If John McCain Was President
Shadi and Damir imagine an alternative history. Also: they get into an interesting disagreement on the distinction between nasty regimes and the people they represent.
In this subscriber-only discussion with readers, Shadi and Damir do a number of things, not least of which imagining a counterfactual history featuring a President John McCain. Enjoy.
Russians' Moral Responsibility In Wartime
A reader asks:
A former US ambassador recently said something to the effect that “there are no neutral Russians anymore,” meaning you either support or oppose Putin, it’s not allowed to just be alive and try to stay out of it. This reminds me of other absolutist dichotomous thinking of our times, and for example we’ve seen Russians living in the West lose their jobs for failure to denounce Putin. What do Shadi and Damir think is the obligation of the individual in the face of this crisis? Should Russians living abroad be obliged to denounce Putin at the risk of their jobs, or does this just demand meaningless virtue signaling? Are Americans ethically obliged to stop doing business with western companies that still operate there, or does that accomplish nothing other than harming the US workers of those companies? My question isn’t whether the individual is allowed to do such things, but what is required morally from individuals at this time? — Matthew Benham
Damir: I’m not that wound up about this on the level of the individual. I turn this question around in my head: I’m not as fond as Shadi is of making huge distinctions between “regime” and “people”. For all intents and purposes, Trump represented America for four years, no matter how much we didn’t like it. In a democracy and a free society, people can and do protest leaders they do not like, and can and do change out the leaders at the next election. That we have done so, however, does not somehow show that the American people somehow transcended Trump and Trumpism, that they are “better” than that “evil” man. All it means is our society is able to contest leadership more easily than a more authoritarian system. Trump is still a wholly authentic American phenomenon.
Same goes for Putin in Russia. Yes, he’s set up a particularly repressive, thieving regime. The people can’t remove him even if they wanted to. And these things matter. But it’s simply not very helpful to assume that he is somehow “alien” to Russia, that his views are abhorrent to the Russian people. They’re not. Putin is a wholly authentic Russian phenomenon, and the imperialist policy he’s pursuing in Ukraine is too.
Obviously, on balance, it’s better that states can make changes of leadership more easily, as it lets them correct errors quicker. And free societies are more prosperous societies. It’s of course also useful to try to make the public distinction between regime and people at time of war, to try to encourage regime overthrow. But should Putin’s end come soon, I’ll be very surprised if the Russian people show themselves to be that different on issues of foreign policy than the regime they’re under now.
Shadi: I do make more of a distinction between regimes and the individuals who live under them. I’m not sure it’s quite right to say that Putin is an authentic expression of the Russian people. We simply don’t know what individual Russians would choose, want—or become—if they had been socialized in a free, open democracy, and not a dictatorship where fear and paranoia governs everything. So it may be true that a majority of Russians still support Putin, despite everything, as some surveys have suggested. But they are products of their environment. As I argued in our episode with Sam Kimbriel, authoritarianism twists the soul, distorts our sense of moral purpose, and therefore renders us less morally culpable. You can only be fully morally culpable if you are free to choose between right and wrong. And that choice becomes much harder in a dictatorship. Not everyone can be courageous and sacrifice life and livelihood to do the “right thing.”
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Wisdom of Crowds to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.