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Mail Time!

Osita Nwanevu
14 min read
Mail Time!

Hey all. Apologies for the delay. I’ve been unwell and trying to tune things up on the site, which just went through an update. (Let me know if you notice any bugs or issues at It’s been a while since the last Mail Time post, so that’s what we’ll do today. The next will be at the end of the month. Let's hop to it.

We’ve got two questions from Connor. The first is about food politics:

In all of the Leftist chatter on/offline I've come across over the last few years, I've noted advocacy for complete universal public healthcare, complete universal public education, universal public transportation (apart from personal automobiles), and more recently --though less commonly--universal public housing, at least when it comes to most rental properties. All of these are of course materially feasible and fundamentally just, but there is a glaring absence from this list of publicly sourced goods and The latter is a prerequisite not for thriving in a society, or for there to be a society, but simply to exist. Granted, I've heard the inaccessibility of food bemoaned, but the idea that there should be no medium of exchange, no trucking and bartering, when it comes to people getting something they need to, well, be, has not been articulated broadly. In addition to the moral case for the position, it is a policy that could be more persuasive with a mainstream crowd than is realised. A Leftist in the United States could point out that, with your annual Farm Bills, the citizenry are effectively paying twice for the food they eat, so that they may as well just make agriculture a public service, and farmers civil servants. Within Leftist circles themselves, why has this idea not been spoken of openly and frequently? Admittedly it did not occur to me until about seven or eight years ago, when I abandoned social democracy, but I would have thought that those more accustomed to radical politics would be harping non-stop on the subject?

The idea of making food more freely available has been around forever on the left, obviously ⁠— beyond backing state provision to the poor, activists often take the matter into their own hands the best they can. One thinks immediately of the free breakfast programs for schoolchildren run by the Black Panthers, for instance. As a matter of policy, we still charge children for lunches in this country; more broadly, SNAP and charitable efforts like food banks and soup kitchens don’t add up to anything close to ‘universal basic food,’ which seems like a laudable goal to me. There’s certainly enough of the stuff to go around. Despite that, the Department of Agriculture tells us 10.2 percent of American households ⁠— or 13.5 million of them ⁠— were food insecure at some point during 2021, meaning that at one point or another, they lacked “enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources.” That includes the 3.8 percent of households — 5.1 million of them, containing 8.6 million adults and 521,000 children ⁠— with “very low food security,” meaning that some within them had their food intake substantially disrupted and reduced by their lack of resources despite putatively available federal aid and charity.

I’m skeptical, to say the least, about nationalizing farms, but there’s a lot we can do to make benefits both easier to utilize and more generous ⁠for the hungry ⁠— cash would be more flexible and less paternalistic than food stamps and work requirements ought to be ditched. The biggest obstacles to such changes ⁠— beyond general hostility to the welfare state ⁠— are public attitudes about food, which might go some way towards explaining why free access to food hasn’t taken off in left discourse in quite the same way as other goals have, to your point. We do a lot of moralizing in this country ⁠— even on the left ⁠— about what to eat and how to eat it; while we know intellectually that’s it’s stupid to hyperventilate about food stamps buying lobsters or sugary sodas when so much of our money goes to weapons of war and tax breaks for the wealthy, we also know that argument is a harder lift politically among key constituencies than it ought to be. I don’t have a grand messaging solution really, but this is an area where I think it would make sense to elevate certain villains in the public mind ⁠— rather than shaming the poor for their food habits, we should be taking on the food industry, which has rather curiously managed to escape most of the anti-monopoly ire that’s been directed at the tech industry in recent years.

Connor’s second question is about the prospects for a unified Left:

The idea of a pan-Leftist movement/organisation has been bandied about as an alternative to the mainstream centre-left in the West, but the perimeters of such a body have not been discussed in detail. Would it be purely socialist, excluding nebulous 'progressive' schools of thought? If not, how far outside would be permissible? What would be considered 'Left' but not socialist by modern standards? Georgists, for instance, have been historically categorised as a right-wing economic model, but since they consider land and natural resources themselves to be, categorically, public goods, are they not to the left of social democrats? Considering we have less cohesion than the right, is the idea of a hegemonic Left bloc even tenable?

