Timothy Snyder: Political ideas matter

Ezra Klein interviewed Tim Snyder (you can get Snyder’s book The Road to Unfreedom from the Vancouver-based Massy Books) on this recent podcast episode: “Timothy Snyder on the Myths That Blinded the West to Putin’s Plans” (March 15, 2022).

They discuss Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine as a clear illustration of why political ideas matter.

If ideas don’t matter, how would that affect our behavior?

“The politics of inevitability,” Snyder says,

“assures you that whatever the good things are, they’re being brought about automatically by some invisible hand, right? The market is like Mom. You know, it’s going to take care of you with that invisible hand. And you don’t have to think about what the values might be, what you actually desire. You lose the habit, right? You never perform the mental gymnastics of stretching to figure out what a better world might actually be because you think you’re on track to that better world no matter what happens.”

Political ideas that once felt “thrilling” eventually devolve into a “tedium of implementation, conflict, regulation, et cetera” because we are no longer creating but merely maintaining the nations and institutions. Our belief in historical inevitability justifies the tedium. We assure ourselves that we have to work to maintain things the way they are because it is inevitable that they are this way.

People today tend to say that “ideas don’t matter.” This is not to say that we don’t have political ideas, because of course people have their own strong myths about race, language, nationalism, etc. But we tend to overlook these ideas and discount their importance, and in so doing, “we are excusing ourselves from thinking about the future.” And: “the worse we get at talking about ideas, the harder it is for us to imagine the future as being anything else but like the present” — or, alternatively, “the present with some kind of catastrophe.”

How we behave and think when we believe the future can’t be changed

Politically, a belief in inevitability can be convince us to do unethical and dysfunctional things, like, for example, the US invading Iraq in 2003. A belief that “democracy arises because of natural forces” will suggest to you — contrary to all real-world examples — that you can smash a country and democracy will immediately sprout forth from the scorched earth.

Philosophically, too, there are consequences. If an outcome is guaranteed, we don’t need values nor reason. Those are about desiring a particular future and strategizing how to arrive there. If we don’t believe there are real options and different possible outcomes, nothing prompts us to examine our own desires and strategies, nor to recognize that other people may have their own ways of thinking, feeling, and planning. Values and reasons are obsolete appendages, or maybe outright fantasies, if we cannot change the future.

People do have different values

So regarding Russia’s current war against Ukraine, Snyder explains, Putin “doesn’t care about the things that we think people ought to care about. You know, he doesn’t care about the Russian economy. I don’t think he even cares about Russian interests, perhaps not even the survival of the Russian state.” In the US, discourse tends to assume geopolitical motivations, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “can’t be motivated geopolitically” since he’s actually hurting Russia. (China may very well someday dominate Russia, and Russia’s behavior right now isn’t helping.)

Instead: “He cares about how he’s going to be remembered after he’s dead. He cares about an image of an eternal Russia.” These are Putin’s values, and they are different values than other people have. Putin wants to achieve political unity, but not through what others might mean when we say “unity,” e.g., listening to different perspectives, empathizing with others, building solidarity, collaborating in the midst of differences, etc. Putin, instead, wants the kind of unity achieved through “charismatic acts of violence.” He is trying to dominate and annex another country.

Ukraine, for its part, Snyder says, right now is not focused on a Russian-style project of reinterpreting the past. Instead, thy are actively fighting in the present and envisioning the future, going about “being a civic nation and having a nation which is based upon asserting its own existence day to day.” Their national identity isn’t about when and whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian, but “being there…helping one another out…having some kind of a common cause,” with President Zelensky as the emblem because he has chosen to stay and fight the invasion. It is legible from an outside perspective, too. People in North America (for example) understand what it means to be Ukrainian today not because of what language the Ukrainians speak but because of “universally recognizable” moral choices by the people and their leader.

War, brought to us courtesy fossil fuels

What is Russia’s war on Ukraine about, if not competing narratives about history?

Snyder offers an alternative interpretation: It’s about oil. This is “the kind of war we will have if we become the kind of world which is dependent upon the natural gas and the oil and the people who are able to control the profits from them.” This is the sort of war that “global warming is going to bring to us” if we do not restructure the way we get energy. “If we’re going to have a future,” Snyder says, “we’re going have to start thinking about different ways that things could turn out.”

