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. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Question of the Week
Today’s question concerns affairs of the heart.
Last week on Twitter, a presumably young person posted this question: “Literally BAFFLED as to how people found love before dating sites and social media. Was settling the norm? Or did everyone just happen to be romantically compatible with the person sitting nearest to them in class?” Thousands of people responded, including Kat Rosenfield, who mused on “the challenge of explaining to an entire generation that the frictionless matching achieved by algorithm is not only not better than the old-school kind, but generally, vastly inferior.”
What do you think about the app era of dating or the in-real-life era that preceded it? Insights born of personal experience are encouraged but not required. I hope to hear from every age cohort.
Send responses to [email protected].
Conversations of Note
Every year, like any good Californian raised on The Beach Boys and Bruce Brown, I mourn the end of summer. But this year, writing from Europe as each day is shorter and temperatures fall with each week, I feel a special sense of foreboding about the coming months. After shutting down a major gas pipeline into Europe, Russia announced this week that it will not resume energy shipments until the West ends sanctions imposed over the war in Ukraine.
Already, this week gas prices have surged 35 percent, even as the euro has hit a 20-year low. What will happen when winter arrives and much of the continent finds itself struggling to keep the heat on? Widespread political unrest is one possibility. “An estimated 70,000 people protested in Prague against the Czech government on Saturday, calling on the ruling coalition to do more to control soaring energy prices and voicing opposition to the European Union and NATO,” Reuters reports. “Organisers of the demonstration from a number of far-right and fringe political groups including the Communist party, said the central European nation should be neutral militarily and ensure direct contracts with gas suppliers, including Russia.”
I wonder if large crowds will take to the streets of Berlin and Paris, and beyond, this December or January or February. Still, the economist Tyler Cowen is betting that Moscow’s gambit for leverage will fail. “Europe bears the full burden today, and rather soon in the winter to come,” he writes. “Over time, however, Europe will adjust and the Russian position and threat value will weaken each period. It would make sense as a strategy if Russia were about to start negotiating for peace, but that is not my prediction. It also would make sense if Russia thinks Europe is at the very end of its rope, and now will crack. That also does not seem correct for me.”
The War in Ukraine
In a Claremont Review of Books essay titled “Why Are We in Ukraine?,” Christopher Caldwell begins by arguing that the United States has made itself a central player in the conflict.
It is pursuing a three-pronged strategy to defeat Russia through every means short of entering the war—which, of course, raises the risk that the United States will enter the war. One prong is the state-of-the-art weaponry it is supplying to Ukraine. Since June, thousands of computer-guided artillery rockets have been wreaking havoc behind Russian lines. A second prong is sanctions. With western European help, Washington has used its control of the choke points of the global marketplace to impoverish Russians, in hopes of punishing Russia. Finally, the U.S. seeks to rally the world’s peoples to a culture war against an enemy whose traditionalism, even if it does not constitute the whole of his evil, is at least a symbol of it.
In Caldwell’s telling, things aren’t going well:
The economic sanctions, far from bringing about the collapse Blinken gloated over, have driven up the price of the energy Russia sells, strengthened the ruble, and threatened America’s western European allies with frostbite, shortages, and recession. The culture war has found few proponents outside of the West’s richest latte neighborhoods. Indeed, cultural self-defense may be part of the reason India, China, and other rising countries have conspicuously declined to cut economic ties with the Russians.
His lengthy analysis of the dangers the conflict poses to U.S. interests culminates in this advice:
The attempt to isolate Russia from the American world system has had a striking unintended consequence—the possible founding of an alternative world system that would draw power away from the existing one. Twenty years ago, under George W. Bush, the United States removed the Iraqi deterrent from Iran’s neighborhood, transforming Iran overnight into a regional power. This year, under Joe Biden, the United States has made China a gift of Russia’s exportable food and mineral resources. We are displaying an outright genius for identifying our most dangerous military adversary and solving its most pressing strategic challenge. The attention of China is now engaged. Joe Biden argues that any wavering in the cause of obliterating Russia will be understood by China as a green light on Taiwan. He may have a point, but the U.S. management of the Ukraine situation over the past decade has constituted encouragement enough.
Administration officials often describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a war of choice. Although this may have been true at the outset, it is not now. Vladimir Putin and the Russia he rules cannot stop fighting. As long as the United States is involved in arming Russia’s enemies and bankrupting its citizens, they are quite right to believe themselves in a war for their country’s survival. The United States, thus far in a less bloody way, is also involved in a war it chose but cannot exit—in this case, for fear of undermining the international system from which it has drawn its power and prosperity for the past three quarters of a century. Now may seem like the wrong moment to make peace. But seldom in wars such as this one do the prospects for peace grow more favorable with time.
For a different perspective, see George Packer’s recent Atlantic essay, “Ukrainians Are Defending the Values Americans Claim to Hold.” As Packer sees it, “Moral clarity can be blinding, and most subjects worth writing about are complicated. But a few things are morally clear: slavery, and genocide, and Russia’s attempt to destroy Ukraine.” After traveling there to deliver medical supplies, he shared an anecdote that doubles as a case for international involvement:
The Russian way of war is a form of shock and awe whose intended effect is not just to leave cities and towns uninhabitable and undefended, but to overwhelm the survivors and render them utterly passive, as if they are facing not a recognizable human enemy but a force of nature, or some kind of supernatural power, an impersonal god that destroys whatever it touches.
