Maureen Dowd takes on geopolitics...and loses
I must confess that until reading Maureen Dowd's recent piece in the New York Times, I had never heard of Jaron Lanier, but Dowd quotes him throughout her column, which is about why the United States needs to commit to saving Ukraine. Until now, my reading on geopolitics did not include any reference to Lanier, and after reading Dowd's column, I know why.
Dowd is concerned that Americans get distracted too easily, and our support for Ukraine might waver because other matters are trending — such as Kim Kardashian's latest romantic interest, Will Smith's slap at the Oscars, or Ketanji Brown Jackson's elevation to the Supreme Court. "Do we have the attention span," Dowd asks, "to stay focused on the Russian descent into pure evil?"
To answer that question, she reached out to Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality who lives in Berkeley, California. Dowd lamented that Russians are raping and killing civilians in Ukraine. Lanier told her that "the degree of atrocity and evil is hard for us to process." By "us," he apparently means the unwashed millions who lack his and Maureen Dowd's sophistication and learning. Perhaps neither Dowd nor Lanier knows or recalls that Russians raped and killed civilians all the way to Berlin during World War II when "Uncle Joe Stalin" was our great wartime ally.
Lanier told her that the problem is that sophisticated ideas that require patience — like virtual reality — get thrown aside by crude reactions of violence and domination. He looked to "history" to explain what he means: "The Bolsheviks had this tremendously sophisticated, fancy rhetoric and all of these complicated ideas. They were building their own socio-economics. Then basically what happened is, Stalin came in and said, 'No, it's really just about violence and domination, and screw all that.'" Lanier compares the "current wave of populism" to Stalinism because populists have reacted crudely to "all kinds of issues, like gender and intersectionality and this and that theory." Today's populists, like Stalin before them, simply don't have the patience for these kinds of things.
So we are back to the days when intellectuals like Lanier actually believe that Stalin ruined the glorious, sophisticated Bolshevik experiment. Apparently, Lanier's sophistication and learning do not extend to reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who traced Stalin's terror to its Bolshevik origins. Perhaps he lacks the "patience" to read the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago.
Dowd laments that America used to have "thought leaders, now we just have influencers." If Lanier is her example of a "thought leader" we should listen to about Ukraine, Dowd should move on to other subjects besides history and geopolitics. The less attention she pays to Ukraine, the better for her readers.
Image: Bret Hartman / TED.