The country has become a dystopian paragon of corrupted information.
We are only as good as the information we get. Only as grounded, as enlightened, as capable of forming rational opinions about our political leaders and making intelligent decisions about our lives. If we’re fed lies, we’re lost. If we subsist on fiction, we dwell in a fantasyland.
Russia right now is to some degree a fantasyland. It’s a place where the government-promoted narrative about what’s happening in Ukraine is ruthlessly edited, audaciously manipulated and almost diametrically opposed to the truth.
And while that hasn’t quelled many Russians’ opposition to the war, evident in courageous protests throughout the country, Vladimir Putin’s fictions are prominent and pervasive enough to have profoundly negative implications for any possibility of peace: Why would a decisive majority of his people pressure him to end his brutal land grab when they’re made to believe that it’s a limited operation blown wildly out of proportion by a Russia-hating West, a necessary act of self-defense and a noble, altruistic bid to liberate decent Ukrainians from brutal Nazis in their midst?
To win people’s hearts, a leader can do the hard work of improving their lot. Or a leader can take the cheaper and easier route that Putin has chosen and try to wash their brains. That’s what censorship of this magnitude amounts to: brainwashing. Putin is providing a definitive tutorial about the paramount importance of a free press and the fatal destructiveness of its antonym. We should heed it closely — because the warp of reality that Russians experience at the hands of a repressive government we in the West often inflict on ourselves.
The Russian government has moved to restrict social media, lest Russian propaganda be challenged by competing and less flattering versions of events. And on Friday, Putin signed a new law that “mandates up to 15 years in prison for any coverage the state deems ‘false information’ about the military campaign,” as Neil MacFarquhar explained in The Times on Tuesday.
What qualifies as “false”? Using the word “war” for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, for one example. Describing the influx of its troops as an “invasion,” for another. “Special military operation” is the phrasing Putin prefers, so that is the phrasing the Russian people get. And it’s a locution that casts the economic sanctions that are strangling Russia as the opportunistic overreaction of enemies who have long been intent on destroying the country. Who would buckle under such evil? What self-respecting Russian would surrender?
Neil evaluated several days of Russian news coverage and marveled at “the extent of the Kremlin’s efforts to sanitize its war.” He noted that at a recently televised gathering with female pilots and crew members from Aeroflot, Russia’s state airline, Putin was asked about the likely outcome of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and his answer completely disregarded “the reality of Ukraine — the violent destruction of cities and towns by the Russian military, the civilian deaths, the desperate exodus by millions of refugees.”
Instead, Putin “referred to the government in Kyiv as Nazis about 10 times,” Neil wrote. “The word is repeated endlessly on every broadcast. To reinforce the idea, news channels frequently show black-and-white footage of actual Nazis.”
The consequence? “As Ukrainians deal with the devastation of the Russian attacks in their homeland, many are also encountering a confounding and almost surreal backlash from family members in Russia, who refuse to believe that Russian soldiers could bomb innocent people, or even that a war is taking place at all,” Valerie Hopkins explained in The Times on Sunday.
Starved of accurate information, Russians gorge on disinformation, including a widely circulated claim that the United States is developing biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine. “This is preposterous,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a Twitter thread last night, adding that it exemplifies “the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent.”
It’s astonishing how far people can travel from the truth. Then again, it’s not. We have watched it happen here in the United States, among many of our fellow Americans, in regard not to Russia and Ukraine but to the 2020 election, to the safety and efficacy of vaccines, to so much else.
Instead of benefiting fully from a free flow of ideas and data and genuine insights, too many of us volitionally make do with an unrepresentative trickle. If the result isn’t an alternate reality nearly as comical and tragical as Russia’s right now, it’s a distortion nonetheless, and a dangerous one to boot. We are only as good as the information we seek.
Jason Isbell “has become one of the best writers in the country,” the venerated musician David Crosby said in an article in The Times by David Peisner almost two years ago. The occasion was the release of Isbell’s album “Reunions.” Crosby continued: “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan.”
That’s high praise, but it’s restrained next to what some of you put in your Isbell-evangelizing missives to me. “The finest songwriter writing today,” said John Jordan of Wilmington, Del. Anne Parker Ballance of Beaufort, S.C., proclaimed: “He is The. Best. Lyricist. Ever.”
For the uninitiated, Isbell, a Southern singer, songwriter and guitarist, has recorded albums with the bands Drive-By Truckers and The 400 Unit in addition to solo work. He has won several Grammy Awards, including, in 2018, Best American Roots Song for “If We Were Vampires,” in which he identifies what most transfixes him about his lover and their relationship:
It’s not your hands searching slow in the dark
Or your nails leaving love’s watermark
It’s not the way you talk me off the roof
Your questions like directions to the truth
Gordon Crain (Seneca, S.C.) flagged those lines specifically. Ann McLaughlin (Portland, Ore.) pointed to this rhyme, from the song “Different Days”:
You can strip in Portland from the day you turn sixteen
You got one thing to sell and benzodiazepine
The song “Live Oak” begins, hauntingly:
There’s a man who walks beside me
He is who I used to be
And I wonder if she sees him
And confuses him with me
But what impresses me most are Isbell's nonrhyming turns of phrase and his way with metaphor. His song “Goddamn Lonely Love” provides two sterling examples. “I’ll take two of what you’re having and I’ll take all of what you got,” he sings at one point. At another: “Well I ain’t really drowning ’cause I see the beach from here.”
