We are all Ukrainians — Humanism against the wolves

Humanist philosophy centers on humans, and our well-being. One human characteristic is tribalism. I see my tribe as humanity, a tribe I love. I love what we’ve achieved, never taking for granted how we’ve overcome nature’s limitations. People who berate us as planetary despoilers wouldn’t want to live as cavemen.

I love people as individuals, as far more good than bad. That too is our evolutionary heritage. Primordial humans who behaved well toward each other gained reproductive success, so genes for good behavior proliferated.

But that only applied within a tribe. Wariness toward other tribes is also human. Yet our ideas of tribal boundaries have been broadening, with people increasingly (like me) viewing their tribe as all humanity. And our makeup also entails a big component of human sympathy; so while people may shun other tribes in the aggregate and notionally, most behave well even toward strangers. Thus hostility toward immigrants, for example, tends to give way when people encounter actual individuals.

Humanism leads to a civic philosophy of classical (John Stuart Mill type) liberalism. Centered on the dignity and worth of every individual, thus a democratic ethos of allowing everyone to pursue the good in their own ways. Which is not only moral but also conducive to societal progress through encouraging and testing different ways of thinking.

This was the philosophy of the Enlightenment, commencing three centuries ago. It underlay the American Revolution. And in the past three-quarters of a century — with America in the vanguard — it became something of a global system — especially following the fall of Communism three decades ago. Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History, thus heralded liberal democracy and free markets as finally triumphant ideas.

A David Brooks column recaps the wave of good news. Freedom, democracy, peace and prosperity ascendant. I recall saluting 1989 as “golden” at the year-end fireworks; then my 1990s trips to a free Russia, the exhilarating apotheosis of my ideals.

And then . . .

“What the hell happened?” Brooks writes, seeing so much gone sour, in a 21st Century “so dark, regressive and dangerous.”

He looks back to America’s founders, who “had a profound respect for individual virtue, but also individual frailty.” Thus they did establish a liberal democracy, but with carefully constructed “guardrails to check popular passion and prejudice.” Brooks says they recognized that democracy is not a natural state, and we’d have to not only plant its seeds but do the work of cultivation so those seeds could flourish. And he draws a parallel in the global arena — where after WWII, America took the lead in building an order with guardrails against a natural state with the strong preying upon the weak.

Both sets of guardrails are under attack, with the better angels of our nature battling our worst. The assault within America is epitomized by January 6 and all it represents; in the global sphere, by Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine.

“Will the liberals of the world be able to hold off the wolves?” asks Brooks. “Strengthen democracy and preserve the rules based world order?” Writing shortly before the actual invasion, he was encouraged how President Biden has succeeded in rallying the collective resolve of other world leaders to push back against Russia’s depredation.

But it’s not enough. As Brooks also notes, today’s Americans are not up for such conflict if it costs us anything. We’ve announced what Putin must regard as piddling sanctions; there’s so much more we could readily do (like cutting Russia from the SWIFT international bank transfer system). And if we were really serious, how about an embargo on all trade with Russia? Was there trade with Nazi Germany during WWII? Yes, doing more would mean pain for us and our allies; our sanctions are tailored to avoiding that. But this is war. The world is burning, and all Americans seem to really care about is gas prices.

Biden has failed to draw in stark terms what’s really at stake. Many don’t see why Ukraine is our concern. The old “not the world’s policeman” chestnut is trotted out. But you wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood with no police to protect law and order. The world is our neighborhood, and America has acted responsibly as part of its police force. Keeping its wolves at bay. Now a wolf is on a rampage. No concern of ours?

“First they came for . . . .”

Today, we are all Ukrainians.

Back at home, Brooks thinks we must restore the seedbeds of our democracy which is “not natural, it is an artificial accomplishment that takes enormous work.” To “fortify the institutions that are supposed to teach the democratic skills; how to weigh evidence and commit to truth;” recognize one’s partisan blinders; respect people you disagree with; avoid conspiracy thinking and supporting demagogues.

But we’re so far off the rails it’s hard to see getting back. Yeah, we do need more civics education. But too many Americans are blind to outright evil staring them in the face. With brains so scrambled by misdirected political passion that hundreds of thousands have let themselves die from refusing vaccination. Crikey.

I started off talking about the human achievement. I’ve long felt it’s all thanks to the very smartest among us. Our big brains are a fluke of evolution, an adaptation to unique circumstances. Yet ours are really not far better than chimpanzee brains. For each species, intelligence falls along a bell curve, and the two curves greatly overlap. But ours is shifted slightly to the right, so at the thin edge, no chimpanzees equal the smartest humans. And it’s those smartest humans, building upon each other’s contributions, generation after generation, who are responsible for all progress. Otherwise we’d still be cavemen.

