reluctantly declared war. Privately, he admitted the futility of his policy:

Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins.


Written by srojak

July 24, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Wayne Bidwell Wheeler

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348px-Wayne_Bidwell_Wheeler,_half-length_portraitThis man, who looks like he might have been a bank clerk for George Bailey, actually has his fingerprints on three amendments to the Constitution. He coined the phrase “pressure group” and directed the efforts of the first effective such creature. He personally supervised Congress for over ten years. Now he is almost completely forgotten; that is not right.

Wheeler was born in 1869, on a farm in northeast Ohio. While he was still a boy, a drunk hired hand on the farm stabbed Wheeler in the leg with a hayfork. This event influenced Wheeler to be militantly opposed to alcohol.

He worked his way through Oberlin College, where he was recruited by Howard Russell Hyde, founder of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). At the time, the leading anti-alcohol organization was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU campaigned for prohibition, but also for women’s right to vote, government ownership of utilities and factories, prison reform and vegetarianism. By contrast, the ASL would be laser focused on one goal: national prohibition of the production and distribution of alcohol. Anyone who supported this cause was a friend; anyone who opposed it was an enemy.

Billy Sunday, meet pioneering social worker Jane Addams: you’re working together now. The evangelical clergy of the age were motivated to support Prohibition because of their faith; reformers like Addams signed on because of the devastating effect that drunkenness had on the urban poor. Ku Klux Klan, shake hands with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW): you’re on the same team. The Klan’s anti-liquor sentiment was rooted in its hatred of the immigrant masses in liquor-soaked cities; the IWW believed that liquor was a capitalist weapon used to keep the working classes in a stupor.
— Daniel Okrent, “Wayne B. Wheeler: The Man Who Turned Off the Taps,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2010 (

While still studying law, Wheeler was already working full time for the ASL, speaking and recruiting in Ohio. Before long, Wheeler and the ASL had tossed out 70 state legislators who were not sufficiently dry. Having control of the Ohio legislature, Wheeler could put through a local-option law that would allow individual towns and counties to vote themselves dry.

In 1905, Governor Myron T. Herrick had pushed for changes to the local-option bill that, in the view of the ASL, compromised it. The ASL demanded revenge and Wheeler set out to obtain it. Herrick was backed by Mark Hanna, the Republican boss who also created William McKinley. Herrick was popular and politically successful. Nevertheless, Wheeler set his sights on Herrick, organizing more than 300 rallies against Herrick that year. Wheeler succeeded in unelecting Herrick, providing another object lesson for politicians of the power of the ASL.

Never again will any political party ignore the protests of the church and the moral forces of the state.
— Wayne Wheeler

Wheeler had figured out that his ability to mobilize a large bloc of voters gave him disproportionate political power. His key insight was that he didn’t need a majority of people; he needed a majority of people who showed up to vote. In a straight-up referendum on prohibition of alcohol sales, the ASL could only command a minority. However, the ASL could decisively influence an election by isolating their single issue and mobilizing voters, exerting influence beyond their numbers and tipping the scales for the dry candidate and against the wet.

Having asserted control of Ohio, the ASL was ready to go national. However, national prohibition would be impossible as long as Washington was hooked on alcohol. The federal government depended on excise taxes on alcohol for revenue; these taxes had provided as much as 40% of annual revenues since the Civil War. Without a substitute, Prohibition was unthinkable.

The ASL thus teamed up with progressives to pass the Sixteenth Amendment, creating the income tax. Overnight, the government’s dependence on alcohol was removed. Now Wheeler could work on what the ASL called “The Next and Final Step”: national prohibition.

I do it the way the bosses do it, with minorities. We’ll vote against all the men in office who won’t support our bills. We’ll vote for candidates who will promise to. We are teaching these crooks that breaking their promises to us is surer of punishment than going back on their bosses, and some day they will learn that all over the United States—and we’ll have national Prohibition.
— Wayne Wheeler, speaking to Lincoln Steffens

In 1914, resolutions for Prohibition and women’s suffrage amendments finally emerged from congressional committees. The ASL saw women’s votes as essential to overcoming obstacles to Prohibition, although ultimately the Prohibition amendment would jump ahead of the amendment granting women the right to vote.

By 1916, the ASL was ready for the final push. They had spent over $50 million in 2010 dollars. The payoff was a favorable Congress, four more states voting themselves dry and the defeat of every wet measure in every state. Wheeler had set up a printing plant in Westerville, Ohio, that produced more than forty tons of flyers, pamphlets and other printed matter a month in support of Prohibition. Understanding his alliance with progressives, Wheeler had made sure the plant was a union shop.

