The Hate-Russians Moral Panic
The war in Ukraine started only a week ago, and already we in the West are succumbing to anti-Russian hysteria that is both disgusting and frightening. I thought that most of us understood that it is possible to despise a government’s actions while not demonizing all the people of a country. I thought most of us in the enlightened West knew that collective guilt is a terrible thing.
I was wrong.
Look at this monstrous tweet from Obama’s ambassador to Moscow:
McFaul was so heavily criticized from all corners for this tweet that he eventually took it down. Good for him, but think about it: this man was the US ambassador to Russia, and this is how he thinks.
He’s not alone. People are deranged by hatred. Look, I completely get the anger at the Russian government for this unjust and cruel war. I share it! I also believe that Russia should be severely sanctioned. But there are some stupid, frightening things happening.
In Munich, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was fired by the Munich Philharmonic for refusing to denounce Putin’s invasion:
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was issued with an ultimatum by Dieter Reiter, the mayor of Munich. If he refused to denounce the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he would be removed from his position as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic.
Gergiev’s dismissal from the orchestra comes after he was dropped by his management and removed from several concert and festival line-ups following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. His longstanding support of Putin and refusal to denounce the regime has led to his dismissal as music director of the Verbier Festival Orchestra and the cancellation of appearances with the Metropolitan Opera and Vienna Philharmonic and concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Lucerne Festival, among others.
The decision has been made by the Munich Philharmonic to remove Gergiev from his post three years before his contract was set to expire. He has held the position since 2015.
That is appalling. It is wrong to put a man in the position of denouncing the leader of his country when his country is at war, and he is in a foreign country, as a condition of his employment. I know nothing about Gergiev, and I find his reported support for Putin distasteful, but as longtime readers know, I strongly believe there should be a bright, clear line between an artist and his or her political commitments. Artists, musicians, and other creative people often believe foolish and extreme things. That does not mean that they are bad artists. We should not want to live in a society in which artists can be fired because they refuse to endorse a political statement. I wish Gergiev would denounce the war too, and denounce Putin, but I find it appalling that he was forced out of his job not because of anything he said, but because of what he refused under pressure to say.
By the way, Gergiev has also been banned from conducting at La Scala in Milan, for the same reason. Also in Milan, a university in Milan cancelled a course on Dostoevsky.Paolo Nori, a Dostoevsky scholar who was to teach the course, read the letter on Instagram informing him that it was off:
“Dear professor, this morning the Vice Rector for Didactics informed me of the decision taken with the rector to postpone the journey on Dostoevsky. The aim is to avoid any form of controversy, especially internal as it is a moment of strong tension.”
Yes, because that’s what university life is for: avoiding any form of controversy. The university was dogpiled on social media, and reversed course.
In the Czech Republic, the chief law enforcement officer said that if a Czech citizen publicly expresses support for Russia’s war on Ukraine, he could be charged with a felony and sent to prison. Think about that. Prison for simply saying that you back Russia in this war — a war which does not even involve your country! The EU punishes Hungary for far, far less.
The Glasgow Film Festival abruptly cancelled the screening of two Russian films:
Unbelievable! The film festival directors admit that this has nothing to do with the filmmakers and their views. The Stockholm Film Festival has followed suit. Gutless, anti-intellectual, anti-art. The West didn’t do this to Andrei Tarkovsky and other Soviet filmmakers during the Cold War, when the USSR was a savage dictatorship. But now, we do. I endorse this response to Glasgow:
Contemporary liberals are simultaneously the most bigoted and mind-numbingly boring people imaginable. If you find yourself sympathetic to this kind of stuff I genuinely question whether you could ever truly appreciate a single poem.
— JJ (@smalwigwamlight) March 2, 2022
The Financial Times reports that PR firms are abandoning Russian clients. One anonymous PR executive said:
“It’s become impossible. Unless they publicly criticise the war in the Ukraine then it’s very difficult to see how you could represent them.”
Another unnamed PR exec remarked:
“There is no nuance right now. Working with anyone from Russia feels toxic.”
Feels toxic. Because they’re Russian. So you drop them, because they’re Russian, and the Russians are all BAD PEOPLE. After all, as Ambassador McFaul said, there are no innocent Russians.
It’s sickening. Glenn Greenwald is right:
Look at how often now we are told that crises are so severe and dangerous that we simply must accept centralized censorship for our own good: Russiagate, 1/6, COVID, now this. Just an endless training course in acquiescing to having information curtailed:https://t.co/qDLYbxHXDN
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) March 2, 2022
I feel this quite personally, not only because I’m a writer, but also because I’m the writer of Live Not By Lies, which is about how to keep your integrity when those in power persecute you for what you believe, and what you say, or refuse to say. I took to heart what I was taught about the importance of defending free speech, even when it’s speech we dislike. And I am absolutely certain that the same liberals who are throwing their weight around like this against Russians, simply for being Russian, or for being the wrong kind of Russian, are eventually going to do the very same thing to conservative, Christians, and other deplorables.
This kind of thing is not contemporary. It has always been around. When the US got involved in World War I, Germans and German-Americans were heavily stigmatized. Antiwar protester Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist, was jailed over his dissent, much to America’s shame. This kind of thing is in our nature. But I’m old enough to remember when liberals led the principled opposition to this kind of thing. Now, everything has flipped. We’ve lived with cancel culture long enough that silencing dissent and driving people who hold unpopular opinions out of public life has become the normal reaction, I guess.
