Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). 304 pp. $25.95.
According to the Jews, the world begins with speech. God says, “There is light,” and so there is light. But what if something happened — it doesn’t really matter what — and speech turned lethal?
That’s the premise of The Flame Alphabet, the third novel by Ben Marcus, a creative writing professor at Columbia University and son of the feminist critic Jane Marcus. Sometime in an unspecified future, somewhere in a featureless Midwest, the speech of children begins to sicken their parents. “We feasted on the putrid material because our daughter made it,” explains Samuel, the book’s narrator. “We gorged on it and inside us it steamed, rotted, turned rank.” As the contagion spreads so does the public anxiety. The speech of Jewish children is the first to turn bad, raising official fears of mass anti-Semitic hysteria. It seems, after all, to be a “chosen affliction.” Whoever is in charge resorts to high-sounding vagueness:
From our portable radio came word that studies had returned, pinpointing children as the culprit. The word carrier was used. The word Jew was not. The discussion was wrapped in the vocabulary of viral infection. There was no reason for alarm because this crisis appeared to be genetic in nature, a problem only for certain people, whoever they were.
Before long, though, it becomes clear that all children — not merely Jewish children — are causing adults to fall sick by speech and writing. As an authority theorizes, “Language happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing, but not so good at absorbing.” People begin to die.
The novel’s opening chapters trace the search for an official diagnosis while the disease spreads, the symptoms worsen. The first half of the book ends with children being quarantined, and parents being forced — by a nameless faceless government without apparent ideology — to abandon their children. Samuel and his wife Claire prepare to leave their daughter Esther behind, but at the last minute Claire leaps from the car and is swallowed up by the government health machinery.
In the second half of the book, Samuel goes on without them. Despite the absence of road signs — they have been smudged over to prevent contagion — he somehow arrives in Rochester (probably New York instead of Minnesota, though maybe not), where he goes to work for Forsyth, which seems to be some kind of quasi-governmental mega-corporate medical lab. There Samuel conducts research into alphabetical systems without reference or communication. He creates a disappearing Hebrew, invents a private alphabet, experiments with concealing portions of text to contain the infection. Nothing works:
If we hid the text too much, it could not be seen. If we revealed it so it could be seen, it burned out the mind. No matter what. To see writing was to suffer.
And by now it should be obvious that, although it has the outward appearance of a dystopian novel, The Flame Alphabet is a philosophical allegory about language and literature. A science fiction writer would have taken the trouble to devise a plausible explanation for “a world where speech was lethal.” Not Marcus, though. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, he is puzzled and fascinated by the concept of private language. If speech is communication, as popular opinion has it, then meaning is a communicable disease. But if it refers only to inner sensations and locked-in mental intentions, then speech is just weird and mystifying behavior.
The implications for literature might be less obvious. Marcus is well-known (at least to literary critics) as an “experimental” writer and an apostle of “experimental” writing. The term is one that he selected for himself, although even the most passionate advocate of “experimental” writing expressed doubts about it. Marcus unfurled it in a famous attack upon Jonathan Franzen, published as a cover story by Harper’s in 2005 (and available only to subscribers), in which he upheld the principle of “literature as an art form” against the author of The Corrections, who writes a “narrative style that was already embraced by the culture.” By literature as an art form, he means writing that is “more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressionistic rather than figurative.”
There, in short, is the same opposition between language as communication of diseased meaning (“already embraced by the culture”) and the weird and mystifying artistic text, which “creates in us desires we did not know we had.”
The trouble is that The Flame Alphabet does little more than play with its ideas, refusing to let go until all the air is squeezed out of them. Marcus is nothing at all like the Kafka described by André Gide, who examines a “fantastic universe” with “detailed exactitude.” What interests him about a world in which language is deadly are the speculative games that such a premise gives rise to. What becomes of parents’ attachment when their children are the carriers of a plague? What happens to human community when language can no longer knit it together? What might language be if not communication?
Even then, however, the speculative questions are little more than occasions for an outburst of style:
The Hebrew letter is like a form of nature. In it is the blueprint for some flower whose name I forget, and if this flower doesn’t exist yet, it will. It is said that the twenty-two Hebrew letters, if laid flat and joined properly, then submitted to the correct curves on a table stabbed with pins, would describe the cardiovascular plan of the human body. And not only that.