But one evening something happened that put me in a different frame of mind. I was walking back to my hotel along Khreshchatyk, the main avenue that runs through Kyiv’s Maidan. The streets were nearly empty as the 10 o’clock curfew approached. An air-raid siren began to wail. Few Kyivans paid the alarms much attention anymore, but I quickened my pace. I passed two women in the orange uniforms of city workers. At this hour, they were sweeping out the gutters. I suddenly realized that Kyiv’s streets were incredibly clean, with hardly a scrap of trash anywhere. A lot of effort went into keeping the city, with its broad squares and grand facades in pale blues and pinks and yellows, orderly and pleasing. Everywhere you looked, lilac bushes were in bloom—they were blooming all around the ruins of Irpin and Bucha, too, and along the embankments of the railroad tracks between Lviv and Kyiv—and chestnut trees were covered in shaggy white flowers, and beds of red and yellow tulips spread out around monuments. None of this was natural, any more so than the destruction that artillery and missiles rained down on innocent people going about their lives. Human hands had tried to ruin the city, and human hands were keeping the ruins beautiful.
I had heard that so many people wanted to help clear the rubble from Ukraine’s destroyed cities, wait lists were needed to organize all the volunteers. But somehow it was the sight of those two women sweeping the street just before curfew that brought home to me the obscene wrongness of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Here was a country with a tragic history that had at last begun to build, with great effort, a better society.
What made Ukraine different from any other country I had ever seen—certainly from my own—was its spirit of constant self-improvement, which included frank self-criticism. For example, there’s no cult of Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine—a number of Ukrainians told me that he had made mistakes, that they’d vote against him after the war was won. Maxim Prykupenko, a hospital director in Lviv, called Ukraine “a free country aspiring to be better all the time.” The Russians, he added, “are destroying a beautiful country for no logical reason to do it. Maybe they are destroying us just because we have a better life.” Shitting on the floor of a newly renovated house after killing or driving out its owners—that, in an image, is Russia’s war against Ukraine.
To Fight Climate Change, Get a White Roof
Eric Scigliano makes that compelling argument here.
What Is School For?
In a recent symposium on that subject, The New York Times published a number of different answers, including one by the authors Heather C. McGhee and Victor Ray, who argue that “school is for making citizens.” To them, that means resisting efforts by some Republicans to restrict how educators are able to teach about race and gender. They write:
Contemporary attacks on teaching true history are authoritarian attempts to impose a sanitized curriculum. America’s book banners and anti-critical race theory zealots are following a path well worn by authoritarian regimes in Russia and Hungary, which have issued laws targeting the teaching of L.G.B.T.Q. issues. In the current U.S. debates, both the authoritarians and those people committed to multiracial democracy recognize that education is inherently political, because it enables students to understand, question and change their world. For the latter, this is the point; freedom comes from having the tools to comprehend a range of good and bad experiences and weigh the options for charting their future. Despite wails to the contrary from activist groups like Moms for Liberty, who claim accurate teaching of America’s history will harm white children, research shows that all students benefit from reading accurate but critical accounts. Lessons about racism make students more likely to engage and empathize across race. Such cross-racial solidarity is essential for members of our most diverse generation.
Responding at Slow Boring, Matthew Yglesias, who is also opposed to restrictions on educators, counters that schools are nevertheless making a mistake if they focus on advancing social justice rather than teaching reading and math.
Citizenship is important, and it is one of the functions of the school system, but the best (and most realistic) way for K-12 schools to foster effective citizenship is to teach kids foundational literacy and math skills. Incorporating works about history or politics into the curriculum is a great idea insofar as it helps keep students engaged, but it’s best to make those core skills the North Star and try to avoid hubris and tons of polarized fights about tangential issues. Unfortunately, the median American reads at something like a 5th or 6th grade level … Diving into the data does show that the foreign-born population brings the average down a bit, which doesn’t really reflect on the school system. The typical person born in the United States is probably at an 8th grade level rather than 6th. Still, that’s low. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Case for Reparations” scores … above the reading level of the typical American … All of which is to say that improving the level of basic reading competency is basic citizenship education. To read the books that progressives see as foundational to their understanding of race in American history, you need to be able to read better than the typical American can. And of course to really receive a well-rounded citizen-like education in these subjects, you also need to read good books written by people on the other side of some of these arguments.
I agree with Yglesias about the paramount importance of reading skills. As for how schools ought to handle contested topics, I’ve previously argued and still believe that a viewpoint-diversity curriculum is an underrated approach to acculturating young people to be good citizens.
Provocation of the Week
To mark the death of the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, The Nation has resurfaced an essay that she wrote in 1983 about men, women, and how they ought to relate to one another in the modern world. An excerpt:
The old feminine ideal—the full-time housewife with station wagon and suburban ranch house—has been largely replaced by the career woman with skirted suit and attaché case. The collapse of the breadwinner ethic, and with it the notion of long-term emotional responsibility toward women, affects not only the homemaker who could be cut loose into poverty but the financially self-sufficient working woman. We face the prospect of briefer “relationships,” punctuated by emotional dislocations and seldom offering the kind of loyalty that might extend into middle age. If we accept the male revolt as a fait accompli and begin to act on its economic consequences for women, are we not in some way giving up on men? Are we acquiescing to a future in which men will always be transients in the lives of women, and never fully members of the human family?
I would like to think that a reconciliation between the sexes is still possible … But what would be the terms of such a reconciliation? We cannot go back to a world where maturity meant “settling,” often in stifled desperation, for a life perceived as a “role.” Nor can we accept the nightmare anomie of the pop psychologists’ vision: a world where other people are objects of consumption, a world of chance encounters of a “self” propelled by impulse alone. I see no other ethical basis for a reconciliation than the feminist principle that women are also persons, with the same need for respect, for satisfying work, for love and for pleasure as men. In a “world without a father,” that is, without the private system of paternalism built into the family-wage system, we will have to learn to be brothers and sisters.
As ever, thanks for all your emails, and dissents are always welcome. See you next week.