Prisoners Of Narrative
I met today with an American journalist who is here trying to understand the appeal of Viktor Orban for a certain kind of American conservative. We ended up talking about the war, mostly; though his project began before the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, the war has emerged as an important part of the narrative.
I told him that being here in Hungary has given me a valuable perspective on all this. Even before the war broke out, I had come to see how narrow, moralistic, and all-consuming the US establishment narrative about liberal democracy was. It is impossible for most Americans, both left and right, to understand how much of their way of regarding the world is fixed by that rigid framework. This is why even some American conservatives stupidly think of Orban as “fascist”: they are prisoners of their own narrative.
I told my American interlocutor that I strongly oppose Russia’s war on Ukraine, and hope Putin loses, but that I also deplore how the US has exonerated itself of all sin and failing in the matter of this war. An American foreign policy analyst I know tells me that it is absolutely impossible right now, in the information climate in the US, to understand the Russian point of view. You have to do that if you are going to try to figure out the best way forward, but any attempt to understand why Russians think and feel the way they do is shouted down as carrying Putin’s water. I mentioned to the journalist that this is a vivid version of the way Americans think about Orban’s Hungary. We — and Western Europeans involved with the EU bureaucracy — are so convinced of our own righteousness that we refuse to grant any legitimacy to other ways of seeing the world.
I told the journalist that this is something that social and religious conservatives back home in the US are accustomed to. We almost never get a fair shake from the media, because the people who tell the stories and set the narrative have decided that trying to see the world through our eyes is in some sense to collaborate with evil. The shrill and total moralizing and politicizing of every question makes achieving real understanding impossible.
Right now, the United States is not at war with Russia. Yet according to what I see, and according to what I’m hearing from friends back home who are watching US cable news, there is absolutely zero space for dissent from the hysterically anti-Russian narrative. This is how it goes with our establishment, both of the left and the right. Most American journalism, I have come to believe, is not about trying to understand the world, but about imposing a narrative on the world. Remember how, in the months before the Iraq War started, the British ambassador to the US sent a note back to PM Tony Blair telling him this:
Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
The so-called “Downing Street memo” wasn’t revealed until 2005. The Bush administration knew what it wanted the narrative to be — one that justified war — and decided the only things it would consider as true were the things that supported that narrative. The US went to war. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died for that lie, and thousands of US troops were killed and maimed. Syria’s civil war came about because of the destabilization the US brought to the region. All of this we Americans just sweep under the carpet of memory. “NATO is just a defensive alliance,” they say. Oh? Ask the Libyans about that. Or the Iraqis. Or the Serbs.
Gaslighting. It’s all gaslighting. But now, we’re being gaslit into a conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia.
Again, none of this justifies Russia’s barbaric invasion. Russia should not have invaded! But this didn’t just happen out of nowhere. Are we not allowed to ask ourselves questions like: How can Ukraine win? What happens if we grind the Russian people into the ground? And so forth. From what I’m hearing from folks back home, even to ask those questions reveals one’s ritual impurity. This is totally crazy. You know that, right? Even if you stridently disagree with your opponent’s position, you need to understand how he sees the world, and let that understanding inform your response. But that’s not how we act.
This blind arrogance got us into a twenty-year quagmire in the Middle East. Where is it leading now?
Peter Savodnik has a good essay up today at Bari Weiss’s Substack. In it, he talks about living in the post-Communist former Soviet world in the 1990s and early 2000s, including in Russia. Peter writes:
That was the lesson of 1989 to 1991, when the whole communist charade unraveled and we imagined ourselves graduating into a borderless world—one that didn’t just validate everything that America had done but everything America was. This was the Great American Promise, the idea that, if enough heavily credentialed people in Washington got it just right, we could construct a future that would not merely build on but actually transcend the past.
It was easy for us to imagine this future to end all futures because we had just won the Cold War and because we were American, which is to say we had very little time for or interest in history. We knew about it. We had read about it and been tested on it. But we didn’t think inside it. We didn’t imagine ourselves being subjected to it. No, we were shaping it.
This was the prism through which I viewed our limitless tomorrow when, a month later, I arrived in Paris for a semester.
Then he moved on to the former Warsaw Pact countries, and then to Russia itself:
Toward the end, after all the vodka, the herring, the soup, the dumplings, more vodka, black bread, more vodka, one of my hosts, an older gentleman who had been a professor of literature, told me, as so many Russians had, “You can give up writing philosophical articles about Russia. You will never know it.” Ah, yes, this again. My outsiderness. “My sunny disposition doesn’t prohibit me from writing about your country,” I said, a bit too earnestly, in very stilted Russian that I had spent years slaving away at. Speaking slowly to make sure I didn’t miss anything, he replied: “It’s not your sunny disposition. It’s your frame of reference. Your frame of reference is America. But Russia does not want to be America. Russia exists in a parallel universe.”