But a little of that goes a long way. There is a Jewish subplot in The Flame Alphabet (although plot is the wrong word for a novel that is not organized by narrative), but it doesn’t amount to much, because Marcus likes to contrive knowledge, to invent allusions and quotations, in order to frustrate the reader’s desperate search for clues in a mapped and recognizable world.
His title, for example, seems as if it might refer to the classical midrashic description of the Torah as having been written, even before creation, “with black fire on white fire.” (Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of the image is here.) Marcus’s account is pure fabrication:
The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold. The so-called Torah. . . . We could not say God’s true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all. This was basic stuff. But it was the midrashic spin on the flame alphabet that was more exclusive, spoken of only, as far as I knew, by [the narrator’s rabbi, with whom he has contact only by means of a listening device like the radio]. Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name, [Rabbi] Burke asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not? That’s what words are. They are variations on his name. No matter the language. Whatever we say, we say God. . . . Therefore the language itself was, by definition, off-limits. Every single word of it. We were best to be done with it. Our time with it is nearly through. The logic was hard to deny. You could not do it.
These are, of course, Jewish references without any resemblance to the historical existence of a Jewish people to whom the Jewish God spoke words — the Ten Commandments are called, in Hebrew, the aseret hadevarim, the “ten words” — which they have repeated to one another for centuries.
But that is exactly Marcus’s point; or, rather, his literary “experiment.” If it were possible (as he proposes) to write fiction in a language that does not communicate a message — a language does not kill itself in being consumed — so too it might be possible to lead a Jewish life without God, community, traditional religious teaching, or a light carried to the nations. In such a vision of experience, the logic may be hard to deny or even follow, but the speculative enjoyment is endless. For readers who do not agree with Marcus that “our machine of understanding is inferior,” The Flame Alphabet may seem endless too.
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Review: Fiction, Fiction, Burning Bright
Must-Reads from Magazine
The bed they've made.
The spin is on, and you’re probably already dizzy from it. Don’t listen to a word of it. This race wasn’t about right-to-work legislation, steel tariffs, or cultural conservatism. Candidates matter, but the national environment matters more. Like so many elections of its kind, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district–a district Donald Trump won two years ago by 20 points–was a referendum on the GOP under this president. The voters do not approve.
The conditions and the candidates vary, but the story since the president’s inauguration has been remarkably static. The vote in both special elections and the off-year races last November has swung away from Republicans and toward Democrats. What’s more, despite divergent candidate quality, the GOP candidates’ margins have tracked with Donald Trump’s job approval rating by state (with Roy Moore’s race in Alabama representing the exception to the rule).
The GOP’s traditional strongholds in the educated and affluent suburbs are no longer reliable, and that’s not because Democrats have suddenly become popular. Voters are not delivering a negative verdict on the economy; it is growing with room to run. They’re not sour on the state of affairs abroad; the world has its troubles, but there are no major combat operations sending American soldiers home in caskets in numbers sufficient to capture the nation’s attention. The next election will be a values election—specifically, it will be a referendum on Trump’s values—and voters appear eager to register their dissatisfaction with them.
Democratic energy isn’t sufficient to explain the party’s string of impressive victories in the last year. Republicans are depressed, and who can blame them? The GOP has squandered its period of ascendancy, scuttling the ambitious agenda set by Paul Ryan in late 2016 and managing to secure only a scaled-back tax code reform package by the skin of their teeth. On a near-daily basis, Republican voters are told by their trusted entertainers and lawmakers that Donald Trump cannot succeed, not with a seditious deep state “conspiracy” undermining his presidency from within. No wonder the GOP is depressed.
If Trump is depressing GOP voters and energizing Democrats, then the solution to the problem seems easy: “dump Trump.” That’s Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis’s suggestion. But Donald Trump wasn’t imposed on the losing GOP candidate in Pennsylvania’s special election, Rick Saccone. The GOP candidate ran as “Trump before Trump.” On issues like tax cuts as well as steel and aluminum tariffs, Saccone wrapped himself in the #MAGA flag. Perhaps most portentously, the losing candidate needed the president to parachute into the district to campaign on his behalf. He might regret that decision today.