There was also urgency for the final push. In 1920, there would be a census, followed by redistricting. Cities would gain representation in Congress, at the expense of rural areas. Cities were wet; the countryside was dry. Wheeler liked to quote William Cowper: “God made the country, and man made the town.” So when Senator Boise Penrose of Pennsylvania, an ardent wet, demanded a seven-year limit on ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, Wheeler and the ASL had no objection. They knew they didn’t really even have that long. In the event, ratification by 36 states took thirteen months.

For the next six years, Wheeler sat in the Senate gallery, watching over Congress, the President and the new Prohibition Bureau whose staffing he controlled. He supported tainting drinkable alcohol with poison, saying, “The person who drinks this … is a deliberate suicide.” Wheeler retired in 1926 and died a year later.

Nothing is more certain than that when the next history of this age is examined by dispassionate men, Wheeler will be considered one of its most extraordinary figures.
The Baltimore Sun

He is little remembered today, but those who study the events of one hundred years ago must conclude he was an extraordinary figure. If there were a lobbyist’s hall of fame, a statue of Wheeler would belong in the front entryway. He showed future single-interest political pressure groups how do get it done.

Written by srojak

May 3, 2016 at 5:28 am

Remembering Two Teachers

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Two of my high school teachers who contributed to my future.

Two of my high school teachers who contributed to my future.

Do not get the idea that I liked English. It was never fun and kept getting worse. Halfway through the first quarter, when Mrs. Malarek told us that we had seen the last of grammar, we knew what that meant: literature and composition from here on out. Yuck.

I did not enjoy the subject and I hated writing. I didn’t stay in contact with either of these women; I haven’t seen them since the day I graduated. However, they made me do work that enhanced my future ability to earn my way in the world. This blog would not have been possible — or readable — without them. I owe them gratitude for the way they performed their work, and it is high time I said, “Thank you.” Here is why.


When Mrs. Malarek gave a writing assignment, you showed up that day with your outline prepared. For an entire 45 minute class period, you wrote your composition. Then you handed in the outline and the composition.

It was unpleasant, but it was over. Better, it forced me to put the time into it. At that point in my life, I probably would not have done half of them at all if I had been required to do them at home under my own steam. Those that I had done would have been slipshod affairs.

Because I had no alternative but to sit in class and do the work, I got better at it. I went through the experience of completing the assignments and getting them back with good grades. I proved to myself that I could apply myself and do the work. Doing the work is where real self-esteem comes from, not authority figures blowing sweet nothings in your ear.

A side note about literature: I went back in my twenties and re-read Winesburg, Ohio. Having spent time in Ohio after high school, it meant more to me than it did when I was still a sophomore. Part of the problem we have with literature in high school is that we just aren’t ready for it.

The Book Report

While I remember Mrs. Malarek for the way she conducted class for an entire year, I remember Mrs. Ippolito most for one specific assignment.

There is a time-honored tradition of writing any BS in a book report, and I was fully steeped in that tradition. Imagine my surprise one day when Mrs. Ippolito handed us our completed book report back with a form attached to it. The form was to be filled out with each claim we made in the book report and substantiated with three passages from the book that supported that claim.

Are you kidding me? I have to back up what I wrote in the book report? I would never have written the thing that way if I had known that was going to happen. I never forgot the experience of being called upon to come back and support my statements.

While what I learned in Mrs. Malarek’s class helps me write faster, what I learned in Mrs. Ippolito’s class slows me down. I have to fact check. I have to look up exactly what the person said, instead of just slapping it down as I remember it. I am mindful that I could always have someone challenge me to substantiate what I write.

Imagine what our political shows and our journalism could benefit from the Ippolito method. Imagine how much more substantive our public discourse would be if some of the people up there in front of the camera or behind the keyboard had experienced a teacher like that at school.

Written by srojak

February 24, 2015 at 7:07 pm

Happy Birthday, Eric Blair

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Better known to the world by his pen name, George Orwell. Born 25 Jun 1903.

Quotable quotes from George Orwell.


  • Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
  • Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
  • In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
  • Political chaos is connected with the decay of language… one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.
  • So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.


  • People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
  • The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.


  • There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them.
  • The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.
  • We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.
  • The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.


  • Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.
  • Not to expose your true feelings to an adult seems to be instinctive from the age of seven or eight onwards.
  • To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others.
  • Many people genuinely do not want to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.
  • When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.
  • At fifty everyone has the face he deserves.

