There’s a good thread here, on how Russian prisons work. Go read it, and come back.

Now, I’ve never in been in prison, but I grew up in boarding school and I was near the bottom of the hierarchy most of the time I was there. I’ve also spent time in poverty in rough neighbourhoods and jobs, in which I was not near the bottom of the hierarchy, because I learned my lesson.

One of the best memories of my life is the day someone tried to push me around (reasonably, if you live in this ethos, I had been a coward and was known as one), and I realized I didn’t care how much I got hurt, but I was going to hurt him. My life got a lot better after that day.

At its simplest, the rules are as follows:

1) You must be willing to fight rather than be pushed around, even if you know you’ll lose.

2) Your word must be good: If you say you’ll do something, you always do it.

3) You protect your allies and friends. Again, even in fights you’ll lose, because if you don’t, you won’t have any allies or friends.

4) If you one of yours gets hurt or taken out, you do the same to one of theirs, and often, more than one of theirs.

The movie the Untouchables had Sean Connery state this ethos simply. It’s 15 second, watch it.

This is why I have said that, even though I think the Baltic states, for example, should never have been let into NATO, if Russia attacks them I support war, and if it goes nuclear, so be it.

It is at the emotional core of much of the disagreement over how far the West should go to help Ukraine. Ukraine was not in NATO. It was not in the EU. But for many Europeans and whites, Ukraine parses emotionally as “one of us.” And you don’t let one of us swing.

We didn’t give our word to protect Ukraine and I’m not willing to risk nuclear war over it. Others, feeling more of an emotive tie, are. This is also one reason why, during NATO expansion, so many people said something like, “Are Americans/Europeans/We really willing to die for the Baltic Republics or Poland (or Ukraine)?” What they were trying to say is that expanding an alliance to people we really weren’t willing to die for weakens the alliance, because what makes a defensive alliance work is that there’s no question that fucking with one of you means all of you jump in.

If you make that promise for someone for whom you’re not really willing to get the shit kicked out of you (or to die), and then you don’t keep the promise, even former members of your group, who were solid before, start becoming unreliable. “If they didn’t step up for Lithuania, will they die for me?” thinks Germany.

Next thing you know, your alliance is broken. This is why Russian requests to kick members out of NATO were a non-starter*: Once they’re in, kicking them out means threats can break our alliance. To others, the implication that Russia would get a veto over Ukraine was too far, for the same emotional logic. (Emotional logic is real logic, humans run on emotion, not reason.)

Note, however, that the code of honor also includes “keep your word.” NATO expanded, though it promised the Russians it wouldn’t. We broke our given word. When they asked us to remove most of the new NATO members, they too were acting on the code of honor: You said you’d do X, and you didn’t. Make it good, or else. When someone breaks their word to you, they must either make it good or be punished.

This puts us in a bind. We did break our word, but having accepted new members into NATO, we can’t kick any out without risking the entire alliance. This is one reason why we should never have expanded NATO.

We gave our word, and we broke it. There were bound to be consequences.

This is one reason why smart people have always opposed the US and its allies breaking the international laws they enforce on other people. The law is supposed to apply to everyone. Once people realize your word is bad, that it doesn’t apply to you, they not only despise you, they will certainly come to see no reason to keep your rules, because those rules are just a form of force. You’ve said, “We can do it, because we’re powerful and you can’t.”

And they say, “No, fuck you.”

So, when the West created the new country of Kosovo, despite the notion that borders are supposed to be inviolate, Russians were angered. So they started doing the same thing, over and over again. North and South Ossetia, Crimea, Ukraine. Because to not do it when the powerful do, is to show weakness.

This is also why Russia did not, and will not, give into sanctions. Even if sanctions hurt them more than the West, they still hurt the West. To give in is to submit to inferior status, to say, “You can do what you want to me and I’ll just take it.”

And, this is why Ukrainians are fighting hard. “Okay, fine, but we’re going to make you pay.”

The problem with all of this is that “honor societies,” let alone mafia societies (which is what Russia is, internally), suck to live in. They are horrid places. Russian prisons (and American prisons have a similar dynamic) are some of the worst places in the world. Even if you’re at the top, you’re never free of threat or fear.