At a typically madcap campaign-style appearance in Pennsylvania this weekend, Donald Trump did what he does best: make it about himself. He attacked Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and called NBC News host Chuck Todd a “son of a bitch.” He said Washington D.C. was full of “evil” people. He mocked dignified presidential comportment, calling it boring and declaring his disdain for impulse control. He riffed on the cable news shows he hates. He attacked his reality show competitors, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oprah Winfrey, and Martha Stewart. He called Maxine Waters a “low-IQ individual.” He mistakenly claimed that he won a majority of women in 2016. In sum, the president made a spectacle of himself, and the national press coverage of what should have been a micro-targeted event reflected that.
These rallies yield diminishing returns for Republican candidates, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to disinvest. They energize the pro-Trump electorate in the districts in which they are set, but they also energize Democrats—maybe even more than they do GOP voters—both locally and nationally. Republican candidates cannot afford to discourage their base voters by failing to display sufficient fealty to the president or his movement, and Donald Trump is unlikely to shrink into the shadows and let Republican candidates run against him. So the GOP is stuck with their president, even if he’s a weight around their ankles.
Pretty soon, the bill for this Faustian bargain will come due. Already, you can see reliable Trump boosters like Fox News Channel’s Laura Ingraham making their peace with Conor Lamb as the kind of Democrat with whom Donald Trump can forge a productive working relationship. For a movement built around “winning” rather than ideas, that is not a difficult intellectual leap to make. If Democrats perform this well in November of 2018, the morning-after narrative will not be that voters handed the GOP a “shellacking” or a “thumping.” No, the results will be hailed as a boon to Trumpism. At last, the establishment shills in the GOP will have been cast off, making room for the kind of protectionism, isolationism, and statism that were the centerpiece policy proposals of Donald Trump’s campaign. #MAGA is endlessly flexible.
As for the GOP, this is the bed they’ve made.
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The fruits of appeasement.
Never ignore the warnings of refugees and defectors from revanchist authoritarian regimes. That’s the lesson the British security establishment is learning the hard way in the wake of last week’s poisoning of a Russian ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, on U.K. soil. The nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, left Skripal and his daughter Yulia in critical condition. Hundreds of innocent Britons may have been exposed to the toxin, and it caused at least one to fall ill.
The Kremlin’s fingerprints are all over this act of terror. Prime Minister Theresa May has issued an ultimatum to Moscow demanding it to account for the episode—or else. But first, the British prime minister might ask herself how it was that Russian operators came to conclude that they could get away with so brazen a violation of U.K. sovereignty. The simple answer is: because it worked the last time.
Few can fail to notice the similarities between the Skripal case and 2006’s polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, another former Russian spy who had taken refuge in Britain. What most may not remember, however, are the lengths to which Britain’s political class went to avoid airing out the facts of that case. Although investigators charged one of the suspects in the Litvinenko murder (in absentia) in 2007, the government long resisted the launch of an independent inquiry.
That was back when Britain and other European powers, following Barack Obama’s footsteps, were keen to appease Moscow. It was necessary to show “flexibility,” to let old bygones be bygones. Never mind that Litvinenko’s killers had deployed a substance that emits 166 quadrillion radioactive alpha particles per second. In 2013, a senior official in David Cameron’s government conceded in a letter to Britain’s High Court of Justice that “international relations”—that is, relations with Moscow—“have been a factor in the government’s decision-making.”
That senior official was then-Home Secretary Theresa May.
For years, Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, pressed the government to launch a commission to investigate her late husband’s death, but to no avail. It wasn’t until 2014 that Mrs. May reversed course, and then only after Russian-backed rebels downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. The Litvinenko Inquiry got underway the following year.
As Marina Litvinenko told me in an interview in 2014, British leaders “put good relations with Russia in top priority. But the Russians have been trained in a different way. They’re not from Oxford, or from Cambridge. They’ve got a different agenda. They’ve been trained by the KGB . . . Every time you cede more, they will try to catch you in a weaker position. If you say, ‘Excuse me, I did something wrong,’ they don’t appreciate it—they say, ‘OK, now I will make it worse for you.’ ”
She told you so.
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Exemplifying the problem.
A study conducted by the Knight Foundation and Gallup examining matriculated students’ views on free speech was broadcast across mainstream media outlets with an unmistakably triumphant tone. The debate over whether college students are becoming more hostile toward free expression, it seemed, had been settled.