I’ve been thinking about the very last question here a lot recently and I think the short answer is yes. As historically fractious as it’s been, I think there’s a remarkable amount of cohesion on the left today, at least in America ⁠— so much so that a lot of distinctions that really mattered thirty or forty years ago have been fudged and confused. The most prominent leftist in America today is a self-described socialist who sought the presidency with a mostly social democratic agenda that would have been familiar and largely uncontroversial to mainstream Democratic liberals as recently as the 1970s. He had the support of all but the most marginal left-wing institutions and voices; he won nearly 10 million votes in the last Democratic primary and more than 13 million votes in the primary before. A bloc obviously exists; it’s obviously not hegemonic. And the million dollar question is whether it can be expanded with policies or messaging approaches that bring in less ideologically committed voters while retaining a stable ideological core.

Again, I think it can. We should be making appeals to democracy ⁠— which most voters like and many voters consider threatened — as a set of principles that should guide both political and economic life. If we like democracy at the polls, we ought to like it at work; the labor we provide to our employers ought to afford us both a real say in how our work is done and a real share in the wealth we produce. Most on the broad left in America either agree with this already or could be convinced of it easily; as I’ve written previously, there’s evidence that this line of thought doesn’t even strike most Americans as especially radical. That’s good. If we continue pushing for policies like Sanders’ and the Labour Party’s inclusive ownership funds, the key to success is going to lie in sustaining that impression however we can.

Lastly, some comments from Corey, a long-time fan:

I was sad to see you deleted the only forum in which I can correct your lies, like I have many times. You wrote in article in February 2022 claiming Russian students are practically innocent of their government’s crime, and that deporting them is akin to child separation policies under Trump. That last claim is provably a lie so I won’t spend any time on it. But Russians in general overwhelmingly support imperial aggression against Ukraine. Why do you want awful people like Russians in our country at all, much less universities to lie and steal? You same leftists were all up in arms when we brought over Nazi scientists in Operation Paperclip who *weren’t* accused of war crimes. But these Nazis are fine?
But the real quote from your propaganda that’s the big tell is: “Against all odds and against all evidence, people the world over still believe in the American idea.” Fundamentally, you don’t. That’s why your “article” is dedicated to emphasizing that Democrats, Democrats!, proposed deporting Russian students; another evil of the American ‘neoliberal’ imperial machine is your implication i.e. “…someone, somewhere must pay for American delusions,” you say. American delusions are when you don’t want the enemy studying at your universities I guess (I can see a dedicated leftist like you already rolling your eyes at the notion of ‘the enemy’). The US is not obligated to allow students from enemy nations, or any foreigners at all, to study at its universities. This isn’t a delusion just a reality, just like it’s a reality that removing as many sensible Russians as possible from Russia helps Putin stabilize his rule and crush dissent.
But again, this isn’t about Russians or the policy for you. It’s an opportunity you perceive to do your whole leftist thing: “See? Democrats and Republicans are no different and just as brutal, capitalist, and imperialist. I’m going to lie that ‘Democratic action’ under Obama consisting of rejections at the border is the same as family separation!” “See? Democrats thinking turning to Fox News comments is helpful…” “Biden said the adults are back in the room, but Democratic representatives from another branch of government are proposing a non-immigration policy I don’t like!” “Is an imperialist like Gallego really going to be the progressive challenger to Sinema?” Your propaganda is so vapid, kid. It scares me to think people listen to you.

This is all very timely now that Gallego has announced his campaign against Sinema. I hope he wins. That said, I think this episode ⁠— his endorsement of Eric Swalwell’s proposal to kick all Russian students out of the United States in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine ⁠— is a black mark on his record for reasons Corey utterly fails to rebut in any way.

