Ersatz Better Angels?

by John Holbo on December 4, 2019

Thanks for the good comments on yesterday’s post. Today, a brief follow-up. A discerning FB correspondent remarked I should have made the connection with my previous post – from way back in May! O, bad blogger am I – about my so-called ‘steelwool scrub’ fallacy.

These are both real, similar, they overlap, yet seem semi-distinct. Or perhaps the two ways of bringing it out just bring out different aspects of the same process. Hmmm.

The common denominator is as follows. We tend to think of the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory as aspirational and/or clarificatory. Ideal theory represents either 1) a distant point towards which you ought to move; 2) a pristine expression of your real values, unblemished by extraneous, pragmatic considerations. You could sort of roll 1) and 2) up together and say: ideal theory should be a polestar. A clear, fixed point by which you can steer somewhere better than where you are.

But, in these Vavilovian/Steelwool cases, it’s almost the opposite: the point of dragging in ideal theory is, in effect, to footdrag, extenuate and obfuscate.

In this post let me offer an illustration of this dynamic that isn’t really political philosophy at all. It’s just politics. Take Ukraine. The President (and Senator Kennedy and others) have this completely bonkers ‘theory’ about that. Ukraine framed Russia in 2016. The server is in Ukraine. Which isn’t a theory at all. It’s just word salad. I’m not going to go into that. It’s crazy. The right thing for everyone to do would be to reject this utterly. But instead what some are doing – I’m looking at you, Andrew C. McCarthy! – is put a lot of energy into concocting/defending a second Ukraine collusion theory, in the vicinity of the first. Call this Ukraine1 (and call the crazy one Ukraine2). Now, you might think that the purpose of Ukraine1 is to uplift the discourse by approximating to – let’s call it: Ukraine0. Namely, a reasonable view. Yes, Ukraine1 is merely non-nutritious, whereas Ukraine2 is out-and-out poisonous, but that’s a start! But, quite frankly, making things marginally better is not the goal here. The purpose of Ukraine1 is to conceal Ukraine2’s prevalence. If some reporter starts talking about Ukraine2, and how crazy it is, McCarthy will look all pained and earnest, and explain about Ukraine1. And it sounds sort of plausible and interesting – a-ha! there’s a better version! This plays on the tendency of reporters and pundits and commentators to want to be charitable and give the other side half-credit, if possible.

But at the end of the day, Ukraine1 is chaff, functionally and (I expect: although I cannot read McCarthy’s heart) intentionally. Not in the crop sense, in the artillery sense. McCarthy is, start to finish, trying to stop Democrats from scoring direct hits on Ukraine2 (which McCarthy knows perfectly well deserves to be shot down; and he’ll say so!) Because McCarthy wants R’s to win. That’s it. No issue of philosophy at stake. Apart from the fact that McCarthy is a partisan R warrior to the tips of his toes.

If you wanted a crop mimicry analogy, to make the connection with my previous post, it would go like so: in this garden you are growing a nutritious crop of information about what happened and is happening – call this crop Ukraine0. A garden of news! Into this garden creeps Ukraine2, a weed of sheer nonsense. The farmer should try to weed out Ukraine2, as it is nonsense. And, as its nonsense sticks out like a sore thumb, this weeding could succeed. Suppose you don’t want the farmer to succeed (enter Andrew C. McCarthy.) You will introduce a second weed, Ukraine1, half-way between Ukraine0 and Ukraine2. You defend this on the ground that this new varietal is BETTER than Ukraine2. You are uplifting the discourse! But the fact of the matter is: the point of introducing Ukraine1 is not to improve the strain, marginally, but to prevent that. It’s harder to tell 0 from 1 and 1 from 2 hence 0 from 2, hence harder to get down to the serious task of weeding out Ukraine2, which is toxic (whereas Ukraine1 is merely non-nutritious.) Ukraine1 and Ukraine2 thus thrive together. Mischief managed!

So what we see is how ‘ideal Ukraine theory’ – ideal relative to Ukraine2 – functions, effectively and likely deliberately, to prevent discourse from becoming more ‘ideal’.

It’s not ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. More ‘the less imperfect can be friend to the worse’. It’s para-Vavilovian. You have one weed that mimics a crop. But the point of that is not so much to protect this weed but to retroactively convert yet another weed into a mimic, not of the crop, but of the 1st weed. Ukraine1 mimics Ukraine0. And now Ukraine2 mimics Ukraine1.

Put it another way: if you are bad, you invent a fake-you you can pretend to be, who is not-bad. But you are bad (see above), so pretending to be GOOD-good is hard. But you might be able to pull off semi-not-bad, from a middle-distance. So you invent an semi-not-bad aspirational self. Angel of my less-bad nature! But, really, this aspirational self is just there to provide plausible deniability. This ersatz angel lets you stay bad, rather than making you have to be even a little better. (Whenever you are accused of badness you say: wasn’t me! I’m the semi-not-bad guy!) He makes you less a failure by being something closer to what you are that you can pretend to be failing, less badly, relative to.