The study’s headline was reassuring. For the vast majority of surveyed students—nearly 90 percent—protections on free speech were “very” or “extremely” important. Nearly 80 percent said that it was just as important for society to promote inclusivity and diversity. Yet when asked to choose among these ideals, the results were mixed. A bare majority of students (53 percent) said promoting a diverse and inclusive society was more important than protections on free speech (46 percent), though these results varied wildly across demographic groups. These results aren’t troubling because they reflect declining support for free-speech absolutism, but because students were made to choose at all. This is a false choice and a dangerous premise, and it is being imposed on students by their elders.
There is no conflict between free-speech rights and inclusivity and diversity; a maximalist view of the right to free expression necessarily promotes inclusivity and diversity, by definition. The view that these two conditions are contradictory is the foundation upon which the “no-platforming” movement is built. This is an odious new trend that maintains students have the moral obligation to deny certain speakers access to the “platform” of the college campus—almost invariably, those speakers are conservative. This wasn’t an idea that sprang from these unformed minds ex nihilo. It was cultivated in them by their professors and advisors.
In a 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, New York University Vice Provost and Professor Ulrich Baer came out as a champion of the “no-platforming” movement. It was a mini-manifesto that expounded on the notion that free speech is a commodity with a zero-sum nature; if one person has it, someone else does not.
In his piece, Baer suggested “defining freedom of expression” not as “guaranteeing the robust debate from which the truth emerges” but as “the asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments.” He explicitly claimed that students—particularly minorities—suffer from a power disequilibrium when confronted by conservative speakers, just as Jews would suffer a terrible imposition if they were confronted with supporters of the Holocaust. Baer’s Marxian view of class-based disparities demanding that authority figures intervene in academic debates isn’t an uncommon view among college faculty. A 2010-2011 survey of college administrators, staffers, and professors for the University of California, Los Angeles found 63 percent of respondents agreed that colleges should “prohibit” sexist or racist speech. “Freedom of expression,” Baer wrote, “is not an unchanging absolute.”
Baer has a point, albeit one that is articulated in a deliberately obtuse manner. Arbiters of public discourse—newspaper editors, university provosts, and the like—do have the responsibility to discourage the adoption of dangerous ideas. Eugenics, racial superiority, and the conception of the purely rational man have all led to unintended and bloody consequences in their application. That does not mean these ideas should not be explored. Indeed, they must be confronted, and without the “trigger warnings” that the parental professorate appends onto lesson plans to soften the discomfort they stimulate. The academician’s assumption that his young charges are fragile flowers in need of protection from the outside world is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Baer’s overly broad definition of what constitutes an idea deserving of the “no-platforming” treatment is deliberate. He’s well aware that his prescription has been applied to Milo Yiannopoulos just as it has been to Ben Shapiro, Condoleezza Rice, Jason Riley, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Indeed, it was recently applied to Christina Hoff Sommers ahead of a scheduled speech at Lewis & Clark Law School. A critic of modern feminism, Sommers was deemed by a variety of groups on campus to be a “known fascist.” Times columnist Bari Weiss has showed that these groups have utterly failed to support this claim. Instead, they’ve offered an ad hominem-laced anti-intellectual tantrum that they thought sufficed for a denunciation of Sommers.
The target of their outrage never finished her speech. Sommers was confronted by a group of students who shouted her down—a tactic that had the support of nearly 40 percent of the students that the Knight Foundation surveyed. Janet Steverson, the school’s dean of diversity and inclusion, cut Sommers off halfway through her speech in a display of surrender to the thoughtless but vocal minority who wanted her silenced.
If conservatives weren’t summarily dismissed by those who think their criticisms of intellectual culture in Western colleges are overblown, their critics might not have such a distorted understanding of the conservative position. Those who promoted this survey because it supposedly demonstrated that the kids are alright couldn’t see that they were promoting their own indictment. This survey is just the latest exhibit in a mounting case that suggests students have been presented with a warped view of the tradeoffs associated with unfettered free expression. Inclusivity is not in conflict with free speech. Whoever taught these students that these two phenomena were contradictory did them and the nation a terrible disservice.