I don’t know how many Russians genuinely support the invasion of Ukraine; polls from countries where people can be jailed for expressing their political opinions freely should be consulted with caution. That said, I’m willing to believe a solid majority of the public backed the invasion a year ago and still backs it now. But obviously, not all Russians do. And if I had to guess at the segment of the Russian citizenry least likely to back the invasion and Putin's regime more broadly, Russian twenty-somethings studying in the United States seem like they’d be a good choice. Here, compiled from a variety of articles published over the last year, are some of the students Swalwell, Gallego, and Corey would have kicked out anyway:

Haverford College:

When a Haverford College student from Moscow took a class on "transitional justice" and learned about war tribunals and genocide, she said she didn't imagine that she would one day be watching her own country carrying out such crimes.
"I never really thought that I would find myself to be on the side of the perpetrators of genocide," the 22-year-old comparative literature major said, her voice filled with emotion.
[...]The student from Moscow emphasized that what she is going through pales in comparison to that of her Ukrainian friends. Born six months before Russia's Vladimir Putin came into power, she said she has found it difficult to communicate with family and loved ones in Russia because she supports sanctions against the country and condemns the government.
Most people she knows feel the way she does, she said, but are afraid to speak up. Her father has been unemployed for several years and her mother is on a pension, she said. She also has an older sibling with multiple disabilities, she said.
She has been at Haverford for nearly four years, also minoring in political science, and for the last couple has volunteered for a nonprofit that provides legal aid to antiwar protesters and people who are oppressed in Russia. With the start of the war, she felt it was even more important to take a stand, she said.

Northeastern University

Dimitri Trotiskii, a graduate student at Northeastern, had just moved from Russia to Northeastern’s Boston campus when Russian forces began bombing Ukraine Feb. 23.
“I was shocked,” says Trotiskii, who does not support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, which is entering its second month.
Prior to the invasion, Trotiskii had been keeping a close eye on the Russian military massing at the Ukrainian border, and was well aware of reports suggesting the Russian leader was going to attack.
“I just never thought it would actually happen,” says Trotiskii, who came to the Boston campus in January as part of Northeastern’s Align master’s degree program. He says he’s deeply conflicted about completing his degree as his country continues “these atrocities” in Ukraine.
[...] “Being from a country that’s literally committing these atrocities, it’s just hard. I know that many friends and family members [in Russia] are very depressed about this. It’s really hard just to feel like you’re a part of it,” says Trotiskii, referring to the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.


First-year Kseniia Kholina, an international student from Moscow, remembers it was Wednesday jazz night at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. At 11 p.m., she left the Flowers Building and arrived at the West Campus bus stop, where she received a text from a friend.
“It’s war,” the text read.
Kholina called her family in Russia later that night. She listened to some independent Russian media and got in touch with friends at home. Everyone was in complete shock, she said. Everyone was devastated.
She described the war in Ukraine as “beyond heartbreaking.”
“A lot of people are suffering from choices they didn’t make,” she wrote.

The University of Arizona and Arizona State University

Anastasiia Gorlova doesn't know when she'll go back to her hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia.
Most flights are canceled in the wake of the country's invasion of Ukraine. But more than that, the University of Arizona doctoral student is struggling with "moral issues" about returning.
"I cannot decide for myself if I ever can step foot in Putin's Russia because what he's doing is just so horrific," she said. "I can't be put in a position where I'm a part of that ... I just don't know if I even can go to Russia while he's in power because I'm sure that Russia right now is a very different place from what I came from three years ago."
Gorlova, 29, is not the only Russian international student in Arizona struggling with the country's full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, launched in late February.
The two countries are close, like brothers, students say. Some Russian students have friends and family in both countries. They're losing sleep as the war rages and as bombs fall, and some are angry with the Russian government, ashamed of their native land or conflicted about its future.
[...] Several students who spoke with The Arizona Republic emphasized that the actions of Russian leaders do not represent the desires of many average Russians, but that there's little that people in Russia can do to protest their government amid threats of jail and other punishment.
Arizona State University student Victor Oleynik, 24, has kept an especially close eye on the war from both personal and professional angles. Oleynik was born in Ukraine and grew up in Moscow until his journalism and political activism forced him to seek political asylum in the United States four years ago.
He's expanding the work he's done for years to gather public data on people responsible for corruption and human rights violations in Russia to include evidence of potential war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. And he feels the conflict personally, although from afar, as he hears from his parents in Moscow and his relatives in Ukraine, some of whom have volunteered to fight for their country.
"Most of the Russians and most of the Ukrainians have been extremely close and loyal to each other. In this conflict, we as Russians and Ukrainians have a joint enemy here. His name is Vladimir Putin."