Now: I’m trying to live up to my commitment to keep all posts sub-1000 words. So let me close this installment out briefly. In a sense, the Ukraine case is Steelwool Scrub. In a sense, Vavilovian mimicry. Does that mean they are the same thing? I feel: not quite. But it’s hard to spell out. Steelwool feels to me more about avoiding blame. Vavilovian mimicry is more about getting stuff done, pretextually. But maybe that’s not a distinction that I can clarify. (It’s again, more a matter of emphasis.)

The ‘ersatz better angel’ metaphor seems to me helpful. We tend to think that we have a better self, who is, in a sense, not us: we don’t live up to that standard. Yet us: this is the standard we (mere mortals) fall away from! True you’s are tricky.

This model of the soul can be gamed and ideal vs. non-ideal theory gets tangled in that. I shall try to return to this issue again, and without waiting another 6 months to do it! In the meantime, follow me on twitter for jokes about comics.



ben w 12.04.19 at 2:11 am

Not only discerning but also handsome and charming.


John Holbo 12.04.19 at 2:14 am

Behold the man!


Tyler 12.04.19 at 2:31 am

What in the world is achieved by keeping posts under a thousand words?

Let Holbo be Holbo.

For gods sake.


John Holbo 12.04.19 at 3:24 am

Let Holbo be Holbo.

That’s not ‘ideal’ enough for my taste. We should try to do better.


Chetan Murthy 12.04.19 at 3:38 am


I cannot pretend that I cared (past tense) about the difference between “Steelwood scrub” and “Vavilovian mimicry”, but OTOH (by your lovely post) am NOW of a mind to learn the difference. Thank you!


John Holbo 12.04.19 at 5:23 am

You are most welcome!


nastywoman 12.04.19 at 8:04 am

– so why not combining Ukraine one two and there with ”jokes about comics” – as there is this comic called ”Zelensky” – who played in the Ukrainian television series ”Servant of the People” – a teacher called ”Vasiliy Petrovych Goloborodko”.

He accidentally becomes president when a video of him ranting about politics goes viral.

”Servant of the People” is like a cross between The Thick of It and Johnny English. It even has a slight hint of House of Cards (the original, British version) with lots of Ukrainian oligarchs vying to be the post-Soviet version of Sir Humphrey Appleby. There are car chases, drunk politicians falling face-first into their food at state banquets and numerous opportunities for the actors to dress up in national costume and disguise themselves as Ukrainian Eurovision entries. (Check out the trailer for the feature-length version, with English subtitles.)

Russian-language YouTube is packed with clips of Zelenskiy, who has been a fixture on Ukrainian TV since 2003, largely because of his work as a founding member of Studio Kvartal 95, a production company with its own ensemble sketch group. Their humour is best described as halfway between irreverent and old-school. Zelenskiy recently told BBC News of his fondness for Monty Python. A typical Kvartal 95 Christmas special – with 2.8m YouTube views – features a scene in which Romeo and Juliet discuss the fate of Ukraine in rhyming couplets while Juliet decides whether or not to poison herself.

In one of the Saturday Night Live-style sketches playing on a loop this week on RT (Russia’s international state channel), Zelenskiy riffs: “You want to go into politics? Drop your trousers.”

Studio Kvartal 95’s website mentions Zelenskiy’s “unique ‘sexy voice’ that makes women go crazy”. (It adds that he dubbed the voice of Paddington in the Russian language version of the movie, played by Ben Whishaw in the original, as if to prove this fact.) Filmed this week for At Home with the Zelenskiys (1.5m YouTube views), he talks earnestly about his love for his family and how he treasures every moment with his wife. At the press conference following the latest vote, he seemed to have dropped the punchlines completely. “All I care about is the people. Not politics. Not ambition. The people are what matter.”

NOW since the erection of Zelensky Kvartal 95 has completely ignored the Trump impeachment scandal and the last time they laughed at Trump’s expense was in 2016, when they ran a mockup of pre-election debates in the U.S.

Kvartal 95 has not responded to a request for comment on why they shun Trump, but it may be something to do with a change in attitude of their co-founder President Zelensky.

In a partial transcript of the second phone call between Trump and Zelensky released by the White House, Zelensky flatters Trump tirelessly, and even goes as far as suggesting that Trump’s plane “is bigger” than his…

AND at another thread I explained ”everything” with the phrase:
”Belgium is a beautiful city” – but I think Ukraine1-2and3 and jokes about comics and… ”Twitter” AND everything is much better… ”explained” by the joke:

”Who has the bigger plane?”

That even beats the ”Vavilovian mimicry” as ”a model of the soul”.

Don’t y’all agree?
(even ph and Dipper?)


nastywoman 12.04.19 at 8:17 am

”NOW since the erection of Zelensky Kvartal 95 has completely ignored the Trump impeachment scandal”

which is the real reason why Trump HAS to be impeached – because in another telephone call -(only I know about) he asked Zelensky seriously NOT to make fun of Trump anymore or America will send weapons and troops to Russia in order to have them dressed as Ukrainian comics and then send into the Ukraine looking for ”the server”.

