Real problems and not-really-problems

Jim Geraghty:

John Blake at CNN wants you to get really upset about the use of “digital blackface,” which he describes as white people sharing images or gifs of members of minority groups on social media.

There are also people who want you to get really upset with John Blake and CNN for proposing such an idea. …

But while some people want you to spend valuable time and neurons contemplating whether it is moral for white people to share images and gifs of minority groups on social media, the world keeps turning; real news keeps occurring; real life-and-death situations keep developing, starting, and resolving themselves.

Ukraine is the world’s biggest news story that somehow only pops up above the noise of the news cycle once every two weeks or so. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is now saying he intends to move some of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, which has been used as a staging ground for Russian forces invading Ukraine:

Moscow will complete the construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by the beginning of July, Putin told state broadcaster Russia 1.

He said Moscow had already transferred an Iskander short-range missile system, a device which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads, to Belarus.

During the interview, Putin said Russia had helped Belarus convert 10 aircraft to make them capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads and would start training pilots to fly the re-configured planes early next month.

(Read more background on the Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons here.)

The Biden administration doesn’t seem particularly worried, and perhaps this is just more of the nuclear saber-rattling we’ve seen from Putin, on and off, since the invasion began. Yesterday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on CBS News’ Face the Nation that, “We have not seen any indication that he’s made good on this pledge or moved any nuclear weapons around. We’ve, in fact, seen no indication that he has any intention to use nuclear weapons period inside Ukraine.”

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is not vague about moving nuclear weapons to other countries. “Under Article I of the NPT, nuclear-weapon states pledge not to transfer nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices to any recipient or in any way assist, encourage or induce any non-nuclear-weapon state in the manufacture or acquisition of a nuclear weapon.” Russia signed the treaty, and now it sounds like Putin intends to ignore it.

Putin’s Russia has been a troublemaker for a long time — “our number one geopolitical foe” as Mitt Romney put it in 2012, to the laughter and scoffing of most of America’s Democrats, including the Obama administration. It is effectively a rogue state — or “state of concern,” to use the late Madeline Albright’s preferred term. About eleven months ago, I wrote, “Whatever happens next, the Russia we knew, or thought we knew, throughout much of the post–Cold War period is now long gone. What remains is something closer to a territorially giant North Korea with a much larger nuclear arsenal — paranoid, irrational, illogical, unpredictable, with serious questions of whether the leadership is getting accurately briefed on any issue.”

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and KGB were arguably the world’s preeminent supporters of international terrorism, offering training and arms to just about any band of miscreants who opposed the U.S. and its allies. There’s some evidence that the German Red Army Faction, a far-left terrorist group in West Germany that sowed terror in that country in the Seventies and Eighties, was supported by a young KGB officer stationed in Dresden … by the name of Vladimir Putin.

The West is in this mess in large part because a wide variety of Western leaders underestimated the danger of Putin, year after year, decade after decade. Barack Obama dismissed Putin and Russia in 2016: “The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.”

The thing is, lots of places want to buy oil and gas and arms. And as we’ve seen for the past year, that “weaker” Russia can still generate chaos on the world stage.

Late last week, while thinking about the potential ban of TikTok, I noted that social media is effectively an attention economy. (Arguably, all forms of media are an attention economy.) It runs on your willingness to pay attention to things. Institutions and platforms that cannot get you to pay attention are doomed, at least financially. (This morning brings news that the 68-year-old liberal publication The Texas Observer is closing its doors for good.)

On a lot of social-media platforms, normal or healthy human behavior does not get you very much attention. Abnormal, unhealthy behavior gets you a great deal of attention. Young women drinking milkshakes out of toilets is the sort of thing that turns a lot of heads — and stomachs — in the world of TikTok.

TikTok, and perhaps social media as a whole, have created an entire incentive structure to spotlight the most abnormal behavior people can imagine, particularly among young people. If you do the things you’re supposed to do in life — love your family, be a good friend, work hard, play by the rules, help others when they need it — the TikTok algorithm just isn’t that interested. Maybe once in a while, your social-media algorithms will serve up something heartwarming, like those two toddlers who were so overjoyed to see to each other on the sidewalk. But by and large, your social-media feed is there to tell you, “This stinks, that stinks, look at this freak, look at what this weirdo is doing, aren’t human beings just the worst, we’re all doomed, the world is going to heck in a handbasket.” No wonder people think social media causes depression.

Now, look, it’s your life, and you’re free to pick whatever entertainment and news sources you like. (And hey, thanks for reading this newsletter.) A few years back, Tom Nichols was quite irked to learn some people enjoy watching other people play video games. My sense was and is that there isn’t that much difference between paying to watch people play electronic versions of stuff and paying to watch a CGI-filled movie, and that the world is always going to have people who choose to spend their disposable income and free time in ways you find dumb, wasteful, boring, or inane. If they’re not harming others or themselves, let them be.

But your attention is a valuable thing. Your time and attentiveness are finite, and each thing you read or watch is a choice. You might even think of it as a resource to be invested. Those social-media algorithms are designed to steer you in a particular direction. Contemplate whether you want to go down the path that the algorithms prefer.

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