Nord Stream Deflections

by Benjamin Studebaker

A journalist has alleged that the United States sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines. The United States has suggested that Russia blew up the pipeline, but it has not provided evidence to substantiate this claim. The attack on the pipeline makes it much harder for the European Union to import gas from Russia, making the EU more dependent on expensive liquified natural gas from North America. By removing the prospect of resuming Russian gas imports in the near-term, the attack on the pipeline gives the EU less reason to seek a swift end to the war in Ukraine. It diminishes Russian leverage. The American narrative – that Russia destroyed the pipeline to deny Europe gas – doesn’t make a lot of sense. Russia controls the tap. It can turn the gas on and off as it pleases. The sabotage destroys Russia’s capacity to turn the gas back on, and therefore it takes away Russia’s diplomatic option to offer to turn the gas back on as part of a settlement.

Given these facts and the absence of conclusive evidence as to who is responsible for the attack, it is reasonable to question the US government’s narrative and to demand the US government provide evidence to support its account of what happened. The journalist is just one of many people who have asked questions about Nord Stream. But a funny thing has happened. Instead of discussing the issues at hand – the pipeline, the energy crisis, the war – media outlets are increasingly focused on the journalist’s character. He’s accused of being a crank, a conspiracy theorist, a crazy person. Those who think it’s important to question the US government’s narrative have increasingly become preoccupied with defending the journalist. Many people now know the journalist’s name and can tell you all sorts of things about the journalist’s career. But what does this have to do with anything?

Rising global energy prices have crippled the economies of many developing states. Out of desperation, Pakistan recently embraced a plan to quadruple its coal-fired power capacity. Scarcity of oil and gas may lead to investment in renewables in the rich countries, but in the poor countries it means enormous amounts of coal-burning. The destruction of the pipeline worsens the cost-of-living crisis, it prolongs the war, and it raises carbon emissions. If the United States destroyed the pipeline for the purposes of compelling the European Union to support the war, it used violence to bully its allies into submitting to its foreign policy. We have a lot of reasons to be interested in this that have nothing at all whatsoever to do with which journalists are speaking up.

But this is increasingly the strategy that centrist journalists and politicians use when someone asks questions that are inconvenient. They focus the argument on the character of the person who has attracted attention. They assassinate that person’s character. They then allege that anyone who asks similar questions endorses whatever bad things the person is alleged to have said or done.

This is the strategy that was used to defend the progressive caucus when the progressive caucus supported Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House in 2021. A podcaster pointed out that the progressive caucus did not use the speaker vote to extract meaningful concessions from Pelosi. In particular, the podcaster suggested that the progressive caucus should have demanded a floor vote on Medicare-For-All. The floor vote would have helped keep Medicare-For-All on the political agenda. It would have helped to identify members of congress who do not support the proposal and might therefore be targeted in future elections. Many on the left began asking why the progressive caucus did not pursue this or other meaningful concessions.

In response, the centrists focused the argument around the podcaster’s character, arguing that the podcaster is a bad person and that anyone who asks the questions the podcaster was asking endorses the bad things the podcaster was alleged to have said or done. Many on the left fell into the trap of defending the podcaster’s character, allowing the centrists to derail the argument. It’s now two years later. The progressive caucus has no meaningful political or legislative achievements. It failed to significantly increase its share of seats in congress in the midterms. But the caucus and its leaders still enjoy the support of large numbers of people who think of themselves as left-wing.

You’re meant to trust the US government, and you’re meant to trust the progressive caucus, and if you don’t trust them then you’re like the bad journalist or the bad podcaster. You’re bad, too, and no one should listen to you, either.

The people making these arguments are blatantly uninterested in whether the US government attacked the pipeline or whether the speaker vote could have been used to extract meaningful concessions. They defend the US government and/or the progressive caucus, regardless of the circumstances. They view criticism of the US government and its supporters as necessarily motivated by support for deplorable, far-right stuff. Because the far-right is very bad and the US government and its supporters fight the far-right, they feel the US government and its supporters must be defended, no matter what terrible things the US government and its supporters might be doing. Whatever the US government and its supporters might do wrong, for these people these things are trivial compared with the threat of the far-right. The specter of the far-right has become a reason to stop thinking critically about the actions of the government and its supporters. If you don’t agree, this must be because you sympathize with the far-right, and therefore you’re bad and part of the problem.

This way of thinking effectively grants a blank check to the US government. It annihilates the possibility of critique from the left. There is very little point in even making arguments anymore, because no one is interested in arguments these days. It has become purely a question of sides. If you say something I don’t like, it must be because you’re on the wrong side, and the fact that you’re on the wrong side makes it necessary to negate whatever you said, regardless of whether what you said is true or intellectually, morally, or spiritually valuable.

In the professions in the United States today, ad hominem – attacking the speaker, rather than the speaker’s argument – has ceased to be considered an argumentative fallacy. It is now the starting point for every discussion. When you speak up, you’d better hope what you have to say doesn’t contravene the interests of influential people, because if it does, it will just attract endless attacks on your character. This itself becomes a deterrent to writing and thinking. Why even bother attempting to contribute to public discussion if no one will engage with anything you say, focusing instead only on who they think you are or what they think you believe?

This has allowed the Biden administration to increase the cost-of-living, prolong the war in Ukraine, and force developing countries to burn enormous amounts of coal to stave off humanitarian crises. All the criticism comes from the right or from people on the left who are treated as if they were on the right. The effect is to create a binary choice – Bidenism or the right. Faced with that choice, more frustrated people will choose the right, and the possibility of any kind of left revival will dwindle into nothing, if it has not already done so.

In this situation, it is difficult to do any form of meaningful politics. All I feel I can do right now is try to faithfully describe the emptiness and lack of possibility that pervades everything. The Biden era is slowly drowning the left. If you try to intervene, you’re on the right. If you refuse to be on the right, you must stand there and watch. If you try to look away, you’ll find yourself outside of politics all together, with nothing left to do but choose the fiddle you will play while the world crumbles along. It’s always getting worse, but it’s never bad enough for anyone to do anything about it.

So, why not fiddle? The world appreciates good fiddling. Sometimes it pays well.

The thing is, some of us find we cannot stay away from politics. But if there is little we can do that is politically effective, our politics becomes about copying forms of action that used to be effective in different situations and circumstances. Political action becomes, in a quite literal sense, quixotic. It is as if we were trying to be chivalrous knights, playing roles that no longer exist, based on romantic ideas about time periods that are gone.

Many people still nominally on the left who are deeply interested in 19th or 20th century history have this quixotic air about them. They support the forms of politics that worked in these other situations, insisting that we can bring back the labor unions, or labor-based parties, or other mechanisms aimed at generating the dispersed and widespread class consciousness we have lost. As I read and listen to this kind of stuff, I see the people who talk about these things in suits of armor, with lances, on horseback. There’s something beautiful about it, but also something mad. I see a different species of beautiful madness in the people who dive into the classics, searching for something new in places very old.

This then, is the real choice – the honest pointlessness of fiddling, or the beautiful madness of searching for a living politics amongst the dead.