This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Friday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Question of the Week
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced a ban on importing Russian oil and natural gas into the United States, arguing that the new economic sanction would strike a “powerful blow to Putin’s war machine.” He added that the ban “is not without cost here at home,” explaining that gas prices were already high, and that the ban would drive them up more. Did he make the right call?
Email your thoughts to email@example.com. I’ll publish a selection of correspondence in Friday’s newsletter.
Conversations of Note
The war in Ukraine remains the most important news story in the world, but I’ll touch on it more briefly this week than last, starting with a column with the weighty title “How to Stop a Nuclear War.” Ross Douthat argues against those urging a maximalist approach to defeating Vladimir Putin:
The voices arguing for escalating now because we’ll have to fight him sooner or later need to recognize that containment, proxy wars and careful line-drawing defeated a Soviet adversary whose armies threatened to sweep across West Germany and France, whereas now we’re facing a Russian army that’s bogged down outside Kyiv. We were extremely careful about direct escalation with the Soviets even when they invaded Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan, and the result was a Cold War victory without a nuclear war. To escalate now against a weaker adversary, one less likely to ultimately defeat us and more likely to engage in atomic recklessness if cornered, would be a grave and existential folly.
In The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner declares “The End of Globalism,” arguing that even if Russia withdraws from Ukraine, it is likely to remain a pariah that relies on economic ties with China.
It feels almost obscene to speak of silver linings in this grotesque war. However, the laissez-faire brand of globalization, relentlessly promoted since about 1990 by U.S. banks and corporations at the expense of American workers, is now caput. The abrupt imposition and acceptance of economic sanctions makes clear that democratic governments do have the power to rein in global corporations and banks. If they can be restricted because of gross violations of human rights, maybe labor and environmental rights are next. Let’s hope that will be a core principle of Globalization IV.
As I see it, today’s geopolitical fissures and their economic consequences––sky-high gas prices, a looming wheat shortage, Europe’s energy supply at risk, and more––underscore the underappreciated benefits of the neoliberal world order that prevailed starting around 1990. If this is the end of relatively free global trade, tens of millions are going to miss the good old days––especially if Vladimir Putin retaliates with economic countermeasures of his own. At Geopolitical Monitor, Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco runs through some possibilities:
In fact, Russian space agency Roskosmos has already interrupted the supply of rocket engines to the US. In a foreseeable future, the Russian state could also nationalise assets of Western companies on Russian soil. Furthermore, considering Russia’s role as a “full-spectrum commodity superpower” (as the British commentator Ambrose Evans-Pritchard put it) which supplies lots of minerals on a global scale, it can restrict the sales of titanium, palladium, neon and uranium to Western consumer markets. These raw materials are essential for applications related to aerospace, chipmaking, lasers, nuclear power, electronics and weaponry. Hence, disrupting their global supply chains would unleash substantial economic mayhem. Another offensive possibility would be for Moscow to launch cyberattacks against geoeconomically significant corporate Western targets such as investment banks, hedge funds, stock exchanges, big tech firms and transnational corporations involved in large-scale business operations related to agriculture, energy, telecom and the production of military hardware.
Hubs like Wall Street or the City and offshore financial centres aligned with the West can also find themselves in the crosshairs. Considering that the actions undertaken by Washington and Brussels intend to set in motion a chain of events that could lead to the downfall of the Russian government, the Kremlin could possibly reach the ominous and dangerous conclusion that there is no incentive to show restraint. A cornered Russian bear might conceivably believe that desperate circumstances require desperate measures.
In The Guardian, Daniel Davis warns NATO against escalating beyond the crippling economic sanctions its members have imposed:
Fighting Russia on behalf of Zelensky would expose the populations of the entire alliance to potential attack by Moscow, which could escalate to nuclear warfare. It is crucial the west does not overreact to the war, as bad as it is … It would likely take Putin over a decade to rebuild Russia’s military strength to its pre-war position—which has been exposed as being far weaker than most imagined—much less to be capable of invading a Nato country. Meanwhile, because Putin has shown he is willing to use force, virtually every European country is now going to significantly increase its defense spending … If Nato remains resolute and sober … western security for the foreseeable future will be strengthened. Let our emotions get the best of us, however … and we may suffer far more harm than anything that has yet befallen Ukraine.
And Helen Lewis understands why many scoff at the notion that Putin has “gotten canceled,” but surveying the public and private institutions that quickly coalesced to punish Russia, she believes that there’s something to that description––and that it squares with her intuitions about the way “cancellation” plays out in peacetime.
