Seeing red

I’ve been thinking about the incident at the Oscars in which Will Smith slapped Chris Rock. Looking at the recording, it seemed slightly bizarre – Will initially seemed to be amused by Chris’ comment, but then looked over at his wife and immediately set off onto the stage and slapped Chris, with some unparliamentary words about not talking about his wife.

Now, I always want to understand how things happen before judging anyone. On the face of it, a full blooded slap to the face is not, from my point of view, an appropriate response to mere words. However, Jada Pinknett Smith has a history of problems with mental health, and her baldness is due to alopecia, which is a form of disability and is known to feed into her mental state. Re-watching the clip, it seemed to me that she was visibly hurt by Chris Rock’s comment, and Will is no doubt super-sensitive to her feelings, as I am to my wife’s.

So, was this “an exhibition of toxic masculinity” as some have claimed? I wonder about that, particularly because of my own history.

If I am triggered appropriately, I can fall into a berserk rage – I’m told that my face goes very pale and I look “scary”. From the inside, it’s a case of literally “seeing red” (everything has a kind of red halo round it). There’s a massive surge of adrenaline, and I temporarily become pretty insensitive to pain. But also most of the usual inhibitors to behaviour turn off. I’m not physically imposing, or physically fit – I never really have been – so a physical response to any situation for me would normally be “run away”, but that doesn’t happen if I “see red”. Remember that I “look scary”? There have been maybe half a dozen occasions in my adult life when this has been triggered, and people who could easily have wiped the floor with me have looked nervous and backed off (shades of some scenes in the first episode of the new “Jack Reacher” series – except that I’m not 6’5″ and built like a tank).

I believe this to be an hereditary thing. My father had it, as had his father. Dad had learned at an early age techniques for suppressing rage (probably because his rage versus his own father’s rage would not have been a pretty sight) and I can only maybe recall four or five times when he really “lost it”. Granddad, by all accounts, never actually tried much to suppress it, and as a result this 5’6″ guy ran a colliery, and the miners were all slightly terrified of him. Me, I’ve learned a lot of techniques for avoiding being triggered that way (because it tends to result in furniture and, sometimes, people getting broken), but there are still some triggers I just can’t override with any ease. * They seem, in all cases, to involve my sense of fairness. Fairness towards myself I can generally gloss over – but if a member of my family is involved, particularly where they can’t or won’t defend themselves? That’s dangerous territory.

My own wife suffers with mental illness, and can be completely demolished by a few words from someone – and I have to try very hard not to have the red mist rise. Very occasionally I fail at that.

Now, I don’t know if Will Smith has the same berserker propensity which seems to run in the male line of my family. But I have it, and I have to say that in Will’s position, and had it been a dig at my wife – well, I might well have done the same thing (though I’d probably have had to slap Chis Rock’s chest, as I might not reach his face). And I’d have been suitably apologetic afterwards, which it appears he has been. So I’m entirely ready to forgive him, and not put it down to “toxic masculinity”.

Whast of Chris Rock? Well, I don’t think he should have levelled a gibe at someone who is known to be sensitive about what she clearly regards as a disfiguring condition and who has a history of mental health challenges. That is just wrong. But he’s a stand-up comedian, and all the decent stand-ups I’ve known go into a kind of disinhibited (and adrenalised) state where normal restraints don’t always work properly. So, as he’s apologised as well, I can give him a pass as well.

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, perhaps?


* Trying to avoid that being triggered is one of the reasons why, if you’ve read my “About” posts, has prompted me to suppress Emotional Chris to such an extent – and that has damaged me. But I can live with that damage far easier than I could live with the damage I might do in a berserk rage.

Ukraine, apocalypse and truth

I’ve been tinkering for a couple of months with a long post revolving around the various things in the news which people have called “apocalyptic” for one reason or another, but haven’t so far achieved something I’m completely happy with, so it hasn’t been published. However, in the last few weeks we have another potentially apocalyptic scenario in the form of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. By the way, despite this article, I have nothing but condemnation for the Russian invasion and huge admiration for President Zelensky… but you’ll see “It’s complicated” several times.

