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Home/Rod Dreher/Barstool Jingoism In Our Time

Barstool Jingoism In Our Time

Procession in Ukraine, photographed by Antonio Garcia Martinez on his recent trip there (AGM tweet)

I like Antonio Garcia Martinez personally, and I usually like his writing, but his new piece for Bari Weiss’s Substack, titled, “Why Does Tucker Carlson Sound Like A Berkeley Leftist?”, is just shallow and silly, and way beneath the high standards of that blog. It starts like this:

In the Before Times, prior to Twitter and #BLM and Critical Race Theory, the one wing of the political spectrum that was reliably “America, love it or leave it!” levels of patriotic was the right. The most traditional and curmudgeonly conservatives, grumps like William F. Buckley and George F. Will who harrumphed glumly about the world in National Review, were also the most absolutely pie-eyed patriots. America was an exceptional and indispensable nation—in the words of Ronald Reagan, “the last, best hope of humanity . . . a light unto the nations.”

One of the post-woke political realignments that’s happened in the United States is the emergence of a New Right. This new movement—Trumpian in its isolationist America First attitude and deeply cynical about the country’s ability to act competently in the world—spans everyone from Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson to religious conservatives like Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule and the author Rod Dreher. Either more overtly (in the case of Bannon), or more implicitly in the case of religious conservatives who hold up countries like Hungary or Russia as aspirational, this emergent ideology breaks with the Reagan-style, small-government conservatism of the past 40 years.

One fascinating aspect of this New Right is that it shares a worldview with, of all things, the old hippie left. Two core tenets of New Right ideology are now:

The United States is incapable of doing good in the world, and historically has been a force for evil worldwide.

Everything that happens in the world is the direct result or responsibility of the United States.

The Ukraine situation makes this unlikely contradiction even more evident. The Putin fans among the New Right—in temporary retreat, currently sublimating their views as Ukraine skepticism—really think Russia some anti-woke exemplar worthy of imitation. Never mind that the church-attendance rate in Russia is far lower than the U.S., their birth-rate as low as any childless European country, and their abortion rate one of the highest in the world. Seen from the “trad” conservative perspective at least, Russia suffers from all the ills of post-modernity even more than the supposedly degenerate West.

AGM goes on to say that he went to the Poland-Ukraine border and stood with refugees, and that convinced him that people like his imaginary “New Right” America-haters are wrong and ought to shut up.

Where to even start with this? I don’t read Vermeule, and I don’t know what Steve Bannon believes, but I’m pretty sure that Tucker does not believe that the US is incapable of doing good in the world, and historically has been a force for evil worldwide, or that America is at fault for everything that happens in the world. I know I don’t. This is college-newspaper and talk-radio level dopiness that doesn’t even begin to deal with the actual critiques that some of us on the Right have made of the US in this situation. He went all the way to Ukraine to write that?

Again, I can’t and won’t speak for Vermeule or Bannon, and can’t really speak for Carlson, because I don’t watch him every night, but I’ll speak for myself and generally for the viewpoint AGM lazily attempts to criticize here.

Who are these Putin fans on the “New Right”? Certainly not me. As I recall, the only time I’ve praised him is for his entirely sensible take on gender ideology. Nearly every time I’ve written about Russia’s war on Ukraine, I have condemned it, and expressed the hope that Ukraine will repel the Russian invaders. It is true that there are some people on the Right who have been more enthusiastic about Putin — Italy’s Matteo Salvini for one — but I can’t come up with any right-wing Americans, with the possible exception of Bannon, who have praised him in general.

And nobody has held up Russia as a model for America. Where is he getting this? I’m a big proponent of Hungary, as you know, but I have said clearly that Hungary is a very different country from the US, demographically and historically, and all the things that work in Hungary aren’t suited for the United States. I have praised certain aspects of PM Viktor Orban’s governance — both in style and in policy — and have said that the GOP should take a look at them and figure out how to make them work in an American context. But it’s half-ass and inaccurate to claim that I or anyone else wants to create a carbon copy of Hungary in the United States. This is as lazy as conservatives who claim that people on the American Left who find things to admire about Scandinavian social democracy want to import it entirely to America.