Written by srojak

June 25, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Posted in People

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OK, He’s Not Stalin

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One of the problems I find with The Nation is that reading its content makes me ask, “which nation?” Surely not the United States. Surely not a country I would want to live in.

Once again this is on display in the March 3 article by Stephen Cohen, “Distorting Russia” []. The article has a mixture of well-grounded criticism and PR for Russian interests, with a dollop of standard-issue internationalism thrown in. So let’s work through it. All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the article.

There are notable exceptions, but a general pattern has developed. Even in the venerable New York Times and Washington Post, news reports, editorials and commentaries no longer adhere rigorously to traditional journalistic standards, often failing to provide essential facts and context; to make a clear distinction between reporting and analysis; to require at least two different political or “expert” views on major developments; or to publish opposing opinions on their op-ed pages. As a result, American media on Russia today are less objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.

Welcome to Earth, Dr. Cohen. Have you been living on a desert island for several decades? News reporting in general is failing to adhere to journalistic standards, does not provide essential facts and context and does not distinguish between reporting and analysis. Journalists often report the fact of a persons’ opinion as if it were a fact about an event. The decline of journalism is not a sudden revelation.

As to “conformist,” I must ask, conforming to what? This charge, and the unsubstantiated way it is thrown around, appears to owe a heavy debt to Mrs. Stephen Cohen, a.k.a. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.

The history of this degradation is also clear. It began in the early 1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union, when the US media adopted Washington’s narrative that almost everything President Boris Yeltsin did was a “transition from communism to democracy” and thus in America’s best interests.

While I don’t agree that the narrative originated in Washington or was as clear-cut as he renders, Cohen has a point. When the media were paying attention to Russia at all, they tended to paint everything going on as not-Soviet and therefore wonderful. As Cohen cites, there was a lot of disruption, corruption (more on this later) and abuse of power going on.

Since the early 2000s, the media have followed a different leader-centric narrative, also consistent with US policy, that devalues multifaceted analysis for a relentless demonization of Putin, with little regard for facts.

I do not believe that this was true since the early 2000s. I will say that there was a natural mistrust of a man who rose through the KGB ranks. However, certainly recent events have prompted journalists looking to build stories with cognitive simplicity to paint Putin as a black hat. The Pussy Riot episode and the repression of Russian dissidents have fed into this.

The Evil Vladimir narrative is accelerated by his position on homosexuality, which is at odds with Western orthodoxy on the subject. In January, Putin made a statement that Russia must cleanse itself of homosexuality, triggering stories such as this:

Inside of Russia, the consensus is that as soon as the Olympic torch goes out, enforcement of the so-called “anti-propaganda law” and the state-sanctioned violence that accompanies it will increase.  New laws, such as the proposal to tear children away from same-sex families, will likely be passed.  And the wholesale destruction of civil society, of which the anti-gay laws, the “Foreign Agents” law, the NGO law, and dozens of administrative measures, will continue.
— “Putin’s Post-Sochi LGBT Crackdown”, The Daily Beast,

Look at the verbs in the above text. They are all future tense. They cannot possibly be facts, because they have yet to happen. Even the “wholesale destruction of civil society” which, if it is happening, needs to be substantiated, “will continue”. The continuation of an trend which is arguable but not confirmed is itself a future occurrence. So where are the facts here? It may be a fact that some people have this opinion, but that does not make this factual reporting.

And consensus among whom? The evidence from Russia is that his policies in these areas do obtain some popular support, and in fact he is building his political position by going after such easy targets as gays.

If nothing else, American journalists gave terrorists an early victory, tainting “Putin’s Games” and frightening away many foreign spectators, including some relatives of the athletes.

The Sochi Games were seen by all parties as symbolic, and as anyone who has sat through a high school literature class knows, symbolism is in the eye of the beholder. Symbolism is naturally subjective and we won’t get far arguing about it.

The Sochi Games will soon pass, triumphantly or tragically, but the potentially fateful Ukrainian crisis will not. A new Cold War divide between West and East may now be unfolding, not in Berlin but in the heart of Russia’s historical civilization. The result could be a permanent confrontation fraught with instability and the threat of a hot war far worse than the one in Georgia in 2008. These dangers have been all but ignored in highly selective, partisan and inflammatory US media accounts, which portray the European Union’s “Partnership” proposal benignly as Ukraine’s chance for democracy, prosperity and escape from Russia, thwarted only by a “bullying” Putin and his “cronies” in Kiev.

