Friday, 11 March 2022

Russian Inspiration

It goes without saying that Russia's invasion of Ukraine violates international law, not to mention morality, and I feel desperately sorry for everybody swept up in these events. But there is brewing in the West a bizarre kind of performative Russophobic theatre (not to mention a LARPish belligerent frenzy) that only serves to demonstrate that human beings are as irrational in our purportedly rationalistic modernity as we have ever been. We are really just where we were in 1914, smashing up shops owned by people with German-sounding names, renaming 'German Shepherds' Alsatians, and gathering together to boo at posters of the Kaiser. 

Orchestras firing conductors or opera singers for failing to be sufficiently publicly anti-Putin is itself like something out of the McCarthy era; banning innocent Russian teenagers from playing ice hockey or 20-year old concert pianists from performing or Russian cat breeders from participating in competitions simply by dint of being Russian is even worse; but what can one say about Cardiff Symphony Orchestra's decision to stop playing Tchaikovsky, London Science Museum closing an exhibit about the Trans-Siberian Railway, or somebody at a university finding it appropriate to try to cancel Dostoevsky? It would be charitable to call it simple bigotry. It's a bandwagon of pig ignorance and lunacy. 

The real world isn't "four legs good, two legs bad". The real world isn't one in which subjecting everything Russian to a Two Minutes Hate causes the Ukrainian war effort to be psychically bolstered. The real world isn't Twitter.

The real world is one inhabited by people with different cultures but a shared humanity: every culture sheds light on the human experience in a different and valuable way, and the exclusion of high art from the world on its being rooted in the wrong culture is philistinism of the most pernicious kind. High art is a bridge between cultures, allowing us to see our humanity in new ways, and it is doubly important during time of conflict to remember this.

In defence of that principle, and as a tweak to the nose of the Cardiff Symphony Orchestra in particular, some inspiration from Russian high art for RPGs:

Stravinsky:

It begins and ends, in many ways, with The Firebird - an evil wizard who keeps his soul in an egg, a summonable magic bird that inflicts its foes with an 'infernal dance'; how more D&D could you get?



But you could just as well do with The Rite of Spring, which is the ballet equivalent of a Clark Ashton Smith or Lord Dunsany story, all naked cultist dancers and human sacrifice in the time-before-time:



And then there's his Chant de Rossignol, which is one of the finest pieces of orientalist art ever produced - like listening to the symphonic equivalent of the Jin Ping Mei; it was a huge inspiration for Yoon-Suin:




Rachmaninoff

Do you like brooding orchestral pieces that are not only called The Isle of the Dead, but which sound like people approaching a literal Isle of the (Un)dead in order to explore it?


Or how about the Vespers, if you're in the mood for other-worldly grandeur and awe in the genuine sense of the word?


Mussorgsky

Night on the Bald Mountain, anyone? Whether as animated by Disney or otherwise? I mean, it's quite literally about a witches' sabbath:


And then there's the orchestral Pictures at an Exhibition, featuring reflections on the themes of 'The Gnome', 'The Old Castle', 'The Tomb', the 'Hut on Hen's Legs', and 'The Great Gate of Kiev':


Borodin:

Prince Igor fighting off the barbarian hordes?


In the Steppes of Central Asia, which conjures a distant and wondrous landscape better than any piece of music I know?


But if classical music isn't your thing, of course, perhaps some paintings:

Surikov




Shishkin








Kozhin



Kustodiev





Repin






And I suppose if you really wanted to, you could go out and invest in Mythic Russia.

49 comments:

  1. Thanks for this bit of sanity.

    The US has learned absolutely nothing in 20 years, has re-entered the "murdering Sikh gas station attendants" phase of its post-9/11 insanity: e.g., boycotts of Russian restaurants, half of which are owned by Ukrainians. Facebook announced today that they've suspended their speech code to permit calls for the murder of human beings, as long as it's murder of Russians. All cheered on by the same people shitting their pants over racial microaggressions six months ago.

    Tribalism is a curse. We are chimpanzees.

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    1. As per my comment regarding this post generally, Facebook's changes are narrower than the headlines would have you believe, and are likely driven by administrative convenience (less moderation required), rather than a taking a side (although that's a happy consequence for Meta).