His most ardent fans discuss his lyrics at length, for example in this Facebook group devoted to his work.
As for Crosby’s comparison of Isbell to Joni Mitchell, well, maybe. Combing through Isbell’s lyrics, I find gems galore, but none that glitter any brighter than these legendary lines of hers, from “A Case of You”:
Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you, darling
Still I’d be on my feet.
“For the Love of Lyrics” appears monthly(ish). To nominate a songwriter and song, please email me here, including your name and place of residence. “For the Love of Sentences” will return with the next newsletter; you can use the same link to suggest recent snippets of prose for it.
My Times colleague Elizabeth Williamson’s new book, “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” which came out on Tuesday, is about much, much more than the cruel and ludicrous conspiracy theories that emerged from a horrific mass shooting at an elementary school that should have given rise only to heartbreak and political resolve. It wisely frames the dissenting narratives about the massacre as harbingers of — and blueprints for — the assaults on reality to come. Elizabeth traces a through line from Sandy Hook to the rioting at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. And she includes, among many profoundly disturbing details, the fact that a few of the most prominent and prolific Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists came from academia. For example, James Fetzer, a retired professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, edited a 400-page book, “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook,” whose contributors include six people with doctorates. “This group underscores research suggesting that psychology, not politics, is a more consistent determinant of whether you routinely discount official narratives in favor of conspiratorial ones,” Elizabeth told me. The Times on Monday published this adaptation from her book.
Another new book makes an argument that feels immediately right: Many of the events we deem accidental have been destined by inadequate vigilance and gross inequities in American life. It’s by the journalist Jessie Singer, and it’s titled “There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster — Who Profits and Who Pays the Price.”
“What Happens When an Elite Public School Becomes Open to All,” a new article in The New Yorker by Nathan Heller, touches on a hot-button topic in a coolheaded way.
About those Russian oligarchs: Alessandra Stanley, who reported from Moscow for The Times for many years, explains in Air Mail that Putin had some crucial American help in creating this class of kleptocrats who are now on the run.
One of the first doctors I saw after the vision in my right eye blurred told me that there was a 40 percent chance of a similar fate befalling my left eye. I should guard against that outcome, she said, by using supplemental oxygen on planes; airlines would provide it to me if I simply presented a doctor’s note.
But the prevailing medical wisdom, I soon learned, was that my left-eye odds were more like 20 percent. Other doctors thought that oxygen was unnecessary. And the two airlines that I asked about giving it to me said that they didn’t do that — doctor’s note or no doctor’s note. I’d have to contact a separate company and pay a whole lot of money.
As I went through two clinical trials of experimental treatments for my condition, I interacted with, by my rough estimate, more than a dozen medical professionals. Not one asked me if, faced with the specter of blindness, I was struggling emotionally and might want a referral to a counselor of some kind.
I recount all of that without grievance or grudge: I had excellent care, including, for the most part, from Dr. Oxygen-on-the-Plane. I recount it because it’s an important lesson. As I write in “The Beauty of Dusk,” which casts my medical odyssey as representative of the struggles that all people encounter, especially as we age:
Doctors are flawed. They’re human. We want them to be gods, because we want that certainty, that salvation. We want clear roles: The doctor commands; the patient obeys. But, at times, in their imperfection and arrogance and haste, they make assumptions and mistakes. So it’s crucial to approach a relationship with a doctor, any doctor, as a partnership and to consider yourself an equal partner, respectful but not obsequious, receptive but skeptical.
I’m most definitely not advocating the kind of disregard for expertise that’s all too prevalent in this digital age, when too many people click their way to outright cynicism or kooky conspiracy theories because they’re after a certain emotional experience or psychological validation, not the truth. I’m calling for nuance, for holding two slightly contradictory thoughts at once.
It’s what the pandemic should have taught us. Experts proved their invaluable mastery by speeding us to lifesaving vaccines. But they also made some inaccurate guesses — that’s a necessary part of the scientific process — and are still sorting through many Covid mysteries.
Similarly, your doctor knows more than you but not everything, and you can best take advantage of his or her considerable education by educating yourself — by asking better questions, by providing the most comprehensive and relevant details about what you’re going through, by pressing (within reason) and prodding (within courtesy). Again, from the book:
It became clear to me that most medical professionals, no matter how conscientious, are managing the task at hand, by which I mean the specific affliction that you present with, the pain or discomfort that you’re trying to rid yourself of, the immediate juncture that you have to move past. They’re not managing you — certainly not all of you. That larger, longer, more panoramic task can be outsourced to exactly no one.
For as long as your mind remains intact and your energy endures, you are your own best case manager. You hold the levers for your moods, the switches for your feelings. You alone have all the information. You alone can update it by the second. You alone have no priority more urgent. You alone live fully with the consequences. Others may want or mean to come to the rescue and, in discrete instances, may try to. But they’re the guests, not the homeowner. They don’t stay forever or know how to work the thermostat.
Published last week, “The Beauty of Dusk” made The Times Hardcover Nonfiction and Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction Best Seller lists this week. I talked about the book with David Axelrod for this episode of “The Axe Files” podcast, and I’ll appear on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” tomorrow night.
Opinion | Russia, Where All the News Is Fake – The New York Times