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A forgotten dissident's warning
Václav Benda (1946-1999) was a Czech dissident, companion of Václav Havel, and signatory of Charter 77–the political manifesto that played a pivotal role in the downfall of communism in what was once Czechoslovakia. When he wasn’t unemployed and living on benefits, Benda worked variously as a philosopher, a biologist, a mathematician, a computer programmer, a stoker, and a cow herder, among other jobs. This owed mainly to his principled opposition to the communist regime, which punished dissidents by destroying their careers. Benda was, above all, a piercing critic of socialism and totalitarianism.
Nowadays, we are living through a socialist renaissance of sorts in the West. Bernie Sanders won the hearts of young Democrats in the 2016 election, while, across the Atlantic, the unreconstructed socialist Jeremy Corbyn has captured the imagination of young Britons with his brand of 1970s nostalgia politics. Young intellectuals are especially susceptible to the socialist temptation, including some young Catholics, who apparently have no memory–or contemporary awareness–of the depredations inflicted on the Church by collectivist regimes. Benda, then, is an urgent thinker for our moment, and thanks to an anthology just published by St. Augustine’s Press, English-language readers can finally become familiar with his luminous writings.
The book will be of historical interest to students of Charter 77 and the Czech anti-communist movement. But Benda’s insights–on the nature of totalitarian regimes, on religious faith and dissident politics, and on spiritual renewal in societies shattered by dictatorship–have application far beyond the specific historical context that produced them. It is his moral thinking on socialism and “social justice” that should be especially instructive to the young comrades. When, in 1985, some supporters of Charter 77 published a statement in support of Western “peace” movements that functioned as apologists for Soviet aggression, Benda penned a furious letter denouncing their views.
“Whoever tolerates social inequality or even increases it,” the errant 77’ers had written, “is responsible for hunger and poverty.” Benda meticulously and utterly dismantled this proposition, and it is worth quoting his comments at some length:
In Europe, the countries where hunger and poverty are burning issues are Poland, Romania and maybe the USSR; that is, countries which vehemently proclaim and forcefully implement the requirements of social equality. . . . Denying social inequality always inevitably means also the denial fundamental human and civil rights and freedoms. This is not an accident brought about by the imperfection of previous projects of social equality or those who realized them; social equality represents the liquidation of societas, the polis, its transformation into a shapeless, nonsensical and in the end permanently enslaved mass of individuals, dispossessed of their generally useful freedoms, of their human dignity and values and of their rights and privileges. Not even in the Kingdom of Christ (disregarding that any attempt to establish it by human force alone leads to destructive consequences) will there be equality in this sense: there will be places on the right and on the left, on the steps of the throne or nearby–although their allocation will be directed by other than earthly criteria, and the last will be first. . . .
I cannot see even a grain of good in Socialist ideas; the more they resemble some other reasonable and humanly justified ideas or feelings in some respects, the more they are unacceptable and destructive. The whole concept is so perverse that it completely spoils any elements of truth while it uses their appeal to deceive less experienced minds and less assured hearts. . . . It seduces and is still capable of seducing many to very effective and very unfortunate activity. If, for lack of space, I have to choose a slogan as well, I would formulate my position thus: to oppose all Socialist ideas and fabrications untiringly and completely mercilessly; especially to unmask preemptively every camouflage which could enable it to rise again from the ashes. . . .
Benda felt this hatred of socialism in his bones. Two years earlier, he had been released from a half-decade stint in prison for the political “crime” of promoting Charter 77. Let’s hope the young writers who pine for socialism while living in the comfort of Islington, Dupont Circle, and Midtown West never have to suffer what Benda and his fellow dissidents suffered for freedom.
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Jeremy Corbyn's dovishness on Russia doesn't wash anymore.
It was hard to come away from British Prime Minister Theresa May’s address to the House of Commons on Monday without the distinct impression that she had accused Russia of committing an act of war.
May declared that Sergei Scripal and his daughter Yulia, who remain hospitalized in critical condition, had been exposed along with perhaps hundreds of others to a sophisticated nerve agent on March 4. Skripal’s son and brother had already died under mysterious circumstances and many thought that he, a former Russian spy, had been targeted by Moscow for assassination. May confirmed those suspicions.
With grave portent, the prime minister announced that her government had concluded that it was “highly likely” that the Kremlin was “responsible” for that attack. “There are only two plausible explanations,” she continued. “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.” Either of these two conclusions amounts to an act of war, albeit with varying degrees of disregard for British sovereignty.