While it is true that Kiev is the heart of Russia’s historical civilization, the Moscow governments have done much to cut that heart out, not the least of which is the Holodomor, the Ukrainian Terror Famine of 1930-33. We still argue about the number of millions of people who died in that man-made event. The Ukrainians have never forgotten an event that most American readers don’t even know happened.

At the same time, the southern and eastern districts of the Ukraine are heavily populated with ethnic Russians. In the time-honored East European tradition, these people expect reprisals when the Ukrainians take power, and ill-advised measures such as voiding the right of local governments to conduct business in the Russian language feed this fear.

This map shows the geographic dimensions of the problem the Ukraine faces. The ethnic Ukrainian people, in Kiev and to the west, supported the party of Yulia Tymoshenko and Alexander Turchinov in 2012. The ethnic Russian minorities, who are in fact majorities in the Crimea and nearly so in Donetsk, supported the party of Viktor Yanukovych. Meanwhile, there is another population center, Lviv, which Poles call Lwów and Germans call Lemberg. This region was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945 and folded into what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. They are much more western-oriented than anyone in Kiev, let alone Kharkiv.

So Kiev and Lviv don’t want to be dragged into Russia, while Kharkiv and Simferopol don’t want to be dragged away from Russia. However, the 1994 Budapest Memoranda, which Russia signed, guarantees the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. So the borders of the Ukraine are a legal fact and the use of force by Russia to overturn this is an abrogation of her treaty commitments.

Perhaps the largest untruth promoted by Snyder and most US media is the claim that “Ukraine’s future integration into Europe” is “yearned for throughout the country.” But every informed observer knows—from Ukraine’s history, geography, languages, religions, culture, recent politics and opinion surveys—that the country is deeply divided as to whether it should join Europe or remain close politically and economically to Russia. There is not one Ukraine or one “Ukrainian people” but at least two, generally situated in its Western and Eastern regions.

Thus, as shown in the map, there are really two polities as Cohen identifies. However, there is one sovereign nation. By advocating a Russian “right” to interfere in the affairs of the Russian minority in Kharkiv, Donetsk and the Crimea, Cohen is simply being the mouthpiece for an aggressive Russian effort to reassemble the Soviet Empire.

Furthermore, if one wants to get all historical, consider what that part of the world looked like 500 years ago:

Poland and Lithuania, 1635

Poland and Lithuania, 1635

Compare this to the green area map from 2012. This historical heritage is important because the areas under Polish-Lithuanian rule would have experienced much more of contemporary European thought developments than would the areas under Russian control. It makes the Ukrainian people much more European than the Russians.

Again without any verified evidence, [Snyder] warns of a Putin-backed “armed intervention” in Ukraine after the Olympics …

Well, Snyder got that one right, didn’t he?

But the most crucial media omission is Moscow’s reasonable conviction that the struggle for Ukraine is yet another chapter in the West’s ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia, which began in the 1990s with NATO’s eastward expansion and continued with US-funded NGO political activities inside Russia, a US-NATO military outpost in Georgia and missile-defense installations near Russia. Whether this longstanding Washington-Brussels policy is wise or reckless, it—not Putin’s December financial offer to save Ukraine’s collapsing economy—is deceitful. The EU’s “civilizational” proposal, for example, includes “security policy” provisions, almost never reported, that would apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO.

And this is the point at which I really part company with Cohen. In the great tradition of naïve idealist foreign policy, everything is so black-and-white that if you are not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it is deceitful. It is a heritage that The Nation is firmly rooted in and Dr. vander Heuvel — er, Dr. Cohen appears to have swallowed whole.

And what of Barack Obama’s decision to send only a low-level delegation, including retired gay athletes, to Sochi? In August, Putin virtually saved Obama’s presidency by persuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons. Putin then helped to facilitate Obama’s heralded opening to Iran. Should not Obama himself have gone to Sochi—either out of gratitude to Putin, or to stand with Russia’s leader against international terrorists who have struck both of our countries?

Gratitude? You have got to be kidding me. If President Obama still has his face pressed into his press clippings, he is too overwhelmed with the wonderfulness of himself to have gratitude toward anyone. If he has let any reality in, he has to be aware that Putin played him. In any event, American foreign policy would have been much more effective if people in power were not listening to people like Cohen.


