Can western civilization get its mojo back?


This was supposed to be a continuation of Thursday’s post, Double jeopardy: because fair is fair! It was supposed to pick up where that one left off.

But I’m not going to. I’ve got too much stuff in the backlog and too much stuff I need to get done this weekend, so I’m just going to clear the buffers.

Flashpoint Lützerath

Earlier this week the news was all a-bubble with stories about a conflict in a sleepy little town in northern Germany. Here’s Danmarks Radio’s encapsulation of the story:

They have been huddled together in human chains, they’ve hung from three-legged stands, and they’ve protested for weeks about the demolition of the West German village of Lützerath.

The village is set to be removed in favor of an opencast coal mine operated by Germany’s energy giant RWE, drawing hundreds of climate activists to the small town.

The situation has also put Germany’s green party, the Greens, in something of a quandary.

The Greens are part of the German government , but also the ruling coalition in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the mine is located.

The party’s signature issue is the green agenda, but the war in Ukraine has forced the German government to change its plans for coal due to the energy crisis.

This is a bigger story than the journalismists seem to realize.

The German “energy crisis” was the logical and inevitable consequence of the German government’s decisions and actions. Due to pressure from the greens, Germany spent much of the last ten years phasing out its nuclear power plants and pushing for renewables, relying on natural gas from Russia to bridge the transition.

It wasn’t “the war in Ukraine” that’s forced the German government to change its plans: it was the stupidity of the plans themselves. Plans they pursued at the insistence of green extremists.

Now they’re so desperate for energy that they’ve got to get back into the coal mining business to keep the lights on.

So why anyone in Germany give a damn about the greens’ objections to coal?

“We followed your advice and it all blew up in our face—some of it literally. So please shut up and get out of the way while we fix all the problems we got from listening to you.”

But have no fear: St. Greta of Stockholm is on her way to sanctify the cause. From CNN:

It’s a deeply uncomfortable moment for the Greens and an unfathomable catastrophe for those who want to save the village.

“The pictures from Lützerath are of course painful, as we have always fought against the continued burning of coal,” said Lechtape, on behalf of the NRW Greens. “We know the importance of Lützerath as a symbol in the climate movement. However, this should not obscure what has been achieved,” he added.

The party’s discomfort may deepen on Saturday when a protest, organized by a coalition of climate groups, is expected to draw thousands of people to Lützerath—including Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg.

“It is now up to us to stop the wrecking balls and coal excavators. We will not make this eviction easy,” said Pauline Brünger from the climate group Fridays for Future.

Good luck with that.

(I wrote that Friday night. St. Greta has by now come and gone.)

Are We Decadent and Weak of Will?

From TV2 News:

When Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at the United States and Europe, he sees a weak West populated by a lot of people who will not sacrifice their own way of life or compromise it for a greater cause – not even when Europe is at war.

That’s the lede from an article about a Russian defector’s assessment of how Putin and his inner circle view the west.

The defector is Boris Bondarev, “the only Russian defector (to have defected as a direct result of the war) since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022… a diplomat with twenty years of experience.”

According to Bondarev:

In the West, Putin sees a lot of rich people who are used to living in comfort, who are very weak, and who are not willing to sacrifice their comfort for any deterioration of their way of life—and certainly not a war… Putin expects that the West will back down over time, stop supporting Ukraine, and admit defeat to Russia.

It’s an interesting premise alongside the story about Lützerath.

The green extremists seem very willing to sacrifice their comfort to impose their suicidal agenda on the rest of us.

They’re even more willing to sacrifice our comfort on behalf of their agenda.

But are the rest of us—we humble drudges who keep society moving along—are we not willing to sacrifice anything to preserve ourselves?

In various western cities, including Copenhagen, there are roving bands of green extremists going around and letting the air out of tires to make their point. A Grauniad journalismist accompanied one of these merry bands around New York’s upper east side one evening last summer.

The group – a mixture of ages and genders – split up as midnight approached, heading down the streets of the Upper East Side, lined by some of the most expensive apartments in the world and a gleaming parade of high-end, parked SUVs. This type of vehicle is the second largest cause of the global rise in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade.

The Tyre Extinguishers, as they call themselves, furtively hand around bags of lentils ahead of their raid (the legumes are jammed into a tire valve to release its air slowly overnight) and size up their quarry.

A hulking Land Rover, sporting a parking permit for a Hamptons beach, is an obvious initial target, but a loitering doorman from a nearby apartment complex unnerves the group. They scurry down the street, then double back and settle upon an Audi.

One of the group kneels down, unscrews the tire valve cap, stuffs a lentil inside and puts the cap back on. The tire immediately lets out a startled “pfft” noise, a leaflet is slapped on to the windshield and the group melts back into the night.

Creeping out in the dark, then scurrying away from a “loitering doorman.” That’s cockroach behavior.

I like to think this anonymous vandal had just flattened the SUV of the surgeon who might have saved his life the next day but hadn’t been able to get the hospital in time. (Alas, later in the article we learn that the vandals have also had that thought: they only halfway flatten the tire of an SUV with markers that identify it as belonging to a surgeon.)