Is it actually an apocalyptic scenario, one might ask? Well, just after the invasion started, Putin was implicitly threatening a first nuclear strike against anyone who interfered with his actions. One might be sanguine about that, given that it seems remarkably unlikely that the US, NATO, the EU or any NATO country would be prepared to put troops on the ground (or planes in the sky) in this situation, but what Putin sees as interference might not be what we in the West see in that light. That seems to have been underlined by him putting his nuclear forces on alert a few days later, citing some threat apparently made by “someone he wouldn’t name, but the British Foreign Secretary”. That got me going through everything Liz Truss has said on the topic of Ukraine, because I was seriously worried that she might have been stupid enough to say something which went over the line of direct military support for Ukraine (I have no great regard for her intellectual capabilities). But as far as I can tell, she said no such thing. That raises in my mind the possibility that Putin could react to something which no-one else would see as a threat to his forces in Ukraine with a nuclear strike.

Would that then precipitate a nuclear response, notably from the US? It would seem that it would have to if the strike was on a NATO member. What about a non-NATO member which was part of the EU? Less certain in the case of the US, perhaps, but France has its own nuclear capability, and in theory should be part of an EU response.

However, when someone threatens a nuclear strike and the only country mentioned specifically is Britain, I have to prick up my ears. Was this a specific threat aimed at the UK? Would Putin target us with one or more nukes “pour encourager les autres”? Certainly not being part of the EU any more increases the probability that he might feel he could get away with that (and I recall the Russian response to Brexit as at least some indication that this might be part of a Russian game plan). But we remain part of NATO. Surely a strike on us would be regarded as requiring the rest of that alliance taking retaliatory action?

But does Putin think that would be the case? He will be well aware that after our government’s imperilling of the Good Friday Agreement by questioning the Northern Ireland Protocol, we are not flavour of the month with the US any more. Would President Biden consider that an attack on us was sufficient to order a full-out nuclear strike on Russia, and thus World War III? I’m not certain, and if I’m not certain, Putin (who is a chancer) might well feel he could. Yes, there are still 13 US bases in the UK (including two which are uncomfortably close to where I live), and it would be difficult to see how Putin could manage such an attack without impinging on one or more of those (we’re a relatively small country, after all), and an attack on a US base would be a somewhat different matter. There’s also the consideration that the UK has its own nuclear capability, and although that is heavily dependent on the US (and leased from them), it is in theory wholly independent.

This possibility, of course, may be a reason why the UK government has been slow to sanction Russian interests, including, bizarrely, allowing 30 days for many to move money out of the country, where other European countries have allowed no grace period. It may not be merely the fact that so many Conservative MPs have been bought by Russian donations, though that has to factor into it.

There is, of course, no certainty that any of what I’ve just outlined is a real probability, but if nothing else it should be indicative of the many ways in which the Ukraine conflict could blow up into something which would involve much more than just Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, I’m concerned that given the fact that Russia almost certainly cannot win this conflict outright (let’s face it, they couldn’t take and hold Afghanistan), there may be a path-dependency which will inevitably lead to Putin using nukes (or chemical/biological weapons) and possibly forcing escalation to a global conflict.

This issue of how Putin is really thinking and of how things could escalate leads me to think of the polarised statements being made on both sides (and Putin’s side is supported by at least some people in the West). I am, for instance, seeing some people arguing that Ukraine is an artificial country, only created in 1991, with a substantial Russian population and historically part of Russia. And that is, in a way, true – prior to 1991, Ukraine had been a part of the USSR (while being theoretically an independent SSR), having had its own revolution in 1917, been properly independent for a brief period, been at war with Russia and lost. Before that, it was a much-occupied country with periods of occupation by Russia, Poland, Austria-Hungary, the Cossack Khanate and Turkey. But it had an independent identity irrespective of that political control, with its own language and customs from, probably, around the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Granted, those are similar to those of Russia, but then, the language and customs of the USA are similar to those of Britain, and even closer to those of Canada… One has to think of Ukraine as having existed as a country at the very least since 1917, and that’s around the same period as Ireland has been independent from the UK. Indeed, it was treated as another country by Russia in the 1930s, being subject to the Holodomor, a famine used as punishment (and now recognised as an attempted genocide of the Ukrainians). From an Ukrainian point of view, that is something which will not be readily forgotten, just as the Irish famine of the mid 1800s is unlikely to be forgotten by the Irish.