One wants to react by saying that Eastern Europe and Russia are more complicated than we understand, but upon reflection, they are really simpler. Strength and power are respected, and the posturing that is required to get on in America or Western Europe doesn’t cut any ice over there. The tactics that work in the West, where powerful people obsess about being perceived as fair and equitable, are non-starters in other parts of the world where that behavior is understood as a weakness to be exploited. If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.

I return to a speech — well, a rant, really — given by Ambassador Alexander Konuzin in 2011:

You say Russia has only interests. Who doesn’t?

Exactly. We have interests, the Ukranians have interests and the Russians have interests. Naturally they come into conflict. We will pursue our interests as the Ukranians pursue theirs and the Russians theirs. We will use language that puts our actions in the best possible light, as will the Russians. We will use the language of diplomacy while availing ourselves of all options to achieve our policy goals, just like the Russians, the Chinese, the French and everybody else on the planet with two neurons to rub together. To return to the Ambassador:

Are you prepared to be a subject of international relations, or only an object?

A subject makes things happen. An object is something things happen to. Under the guidance of the idealists at The Nation, we would be objects in international relations. Include me out.

Who Is Vladimir Putin?

Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.
— Vladimir Putin, 2005

Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in what was then Leningrad, and served in the KGB (secret police) for 16 years, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He retired to enter politics in 1991.

There is no such thing as a former KGB man.
— Vladimir Putin

He rose rapidly in politics, and joined the federal administration in 1996. At the end of 1999, Boris Yeltsin surprised the nation by resigning and named Putin as Acting President. He had been President or Prime Minister of Russia ever since, and has put his own stamp on national policy.

He has his own personal website:

Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.
Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country’s integrity. Oligarchic groups — possessing absolute control over information channels — served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere.
— Vladimir Putin

The evidence of his actions suggests that Putin wants what he believes is best for Russia and the Russian people. He sees this through the lens of Russian history, traditions of strength and his KGB training and experience.

We don’t need a weakened government but a strong government that would take responsibility for the rights of the individual and care for the society as a whole.
— Vladimir Putin

This outlook is not unique to former KGB officers. Even dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn, when they looked west, saw mostly chaos, weakness and randomness. Indeed, the Smart Money in 1900 among Western intellectuals was that liberalism could not survive against the cohesion and unity of the totalitarian state.


Anglo-American standards of corruption are much different than found in the rest of world. The idea that it is morally objectionable to enrich oneself while in office through graft, backscratching and insider trading is much stronger in our tradition than in others.

Neither Russia nor the Ukraine have had a William Pitt in their history to advance the standards of conduct in government office. The Orange Revolution of 2004 petered out because it appeared to have simply handed the country over from one gang of thieves to another. Yanukovych, who took power in 2010, upped the ante both in terms of pillaging the country and repressing dissent.

The Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat, as the saying goes. It knows whom to eat and is not about to listen to anyone, it seems.
— Vladimir Putin, 2006

When he was starting to appear to lose control of the country in January, Prime Minister Medvedev said, “We need partners who are in good shape and for the authorities that work in Ukraine to be legitimate and effective, so that people don’t wipe their feet on the authorities like a doormat.” Yanukovych got the message, but he lost support of the people upon whom he depended to carry out his orders.

The demonstrators in Kiev and particularly in Lviv are looking for something more. Yulia Tymoshenko was welcomed back to freedom but not back to power. She was seen as part of the problem by the Maidan demonstrators. However, when Yanukovych prosecuted her for corruption, it was obviously an attempt to criminalize a political opponent, a standard play from the Soviet-era playbook.

However, it is one thing to aspire to better, and another to implement it. The economy is a shambles from all this looting; who will clean up the mess? How do you stay in power without being able to buy political love through corruption and cronyism? How do you get a nation from where it is to where it aspires to be?

Cognitive Simplicity

I recall, back in the 1980s, all these discussions over the issue of “can we trust Gorbachev?” Yes, we could trust Gorbachev to do what he believed to be best for the Soviet Union and its people. He didn’t need our permission to run his country.

Similarly, Putin will do what he believes to be in Russia’s interest. We won’t agree that what he does is even in the interest of all the Russians, but then he won’t agree that what our government does is in the interest of all the Americans, either.

The American media gives the impression of providing most stories about Russia as filler to an audience that has very little interest. The truth on the ground is at once both simpler and more complex. It requires understandings of culture, history and attitudes much different than ours. It can’t be reduced to the Goodies and the Baddies, and it can’t be delivered effectively in a two-minute segment.

Written by srojak

March 2, 2014 at 1:00 pm