AGM seems shocked that Reagan-style conservatism is outdated on the Right. Where has he been the last five years? And what is this business about claiming that the New Right believes these two things?:

The United States is incapable of doing good in the world, and historically has been a force for evil worldwide.

Everything that happens in the world is the direct result or responsibility of the United States.

Nobody believes either thing. They really don’t. This is a low-rent way of dismissing substantive criticism about America’s mistakes in Eastern Europe (and elsewhere), and its role in the world today. If AGM thinks that the United States’ policy towards Ukraine since the fall of Soviet communism has been sensible and correct, fine; he should defend it. This seems, though, like a layabout’s attempt to shoot down the Mearsheimer argument. It reminds me of an argument I had back in my college days in the 1980s, with the elderly left-wing mother of a friend. The old woman had recently returned from a “peace cruise” in the Soviet Union, and was full of praise for the Russian regime. At the time I was involved with my campus chapter of Amnesty International, and had been advocating on behalf of Russian political prisoners. When I brought their cases up with her, the old woman became instantly exasperated, and said, “I think you just hate the Soviet people.” Case closed.

This is the line that chaps my backside:

The Putin fans among the New Right—in temporary retreat, currently sublimating their views as Ukraine skepticism…

The cheapest shot in a piece full of cheap shots. This is a classic example of the kind of thing I’ve heard lots of people at NatCon Brussels complaining about: that Russia ultra-hawks make it impossible to have any kind of nuanced discussion about the complexities of the Ukraine situation, because they denounce anything short of maximalism as closet pro-Putinism, or, as here, sublimated Putinophilia. I mentioned in an earlier post today a conversation one friend here had with a Pole who said, in all seriousness, that maybe nuclear war would be tolerable if Russia could once and for all be put in its place. Totally serious about this. I haven’t met a single person at this conference who has taken Russia’s side in this conflict. Everyone here, as far as I can tell, supports Ukraine. But boy, are people tired of being told that they’re letting down the side because they don’t want to expand the war, or get NATO involved.

It’s hard to believe that AGM, who is usually a much better thinker than this, went all the way to Ukraine to write this shoddy piece. He could have just moseyed down to his local barstool. Seems like he traveled over there, came to admire the Ukrainians and to identify with their cause, and now feels entitled to smear anyone who doesn’t share his enthusiasm. This longer reported piece of his from Ukraine is truer to his customarily good form. I can’t account for why Bari Weiss published such a flimsy piece on her usually-excellent site. The war sure has done a number on a lot of people’s minds.

UPDATE: AGM has responded via Twitter. I’ll reproduce his response below. Let me start out by saying that I don’t regard this as a personal dispute. I continue to like and admire AGM! It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but it is, because many people assume that if you fall out on Twitter, you must HATE the other person. Pffft!

Anyway, here we go:

For the record, I don’t think one has to live in another country to admire it, its people, and the policies of its government. I am a huge Francophile, for example, but I have never lived in France.

Huh? I praised Putin’s take on pronouns long before the war started. If Xi Jinping praised mom and apple pie, I would credit him for that too. I only brought the Putin/pronouns thing up in the context of war to acknowledge that I have found things about Putin praiseworthy in the past, and don’t walk away from those things. The fact that Putin has launched a cruel and unjust war on Ukraine does not negate his common sense about gender ideology. That fact that Putin is right about gender ideology, and Joe Biden (say) is wrong, does not justify Russia’s war. Only in the frazzled minds of partisans does any of that make sense.

Oh, come on. You can’t falsely call a guy an America-hating Putin lover, and publish it on a huge online platform, then say, “Hey, it was just a short piece based on a Twitter thread, what’s the big deal?”

But AGM’s original allegation was not that I call the US foreign policy response “deeply flawed.” It was this:

The United States is incapable of doing good in the world, and historically has been a force for evil worldwide.

