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A military drill for civilians carried out by the Movement of the Veterans of Zakarpattia in western Ukraine in February. (SerhiiHudak/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

TGIF: David v. Goliath Edition

Zelensky, Putin, Elon Musk, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lia Thomas, and more.

Hello and welcome back. 

→Ukraine continues to hold against Russia: It’s very hard to separate the signal from the noise. To figure out what is wishful thinking—can David really beat Goliath?—what is propaganda, and what is lost or hidden in the fog of war.

Remember that incredible feat of Ukrainian heroism that went viral in the early days of the war? Of Ukrainian troops on Snake Island (an outpost in the Black Sea) responding to an ultimatum from the Russians by telling them to “go f*** yourself”? The audio rocketed around the world. The president of Ukraine announced their deaths. And then, a few days later, the news came out that the men had actually been taken prisoner by Russian troops.

So, as we watch and read the news, we are trying to keep our heads, remain sober and withhold judgment.

Here is what we do know:

Russia’s war against Ukraine is entering its second week. On Wednesday, the southern city of Kherson fell. Russian troops are laying siege to the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. (Josh Rogin spoke to the mayor there who sounded desperate but insisted: “We will not give up.”)

On Thursday, in perhaps the most alarming development so far, Russia began shelling Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant—the largest in Europe. Parts of the plant had reportedly caught fire.

In Kyiv, the capital, civilians are taking shelter from the explosions in metro stations. Women, children and older men are being sent with backpacks as refugees to Poland and Hungary; others have gone to Russia. Nearly a million Ukrainians have fled their homes so far. 

President Zelensky remains in Kyiv. "If you do not have the power to close the skies, then give me planes," he appealed to the West in a Thursday press conference. "The end of the world has arrived.”

Or the end of the ruble, at least. As of this writing, the ruble is worth 0.0092 of a dollar, hitting record lows every day. And Biden used the State of the Union to push America’s hard new economic sanctions on Russia. 

As for Russia: they are trying to say America’s anger toward the country is a sort of “cancellation.” 

The head of Russian foreign intelligence, Sergei Naryshkin put it this way: "The masks are off. The West isn't simply trying to close off Russia behind a new iron curtain. This is about an attempt to ruin our government—to 'cancel' it, as they now say in ‘tolerant,’ liberal-fascist circles."

As America’s foremost experts on cancel culture here at Common Sense, I can say with high authority: This is not it.

What is backward and unhelpful, however, is the cascade of cultural organizations, institutions, Hollywood studios and universities banning all things Russian. 

FIFA and UEFA suspended Russian soccer teams from competing. A university in Milan canceled (and then reinstated) a course on Dostoevsky. The International Cat Federation banned Russian-bred cats from competition. This, of course, in addition to blocking Apple Pay and Google Pay from ordinary Russians connected to sanctioned banks.

Ask yourself why Hollywood is so eager to cancel movie openings in Russia, but happily edits blockbusters to suit Chinese audiences.

→In America: We’re feeling the war financially this week. Though it’s petty to talk about gas given what Ukrainians are going through, the reality is that the sanctions and the efforts to wrest American interests from Russian ones will mean (and already means) higher gas and energy bills

→Fund the police: Biden is hoping for a little amnesia from voters ahead of the midterm elections. The catchiest line from his speech this week was a rebuke of his own party. “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund the police,” he said. Losers? Those Democratic Party donors, nonprofits, activists, reporters and intellectuals who spent two years pushing to not just defund but to abolish the police. Both parties stood to applaud. The winner? Likely Biden’s approval rating, which has remained a low 41%. And the American people, especially those in crime-ridden communities, who have reason to hope that this particular frenzy among the elites is passing, for now. 

Rashida Tlaib, speaking for the Working Families Party, delivered the left’s response, and even she was relatively muted. She pushed back on Biden’s calls for more police funding and called, as usual, for canceling all student debt. AOC called Biden’s announcement to release oil reserves a “lost opportunity” to not instead talk about the problem of our fossil fuel dependence. 

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds gave the Republican response, focusing on Biden’s lackluster solutions to inflation. "The Biden administration believes inflation is a 'high class problem,'” Reynolds said. “I can tell you it's an everybody problem."

→The Ukraine horseshoe: The Democratic Socialists of America, the country’s trendiest socialist organization and finishing school for graduates of elite East Coast prep schools, issued a statement demanding America withdraw from NATO. 

“DSA reaffirms our call for the U.S. to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict,” the organization writes. “While the failures of neoliberal order are clear to everyone, the ruling class is trying to build a new world, through a dystopic transition grounded in militarism, imperialism, and war.”

The logic on the left is that America and Europe taunted Russia with Western expansionism, leaving Russia with little choice but to invade. (Chomsky said as much back in 2015.)

Though they get there via a very different route—deep skepticism of institutions like the EU and NATO; profound sympathy for any country committed to their own national interest—some folks on the right seem to basically agree. That’s how you get the very strange spectacle of conservative intellectuals expressing a kind of sympathy for Putin. And it’s how you get a right-wing crowd chanting “Putin! Putin! Putin!” 