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    2. The Facebook thing is narrower than the headlines would have you believe, but it's still totally arbitrary and inconsistent and, as Picador points out, utterly self-contradictory. It reminds me of when rpg.net put in place a blanket rule saying "no group attacks" but then immediately loosened it to allow group attacks against, of all things, pick-up artists. When a rule only applies to people you like, or doesn't apply to people you don't like, you can be pretty sure you're on the road to instability and authoritarianism.

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  2. we have always been at war with eurasia, tho if the PRC ever twitches strongly enough in taiwans direction im sure history will quietly correct itself to match up with the new reality

    (i feel almost dirty even referencing Orwell rn, especially with how his legacy has been manhandled by every ideologue under the sun these past couple of years)

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  3. In defence of some of the cancellations, e.g. Montreal symphony orchestra's cancelling Malofeev, I think this is driven more by a "we can't be bothered to put up with weeks of angry emails, and then a protest on opening night" more than anything performative.

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    1. True, but that cowardice almost feels worse to me. All it takes for us to have sane public discourse is for people to stick up for the rules of sane public discourse - like, for example, non-discrimination and freedom of conscience.

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    2. I totally agree that cowardice is worse. If we're trying to fix or discourage bad behaviour, I think it helps to understand the private cause of the public conduct, though. The solution to people/businesses actually being jingoistic and xenophobic feels like its probably different to the solution for similar outcomes arising from a business asking itself "How do we nip this potential PR kerfuffle in the bud?". Regardless of violated principles, I don't blame a business/venue for safeguarding it's (presumably small) staff from what may have already been a targeted and aggressive campaign. I know I'm making a lot of assumptions here, but we've seen in the last year or two how disruptive quasi-boycott campaigns can be to businesses, and the personal toll these campaigns can have on the front of house/front desk people fielding the demands/threats. I think the optimal course of action probably depends on the facts of the case. The scale and resilience of the organisation is a factor, as is the degree to which the cancelled person is representative of the Bad Thing. E.g. I'm glad the F1A confirmed Russian drivers can race, and I'm glad FIFA banned the Russian team.

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    3. Yes, I get that point about protecting staff, but the aggressiveness of these campaigns is I think perpetuated by the failure to stand up to bullies. As soon as organisations start ignoring this stuff, it will go away very quickly.

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  4. Hear hear!! A clash of cultures is not a clash of peoples. There are Russians facing the truncheon and the cell by the thousand score to condemn the Kremlin’s actions. There are grieving Russian widows and mothers who have less of an idea about the goings on in Kiev than you or I. Let not the dead and buried Russian poet pay the price of Putin’s bloody adventures.

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  5. Hear hear!! A clash of cultures is not a clash of peoples. There are Russians facing the truncheon and the cell by the thousand score to condemn the Kremlin’s actions. There are grieving Russian widows and mothers who have less of an idea about the goings on in Kiev than you or I. Let not the dead and buried Russian poet pay the price of Putin’s bloody adventures.

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  6. Thank you so much for posting this. As cynical as I am, even I found it difficult to believe how quickly unthinking, uncritical tribalism had become normalized.

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    1. I sometimes think the internet has made things worse, but probably the truth is that human nature doesn't change. We're just not actually very rational.

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    2. The Internet has not made anyone more stupid, but it has made one's stupidity more accessible to others.

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  7. I think there's a separation between two things here:

    Not playing Russian music, or not eating Russian cuisine, is extremely dumb. I like to think of it as the "freedom fries" phenomenon, where things are abjured just because of association with someone disliked.

    Not allowing Russian-national ice skaters, or Russian cat breeders, is a form of sanctions (albeit a weird and minor one). It encourages Russian who may otherwise not care about the Ukranian situation to have personal investment. (Especially the cat breeder thing, but that's a whole other bag of cats. "Breeders" in that circuit more often refers to large corporations or groups that make their business off mass-breeding of cats. Banning Russian cat breeders from competition isn't just a limitation that effects individuals, it's hitting a weird Industry).

    How effective the second thing is can be debated (I'm of the opinion it's at best a marginal fraction of a percentage relevant), but it's definitely MORE effective then the Freedom Fries Phenomenon.

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    1. I think you have to separate out the question of whether these measures are effective from whether they're right.