Remembering the Korean War

Sixty-six years ago today, on July 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, ceasing hostilities between North Korean Communist forces, backed by China, and South Korean forces, backed by the United Nations. The war had raged across the Korean Peninsula for three years, leaving hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians dead. The Armistice formed the famous Demilitarized Zone that still separates North Korea and South Korea, technically still at war with each other. On this anniversary of the armistice agreement, a look back at the people and places involved in the conflict sometimes called “the forgotten war.”


More here. From “The Atlantic”



Review by Bob Lane

“In The Drum that Beats Within Us, Mike Bond shares his deep love for our magnificent western forests, mountains and wild open spaces, and his profound expression of the joys and tragedies of love and of life’s greatest existential questions.” – from the introduction

An award-winning poet and critically acclaimed novelist, MIKE BOND has been called the “master of the existential thriller” by the BBC and “one of the 21st century’s most exciting authors” by the Washington Times. His widely loved novels and poetry depict the innate hunger of the human heart for the good, the intense joys of love, and the beauty of the vanishing natural world. The flavour of the book is captured by this quote: “In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” – Carl Sagan

The poems are beautiful and range from the long lyrical expressions of love and nature to the brief expressions of a moments insight into a sudden feeling, expressed with a few words that capture the moment and the feeling perfectly:

Our skin – is it the air? Our soles the grass?

Truly is the earth our heart, as from the earth we pass? – From “Leaving Indian Caves, Montana”

“the best words can do is say how we feel” – From I CHERISH YOU

I cannot touch/ what hurts me / it will not go away – From SORROW

“Nothing/ will always/ be true” – From NOTHING

One of the recurring themes is time and our relationship with it in our daily walk toward the grave. Internal time with its mind-oriented observations and contemplations, its deep feelings and yearnings, its love of the earth and of others; time past with memories of other poets and cultural heroes and the words they employ to assist us in our existential acceptance of life and death; external time which flows inevitably and silently and personally to an inevitable end.

“Homecoming” is a short poem which looks back at Ulysses:

Or, this moving poem about an ordinary event in an ordinary life in an ordinary place:

One of my favourites is CRAZY QUILT: A poem about scraps: a dead brother, killed in Vietnam, a pregnant sister, a rusted tricycle, scraps that make a pattern, a pattern that makes a life. And, of course, a warning about war and being honest:

And finally, a recipe for life here and now:

“Touch the earth, come together with the grass/ that mats the fields, understand the joy/ of emptiness” – From THE POETS AMONG US

Bond writes in the preface, “Despite multiple lamentations over its demise, poetry is still alive and well – especially in one of its most ancient forms: lyrics. In recent decades it has even reached new heights of cultural and artistic prominence, and is the backbone of the major musical and cultural evolution of the twentieth century.”

Get this book of poems. Read them. Consider them. Live poetically.

Bob Lane is an Emeritus Philosopher at Vancouver Island University.

Just War

Issue No. 10, November 2017


Issue No. 10 November 2017



  1. Introduction
    2. Conferences and Events
    3. Recent Publications
    4. Call for Papers
    5. Academic Programs, Prizes and New Projects
  2. Internet Resources



The Just War Newsletter is an electronic publication to announce new developments for researchers, teachers and practitioners whose work involves the doctrine of just war. Written and published by Michael Kocsis, it serves anyone working in academia, the public service, non-governmental organizations, and the military.

Sunday’s Sermon: The Etiology of War


[My friend and colleague Dr. Lex Crane wrote this sermon some time before he died. It seems particularly relevant now. Please read and comment.]

Humanity at Hazard: The Etiology of War
© Lex Crane

War and Peace

Human beings are extremely creative at making weapons and war, but persistently inept at achieving lasting peace. Why is this? The aim here is to seek an answer to this troubling question. A provocative insight emerged early in the course of research on the problem: as civilization spread across the world, the number of wars sharply increased. In the 16th century there were 87 wars; and in only the first forty years of the 20 th century there were 892. (Fromm 215)

This pattern continued during the remainder of the century. In the wars of the entire 20th century “not less that 62 million civilians have perished, nearly 20 million more than the 43 million military personnel killed.” (Hedges 13) In sum, over 100 million people died in the wars of the century past, not to mention the millions more, who were wounded, crippled. Since the number of wars has increased with the spread of civilization, it appears that society, not our natural humanity, is the source of the problem; and this has been the prevailing view in 20 th century social science – until recently, when an opposing view began to develop. Until then the consensus in 20 th century science had been that humans at birth are like a blank slate.  It held that cultural conditioning writes the contents of human nature upon it. . . .



Read the paper here: crane