These are the fringes, though. A Quinnipiac Poll this week finds only 6% of Republicans say Biden has been too tough on Russia. A full 80% think he hasn’t been tough enough. The paleocon, isolationist, right may have reeled in a few young turks, but the heart of the party is still very much convinced that America can—and should—lead the world.


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→Some are very lusty for war: Republican congressman from Ilinois Adam Kinzinger is calling for a no-fly zone above Ukraine, essentially asking for America to start shooting Russian planes from the sky. Biden and NATO do not want to enforce something like this, which would mean full war between nuclear powers. 

Keeping it from reaching full-scale war is possible: During the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet pilots tangled on several occasions, especially during the Korean War. There was no nuclear war. The trick was for both sides to pretend it wasn't happening. Officially, it never did. 

→Blue-Anon hears the siren song: As soon as the word “Russia” is uttered too many times, Blue-Anon sweeps into action. Here’s the author Sarah Kendzior reminding viewers that the 2016 election was illegitimate and Trump was “installed” to fulfill a global conspiracy. These are the same people who scoff at the idea that a lot of conservatives don’t see the 2020 election as legitimate.

→Caring about Ukraine is a racist dog whistle: The most prominent writer for The New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has been arguing all week that too much sympathy for Ukraine’s plight is just another sign of—what else?—white supremacy. Also, bizarrely, that Europe is not a continent. 

“What if I told you Europe is not a continent by definition, but a geopolitical fiction to separate it from Asia and so the alarm about a European, or civilized, or First World nation being invaded is a dog whistle to tell us we should care because they are like us,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “The entire continent is either Asia or Eurasia, I suppose. That’s not up to me.”

The paper’s coverage from on the ground in Ukraine, though, has been astonishing and brave, anchored by Sabrina Tavernise. Who is not tweeting about calling Europe . . .  Asia. 

→No innocent Russians: I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a tweet this week from Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor, #Resistance leader, and former U.S. ambassador to Russia. 

“There are no more ‘innocent’ ‘neutral’ Russians anymore,” he wrote. “Everyone has to make a choice—support or oppose this war.” (He later deleted this.)

A similarly foolish idea came from California Democrat Eric Swalwell. He went on CNN to say: “Frankly, I think closing their embassy in the United States, kicking every Russian student out of the United States⁠ — those should all be on the table.” A better idea is to do the exact opposite: Totally brain drain Russia. 

→Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, still at it: The congresswoman from Georgia and her colleague from Arizona appeared at a conference hosted this week by Nick Fuentes, an openly racist, antisemitic personality. Now, the reason it’s important not to call everyone a white supremacist is so that you can still have a useful phrase to describe someone like Fuentes, who really is one. Thankfully, Green and Gosar’s fellow Republicans spoke out fast this week denouncing the two of them and distancing themselves. I love this quote from Politico: “Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) went more forcefully after Fuentes: ‘Nick Fuentes is an asshole.’” 

Not to be outdone by Greene, here’s some of what Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers has been saying this week: “Zelensky is a globalist puppet for Soros and the Clintons. // I stand with the Christians worldwide not the global bankers who are shoving godlessness and degeneracy in our face.” Subtle.

→Balls! A new lawsuit claims Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot gummed up a deal between the city’s park leaders and an Italian-American group who wanted a Christopher Columbus statue for their annual Columbus day parade. The Columbus had been removed during the 2020 George Floyd protests, but the Italian Americans wanted to later display it for their parade, and the city’s park managers had agreed to this. The lawsuit claims the Chicago mayor, a petite female, said something to the city parks team that is so funny I can only offer my respect:

“You make some kind of secret agreement with Italians, what you are doing, you are out there measuring your d— with the Italians seeing whose got the biggest d—, you are out there stroking your d— over the Columbus statue, I am trying to keep Chicago Police officers from being shot and you are trying to get them shot.”

“Get that f— statue back before noon tomorrow or I am going to have you fired,” the mayor allegedly said. “My d— is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest d— in Chicago."  

→Elon Musk, by far the most interesting American billionaire: The Tesla and SpaceX founder this week sent tools for satellite internet to Ukraine via his company Starlink. The internet in Ukraine has already been disrupted because of the Russian invasion, and a Ukrainian minister asked Musk for help via Twitter. Musk immediately responded, saying it was on the way and, lo, Starlink equipment arrived within two days. This means tiny satellites will float in low-Earth orbit allowing the people (and military) of Ukraine to stay online even as Russia targets cell towers and data centers. Assuming it all actually works, it’s pretty amazing. 

While Musk was doing viral heroics, Biden continued to applaud only the union-labor-shops General Motors and Ford. In the State of the Union speech, Biden praised GM and said: “Ford is investing $11B to build electric vehicles—creating 11,000 jobs across the country.” Musk, who notices slights, wrote: “Tesla has created over 50,000 US jobs building electric vehicles & is investing more than double GM + Ford combined.”