And I wrote that for all these funny dudes on CT who don’t believe in ”Russiagate” – as ”Russiagate is real” – as these new cousins of mine told me at that Wonderfull wedding in St. Pete.

Now THAT is making fun of comics –
you never could on something silly as – Twitter!


Martin 12.04.19 at 9:55 am

Please give more worked examples, with the gaps and jumps filled out, for those of us who do not have philosophy degrees.


notGoodenough 12.04.19 at 10:29 am

John Holbo @ OP

As someone who is very much in ignorance, I’ve found this and your previous post very interesting. I’ve found your and Corey’s posts about this topic quite thought provoking (even if I find myself a little skeptical at times), and certainly appreciate the attempts at outlining (what I suspect are quite complex) ideas in ways which are simple enough for the average layperson.

My only complaint – could you not have titled this:

“An artificial angel angle: appropriating appalling assertions as awful argument apologia.”

Cheers for the good work of outreach!



notGoodenough 12.04.19 at 11:34 am

[Please feel free to delete the following, if it exceeds CT’s pretty broad tolerance for OT ridiculousness]

While I think the metaphors are clear, because I enjoy making things complicated and indecipherable I will try to riff on Milton and Mills by proposing the following:

There may be a marketplace of ideas, but some people are putting wooden pips in their raspberry jam; others are pretending their jam is actually marmalade; some are deliberately making worse jam so they can market their existing product as “luxury”; others are trying to sell their jam solely by denigrating their competitors’; and finally everyone is trying to ignore the person in the corner who is wearing their underpants on their head, and isn’t trying to sell jam at all but desperately wants to convince someone that Rigellians are stealing their precious bodily fluids.

In short, may we be “preserved” from this sticky situation…


SusanC 12.04.19 at 1:28 pm

Maybe Trump caused an”Emperors New Clothes” moment. Supose you have a large number of Republican supporters who are actually Trumpists, but were pretending to espouse some other form of Republicanism that they thought was more socially acceptable. And then Trump goes and says what they’ve been thinking all along…


Anarcissie 12.04.19 at 7:05 pm

There may not be a Ukraine-0 theory. Let us consider crops and weeds, as before. A botanist can probably determine which is which going by DNA, given a crop is defined as one species and a weed is defined as another. However, in agriculture and gardening, a weed is a plant where you don’t want it to be. Many weeds here and now may have been crops there and then, and vice versa. So, in ag, cropness is determined not by an intrinsic quality of a plant, but by choice, that is, will and power.

The same may be said of stories, narratives, ‘facts’. But here there is an additional complexity: unlike plants, stories are generally rather amorphous, labile, and dependent on their observers and reporters. Some seem to be more valid or ‘true’ than others, again depending on their evaluators. Depending on power.

Further: stories generally have different uses than crops. One significant use of stories is to acquire or maintain power. This is obviously the category of story Ukraine-n’s belong to. Should a story actually produce power, that power will affect the judgement of its validity, as both a psychological and a political fact, will feed back into its validity. People concerned with power in the realm that the Ukraine-n stories belong to will select those stories for perception, belief, factuality, which they feel will contribute to their power. No one involved in the Ukraine-n story commerce need desire to deceive.


Ray Vinmad 12.04.19 at 9:08 pm

I love this more than I can say.

I’m curious about the work done by the ‘Steelwool Scrub.’

There’s a related phenomenon where people believe that they aren’t scrubbing the beliefs so much as giving their origins. The idea is that there has to be some kind of bridge between a faith-based but bigoted belief schema and a liberal universalist belief schema–assuming that the faith-based-but-bigoted is really sort of due to the historical lag religious doctrine seems to force upon orthodox religious believers. (The less orthodox tend to catch up faster.) Eventually, the hope is that the religious doctrine and egalitarian principles will meet up once the believers cross over the bridge.

You could call the religious origin stories of bigoted belief ‘believer breadcrumbs.’ Genealogies have a way of lessening the grip on people over time of certain belief systems.

Or perhaps people doing this also aren’t working in good faith but are doing something more like ‘Steelman Airbag’ where they are creating a soft landing for the bigoted. We’re supposed to be less angry at their bigotry because these origins are mitigating factors.

A problem of course is that a lot of people leading these orthodox believers see the bigotry as an attraction rather than a liability–and that’s likely true. There are surely some people who flock to orthodox belief systems because of the free steelwool.


ph 12.05.19 at 8:57 am

Welcome back. Checked out your twitter feed. I’m not surprised you migrated to the medium. As for your, weeds and crops, I’d feel better about the validity of your argument had you chosen an example on more neutral grounds, one that didn’t involve, I mean, just for the sake of example, by golly, calling fellow citizens racists.

Or is your own post, actually an example of what you describe?

That’s it for me, good to read you here, enjoy the twitterverse!


Ogden Wernstrom 12.05.19 at 10:18 pm

That’s it for me….

If I had more time, I’d tally how often this claim (or equivalent) has been true vs. untrue.

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