After all, the reason I have voiced concerns over hair-trigger shamings and sackings is precisely because those actions are so powerful. Cancellation works. Cancellation hurts. And therefore, cancellation should be saved for the very worst among us—those who commit violent crimes, incite others to violence, or build careers on preaching hatred against minority groups. The atrocities of which Putin’s troops are accused in Ukraine exceed that threshold. There is a difference, it turns out, between the hyperbolic invocation of “violence” on Twitter and literal violence itself.
Self-Censorship in the Classroom
Emma Camp enrolled at the University of Virginia hoping to learn from professors and peers in “an environment that champions intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement.” Instead, her time there “has been defined by strict ideological conformity,” she wrote in a recent op-ed. “Students of all political persuasions hold back—in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media—from saying what we really think.” She backed up her observations with survey data:
In the classroom, backlash for unpopular opinions is so commonplace that many students have stopped voicing them, sometimes fearing lower grades if they don’t censor themselves. According to a 2021 survey administered by College Pulse of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges, 80 percent of students self-censor at least some of the time. Forty-eight percent of undergraduate students described themselves as “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with expressing their views on a controversial topic in the classroom. At U.Va., 57 percent of those surveyed feel that way.
FIRE, where she interns, points out that the 2021 survey, which it co-sponsored, is in line with findings from other surveys: “The Knight Foundation’s annual survey found that 63% of students believe their campus climate deters free expression … Additionally, for three years running, Heterodox Academy has published its Campus Expression Survey, which found that 60% of college students expressed reluctance to discuss controversial topics on campus.” Similarly, a study at the University of North Carolina found self-censorship among students.
In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oyin Adedoyin argues that such survey data is only part of the self-censorship story. For example, she writes, “in 2020, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that at least eight out of 10 students from each ideological group—far left, liberal, middle of the road, and conservative—either agreed or strongly agreed that their institutions encouraged them to have a voice and share ideas openly.”
In a now-deleted tweet, the Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley questioned whether a prestigious newspaper should have even aired Emma Camp’s perspective on self-censorship. “I wonder how responsible it is for @nytimes to publish an op-ed by a student complaining about progressive professors and an overly progressive college environment at her state university in the south,” he wrote on Twitter, “when laws are being passed all over the country returning us to the McCarthy era.”
Stanley is alluding to laws I’ve opposed––laws like this one in North Carolina and proposed laws like this one in South Carolina. Jeffrey Sachs has persuasively critiqued such laws for PEN America. The notion that newspapers should react to those laws by suppressing common viewpoints or credible survey data is antithetical to the truth-seeking ethos of academia and journalism.
Price Gouging the Prisoners
In the magazine Dissent, co-authors Tommaso Bardelli, Ruqaiyah Zarook, and Derick McCarthy argue that just as the FCC capped the cost of phone calls from prison to stop price gouging by private contractors, the companies turned to the prison tablet market to profit off prisoners.
Both JPay and GTL charge prisoners at every step of the communication process: In New York, each email sent or received requires a “stamp,” which costs $0.35—twice that if the message exceeds 6,000 characters, or if it includes a picture or card. For four stamps, friends and family can also send thirty-second “video-grams” to loved ones inside. A thirty-minute video call costs $8.99. Music, movies, e-books, and games can also be downloaded on JPay tablets for exorbitant fees. Songs are listed for as much as $2.50 each, and a single album can cost up to $46, according to state records. Renting a movie costs between $2 and $25.
If telecom companies get their way, they conclude, “tablets will not function as tools for education and rehabilitation … but as another extractive scheme. Incarcerated individuals will be offered substandard services at astronomic prices.”
Provocation of the Week: Policing and Privilege
In a piece that lauds President Biden’s decision to push for more police funding, Matthew Yglesias included a personal anecdote from Northwest Washington, D.C., where he lives with his family:
Last July there was a scary gun battle right near my house that got a lot of media attention because it happened in a hotspot dining corridor … That same week, Amazon opened its brand new “just walk out” supermarket of the future, literally across the street from the shooting. Earlier in July there had been several shootings nearby, but for the past six months, there’s been a squad car parked right by the Amazon Fresh store. And no more shootings!
I can’t say for sure why that particular block has been blessed with 24/7 police presence. Is it because of Jeff Bezos’ clout? Is it because the 14th Street restaurant owners generate a lot of tax revenue … ? Is it because Logan Circle homeowners like me have a lot of juice? I don’t know. But someone got the city to make a substantial investment in getting people to not shoot up that stretch of 14th Street, and I really appreciate it. The fact that most people living in high-crime neighborhoods do not benefit from that level of responsiveness from their local government is a huge substantive problem.
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