Tragically though, for all our smarts, we’re not quite smart enough. If that bell curve were shifted just a little more, Putin’s murderousness would not be possible; Americans would have no time for a creep like Trump.

24 Responses to “We are all Ukrainians — Humanism against the wolves”

  1. Ayi Ariquater Says:

    Nice

  2. Don Bronkema Says:

    Sadly, H. unsapiens hasn’t reached the stage where all of his species are brothers. Will that provolve in time to obviate early extinction? Bayes would say probably (:-). Your time zone is the larger enigma…

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Indubitably!

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    Dubitably or not, BBC reports Ukrainian maquis more effective than Vlad expected inside his bubble of oil-garx, tho ‘2300’ Russ casualties seems on hi-side & civilian losses are mounting. Men of combat age [18-60] forbidden to leave, but internal displacement of families is underway, 200K clustering mid-country toward Khmelnitskii, tens of thousands having crossed already into Hungary & Poland, welcomed by expatriates. Better half has anchored at our farm near Starokostantinovich, dochka at UC Boulder. DC perspective of this cold-war Kremlinologist is protean; Elon preps for Mars; kosmos keeps its counsel. 2062 CE: Russia joins EU.

  5. David Lettau Says:

    Unlike the brave Hungarians who rose up against communist rule in the 1950’s ( read James Mitcheners The bridge at Andau).This time I think the Russian autocrats are going to lose. With less than 200,000 men to conquer a fiercely proud and determined country of 44 million that is larger than Texas makes it unlikely Putin will win this fight. As long as the Ukrainians are supplied with weapons and logistical support from the west they will prevail. In boldly asserting their human dignity and right to determine their destiny against Putins despotism the Ukrainians are fighting for all who want to live in free society’s. Glory to Ukraine!! They are heirs of the Greeks at Marathon and the minutemen that stood on Concord Green

  6. David Lettau Says:

    Don= As someone who has lived in his own docka on the edge of Pike national forest and in the four corners area. It’s my belief that the best part of Colorado begins beyond the flatirons. Boulder and Denver are for occasional visits and gathering supplies

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    Marathon, yes. ( I was actually going to invoke Thermopylae myself, but it didn’t make it to the final draft.) With the Western democracies unwilling or unable, for whatever reasons, to oppose Russia’s aggression in a meaningful way, it is indeed now up to the Ukrainians literally to save the world by showing that crime does not pay. If that is seen to be the outcome, then the rules-based world order, though battered, survives. If the Ukrainians are crushed, then the bad guys everywhere will be emboldened. Taiwan surely in the crosshairs.

  8. d Says:

    Nobly said, yet Man seems headlong to an alembic wherein half his number will perish–if mere Bayes applies. From this retort of noir-moltenity a new age will rise, but not of our making: ab homo cyborgum venibit. Tell the grandkids.

  9. Don Bronkema Says:

    d = Don Bronkema

  10. Don Bronkema Says:

    Dochka = Russo-Ukrainian for daughter; ours is year-1 at UC Boulder, enjoying flatirons. Wife hunkers at dacha/farm, assisting bellagees from Kyif…Taiwan sleeps as fitfully as Brahma.

  11. Lee Says:

    As bad (or worse) atrocities, murder, and destruction are happening in Myanmar, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia, (There is a longer list at Wikipedia’s List of ongoing armed conflicts) I hope to hear your approach to solving these problems too.

    Because it is hard to gauge tone on the internet, let me clarify that that is not tongue in cheek. I value your opinion and if you have opinions on these, I’d value that.

  12. Don Bronkema Says:

    Respondent’s view of personkind has been rock-bottom since 1931. Its potential beckons from the empyrean, but the stairway to the stars is blokt by greed, fear, ignorance & esurience for hegemony. Quod erat argumentandum.

  13. rationaloptimist Says:

    Myanmar, Yemen, Ethiopia —and, yes, there’s a longer list — are vile situations. But “business as usual.” Russia’s Ukraine aggression is of a different order, and will in fact change the world if rewarded with success rather than disaster for the culprit.