It is also correct that the country which gave its name to Russia and in which the Russian Orthodox Church was founded was originally based around Kyiv (I avoid the Russian spelling of Kiev!). However, they expanded north from the 8th to the 12th century, and then lost the original homeland (to the Mongols) in the 13th century, only to recover it in the 17th, during which time Ukraine has every opportunity to acquire its own language and culture. The centre of Russia has, however, been Moscow (or, for a while, St. Petersburg) since at least the 13th century. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine is now autocephalous (i.e. independent of Moscow) after being in tension with the Moscow Patriarch for very many years. Of course, being the founding city of a religion brings particular tensions if that religion doesn’t still have control – think of Jerusalem.

Those who see Ukraine as simply an independent country are wrong, but so are those who think it part of Russia. The situation is more complicated than that.

So is the situation regarding spheres of influence. It is true that Russia has for a very long time (and certainly ever since Ukraine became independent) regarded Ukraine as falling within its sphere of influence, as somewhere which would be a threat if a competing great power had military there – and NATO clearly counts as a great power. Arguing that Russia shouldn’t think this way, however, invites comparison with the American response to the Cuban missile crisis or the standard Western attitude to Israel and Palestine. The threat of joining NATO back in the early years of the century for both Georgia and Ukraine was one cause of a Russian invasion of Georgia (and a rapid climb down by Ukraine’s then president) and renewed talk from Ukraine of NATO and EU membership almost certainly helped to precipitate the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk from 2014.

Those keen on this line of argument point to an understanding in 1990/91 that there would be no Eastward expansion, which is very probably correctly the personal position of various Western diplomats at the time. However, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the Charter of Paris of 1990, the second signed by Gorbachev and the first by Brezhnev, make the right to self-determination of eastern European countries explicit , and even if that were not enough, in the 1995 Budapest Memorandum Russia specifically agreed to respect the territory and borders of Ukraine in exchange for giving up their nuclear capability (granted, control of that still rested with Russia). The USA and Britain also signed. But that was pre-Putin. This line of argument is, of course the “what did we do to deserve this catastrophe” line of thinking which often accompanies “apocalyptic” scenarios.

As John Mearsheimer remarks in this video, Putin does not think like a 21st century statesman, he thinks like, perhaps, a 19th or early 20th century leader, though frankly Russian attitudes in this area haven’t changed much since the days of Ivan the Terrible. It is all very well for us in the West to talk of the right of self-determination of independent states and self-identified nations, which is a fine principle with which I totally agree (and yes, that includes, for instance, Palestine, Yemen, Kurdistan and, closer to home, Scotland). But Putin does not recognise that, at least not in the cases of Ukraine, Belorus, Georgia and probably Kazakhstan. Has the West brought this conflict on themselves? Well, yes. Unless we could convince Putin of the merits of self-determination, we should not have ignored his position, unless we were prepared to go to war with Russia about it. I was exceptionally nervous when the Baltic states joined both the EU and NATO, but it would seem they aren’t of sufficient strategic importance for that to have triggered a major Russian response – but the Georgian invasion of 2008 was almost certainly a response to suggestions that Georgia and Ukraine join NATO, and Ukraine probably only escaped invasion then by back-peddling energetically, something which changed in 2014 – and that, of course, saw the annexation of the Crimea by Russia and their giving substantial aid to separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. New suggestions of joining the EU and NATO by the West-leaning Zelensky have no doubt precipitated the current invasion.