May left Moscow with just over 24 hours to provide London with a satisfactory response to her accusations. “Should there be no credible response,” the prime minister concluded, “we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
This is ominous and sobering talk. Rational adults, to say nothing of the men and women in government, should respond to these claims with the judiciousness they deserve. Of course, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is neither judicious nor rational.
Corbyn took the opportunity to respond to May’s contention that the U.K. had been subject to an attack by a foreign power. He rose only to contend that Conservative MPs, too, had been the collective recipients of Russian cash, which he implied was indicative of their conflict of interest on the issue of Russian sanctions. “The actions the government takes once the facts are clear needs to be both decisive and proportionate, and focused on reducing conflicts and tensions rather than increasing them,” Corbyn concluded over the din of his colleague’s jeers and boos.
The Labour leader’s toadying obsequiousness in the face of an attack by a foreign power prompted a series of rebukes, and not just from conservatives. “When our country is under attack,” said Labour MP Chris Leslie of Corbyn’s political point-scoring, “it is not appropriate.” Labour MP John Woodcock agreed. “It would put our national security at significant risk if we were led by anyone who did not understand the gravity of the threat Russia poses to this nation,” he added. Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party—no bastion of conservatism there—insisted that a “firm response” was in order. “Russia simply cannot be allowed to launch attacks on our streets with impunity,” she wrote.
You can forgive a center-left peacenik for getting a bit of whiplash. Jeremy Corbyn’s blinkered pacifism was once rather boilerplate leftist Russophilia. The U.K.’s Labour Party leader has devoted his career to the cause of “peace,” a prerequisite for which seems to be the sacrifice of Western values, to say nothing of its self-respect.
Late last year, Corbyn received an international peace prize for his work on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—a group that demands the dissolution of the British nuclear stockpile, the closure of its nuclear power facilities, and its withdrawal from the NATO alliance. He has thrown in his lot with the Chavistas in Venezuela and heaped praise upon the Castro family in Cuba—two socialist basket cases with virtually no respect for human rights or global stability. He played host to those he called “our friends” from terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. He seems utterly unmoved by the influence wielded by Kremlin-funded disinformation outlets like RT (formerly Russia Today) network. He has bucked the consensus shared by his colleagues in Labour to defend the right of these groups to broadcast on Russian soil. Russian automated social media accounts have, in turn, supported Corbyn.
Here, too, kind of feckless and self-loathing response to direct aggression used to be standard liberal fare. The United States was to blame for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, culminating in the dismantling of that nation. You see, the West recognized the independence of Kosovo, bombed Serbia amid accusations of ongoing genocide, and endorsed the desire of some Soviet Republics to ascend into NATO. Ten years after that enlargement process effectively halted, it and America were still to blame when Putin invaded and carved up neighboring Ukraine. If there is now a “second Cold War” between the West and a revanchist Russia, the party to blame for that condition is the West and its aggressive allies.
It is no small miracle that this is now a minority sentiment on the liberal left. It’s quite likely that partisanship is the happy force of nature responsible for the left’s transformation into a party of hawks when it comes to Russia. Moscow dashed Barack Obama’s hopes of engineering a peaceful resolution of his own “red line” in Syria, humiliated him in Ukraine, and backed him into a corner on Iran. Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 elections in Donald Trump’s favor and Trump’s refusal to criticize Putin have created a powerful set of incentives for the Western left to abandon their traditional fealty to their old allies in the Kremlin. The effort to absolve Russia of its sins and erect elaborate and exculpatory moral equivalencies between the Kremlin’s conduct and America’s is one of many liberal impulses shared by ostensibly Republican President Donald Trump.
And yet, the left’s tough talk on Russia was a cost-free proposition until now. For years, the Russian Federation has played a reckless game. A declining power with a narrow window in which to act to preserve its global authority, Russia has heedlessly abetted human rights abuses and attacks on Western civilian targets. This latest in Britain is only the most brazen. Those on the left and the right who hope to prevent disaster must now unite in a good-faith effort to present Russia with a set of consequences for future aggressive actions that are sufficient to deter Moscow’s provocateurs. If they shirk this responsibility, the next miscalculation could demand a more forceful response than a speech before Parliament.