Most of the good part of civilization is getting rid of this logic. It is why weregild was introduced, where, if you kill someone, you pay a fee to their relatives, in order to avoid the murder devolving into a blood feud, into the “Chicago Way.” Because if they put one of yours in the hospital, and you then put one in the morgue, well, they then have to put two in the morgue. You scare people with torture and rape and you kill their women and children, if the society gets sick enough.

Societies that live like this have a very hard time advancing, because they’re armed camps. They can only advance when a great tyrant or group arises who can say, “You all belong to me, and only I get to kill people” — and they have to make that stick. This is, sadly, most of what civilization has been. “I get to hurt people, and no one else does.”

To live in a good society, where the weak aren’t treated terribly (and the weak are often, y’know, the scientists and artists and all the people who make the world worth living in), and where even the strong are not in fear all the time, means getting out of this trap.

To do so, you start by treating everyone equally, and by keeping your own laws. If you say someone else can’t do it, you can’t do it either. This makes people trust you, and in time, trust each other. If you move from the rule of a tyrant to the rule of a group that enforces fair and equal rules, then you move into a place of trust. Fear goes down and down, and the society or civilization becomes a better and better place to live.

But unless there is only one society or group, there are always outgroups and the fear of what they do. Things like international law were attempts to make only group, one set of rules, and so on. In practice, the problem has been twofold. First, international law has been obeyed only by the weak — except when the strong have made a law it’s not in in their short term interest to break. The second is that some groups, for example the Chinese, weren’t allowed to meaningfully participate in making the rules. (Heck, in some ways, even Europe wasn’t. The US controlled half the world’s industry, and they made the rules.)

To create a good society, the powerful have to look to the long-term interest; they have to obey rules that are not in their short-term interest. If they are known to obey their own rules and to make fair rules, they are trusted by others and therefore, much safer.

The tweeter in the thread at the beginning of this post said that asking China to intervene with Russia was crazy, because we think they’re our enemies. But, while there are wrongs on both sides, we’re the ones who sanctioned them in order to cripple their largest tech company. We did that in part (this is the DC view) because they were breaking the rules of the international order, but they don’t regard those rules as fair or see that we are bound by those rules.

And so on.

The last important point is that this stuff is at the heart of the pathology of choosing really evil leaders. We often judge how a leader will protect us from outsiders based on how he treats insiders: Is he a mean bastard? One problem is that a mean bastard will spend most of his time ruling you, not fighting outsiders. The next problem is that if the leader has insiders, they aren’t you. Biden is a lovely father and a great boss, by all accounts. But you aren’t his son, his friend, or his employee. You’re an outsider, and to you he will be a bastard.

All of this emotion comprises the trap in which we find ourselves, as a species. We have to pick good leaders, who are kind and fair to people who aren’t in their group, and yet, are able to defend our group. Corbyn, for example, was not this. He was kind and fair and lovely and would not even attack people who were his enemies.

FDR, on the other hand, was more or less this — if you were white (he was a racist). He cared about all white Americans, but not really about blacks, and he hated the Japanese (the one ethnic group he did like was Chinese).

To live in a good society, we must make rules that are fair to everyone, and everyone must respect them. Rules that are ignored by both the leaders and the powerful destroy civilizations and lead to eras of internal and external war. Society must work for everyone, or it will eventually work for no one, and this includes global society.

We have chosen not to respect our own principles and laws and to create laws and principles that are not good for everyone who tries to operate in good faith. As a result, our societies are rotting from the inside, and on the outside, we are slouching towards multiple possible armageddons.

Be fair, be just, be tough, and be kind, or soon, there may be no humans left to be any of these things.

Correction: Commenter Dorian notes and is right: Point of order – it was never a Russian demand that NATO literally kick any countries out of NATO. Rather, it was that all NATO members pre-1997 expansion remove their forces from post-1997 expansion countries. The post-1997 expansion countries would still have the benefit of NATO membership and security guarantees, they just couldn’t be used as a base for foreign military infrastructure and troops.