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Russia, Ukraine, and the problem of Mutually Assured Bulls___ (Podcast)
Professor Steven Fish is a political scientist at UC Berkeley who has spent decades studying Russia, Putin, and the rise of authoritarianism. But before he was a political scientist, he was a young student visiting Russia on a tourist visa. And he noticed something odd: people were lying to him in Russia. He knew they were lying to him. They knew they were lying to him. And they knew that he knew they were lying to him. But they told the lies anyway. It was mutually assured bulls__, lies that become so endemic and obvious that no one even bothers to point out that they are lies.
That odd experience in the mid 1980s is instructive of where we are today: on the brink of nuclear war. Because it shows what can happen when a government, insistent on accepting only the “party line” – i.e., the version of the facts established by the people in power – becomes detached from reality. Driving the Russian aggression in Ukraine is a belief that Ukraine is simply a part of Russia, a false belief driven by decades of bulls___ that was never checked.
But this conversation has relevance far beyond the crisis in Ukraine. We are, after all, facing an age of unprecedented misinformation, but also unprecedented demands to follow the “party line.” That’s dangerous for our nation’s ability to grapple with any of the major decisions in the coming years. If people can’t speak candidly about what they actually think and believe, due to fear of reprisal, then how will we have any confidence that we’re not making a catastrophic mistake?
Steve walks us through how this all happened in Russia. A Faustian bargain with Russian oligarchs over a BBQ. A political ideology of Russian grievance that became so powerful that it drowned out opposing views. And a political elite in Russia that now lives in terror of breaking with the party line.
But what he shares also has lessons for us here at home. Are we living in a society of mutually assured bulls___, where people are saying things because they’re expected to say them, and not because they believe them? And if so, what can we do about it?