  14. Don Bronkema Says:

    As respondents have likely surmised, this one dwells amongst the music of the spheres [Aranjuez, Valse Triste, Les Gymnopedes etc] but boasts no answers. Conspiracy would assuage our thrashing angst by endowing it w/sikodinamik telos, but the kosmos is not hostile–just indifferent. Life is not for cowards…Wife reminds us: capital is pron Kayif, not Keef–whence that gorgon?

  15. Lee Says:

    > business as usual.

    Remind me not to do business with you.

    Maybe you say as much, or maybe I am reading between the lines, but would you say that the atrocities in Ukraine stand out relative to those in Darfur, Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, … because those in Ukraine might not remain localized to Ukraine? That is, Russia might be emboldened to try again elsewhere, but this is a less likely scenario for the other theaters of evil?

  16. rationaloptimist Says:

    A major power invading another European country is something not seen since WWII (except of course for Russia’s prior depredations against Ukraine).

  17. Don Bronkema Says:

    Russians stymied in North, but rampant in Mariupol & Kherson in South. Poland/Hungary will akomodayt 1.5-2M. Fatalities mite not match Global South in a given quinquennium, but bombardment of homes & utilities, loss of meds, poor diet, addiction & stress could kill off 75-100K, imputed per game theory, deep learning & 7th order derivatives. Vlad-practice is to destroy everything if he must [Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Lebanon, not to mention the 4 apartment blocks he detonated, butchering 355 apparatchik grand-wives]. Rest assured, the seas & the under 40s will rise. What is Reality if not the convergence of Shannon informatics, Feynman quant, Gleick chaos & Darwin/Deutsch emergence? Every montane monk says so.

  18. Lee Says:

    > A major power invading another European country is something not seen since WWII (except of course for Russia’s prior depredations against Ukraine).

    Is it that you consider Ukraine different because it is geographically within a “continent” where wars are rarer? Or is it that Europe is somehow fundamentally more important than where the other conflicts are? Maybe you are saying that it is because Ukraine (and Europe) are more democratic than the other places.

    I hate what the Russians are doing in Ukraine, but I also hate what Saudi Arabia and Iran are doing in Yemen, etc. — and I am having trouble seeing why these are significantly different for you.

  19. rationaloptimist Says:

    Not me alone. Based on actions taken, most of the civilized world sees this as something very different that, if not slapped down, will change the world going forward.

  20. Don Bronkema Says:

    Ukraine War already proto-epochal, depending upon extent of damage, cohort-shift & postponed detherm via kelp, iron sea-enrichment, aerosols, altergy & carb extraction. Expect resort to the geostationary orbisols aye broached to NASA [math analysis underway]. Self-sustainable Mars cohort will be delayed, likewise Kardashoff-II & conquest of galaxy per Alcubierre spacetime compression: expansion or extinction. Has Vlad cast the fateful die?Videlicet chaos theory per Franklin & Gleick. Of all this Jim-Bob knows little & cares less. Karen either.

  21. Lee Says:

    > Not me alone. Based on actions taken, most of the civilized world sees …

    Absolutely it is not you alone. I can’t help but thinking that those “of the civilized world” that you speak of see the Ukrainians as more like them in terms of democracy, capitalism, race, religion, etc. and are more sympathetic on that basis. That can be reasonable, in that none of us can cure all the world’s problems and we are each free to choose to help with those that most call to us.

    But it’s the possibility of the race, religion, etc. demographics part of that sympathy that has me worried. When what calls to me could be a reflection of racism then I need to think harder on that, and if it is racism then I need to change that.

    If what motivates you is not racism, that’s great! It doesn’t seem to be that the conflict could spread or that it would embolden Putin or Xi — at least you didn’t agree with that when I suggested those possibilities. So, what is it; would you articulate it? On the other hand, *if* it turns out to be about supporting people because “they are just like us” then I urge you to some reflection and change.

  22. rationaloptimist Says:

    I support the Ukrainians because they are people like us. All people are people like us.
    I don’t think I ever said it’s not that the conflict could have wider repercussions. To the contrary — if it were just Ukraine at stake, we might shrug. But the point is what Ukraine’s fall would mean for the whole world’s future — emboldening all its wolves.

  23. Don Bronkema Says:

    We at least agree all personkind deserves to live freely in equity, dignity & prosperity. The next decade will hurl us toward ecodise or extinction.

  24. Steve Oxley Says:

    I would like to think that your belief and confidence in the human tribe will only grow as the world effectively shrinks through increased integration, economic dependence, technological development and greater mobility. Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening just yet.
    Perhaps, as many believe, our one hope is the looming environmental crisis – that might focus our minds on a bigger picture.

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