      For what it's worth I think this kind of thing probably just serves to entrench existing positions. If I was a Russian cat breeder, I'd probably be more pissed off at the people banning me from competitions just because I happened to live in Russia than I would be at Vladimir Putin.

      But some things are wrong even if they're effective. Even if this stuff "works", punishing somebody for something they have nothing to do with is immoral.

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    2. I see it this way.

      Preventing people from gaining honour in the name of the present-day Russian state is an acceptable response.

      Eradicating all of Russian culture from Western life is exactly doing what Putin's propaganda depicts - an all-out attempt to existentially annihilate a nation, that merits the cruellest reply.

      Who, besides, would dare apply these rules of exclusion to Shostakovich and his unblinking musical portraits of heroism under fire and Stalin's tyranny?

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    3. Yes - I can only see this kind of thing making matters much worse.

      During the Cold War we adopted the much wiser approach of trying to keep the lines of both sporting and cultural communication open. And the Soviet Union was infinitely more monstrous than Putin's regime. Perspective and empathy seem to have been almost totally lost since then - it's worrying.

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    4. I think it comes down to how much responsibility you think a people have for their government. That aside, I think comparisons to the USSR aren't great, since they were rarely at DIRECT war with someone allied with us. A better example might be North Korea, who's been sanctioned to hell and back by the US since the Korean war iirc. Pre-Ukraine, there were a lot of active efforts to reach out to Russia, but war tends to inflame passions.

      (I'll admit I'm biased in this: My father works for a non profit focused on promoting civil society thats been banned in Russia for the last few years, and has co-workers and friends we've had over for dinner who are currently in Ukraine- and at definite risk of execution or imprisonment if they can't get out before Putin gets in).

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    5. Yes. I'm one of those people who thinks that ordinary citizens have very little responsibility for what their governments do, even in established democracies. When governments are voted in they almost never represent the views of a majority of the population, and people rarely if ever get to vote directly on what policies a government enacts.

      And that's in established democracies. The idea that in failing to rise up and overthrow Putin ordinary Russians are somehow culpable for the invasion of Ukraine is, in my view, ridiculous.

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    6. Yes. If we’re going to punish artists or cat breeders to encourage them to oppose Putin, and we’re going to pretend that it’s not about punishing them for its own sake, then surely it makes more sense to target these measures at people who are on a position to actually put some kind of pressure on Putin. So how about this for a modest proposal: no more restrictions on what middle class Russians can or can’t do, since they’re powerless to depose Putin. Instead, the US should announce that they will start drone striking billionaires — of every nationality, including American — until Putin is removed from power. Seems like it would be a much more effective policy, right?

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  8. I really pity this strange world. I don't really understand HOW in a couple of weeks everyone is going bonkers with this. Obviously there is a vicious and terrible war going on, but annihilating any hint of the presence of russian culture in our lives is only going to add more fuel to the conflict! This foul, stupid and irrational kind of hate is not the answer, even in this horrible days.

    And a couple of weeks ago my main concern was the paper shortage! Oh, sweet summer  child! 

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  9. I am participating in a Eussian Literature of the 19th Century workshop, organized and paid by the Mexican government together with the Russian Embassy.

    Said government condemned Putin's action against Ukraine.

    But one thing is one thing and another thing is another thing. You can, and probably should be against war (illegal or not), but you shouldn't be against a people, their culture, their right to exist and a living.

    These kind of absurd sanction don't make me hate hate Russia or even Putin, they make me hate Washington and their minions (aka allies).

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  10. In fairness, this is just an accelerated version of what we've been watching for years. Hardly a week goes by now where some movie, music, television show, book, piece of art, memorial, statue or some such gets pulled, banned, eliminated or what have you. The dog returns to its vomit they say. I've lived long enough to see most of the things I was taught growing up in the 1970s and 1980s turned on their heads. Things I was taught were nothing short of fascism are now SOP, and things I was taught were the paths of virtue are being derailed and ended. So it comes as no shock that all my life I heard how bad we were for going after German this or Japanese that or Middle Eastern over there just because of war, while now I'm seeing the same done a hundred fold. That seems to be our era's legacy. All our lives we heard we needed a world where all animals are equal. Now we're finding out what they really meant about all animals being equal.

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    1. Yeah - when the chips are down politics is merely about defeating one's enemies, and we see that almost nakedly now.

