How Zelenskyy sent courage viral: the podcast

Another great discussion with my friend Peyton Bowman. We began with a passage from William James on faith. Though the essay does discuss religious faith, I quoted it because it starts more mundanely, speaking of the way faith makes community life possible by knitting people together in bonds of mutual rights and obligations.

One implication is that social life is necessarily a network phenomenon. Further, even without this, it is ‘kaleidic‘. That is, an apparently small change can make all the difference between the way the whole scene looks — and can for instance throw the switch from pessimism to optimism. This kind of thing often happens in the economy. People’s pessimism is mutually reinforcing and depresses the economy generally, until one day when things change and their optimism becomes reinforcing.

We then talk about the different metaphors for society and community. In ancient and early modern thinking, society is often conceived of as being like a human body with government being the brain. Peyton then discusses a speech by the Roman statesman Agrippa which references the stomach as the ‘social body’. I think this switch helps us spot some of our modern hubris.

I argue that Zelenskyy is playing the role Winston Churchill played in 1940, but that in a world bathed in bullshit, Zelenskyy’s physical courage makes a greater contribution today than it did in Churchill’s time. It cuts through the bullshit, it demonstrates that he’s not just another bullshit artist. He means what he says. And I cavil at the cliché that he’s is ‘inspirational’. He is, but the word is so bandied about that we’re dead to it.

I focus on something closer to home, more humdrum and, because of it more profound. Zelenskyy’s actions move us because he did his job, like the captain of a ship that has foundered committing themself to save all it or go down with the ship. And we’re in a different world to that. Where politicians never say quite what they mean (Why? Because if they did we wouldn’t vote for them!), and where our own job may not make that much sense, and whether it does or not everyone’s keeping their eye on their next career move. In any event, the contrast Zelenskyy’s actions made with all this were enough to set a cascade of effects going, as we have seen in the last week.

As much as we buy into the magnificence of these actions and the courage they showed, we end on the note of prudence. We are talking about heightened conflict between nations that can with the press of a button — including as a result of miscalculation, misunderstanding or more mundane cockup — annihilate all that we value.

Peyton provides show notes with some of the sources here.

Also available by mp3 podcast here.

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