On the other side, people are arguing that the West has been too soft on Russia in respect of Crimea and Donestk-Luhansk (the Donbas) – but there again, the situation is not quite the clear cut annexation of territory and formenting of rebellion which they present. Crimea only got allocated to Ukraine by Kruschev in 1954, before which it was its own SSR with an originally ethnically distinct population, though the Crimean tartars had been removed en masse from Crimea during World War II – but it was at that point far more ethnically Russian than it ever was Ukrainian, and Russia held a referendum following their moving more troops in in 2014 (parts of Crimea were already leased to Russia, Sebastopol being the home of their Black Sea fleet) which was substantially in favour of joining Russia. Again, Donestk-Luhansk were far more ethnically Russian than the more westerly portions of Ukraine, and had previously supported closer ties with Russia rather than with Europe – and in both cases, the right of self-determination would seem to cut both ways. It was, in other words, not at all obvious that Russia had massively overstepped any marks there. One can be sceptical about referenda and elections run by Russia, but absent that, we would seem hypcritical espousing self-determination for Ukraine but not for Crimea or Donbas – though, in conscience, UK and UK policy has always been in favour of free and fair elections until the point where they elect someone we don’t approve of, and we’re otherwise only too happy to see authoritarians in power.

Putin has also advanced the idea that Ukraine has been taken over by neo-nazis (or even by outright nazis), which to most of us is ridiculous. But there is a certain amount of truth there, at least historically – there are definitely far-right elements in Ukrainian society, and some people with far-right sympathies remain part of government. The Azov Brigade (which Putin has accused of using the Mariupol Childrens’ Hospital as a base) is widely regarded as far-right, and was incorporated into Ukrainian regular forces rather than have it subsist as a separate militia. However, the far-right parties did not manage to get a single seat in the most recent elections. Zelensky is most definitely not far-right, and many commentators who mention this seem unable to distinguish between strong nationalism and nazism. There are, of course, far-right parties in most if not all European nations, and in some they actually have some measure of power (unlike in Ukraine), so to point to Ukraine in this respect is obviously being very selective with truth, and those commentators I’ve read are from the more extreme elements of the US Republican Party and UK Brexiters, all of whom would regard themselves as “strong nationalists”. Putin himself, of course, is a far right, authoritarian ultra-nationalist. For them to call other strong nationalists nazis invites the “first take the beam out of your own eye” response.

I opened by expressing admiration for Zelensky – but that does not mean that I think he is above reproach. He was not seen as doing particularly well as president before the invasion, and I think he miscalculated in assuming a level of support from the US and the EU which would extend to direct military involvement, and/or in thinking that Putin would be sufficiently deterred by the possibility of that. But then, I think Churchill was a maginficent wartime leader for my country, despite being an alcoholic, racist and patriarchal member of the aristocracy, and I’m pretty confident Zelensky is better than that, overall. I do note, however, that he is fulfilling the “hero” role which often crops up in apocalyptic times, the person who is admirable for some reason or reasons (often faithfulness in the face of danger or death) and who is “one of us” and thus makes us feel good about ourselves. Of course, one feature here is that prior to the invasion, probably very few people in the UK thought of Ukrainians as “one of us” – Ukraine was an obscure part of Eastern Europe, on a par with the Poles and Romanians who we were fearing being overwhelmed by a scant six years ago. We had to think of Ukraine as “us” in order to idolise Zelensky. I actually think this mechanism is more in play than is racism when I see posts from Islamic friends complaining that we haven’t exhibited the same support for Syrians or Afghans. Neither has really provided us with a sufficiently strong hero figure, though Khaled al-Assad probably ought to have qualified.

I’ve been prompted to write this post partly because I’ve recently finished editing a book by Elgin Hushbeck called “Seeking Truth” (forthcoming from Energion Publications) which seeks to undermine the way politics has become so partisan, and many of the factors Elgin deals with are apparent in discussions of Ukraine. Neither side seems willing to acknowledge that there might be any shred of justification in the other’s position, and I wanted to try for a more balanced view. The way of things these days probably means that I’ll be criticised by members of both camps! I am, however, thoroughly on the “support Ukraine” side. Slava Ukraini!