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  11. I mean... the deafening silence on all the other foreign wars, 'peacekeeping actions' & adventurisms waged in my short lifetime (ongoing even now) by various countries really does say it all, right? I can only conclude that 95% of folks (perhaps this is solely a Western problem, but... I doubt it) only care about that which they have been instructed to care about.

    Something like the 1972 Canada-Russia summit series would be impossible under these conditions. We can't even sublimate our violent impulses with hockey - what options does it leave us with I wonder?

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    1. Yeah, having spent many years living in an Eastern society, I believe this tendency ("tell me what to think, and I'll think it") may be even worse outside the West. Not that it isn't bad enough here.

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  12. Your larger point is spot on, but I wonder why you direct so much ire toward the Cardiff Symphony Orchestra. The piece you link to specifically points out that they are not ceasing to play all Russian music; it also observes that they cancelled the Tchaikovsky concert because the pieces they had chosen to play were celebrations of Russian military triumph, not merely because a Russian composer wrote them. This is a reasoned decision. You may feel that the reasoning is faulty, but it is unfair to equate it with "four legs good, two legs bad.'

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    1. Fair enough - I accept that is a reasoned decision.

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  13. Ayup. One of my favorite local haunts is a Russian-themed bar owned by an émigré - I'm not going to boycott someone who had the temerity to leave the country as a child with their family after the fall of the Iron Curtain... And one fun thing: the bar used to have Russian comedy and fantasy, and animated movies on rotation. The film "Tale of Tsar Saltan" even turned into some writing inspiration.

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  14. Amen! (Apart from the Tchaikovsky bit, which I understood to be about the nature of the 1812 Overture, rather than his Russian-Ness)

    Rite of Spring. Oh man! When I was 20, I weirdly decided one day "I ought to be into classical music". I picked a CD at random from my dad's collection, it was the Rite of Spring (a particularly punchy recording by The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti - still my favourite version, alongside the 4-handed piano version played by Fazil Say). O. M. G. My immediate thought was "when it comes to attitude and aggression, punk has got nothing on this". Instant Desert Island Disc.

    As for the Firebird, not long before lockdown I (unwittingly) watched a woman wanking herself to an orgasm to it on a London stage. Which was weird, but she enjoyed herself so... art, eh? 🤷‍♂️

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    1. At what point did she orgasm? At the end?

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    2. Heh, it wasn't actually the full thing (I'm not familiar enough with the piece to say which part it was, it lasted about 10-15 minutes) but, yes, it all seemed very well timed. The whole thing was played out brilliantly in a sort of a seven-veils way, there were several layers of "OMG is she going to do that? OMG is she doing that? Oh no, she's actually doing THAT?? WTF? DID SHE REALLY JUST DO ***THAT***?????"

      This was only one (quite important) part of a very very weird & special evening. I would love to bang on about it more, but it's just another load of the kind of insane-from-the-outside, you-totally-had-to-be-there, chaos magickal shite that I'm sure you're bored of hearing from me. I'll just say that the evening ended with around 200 people burning a total of about £1000 in cash. I was in charge of showing them how to do it.

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    3. Asking the important questions!

      And having seen ballet interpretations of both Rite and Firebird, they are arousing pieces.

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    4. Ha! That's obviously the origin myth for this particular practice. In fact, the KLF (or as I'm sure they'd prefer, the JAMs) are woven into the fabric of everything this particular bunch of my mates do. S'funny, I was never into them back in the day (I was barely aware of them until I started going out with Gill, who had this weird dance single with Tammy Wynette singing on it), but so much of the stuff I'm involved with starts with or passes through them.

      My friend John Higgs wrote their biography (it's actually only about 1/3rd a biography of the KLF, the rest is a brilliant riff on Discordianism and chaos magic, taking in the Illuminatus trilogy, Ken Campbell, Doctor Who, and god knows what else, and ending up on a riff on Alan Moore's conceit in From Hell, making out that - as with Jack the Ripper & the 20th Century - the KLF's burning of the million quid was the act which birthed the 21st)

      But, yeah, money burning. I think you will appreciate, even if you do not agree with, this video by my friend Jon AKA Money Burning Guy: https://churchofburn.org/pages/welcome-to-church-of-burn-what-do-you-see - the first time I encountered Jon, I photographed him burning money. At the time it seemed crazy to me, possibly also a little unethical, but in the 6 years since it has started making ever more sense. And taking that one photo has taken me in some pretty weird directions, literally life-changing.