Shame on us. Shame! I also feel strongly about this because a hyper-liberal friend of forty years cut me and my family off permanently with a text message after she read a letter to the editor I wrote defending Louisiana US Sen. Bill Cassidy’s vote to impeach Donald Trump after the January 6 event. What she objected to was that in the letter — a letter in which I said that Donald Trump deserved impeachment — I wrote that Trump had some accomplishments to his name, but none of them were sufficient to overcome his shocking behavior on January 6. For my ex-friend, the fact that I didn’t despise Trump with enough purity of heart was enough for her to end a four-decade friendship. This is what the dominant strand of Leftism in the West has become: crudely censorious, bigoted, and a menace to liberty.
Back in the early 2000s, liberals correctly jeered at right-wing yahooism over “Freedom fries,” trashing the Dixie Chicks, and pouring French wine down the drain to protest France’s refusal to join the US attack on Iraq. Now they’re as bad or worse about Russia.
I’m writing tonight from Madrid, where I arrived this evening for an all-day university conference tomorrow. This conference has been scheduled for a long time. There are two Russian academics on the schedule to talk about the relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity. I hope they were able to make it here. I’m going to make a point to find them as soon as I can and let them know that whatever their view of the war is, I appreciate their presence, and look forward to hearing what they have to say about religion. The thought that these two scholars might now be afraid to show their faces amid this anti-Russian mob hysteria disgusts me, and I’ll be damned if I’ll stand for it.
Last week when I was in Debrecen, a Hungarian provincial city, talking to college students about wokeness, I was heartened to see and hear from these kids that they don’t understand why their generation in America is so intolerant. This was a group of nineteen young men and women, all with diverse political and religious views (I polled the class to find out). I told them that whether they were liberal or conservative, religious or atheist, they had a moral duty to defend the right of all people to be heard — especially if they disagreed with a person under fire for his or her views. We in America used to be a country where most people, especially educated people, believed in that principle. But we lost it, and that’s why we’re losing our country.
Defending Ukraine from Russian aggression does not require you to despise Russian art and culture, or to hate all Russians and treat them like lepers. I can understand someone in Ukraine succumbing to that kind of passion under such extreme circumstances — but what’s our excuse? The pleasure of hating indiscriminately?
Back in November, at the National Conservatism conference in Orlando, I saw a surprising number of Hungarians there. One young Hungarian woman I talked to told me, “You have no idea what it’s like to come to an international conference, and when people find out you’re Hungarian, they are happy to meet you.” She was talking about how her people are treated like pariahs in many conferences in Europe because a liberal habit is to blame all Hungarians for Viktor Orban. This infuriated me. I’m sure she was an Orban supporter — it was a conservative conference, after all — but the point she was making was that Hungarians draw scorn and spite from liberal Europeans who have no idea about their individual political commitments: it’s enough to know that they are Hungarian, and therefore Bad People Who Must Be Shunned. I’ve heard that in some settings, Israelis get the same treatment.
One more time: I denounce the Putin government, and I despise its vicious war on Ukraine. But I love Russian art and culture (especially Russian religion), some of which are among the greatest treasures of humanity. What kind of animals convinces himself to hate the works of Dostoevsky, Rachmaninoff, Tolstoy, Stravinsky, and so many other works of staggering depth and beauty, because of politics? I’ll tell you what kind: the kind of animals who ran the Soviet Union, and who persecuted artists who did not follow the approved political line. Some Russians have been very kind and hospitable to me, and the Russian people as a whole are tragic, violent, holy, courageous, long-suffering, brave, passionately loving and hateful alike, and one of the most vividly human races on the face of the earth. I love them, and no pig-headed mob of liberal yahoos is going to make me say or think otherwise.
Don’t you see what’s happening here? We start out by dehumanizing others for their nationality or ethnicity, and we end up dehumanizing ourselves. We may not be able to stop Putin from destroying Ukrainian cities, but surely we can prevent him from destroying our minds and our hearts. Right?
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Read your post on the weird anti-Russianism. Made me think of how careful the US was to distinguish Muslim radicals from true Islam. In fact, if it had been suggested by anyone in 2001 that a Muslim must publicly denounce other members of his faith in order to avoid public shaming, it would have been condemned as sheer bigotry, Islamophobia.
But this is the logical outgrowth of identity politics. No one is an individual that is tethered to traditions and families. You are a particular instantiation of your identity’s Platonic ideal. So, if Russia is essentially Putinism, then all Russians are by their nature particular instantiations of the universal “Putin”.
This way of thinking, we were once told, is the essence of bigotry. This is why we look back in shame at the Japanese internment camps during WWII. What is being said about Russians who live abroad is right out of that mentality.
Yes. The liberals told us we couldn’t say “China virus,” but now many of them treat Russians like lepers. I guess “Russianness” is a subspecies of “whiteness” now.
But see, it’s the Right that’s bringing the culture war into this, as usual… .
This morning I’m thinking about being in Paris briefly in the summer of 1984. I was seventeen years old, and on a guided trip my mom had won in a church raffle. Wandering the streets I met some other boys my age. All were French, except this one kid who was the son of a Soviet diplomat. The French boys goaded us to get into an argument. The French boys hated Ronald Reagan, so that was the basis of their game. In fact, I too hated Reagan back then (I would go on that fall to co-found a Walter Mondale activist group at my school). When the boys demanded that I denounce Reagan, it was easy to do … but I felt dirty doing it on foreign soil, in front of a smirking jackass son of a Soviet ambassador (who, I hardly need to point out, was not encouraged by the French boys to denounce Chernenko or Communism).
I felt dirty doing it, not because I was secretly pro-Reagan — I very much was not — but because I felt bullied into doing something that was a violation of ordinary patriotic sentiment. I’m not going to be part to any moral bullying like that against a Russian abroad. Even if they support Putin, unless they want to fight about it, I am going to treat them with dignity and charity, because my own sense of dignity and honor demands it.
UPDATE: The Russians canceled their appearance here — I think because it was impossible, or at least very difficult, to travel from Russia right now. Too bad. They would have been welcome at this university, CEU, and treated with respect.