Everything that happens in the world is the direct result or responsibility of the United States.

Words mean things. In fact, I believe the US has been on balance a force for good in the world, but in recent decades — at least since 9/11 — has done bad things, probably inadvertently. Over and over again, in writing in this space about the Ukraine war, I have said that the US and NATO bear some responsibility for what has happened, but that ultimately, it was Russia’s decision to send Russian forces across the border. Again, it is possible to hold Russia responsible for its criminal action, but at the same time to recognize that strategic foreign policy blunders on our part played a role in bringing this situation about. I could be wrong about that, but surely it is not illegitimate to explore these possibilities, if only so we can learn from our mistakes. This is called thinking, not emoting. I would like to think that AGM doesn’t hold the converse to be true: that the US is incapable of doing wrong in the world, and that the US bears no responsibility for events in the world (unless, of course, things turn out for the best, and the US gets to take credit).

 

Well, I agree. Ukraine is not a holy innocent among the nations, but it is the victim of Russian aggression. Russian troops ought to turn around and go home. But I have always said that, from the first day of the war. Maybe AGM did not read my writing before he slammed me as an America-Hating Putin Lover (AHPL). It’s no crime not to read what I write, but if you are going to make that kind of slanderous claim about someone, especially a friend, you need to understand what you are talking about. If AGM agrees that “there is an absolutely valid debate to be had about to what degree the US/West should aid the Ukrainians,” why did he include me in his sweeping denunciations of AHPLs? To repeat, it seems to me that a number of pro-Ukraine partisans are very quick to condemn as Russian stooges people who don’t share their rabid enthusiasm for expanding the war. This is not only factually incorrect, it’s morally wrong.

“Suddenly so isolationist”? Dude, The American Conservative, the magazine for which I write, was founded in opposition to the Iraq War! TAC has been publishing essays for twenty years arguing for realism and restraint in foreign policy. We’re not “isolationist” (another smear that neocons and neolibs use to dismiss our arguments), but we do believe that the US has been far too quick to rush into war, and that the interests of the US would be better served by realism and restraint in foreign and defense policy matters. AGM doesn’t seem to understand the factions on the Right very well. We on the Realism & Restraint Right cheered when Donald Trump denounced the Iraq War as a mistake from the stage of the 2016 GOP primary debate in South Carolina. The audience booed him, but we thought it was great that a major GOP candidate (read: not Ron Paul) finally admitted publicly what was obviously true to any but the most diehard neocons.

But even assuming that AGM’s claim here is true, wouldn’t the answer be obvious? Russia has nuclear weapons. Russia is not Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya. One doesn’t charge mindlessly into war with a nuclear-armed nation, because the costs could be annihilation of the entire human race.

The map was indeed too optimistic (from a Russian point of view), but it had been shared with me by a foreign-policy expert who is not pro-Russian. Nevertheless, I wish I hadn’t shared it, just as I wish I hadn’t shared Ukraine propaganda (the Snake Island story). I decided a couple of weeks ago to stop sharing stories that I wasn’t confident were true, because I don’t want to inadvertently share propaganda. Both sides are engaged in propaganda. It is more pleasant to believe Ukrainian propaganda, but doing so makes the US more vulnerable to making mistakes.

 

Oh boy. Once again, I can’t speak for everyone who falls under AGM’s umbrella of condemnation, but I have repeatedly said that World War III would start if NATO declared a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Why? Because it would involve NATO and Russian aircraft firing on each other. Also, for those who keep bleating, “What’s going to be enough for you people to stop Russia? If not in Ukraine, then where?!” Well, if Russia attacked a NATO country, that would be a clear red line. Ukraine is not in NATO. Treaties matter. I know war enthusiasts don’t like to hear it, but they do.

Second, the point of my snarky remark was that AGM really did travel to Ukraine, but came away with a take that was worthy of a barstool (“Those people who are against joining this war against Russia are a bunch of America-hating Putin lovers!”). Having traveled to the refugee zone is commendable and maybe even brave — but it doesn’t make one’s judgments correct.