The leaflet, complete with a Ghostbusters-style picture of a crossed-out SUV, states the vast amounts of planet-heating emissions generated by the vehicles are “nails in the coffin of our climate”, adding: “You’ll be angry, but don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s your car.”

“Don’t take it personally that we’re fucking with your life” is not a winning argument.

But they don’t care:

America has embraced large SUVs like no other country, even in liberal, walkable areas like the Upper East Side, so the activists face a steep task in attaching stigma to the supersized cars that now dominate US streets. But Tyre Extinguishers’ nascent US operation has been flooded with insults and even death threats. One message vowed to “deflate your lungs” while another critic, in a nod to the British roots of the campaign, wrote: “Damn you, Redcoats!”

The death threats aren’t a big concern, an activist named Alex insisted. “People have emailed ‘if you fuck up my SUV I will kill you’, which I get a kick out of, to be honest,” she said. “You’re not going to find me. It’s like, why are you so mad?”

“Why are they so mad?”

Is she deluded and retarded?

It’s like, why are you so fucking stupid? Someone who’s breaking no laws gets up one morning, gets down to the street to hop in their car and drive to work, and finds a flat tire and an obnoxious bit of political propaganda slapped on their windshield.

That’s why they’re angry, idiot.

Eventually the journalismist confronts the elephant in the room:

Tampering with random people’s property for being harmful to the environment is a departure from standard climate protests, which usually involve mass marches with signs, school “strikes” or direct action taken against large entities, such as Exxon or a bank. Tire deflations feel more like a pointed, personal judgment against a fellow citizen.

“Feels like” is one of those phrases they teach in journalisming school that can be used in place of “is.”

The journalismist nevertheless bends over backwards to defend the vandalism, going so far as to find an “expert” willing to justify it.

“It is like a public shaming,” said Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has researched environmental protests since the 1990s. “The target of public shaming is very unlikely to change their opinion from the shaming, so the question is, what’s the point? It’s an innovative, simple tactic to take the air out of someone’s tires, it’s not harmful, it’s just annoying. It’s like the training wheels to something confrontational.”

Fisher said she had noticed climate campaigners were becoming more confrontational, as frustration mounts over the dawdling pace of action to tackle the climate crisis. In the US, a summer that has seen record heatwaves, the supreme court boxing in the federal government’s response to the crisis and Congress yet again failing to deliver climate legislation will probably only fuel the impotent rage.

“There are a lot of people who care about the environment who are very disappointed and are looking for a protest tactic,” said Fisher. “You have people flying in private jets and driving SUVs, so there are lots of opportunities for bad feelings between people with different views on that. It wouldn’t surprise me if these actions are the start of something more confrontational and more destructive. I can see it exploding at some point.”

Yes, it feels like a public shaming, but Fisher’s final sentence shouldn’t be embraced too enthusiastically by the extremists: you push people hard enough, eventually they push back. Sooner or later, you get situations like this:

Now, that one played out as comedy, or at least dark satire. But situations are like that are always fraught: it only takes one little thing to push it into the realm of tragedy—as we’ve also seen.

(I don’t mean to mock the St. Louis couple, or to defend the thugs Kyle Rittenhouse killed in self-defense: only to observe that we’re all better off in the absence of such situations arising in the first place.)

And of course, one bonehead’s hasty act of violence can have almost unimaginably significant consequences for all of us. Remember the activist who was munching a sandwich when he noticed a visiting foreign dignitary’s motorcade stalled outside the sandwich shop?

Gavrilo Princip abandoned his sandwich, rushed outside, and shot and killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, thereby setting into motion the series of events that would produce the first world war, the results of which led inevitably to the second.

Every act of violence produces an opposite reaction, and it’s not always equal. That’s the horror of it.

And so back to Putin’s notion that we’re weak and decadent. Are we?

Certainly we’re decadent. We’re the Weimar west right now, giddily Drag-Queen-Story-Houring our way into the twilight.

But are we weak?

Not militarily, I don’t think. But civilizationally? Sure. I wouldn’t say weak: I’d say hapless. Irresolute.

But only because we don’t yet feel adequately threatened.

Look at Germany: when push came to shove and all the green fairy tales failed them, they went straight back to mining coal—and even the Green party backed the decision.

For all our talk of Ukrainian heroism, I don’t think most westerners really give a damn what happens in Ukraine except to the extent it has a direct impact on their own comfort. Some discomfort has been manifest; therefore some muscularity has been exercised in our collective response.

Turn up the discomfort and you turn up our response.

It’s true of tire-deflating vandals and it’s true of geopolitics.

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

There’s a buffer zone between what we’ll reluctantly put up with and what will provoke a real and consequential reaction. Putin and the tire deflaters are both operating within that zone right now, playing dangerouss games right at the edge of bringing the hammer down.