      And if you like that, you'll love his book :-)
      https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2578346419?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1

      Oh, and his incredibly high-production quality glossy magazine:
      https://www.burningissue.net/

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  15. Despite being born in America, my grandma's house was full of icons, Russian literature, painted eggs, the whole nine yards. Remember her ranting about people's irrational hatedred of slavs (and the poor innocent Serbs) during the Yugoslav wars. Going against the glories is Russian culture just drives people like that deeper into a bunker mentality and accomplishes nothing useful.

    Still, freedom of association is just as important as freedom of speech and I can't blame people for not wanting to associate with supporters of a war of naked imperialist ambition.

    As for whataboutism about America's imperialistic wars I put in the same (small and futile) effort against the Iraq war as I did against this war in Ukraine. Think I'm being consistent.

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  16. It says a lot to me about the fucked-up state of politics in this country that there are people boycotting the works of long dead artists who lived in a long dead predecessor of today's Russian nation, ruled by actual tsars, and yet the government are still using the briefing room at Number 10 Downing Street, the tech for which was designed and installed by a major Russian company just 12 months ago.

    And while I'm on the subject of whataboutery, saw a great article yesterday by Gary Yonge comparing the (quite correct IMO) treatment of Roman Abramovich & Chelsea FC with that at of of Newcastle United, a club owned by the actual Saudi government, a government which has long been committing war crimes in Yemen that are at least on a par with those inflicted by Russia upon Ukraine. Not even whataboutery, literally the same thing.

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    1. I don't have a problem with whataboutery as a general rule. Pointing out hypocrisy is important.

      Abramovich represents Russian oligarchs in London to most people and hence must be made a scapegoat - it's really that simple, I think. Very Girardian stuff, and I increasingly wonder whether "the Russians" have become conveniently available as a scapegoat at the moment Western societies were approaching an internal crisis point.

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    2. I don't have a problem with whataboutery, provided it serves my argument ;-)

      Scapegoatery, now that I *do* have a problem with. What you say is spot on. I just have a major allergy to favouritism when it comes to such fundamental suffering.

      I forgot to mention that the article started off with Alan Shearer saying how appropriate and great it is that Chelsea are being sanctioned. Yeah, the Newcastle guy. I'm pretty certain he must have had no inkling of his own hypocrisy.

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    3. I think at least some of the difference is that, for whatever reason, the international order is pretty tolerant of other countries fucking about in the civil wars etc. of other countries and similar acts even if there is a horrific body count. See the world shrugging at the absolutely massive carnage of the Congo Wars or Russia supporting the Kazakh or Belarus governments against internal opposition.

      However, wars of territorial conquest tend to draw a lot stronger responses. For example if Saudi Arabia tried to annex Yemen I'm sure the world would go apeshit. Even corners of the world that nobody gives much of a crap about (like, say, East Timor) tend to get people much more stirred up when it's conquest vs. supporting one side or another in a civil war.

      It doesn't really make sense but then norms often don't.

      WRT whataboutism it's really a two edged sword. Often it's used in a bad way: "X is bad, but Y is also bad so we shouldn't give a crap about X" but it can be used in a good way "X is bad, and Y is bad in the same way, why the fuck aren't you giving a crap about Y?" It's just that I see whataboutism used a lot more often in the first way, and that's bad.

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    4. That sounds like a pretty technical reason why people do/don't care. I wasn't aware/hadn't thought about the fact that the Saudi war on Yemen wasn't intended to annex it. In general, I don't much care about the reasons for war, I care about the human cost. I suspect that most people are the same.

      Another probable reason: I just read that The Guardian published more stories about Ukraine just today than it has published about Yemen in the whole of 2022.

      And more whataboutery: the government have just asked people to take Ukrainian refugees into their homes. A few months back they were trying to criminalise anyone who even helped a refugee to reach the UK. The wars may have different causes, but a refugee is a refugee is a refugee.

      In know this stuff is so blatantly obvious it's like nuking fish in a barrel, but it makes me SO FUCKING ANGRY!

      Seems pretty clear to me (and echoed by many newspaper headlines) that the difference is because the people are "like us", they're not ethnics. From my experience both of fostering refugee kids, and of friends visiting places like Ethiopia and the Middle East, people all over the world are a lot more like us than we tend to assume.

