(Culture) War Fever
I suppose it's just a feature of my advanced age, but often when I find myself thinking "I've never seen anything like this before," it only takes a moment for me to realize that I have, actually, seen something very much like it. The current round of anti-Russian fever has produced exactly that train of thought. Twenty years ago there was a similar fervor in favor of invading Afghanistan and Iraq; thirty years ago for going to war with Iraq over Kuwait; when I was young the necessity of fighting communism in Vietnam. None of those ventures turned out very well, and I suppose it's at least a sliver of silver in the dark cloud that Russia's possession of nuclear weapons is probably the only reason that American soldiers are not now dying in Ukraine. Which, it should be obvious, is not to say that Ukraine does not deserve our help: Russia's invasion is an abominable crime, for which Vladimir Putin will probably pay dearly, in the next life if not this one. And the Russian people have already begun to suffer for it.
This fever is much like that which took hold of much of this nation after 9/11. That, too, was understandable and to some degree justified. But it led to a series of military ventures in the Middle East that almost everyone now sees as having been anywhere from mistaken and misguided to disastrous to criminal. Physical warfare being off the table for the U.S., the fever now expresses itself mostly in talk and gestures.
By "the fever" I don't mean the impulse that drives the many admirable humanitarian impulses, from the special collection at my parish to those who actually go to the war zone and care for the wounded and assist the refugees, and whom I regard with respect bordering on awe. I don't even mean the hardly helpful symbolic gestures, like putting the Ukrainian flag on your social media profile. I don't go in for that sort of thing myself, partly out of a constitutional aversion to hopping on bandwagons, but they're well-intentioned and harmless, at worst a form of virtue signaling. Well, mostly harmless, as the aliens in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy concluded about our planet and species--because the fever is not harmless.
By "the fever" I do mean the fiery passions of hatred for the enemy and of certainty that one's own cause is absolutely good and the other absolutely evil, passions which incinerate good sense and prudence, cause one to actively desire war, and make any contrary view, any awareness of ambiguity, any reservation about the purity of the cause, seem an act of disloyalty if not treason, and evidence of sympathy for evil.
What's strikingly different about the current fever is that so many on the left have it. Some on the right are caught up in it, as they were about the Iraq war, but these seem to be mostly in the Republican establishment, which is by no stretch identifiable with "the right" at large. Mitt Romney, for instance, denounced former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard as speaking "treasonous lies" because she pointed out, truthfully as far as I know, the existence of biological research labs in Ukraine and the possible danger posed by them.
And the neoconservative hawks of twenty years ago, propelled by detestation of Trump, have either distanced themselves from the rest of the right or gone over more or less completely to the other side of the great political divide. They never much liked religious conservatives anyway, and they hated the Pat Buchanan school of anti-interventionist conservatism (see that infamous National Review piece by David Frum).
Many on the right have grown disenchanted, to say the least, with our government's willingness to use military power for ill-defined, arrogant, and generally futile efforts to bring democracy and freedom to the rest of the world. I include myself among these. I was never willing either to defend entirely or to denounce entirely the Iraq war and our long engagement in Afghanistan. I hoped they would succeed, and that peace and freedom would flower in the Middle East. But after enormous levels of destruction and death, the region remains an unstable mess. Our wars were clearly not just a failure but a disastrous, destructive failure. I'm now of more or less of the same mind as those who describe their position with the phrase used by The American Conservative: realism and restraint. In practical terms that means a view which has something in common with that of the anti-war left. Now, strangely, it is the object of fury on the part of much of the left.
The upper-class left, the gentry left, whatever it should be called--the leftism of the Democratic Party, the dominant media, academia, the entertainment industry--has contracted the fever in a big way. (From what I can see, the old school, hardcore, actually communist left has not.) Like almost everything, the Ukraine war has been made an issue in the culture war. Perhaps the fever is even in part produced by the culture war. Peter Savodnick, writing at Bari Weiss's Substack site, makes a case for that. He describes a 2019 gathering of Democratic congressmen and wealthy Hollywood donors. The congressmen wanted to talk about issues, but the Hollywood people, believing that Russia was responsible for Trump's presidency, wanted to talk about
...trans rights and the climate apocalypse. And Russia. There was a lot of talk about Russia.....
Then came February 2022. The Russia haters claimed that they hated Russia because Russia had attacked Ukraine, but that was incorrect. In 2014, the last time Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russia haters were silent. In 2004, during the Orange Revolution, when Ukrainians revolted against the Russian-backed puppet regime in Kyiv—same thing. The important thing was what came in between now and eight years ago: the 2016 election. The Russophobia was an extension of our domestic politics. It was not a thoughtful hate but an automatic reaction to whatever one’s political foe said or did.
In early 2022, hating Russia, which is the flip side of loving Ukraine, is like brandishing one’s pronouns and triple-masking: it has become a way of signaling that one believed whatever one was supposed to believe right now.
The gentry left has made Russia the object of a campaign of absolute unqualified vilification, the sort of thing which they called xenophobia and Islamophobia when it was directed against Islamic countries and cultures. Strangely excessive anti-Russian reactions are happening, like the dismissal of Russian musicians from orchestras and theaters. An acquaintance of mine, a musician and academic of more or less progressive political views, was called a "fascist stooge" for questioning the firing of Russian soprano Anna Netrebko by the Metropolitan Opera.
Totally forgotten are the many instances of cooperation with Russia by Democrats: Hillary Clinton's absurd "reset" button, Obama's juvenile "the 1980s called" mockery of Mitt Romney's warning that Russia is not our friend, his sneaky "I'll have more flexibility after the election," the Clinton Foundation's financial connections to Russia, and so on. And if you search for something like "Ukraine far right 2014" you'll find a great many articles from the left-leaning press warning about the influence of the far right on the Ukrainian government. All that might as well be down the memory hole as far as current rhetoric is concerned.
Since the R&R conservatives have not contracted the fever, and because they are the enemy in the culture war, their questioning of the straightforward good vs. evil narrative is vigorously attacked. They are asking questions that in previous situations have been considered important, even essential, but now are forbidden. To ask them, to say that our policies and actions probably helped to create the situation, to question the purity of the Ukrainian government's aims and actions, to attempt to grasp the Russian point of view, to say that Putin has ever been right about anything whatsoever, is to be called a "Putin shill."
I keep seeing the claim that "the right" is pro-Putin, pro-Russia, etc. Those voices may exist, but I read a lot of conservative journalism and have never encountered anything that could reasonably be described that way. The qualifier "reasonably" is necessary, of course. (Tucker Carlson is frequently mentioned in this respect, but as I don't watch television news I don't know whether that's fair or not.) There is certainly some partisan equal-and-opposite-reaction, but I suppose the invasion is too self-evidently wrong to support much active favor toward Russia.
The culture war has done what modern wars do: reduced the battleground to a shattered ruin. One thing we should have learned from our recent attempts to export democracy is that democracy is far more than rules and institutions. It's a whole culture, and our rules and institutions can't survive the descent of our culture into tribal hatreds. What is happening in Ukraine is terrible but it is not a direct threat to us. But Biden, along with many, is engaging in the sort of rhetoric used by the proponents of the "Global War On Terror": "We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom."
No, we aren't. We're helping a small nation resist conquest by an aggressor. Isn't that a noble enough cause? The American propensity to cast every conflict as a quasi-divinely mandated crusade is unhealthy, to say the least. It is not our job to maintain and advance democracy anywhere and everywhere, or to expect, much less to demand, that the whole world implement our idea of freedom. We don't even agree on what those words mean anymore. The threat to us comes from within. And it is dire.