To pick an area where I am vulnerable to being driven by my emotions: if I spent time with survivors of child sexual abuse (clerical and otherwise), I would favor raising a vigilante mob to go in, grab the abusers by the scruff of their necks, take them out to a field, and shoot them. This is precisely why you should never put someone like me on a jury judging a case involving the sexual abuse (or any abuse) of children. I sympathize far too strongly to be able to render a prudent judgment on these cases. This is not to say that abusers of children deserve sympathy; I don’t believe they do. But it is to say that my passions in these cases — my rage at the abuse and abusers — clouds my judgment. I don’t want to live in a society in which vigilante justice overtakes the rule of law, nor do I want to live in a society that has the death penalty (despite believing with every fiber of my being that child abusers deserve death). I don’t want to live in that kind of society because I know how flawed human judgment can be, especially when it is driven by emotion. AGM should watch Twelve Angry Men, and reflect on how its lesson can be applied to discussions of war and peace.

That’s because I believe he went to Ukraine, felt sorry for its people (as he should have done!), and now wants to defend them. That is at some level admirable; we should in most cases want to defend the weak against the strong. But this Russia-Ukraine situation is not so simple, and mostly (but not only) because Russia has nuclear weapons. People who diminish this fact are behaving recklessly. No, this doesn’t give Russia carte blanche to do what it wants to do to its neighbors, and yes, if Russia attacks a NATO country, we are treaty-bound to defend it, despite the risk of nuclear war. But Ukraine is not in NATO! Russia’s abuse of Ukraine is wretched, but given the nuclear weapons factor, it is too risky to go to war with Russia to repel its troops. That’s simply an unhappy fact of life.

As others have pointed out, Hungarians were really angry at the West for not coming to their aid when they rebelled against Soviet occupation in 1956. I am quite sure that had I been on the streets of Budapest then, I would have been writing dispatches urging Western military involvement to defend the Hungarian freedom fighters. So it pains me to say that in retrospect, Eisenhower was correct not to risk nuclear war then. Because he didn’t, there is a Hungary today, and an America too. Again, there are times when we have no choice but to take that risk; the Cuban Missile Crisis was one of those times. But these instances must be rare, exceedingly rare, because of the potential costs to the world. The US had a vital national interest in preventing the Soviets from putting missiles in Cuba. At this point, I do not think we have a vital national interest in entering the war to protect Ukraine from unjust Russian aggression. And it doesn’t make me an America-hating Putin lover to say so. In fact, because I love my country, I am sick and tired of seeing her soldiers committed to overseas conflicts by war-loving Washington politicians and the media class that encourage them.

UPDATE.2: Thought about this on the flight back to Budapest. When AGM says, tauntingly, “I think some reality would do them good,” I hear my own voice circa 2002, sniping at people who said America shouldn’t go to war with Iraq.

Oh yeah? said I at the time. Why don’t you come down to Ground Zero and say that? Have you ever smelled burning human flesh? I have, coming out of the Hole. I saw the South Tower fall in front of my eyes. You antiwar people have no idea what this is about.

It was true: I saw 9/11 happen with my own eyes. I smelled the burning human flesh. I went to firefighters’ funerals. I did it all as a New Yorker back then. Did it help my judgment about the war? No — if anything, it harmed it, because I didn’t have enough emotional distance from the human agony caused by the 9/11 terrorists to think clearly about what America’s response should be. But boy, I sure did feel satisfied with myself, and dismissive of the arguments of Those Who Weren’t There Dealing With Reality.

UPDATE.3:
AGM accused me in that piece of relying on Russia propaganda by retweeting that map. Well, here’s a fresh map from the French military, which looks pretty much like that other one:

And here’s an interesting map tweeted out by the former French ambassador to the US:

It shows that this conflict is the West against Russia (Japan is Western-aligned). Interesting… .

And Araud, whose Twitter account is strongly pro-Ukraine, tweeted this caution too:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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