Where exactly are those edges? Where are the red lines? (And after Obama’s little red-line escapade, does anyone believe they’d even be enforced?) When do Putin or the vandals go too far?

We won’t know until it happens… and then we’ll see how weak and decadent we really are.

Not as weak and decadent as it looks right now, is my guess.

Slow to anger, but quick to obliterate.

So I wouldn’t push my luck. Not if I were Vladimir Putin, not if I were a roving tire deflater, not even if I were St. Greta of Stockholm.

But How Strong Is Our Strength Really?

Notice that I said earlier we weren’t weak militarily. You probably agreed with me. NATO is, as advertised, the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world. We all know that.

But is this thing we all “know” actually true?

Do you think the Taliban agree with our assessment of NATO’s strength?

We can all admire the “unity” with which the west has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but wouldn’t it have been better for everyone if he hadn’t invaded in the first place? And wouldn’t real western strength have been enough to stay Putin’s hand, or at least to repulse him immediately?

We have all the trappings of military power, but are they real?

I like to think so, but yet another story from this week’s headlines makes me wonder.

I first heard it from a news reader on the radio from CBS News: “A software mistake by a software engineer is blamed for the outage,” she said. (I can’t find the audio segment online.)

She was talking about the “outage” of an FAA flight control system that caused a nationwide groundstop in America. And she was saying that a single guy making a single mistake on a single system had resulted in the closure of American airspace.

I thought: that can’t be right. Air travel is too important, and has been around too long, for such a vulnerability to exist.

According to CNN, however, it’s at least partially true. The whole nutty mixup was the result of a corrupted database file. Also, a corrupted backup of the database file. Someone had blundered.

I’ve been working with databases of every kind for about 35 years, from little standalones to massive online data structures with hundreds of billions of records. Local, regional, national, global.

If a critical part of the American transportation industry can’t recover within minutes from a single corrupt database file, then there is something deeply, deeply wrong with the American transportation industry.

The official response was underwhelming:

Isn’t it adorable when Mayor Pete talks all technical? Squee!!!

The problem is that a disaster like this doesn’t just give us a “really important” data point… it also gives our enemies a pretty significant data point.

A data point that says The great and powerful Achilles has this one little spot on his foot, or the invincible Death Star has this one little exhaust shaft…

How much of our power is real, and how much a mirage? How much is actual strength and sinew, and how much costuming and special effects?

Don’t misunderstand me: I know we have the best technology, the best weapons, the best military personnel. We’ve got the best of the best of the best.

But if the systems that control them are patched together with spit and scotch tape, and the idiots in charge consider catastrophic nationwide failure “a really important data point,” we’re going to have problems.

Back to CNN:

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg ordered an after-action review and also said there was “no direct evidence or indication” that the issue was a cyberattack.

The source said the NOTAM system is an example of aging infrastructure due for an overhaul.

“Because of budgetary concerns and flexibility of budget, this tech refresh has been pushed off,” the source said. “I assume now they’re going to actually find money to do it.”

“The FAA’s infrastructure is a lot more than just brick and mortar.”

Investment in the agency is set to be addressed this year by Congress when the five-year FAA Reauthorization Act signed in 2018 expires.

Feel better?

In case you’re bureaucratese is rusty, let me translate what CNN’s unnamed source is saying: give us more money.

Now we’ll turn to Fox News:

Funding for FAA operations has seen healthy increases over the last few years. That budget was $11 billion in 2021, $11.4 billion in 2022, and $11.9 billion in the current year.

Those increases aren’t actually “healthy”—they don’t even keep up with inflation—but let’s keep a sense of scope: we’re talking about something like $500 million aditional dollars per year, on top of the 11,000 million dollars already at the FAA’s disposal. You’d think there’d be money enough to address something as serious as a critical system that goes belly-up if a single database file gets corrupted.

Actually, you’d think something that important would be taken so seriously that such a circumstance would never even arise: that system redundancies would be in place to handle something as predictable as the corruption of a database file.

And you’d be wrong.

What else are we wrong about?

Bringing It All Together

The west is simmering with resentful people whose activism continues to escalate into provocatively kinetic forms. Our enemies see us as decadent and weak, perhaps with good reason. And our vaunted strengths may not be as robust as we believe.

That’s not a recipe for happy outcomes.

It can all be straightened out, but it’s going to take a civilizational confidence and resolve that I don’t see coming up in any meaningful way, anywhere. I know it’s there, I’m just wondering what it’s going to take to activate it.

Will we straighten things out in time to prevent some western “activist” from becoming the Gavrilo Princip of our era? To ensure no hostile nation mistakes our current malaise for actual weakness? To project such strength and confidence that Putin doesn’t dare go nuclear and Xi leaves Taiwan alone?

Or will we just keep diddling around until we have no choice but to cowboy up?

We’ve been igoring history’s laws of cause and effect for a long time now. It would be wise to start paying attention again, soon, because sooner or later history always rolls back around to teach its lessons.

And as Herself is fond of saying, if you don’t want to hear it, you can feel it.