Wednesday Briefs – 28 October 2020

A weekly commentary on current events. Follow populyst to receive notification.

This week: Russia-Turkey Competition; Peak Conspiracy; Fear and Loathing 2020; Reading List.

Russia-Turkey Competition

The prosaically-named Institute for the Study of War, a think tank whose mission is to “advance an informed understanding of military affairs” chronicles the escalating competition between Russia and Turkey throughout the Middle East, North Africa and now in a new front in the Caucasus. See here the ISW’s regional map showing each country’s footprint and maritime claims.

Both countries are led by strong men with long tenures in office and each has ambitions to recreate his nation’s former glory. Fossil fuel deposits in the Mediterranean and North Africa make things more complicated and more contentious, as do arms sales to client proxies and friendly states. Long-suffering Syria remains an important country for both Russia and Turkey. Says the ISW:

“The situation in Syria is precarious; Syria remains a priority effort for both Russia and Turkey while the two parties are increasingly at odds. Turkey views Syria as core to its national security, fearing both a renewed refugee influx and autonomous Kurdish governance on the Turkish border. For Russia, Syria is a critical venue for projecting power in the Middle East and Mediterranean and pressuring the United States”.

Elsewhere, confrontation endures in various forms and to varying degrees in Libya, the Black Sea and now Nagorno-Karabakh where Armenia and Azerbaijan have had a hot and cold war for decades.

Peak Conspiracy

Falling markets, soaring virus numbers, simmering or boiling protests, a fragile economy, an imminent presidential election that may end in deadlock. After an improving spring and a hopeful summer, the darkest days of 2020 seem to have returned this week. Yet as usual, sentiment moves faster than reality and we could be in an entirely different place next week or next month, probably a better place but possibly a worse one.

2020 has in fact been a good year for some people (if they managed to avoid the virus): shareholders and executives of tech companies, purveyors of household necessities, and of course conspiracy theorists. From the point of view of the last, it looks oddly convenient for adversaries of Donald Trump that the week preceding the election should be marred by low markets and high coronavirus. The fact that Europe is now undergoing the same surge in confirmed cases may or may not be a counter-argument for these die-hards: after all, don’t Europeans overwhelmingly favor Joe Biden?

More seriously, coronavirus numbers will peak in this wave just as they did in the previous two. The IHME predicts a continued rise through winter with no let-up but it is still possible that this wave will reach its apex after a five to seven week period, as did the second wave. As we pointed out last week, the IHME has already lowered its year-end forecast of deaths by nearly 100,000 since last month. Unfortunately, a shorter wave would give more fodder to conspiracy theories because counting from the onset of the wave (around September 20th), the six week mark would fall on or close to Election Day. How odd that confirmed virus cases should peak at voting time and decline shortly thereafter.

MORE on conspiracy theories and wrong beliefs from UnHerd >>> It pays to believe obviously untrue things.

Fear and Loathing 2020

A large percentage of voters seem to be choosing their presidential candidate not as a person whom they admire or want as a leader but as someone whom they see as the lesser of two evils and as the president whom they would fear or loathe less than the offered alternative. President Trump has always had his detractors even within Republican ranks, and his name in some parts of the country is as reviled as it is loved in other parts. Vice-President Biden does not seem to elicit the same strong reaction, for or against, but he is seen by some as the waning moderate front for a vigorous movement of leftist radicals, and as such his candidacy does provoke the same degree of fear and loathing.

Attitudes towards policies appear to be the same, with voters opting for the candidate more likely to undo or dial back policies and decisions put in place by a predecessor whom they opposed. “Rolling back” seems to be everyone’s main platform: rolling back taxes and regulations or rolling back tax cuts; rolling back the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accord or rolling back our withdrawal from them; rolling back the Supreme Court’s activist decisions or rolling back that rollback by expanding the Court, etc. We seem to be choosing undoing more often than we are choosing doing. Politics has become reactionary on both sides.

Recently read and recommended:

A New Study Estimates That COVID-19 Is Responsible for 2.5 Million Years of Life Lost in the U.S.

Where Europe’s Second Wave Is Filling Up Hospitals

Humans don’t know how to be happy

Protests, Chaos in Nigeria

Reflections on Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Address

It pays to believe obviously untrue things

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Florida in the Election

A French version of this article appears in L’Express.

Former mayor Mike Bloomberg has announced that he would spend as much as $100 million of his own money to help Vice-President Biden prevail in Florida on Election Day. This underscores once again the importance of Florida in this and every presidential contest.

Florida has a good track record of picking the winner in a presidential election. With the messy 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the state gained prominence as the ultimate prize and must-win battleground. To be sure, it is not a perfect track record, given that Florida favored George H. W. Bush in 1992 and Richard Nixon in 1960 over winners Bill Clinton and John Kennedy. If you go to earlier times, you also find that Floridians misfired with John Davis and James Cox in 1924 and 1920, two unknowns today except among aficionados of electoral history. But in sum, four misses out of 25 elections over a century can indeed be called a strong track record.

The stakes are high in 2020 given the state’s 29 Electoral College votes and the tightness of the race according to the polls. Vice President Biden is now nominally ahead by 1 to 3%, an insignificant gap that can easily close or widen in the remaining days of the campaign, depending on a slew of factors, not least the performance of each candidate in the upcoming debates.

Read more

Camus Against the Virus

Decency is of little value without a foundation of honesty.

Albert Camus’ masterful novel La Peste (The Plague) is enjoying a resurgence in the current pandemic. Published in 1947 in the immediate aftermath of WW2, it was not, or not only, about a biological plague but also about the plague of Nazism or other ideological cancers and their equally devastating effect on humanity.

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Albert Camus

Among the many different citations recently lifted from the book, this particular one has appeared in several articles and countless social media posts:

“It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

Coming from Camus, this sentence looked unusual because there is no direct literal word in French for decency as we mean it in English. The closest are décence and pudeur but these words convey different meanings.

In the original French text, Camus had written: Read more