Hunter College

Georgii Lifshits’ journey to Hunter College from his hometown of Moscow began days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine in February. Lifshits, 22, left his family and rode trains and buses to Estonia. He then took a ferry to Finland and flew to New York City.
Along the way, Lifshits scrubbed all traces of anti-Putin, pro-democracy activism from his phone, laptop, and social media for fear of being detained.
Now he’s joined the Hunter College Class of 2024.
“It feels like an island of stability,” said Lifshits, a biology major who is studying neuroscience. “(For) the first time, in a few months, there was some certainty in my life. It just was kind of a miracle that such a program even exists.”


Alexander Zhigalin ’23 and Polina Galouchko ’23 said they were studying in the library of Dunster House when they learned Russian President Vladmir Putin had declared war.
“The first reaction is horror,” Zhigalin said, explaining that he does not think he can return to Russia.
“I feel that it’s not a home anymore,” he said. “Now I need a new one.”
Galouchko said she immediately started texting her relatives and friends in Ukraine and felt the world “basically collapsing” around her.
“Everything stopped making sense,” she said. “It just shattered so many things about my identity.”
Zhigalin said he was “fighting with fear” during the first few days of the invasion, aware that speaking out against the war could result in government retaliation against him and his family.
But Zhigalin quickly decided that he could not keep silent.
“I felt that anything we can say or do needs to be said and done,” he said. “I had to speak.”
“This is a country that started genocide on Ukrainian people, that betrayed a long relationship with a separate nation to which there are many ties,” Zhigalin added. “This is just evil.”
Galouchko said she was also compelled to denounce the actions of her country’s government.
“It was very important for me to establish firmly the fact that I, as a Russian, am very much against this war,” she said.
“A lot of people have this natural instinct to think, ‘Oh, Russian people, they don’t protest enough against this war, they could have done something to prevent it,’” Galouchko added. “I just wanted to make it very clear that I am definitely not the person who is supporting this war.”

I could go on, but I really shouldn’t have to. The logic, if we want to call it that, of collective responsibility here is as ridiculous as it was when the Japanese were interned. More analogously, it would have been patently absurd for our peers around the world to kick out American college students in opposition to the policies of Donald Trump or George W. Bush.

The idea that Russian students like our Haverford comp lit major should presumptively be considered spies ⁠— set on handing our precious literary secrets over to the Kremlin ⁠— isn’t to be taken seriously. And the idea that sending them back would undermine Putin (“removing as many sensible Russians as possible from Russia helps Putin stabilize his rule”) doesn’t wash either. Russia isn’t a few international students away from regime change; in fact, if they were as sympathetic to Putin and the invasion as Corey seems to believe elsewhere in his argument, their return would bolster Putin, if anything. In fairness, this is a contradiction in Corey’s line of thought glaring enough to suggest he actually isn’t quite sure what he believes; it might be unkind here to hold him to the standard of coherence. In any case, students in Russia of any political persuasion now stand a chance of being illegally conscripted to kill Ukranians, and beyond that, entertaining the expulsion of Russians here as a proposal has obvious propaganda value for the invasion’s supporters, who’ve been set on convincing Russians the world hates them for being Russian ⁠— mistreating them whether or not they actually support Putin seems like a poor incentive to speak out and oppose him.

Saying all this felt like stating the obvious last year and it still does now; I don’t think the reasoning above is beyond anybody willing to take thirty seconds to think through this issue with a clear head. The first few weeks after the invasion were a bizarre and troubling time in political discourse, but most Democrats had the good sense not to back Swalwell’s proposal, which makes Corey’s contention that I’d opposed it out of animus towards the party silly ⁠— my position is the Democratic position. And I wrote that piece not to blame Democrats as a whole for Swalwell and Gallego’s jingoism, but to warn them against following suit, not just on this particular issue, but wherever some might see a strategic advantage in embracing xenophobia ⁠— as I think I’ve written previously, I’m particularly concerned with some of the rhetoric about China we’ve seen in recent Democratic campaigns. The dangers there are made particularly acute by people like Corey, who stand ready to defend members of the party from left-wing critics no matter what they do or say.

A Song

“Shout to the Top!” ⁠— The Style Council (1984)