→Ketanji Brown Jackson: Biden officially announced his nomination of Jackson to the Supreme Court to replace Stephen Breyer. She is qualified and smart and even comes with the endorsement of her relative, Paul Ryan. Her ascension would have been slightly sweeter if Biden had not explicitly said he was only looking at Black women. Unless something goes terribly awry, she’ll be confirmed, and the political balance of the court will remain the same. 

→Update from campus: Ilya Shapiro, the Georgetown Law professor who ran afoul of progressive students for a mildly ill-phrased tweet that he quickly apologized for, was shouted down and protested for some 50 minutes during what was meant to be a scheduled debate at UC Hastings. He remains composed throughout. Watch here for the full hour, or here for a shorter clip:

→Update from Silicon Valley: YouTube this week suspended The Hill’s news and commentary show for the crime of including a newsworthy clip of President Trump calling the 2020 election stolen. 

“YouTube has taken the position that merely acknowledging an utterance of the false claim is the same thing as making the claim yourself unless you correct and disavow it elsewhere in the video,” writes the show’s co-host, Robby Soave. He adds that the video would have been OK apparently if they’d put a big warning label at the start that viewers will see a false election claim. “YouTube is thus moving in the direction of trigger warnings,” he writes.

For anyone who still says what happens on campus doesn’t matter, three years later these people are setting policy for the biggest online video platform in the world. 

→Update from Brooklyn: The ur-Brooklyn man, Josh Stylman, was living the dream, running a popular brewery and even releasing a gender-neutral lager (tasting notes: lime leaf, makrut). But no amount of gay beer could protect Stylman from the backlash after he came out against the new even more potent totem in town: Covid vaccine mandates. His language was hyperbolic (I just don’t think we need to invoke Nazi Germany so often in debates), but the stance is a completely legitimate one that many Americans share. Stylman is vaccinated, but he is against the mandate and especially against mandating vaccines for children. “Deciding what one puts in their own body is a basic human right,” he wrote. Far too upsetting for Brooklyn. 

Stylman resigned from his brewery this week. 

Josh: Come to LA and hang out with the baddies. We even have gay beer (ie: any beer that comes from my refrigerator).

→Rethinking medical care for children with gender dysphoria: Sweden was once at the forefront of using medical interventions to “cure” childhood gender dysphoria. Now, the country’s National Board of Health and Welfare is sounding the alarm against the practice—and has released new guidelines that recommend doctors stop prescribing puberty blockers. 

Genspect, an international group that advocates for slower, more thoughtful care of gender-questioning children, translated the Swedish coverage this week here

“The National Board of Health and Welfare therefore calls for restraint with treatment in persons under 18 years of age. . .  the risks of hormone treatment currently outweigh the possible benefits for the group as a whole.”

More: “The scientific evidence is not sufficient to assess the effects on gender dysphoria, psychosocial conditions, cognitive function, body size, body composition or metabolism of puberty blocking or cross sex-hormone treatment in children and adolescents with gender dysphoria.”

The Swedes cite children who later regret the treatment and the unknown impact on bone density for children whose puberty was blocked. 

→Meanwhile, in Texas: The attorney general and governor of the Lonestar State are cracking down on childhood gender-transition efforts and calling the hormones and surgeries a form of child abuse. That may be true, but the effort is leading in troubling directions. What happens when a state like Texas goes from a laissez-faire approach on these surgeries to suddenly having police pay visits to suspected violators? It looks like investigating parents: A lawsuit defending the early targets of the crackdown has already been filed. If it continues, it might look like punishing thousands of parents for child abuse and, if the AG takes it to the logical conclusion, then it might look like flooding the foster care system with petrified teenagers. 

Many of the parents who helped their children transition or blocked their puberty had been told by an army of activist-therapists, teachers and media that their children would kill themselves if they didn’t do it. The solution isn’t to punish those who have been led down this path but to stop it from happening needlessly in the future, which is what Sweden is wisely doing.

→Lia Thomas, covergirl: Sports Illustrated just published a huge spread of the transgender Penn swimmer with photos of her posing in the pool. (Thomas swam on the men’s team and saw moderate success before joining the women’s team and smashing records.)

The magazine framed the controversy as “a real-time Rorschach test for how society views those who challenge conventions.” It also said: “Science allegedly showed trans women had larger hands and feet, bigger hearts and greater bone density and lung capacity.” Allegedly! Amazing.

In two weeks, Thomas will compete at the NCAA championship—but won’t stop there. One of Thomas’s goals, according to the magazine, is to compete in the 2024 summer Olympics in Paris.


This week on Common Sense:

Bari hosted a roundtable discussion on the meaning of Russia’s war on Ukraine with Niall Ferguson, Walter Russell Mead and Francis Fukuyama.

A searing piece by Michael Shellenberger on how West’s green delusions empowered Putin. He describes how we stopped fracking and drilling, thinking wind and solar could replace fossil fuels, only to end up more dependent than ever on unsavory foreign regimes, including, of course, Russia. 

And a first-person account of fleeing Kyiv on the eve of war. Eugene Katchalov and his wife hit the long road to Budapest. 

Last thing: If you are in Ukraine, we want to hear from you. Please write us at tips@honestlypod.com

TGIF everyone.

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