In general I don’t care for podcasts – it’s just not how I absorb information. I know it’s how a lot of people these days get news and opinions, so while I don’t have one and as a rule don’t go on them, I make an exception for Nate Hagens excellent weekly podcast, “The Great Simplification.” It’s a deep dive in to a variety of interesting and complex topics with leading experts and thinkers, and worth browsing. I’ve been on TGS a couple of times discussing geopolitics, conflicts, and nuclear war, and just finished one on the Israel-Hamas war. A couple of thoughts on the content as well as the medium …
One of the reasons I don’t like being on podcasts is that I never feel I can completely explore a topic. Nate is far better about this than most and usually lets me rant at length, but I still get nervous since any one of his questions should take an hour to answer. Almost everything I say feels incomplete and lacking context, and risks being taken out of context. But, as I often say, it’s worse than that. One of the most toxic aspects of modern American society is the attitude that to even attempt to understand an opposing point of view is being an apologist or agreeing with both the opponent and their perspective. That’s utterly insane.
Take Putin. If I even mention him without spitting and accusing him of every crime in the books, I’m called a “Putin Apologist” or worse. Well consider: See this, photographed on a trip to China this week? It’s called the Чегет …
This is Russia’s equivalent of our “nuclear football” (link to Wikipedia article) – the command codes to launch a nuclear strike. Like him or not, Putin is the President of the Russian Federation and controls a considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons. We sure as hell better try to understand him, his country, what he wants, his philosophy of government, history, and so forth. Comic book depictions are dangerous and counterproductive. The same arguments apply to Xi, or most world leaders. Understanding is not agreement – but it also must be said that when they are right about something, we lose nothing but our credibility by refusing to acknowledge that fact.
Commenting on world crisis situations has become frustrating. Anyone trying to interject nuance, or refusing to echo the sentiment of the moment, risks cancellation. The Israel-Hamas war is dangerous to discuss these days, much as Ukraine has been, with the added aspect of race and religion to make the situation even more fraught with risk. A couple of points on that.
First, I lived in Israel for a while on assignment, developed some close friends there in their security services. I have a great admiration and respect for the Israeli people and what they’ve created. But … what’s best for Israel, what’s best for the US, and what’s best for the world are often very different things. Many can’t square those differences – there are a lot of people in our government with divided loyalties, especially with respect to Israel and Eastern Europe. Take the present situation in Israel. If I were advising the Israeli government I’d give very different advice to them than the US Government. Ultimately my oath was to the US Constitution and people – if that means throwing Ukraine, or Israel, or any other country under the bus to protect my country, much less world stability, so be it. Harsh? Sure – but you have to be clear where your loyalties lie. You try to resolve these conflicts, but it’s not always possible. As an American I’d be willing to take greater risks with Israeli security than an Israeli probably would or should, especially if it contributed to global security and stability. It’s just adult to realize that and not be dishonest with either others or, more importantly, yourself.
Sadly, doing what’s best for the US and doing what’s best for world stability (much less Israel) are increasingly different things, so I’m glad I’m not on government service any more or I’d have to consider doing what Josh Paul just did (link to NPR article). That said, this is a horrible situation with no good options, and pretending one side is morally pure and right and the other irredeemably evil isn’t productive.
Does Hamas do horrible things? Of course, but I think that’s the wrong question since it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is vital to realize that Hamas isn’t really the problem – the existence of Hamas is a symptom of an underlying problem: the attempt to “split the baby” in the original UN resolutions with respect to Palestine that satisfied no one and only set the stage for future instability. As I have often said, the problem is we lurch from crisis to crisis, and fail to take advantage of the periods between them to try to find some kind of long-term solution. Ultimately this is a failure of governance – the inability to solve problems proactively, only react to events.
The point is that this is a complex crisis with thousands of years of blood and history behind it. It didn’t start October 7th, or 5th, or last year or even last decade. For what it’s worth, my sympathies lie mostly with Israel, but I do recognize that the Palestinian Arab population has been shafted and if we don’t do something about that fact this can only get worse – I hope it’s not too late already.
Finally, even doing a recorded podcast with the opportunities to edit in post is tough. It’s easy to miss-speak or get a word wrong that will be seized on and blown out of proportion. For example, I was trying to say that in 10 days of the current Hamas/Israel war more children had been killed than in 18 months of the Ukraine conflict. I said “civilian” instead of “children,” so naturally people are seizing on that to discredit my point, which is that the conflict in Israel is in fact more brutal than Ukraine. However, in fact the actual numbers support that viewpoint – Latest UNHCR totals are approximately 600 Children killed in Ukraine since 22 Feb 2022, and over 700 in Gaza since 7 October. But even if you use total civilian deaths it’s revealing. Verified total civilians killed in Ukraine are currently around 14,000, in Israel/Gaza right at 10,000 (tabulating both sides). Both are likely underestimates. This is even more astonishing when you consider that the number of armed troops involved in combat operations in the Ukraine/Russia war is probably 50 or more times higher than that in the Israel/Hamas war.
So exact numbers aside (in each case they are probably no better than the right order of magnitude), this gives you an idea of the scale and nature of both conflicts. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is largely a conflict between armies/militias with civilians caught in the middle, whereas the Israel-Hamas war is largely about targeting the opponent’s civilian population, and fighting within population centers.
The information war is something else we discussed that I didn’t feel came across as completely as I would have hoped. The incident at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza was breaking and confusing when we talked. Was it a deliberate Israeli strike? Mis-fired Palestinian rocket? It seems more likely it was a failed rocket or other ordinance mishap, but there is evidence to suggest a deliberate strike as well. I think we can safely say neither side has much credibility here. One of the Israeli Prime Minister’s aides took credit for it on Twitter/X before recanting, various “news” outlets from the New York Times to Al Jazerra have published contradictory and conflicting accounts. Then as now it’s hard to say – and as I said on the podcast it no longer matters. The site is contaminated, the videos contradictory and increasingly doctored. The two stove piped narratives are locked in, and now about all it says is which side you are picking as to which of the two narratives you believe. This is a key problem across our modern world: few if any trusted sources of information.
To try to wrap up these random thoughts, I would like to thank Nate for trying to have these discussions. It’s hard in the modern media environment to try to keep balance, when you’re expected to take sides and have an agenda. I greatly respect Nate in that his only agenda seems to be the truth of the human predicament, and trying to figure out ways of created a better, more sustainable world both for humanity and the rest of the natural world which is subject to our missteps.