      This plays out on a larger scale in our own nation. When I moved to Sheffield from London 24 years ago, I was kinda scared of the reputation of Northerners, particularly their apparent hatred of Southerners. It was only a few years before, when at university in Bristol, that a Newcastle student had told me that virtually all southern students who go to Newcastle get beaten up on the streets at some point in their studies.

      Of course what I found was a hugely welcoming city (and have found the same in most Northern cities - especially Liverpool and Glasgow). Sure, there's some very occasional ribbing of one's southerness (although TBH I haven't encountered that in years), but it's always been extremely well-natured, a ritual part of making a friendship even, when I've encountered it.

      I think one other thing that people don't realise is that the world has grown incredibly more homogeneous in our lifetimes - especially if you're anything like my age (53). Despite the polarisation of online life, people have much more similar interests and experiences than they did even a couple of decades ago.

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    5. The UN Charter was in large part designed above all to make aggressive war in the pursuit of territorial annexation unlawful (for obvious reasons), and it has become one of the big "no-nos" of international relations. Wars of conquest are almost unheard of since WWII, and the few that have happened (Iraq's conquest of Kuwait, for example) have been universally vilified. This is in large part at the root of all the shock about Ukraine. It flies in the face of the most sacrosanct rule of the post-WWII international order.

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    6. dansumption: racism is certainly a PART of this but not the whole thing. As noisms pointed out wars of conquest have tended to upset people a lot more than meddling in civil wars (see Kuwait vs. Yemen) even if the body counts are similar. Also a lot of the Brexit idiocy was based on animus against Polish immigrants who I don't think would be seen as ethnically any different than Ukrainian refugees.

      Personally I'd like to see it made easier for Russians to emigrate as the resulting brain drain would certainly make it that much harder for Putin to continue to fuck with his neighbors.

      But generally, "people were shit to other refugees so we shouldn't let in huge numbers of Ukrainians" is bad, "we let in lots of Ukrainians so we should let in lots of other people fleeing similar horrors" is good. Pointing out hypocrisy can be good but often whataboutism can end up being a call to inaction.

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    7. Hmm. Yes, sure racism isn't the whole thing, I don't think I'd ever deliberately imply that any cause was the sole reason for any but the simplest of effects.

      But I still think your annexing point is technical and a minor detail. If you asked 100 people what was the worst thing about this war compared to the war in Yemen, I think you'd be lucky to find 1 in 100 who even knew that one is for land and the other not. Certainly I didn't.

      The racism here is implicit and systemic, not a matter of everyone saying "I don't like brown people". It's there in the Guardian, surely the most bleeding-heart of our newspapers, devoting more coverage to Ukraine in one day than they did to Yemen in one year.

      As for the Poland thing, sure, but Poles weren't suffering and dying then, in fact most of us knew nothing of their lives and hopes and loves and pains. And many newspapers of note hated them, whatever their reasons for that. Ukrainians they love (now).

      Land does not bleed, nations are abstract concepts that exist only in our minds, but human suffering is human suffering wherever its cause, and is the thing that triggers human empathy. And only when the places where we get our information tell us about that suffering does our empathy emerge.

      It intuitively feels to me as though this distinction between types of war is of a type with bad whataboutery.

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    8. Oh, and "call for inaction"? No. Call for equitable action. Call for us not to beat ourself up over the past, but to be better and do better in the future. It is still perfectly possible for those of us with space in our homes to offer it up to any refugee. Or at least, it would be, if refugees had equal opportunities to enter and live in this country.

      As for helping Russians to flee: 100%. As implied by the original post, innocent Russians are being scapegoated unfairly. Many of them are also victims of this war, albeit not to the same extent as Ukrainians, and they deserve sympathy & support, not vilification.

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    9. The Brexit 'idiocy' about immigration wasn't really to do with any animus towards East European immigrants personally - it was much more to do with concerns about stretched public services, and the utterly indefensible and undemocratic way in which Tony Blair went about transforming British society. It is possible to be against mass immigration without being against immigrants, and in my experience most people who are anti-immigration fall into that camp. (I don't; my wife is an immigrant and I was an immigrant myself for years, so it would be pretty hypocritical of me...)

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