At the time, I thought, Russia doesn’t know what it wants. There was little doubt by then about Vladimir Putin’s orientation, but Russians were another matter. It wasn’t just that they liked American popular culture—everyone did. It was that there was too much interaction between us and them. Too much business, cultural exchange, hop-scotching between New York and Moscow and Los Angeles and Vladivostok. We were connected now. Was that not validation of the Great American Promise?
In retrospect, the professor saw something—everything—that I did not.
What did the professor see? That there is no universal Enlightenment civilization. That Westerners were deluded. And here we are today. Savodnik goes on:
There will be alliances—that between China and Russia and Iran is already clear—but there will be no Big Idea to replace the one that ended the Cold War, no overarching set of rules or understandings or pacts or international conferences that will bind us together and ensure that we do not succumb to the violence and nihilism that came before the Pax Americana. The order America built after World War II—which, despite its many imperfections, brought more security and safety and prosperity to humankind than ever before in history—is melting back into the world that preceded it.
We can blame this on Putin or Xi Jinping or the North Koreans or this or that bad actor, but they are simply acting the way they have always acted. The problem is us. What has changed is not the barbarians of the world, but that we gave up on the justice of our cause.
I disagree with him here. I believe that our “cause” — certainly a contested term — was not as just as we thought it was. What is, or was, our cause? To make the world over in our image: as autonomous individuals who regard liberty as freedom from all unchosen constraints? To live in a frictionless world of comfort and peace? Well, what if other countries don’t want that? What if Muslims, say, prefer to be Muslim, not rootless secular liberals? What if Russians want to be Russian, Hungarians Hungarian? At what point do we Americans say, “You have a right to be who you want to be”? Or even, “We think you are wrong, but you have a right to be wrong”?
It’s easy for me, as a religious and social conservative American, to sympathize with the Hungarians in their stance against the EU. They are a minority that’s being looked down on and pushed around by a rich and powerful majority. They just want to be left alone to be true to their own traditions and ways of life. But the EU and the US won’t let them. Even now, when the Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia) are a crucial strategic bulwark against newly aggressive Russia, do you think that the EU and the US are for a single second going to give up on bullying these countries to be more secular and liberal and pro-LGBT? I doubt it. Because we have a Narrative to uphold.
It is far more difficult to sympathize with Russia, because Russia really is a warmonger here, and is murdering Ukrainians with no cause. Nevertheless, it is possible to understand why Russians think the way they do about the West, and to sympathize with their broader concerns, even as we disagree. You can’t do this if you are on the inside of power, and powerful institutions. Your hegemony looks like justice, like righteousness. You can’t imagine how any decent person could see the world any other way. When it comes time to deploy coercion, even violence, against the weaker parties to force them to conform, you tell yourself that it’s sad, but what choice did you have? Evil must not be given quarter, ever.
This is why I keep banging on about how hate Russia if you like, but know well that everything being used against Russia and Russians today will be deployed against Deplorables in our country, sooner or later — and by the same people, too. The journalist I had coffee with today said that he has been talking to conservatives here in Hungary who straight up support Putin. That startled me, because all the Hungarian conservatives in my Budapest orbit do not support Putin at all. The American said these are mostly country people, strong anti-Communists. I thought about it for a second, and told my interlocutor that my best guess is that these country people may hate the Russians, based on historical memory, but they probably regard the EU and the US as the new hegemons trying to force them (the Hungarians) to give up their traditions, their religion, and so forth. If they sympathize with Putin, it’s the same reason Third World people of a previous generation sympathized with Fidel Castro: because he gave Uncle Sam a sock in the nose, and got away with it.
That’s just a guess. I’m here to learn, not to lecture these foreigners on their own wickedness, and to shame them into getting right with the great god Davos. As wicked as the Russian government’s war on Ukraine is, I cannot endorse the full-scale impoverishment of the Russian people to punish Vladimir Putin. Putin’s warmongering will make a generation of Westerners hate Russia. Our disproportionate response will make a generation of Russians hate us.
Advantage: China. God help us all.
Last point: Peter Savodnik writes, of the post-Cold War period:
Everyone who had not grown up on the winning side of history got that Obama, like W., like Clinton, was blinkered, incapable of seeing outside the narrowing parameters of our politics. Trump got this instinctively, because, for all his riches, his victim complex and the Queens-born social outsider status he tried so bitterly to overcome had taught him what the American power elite looks like from the outside. So he went to war against the old institutions. But he had nothing to replace them with. He was blundering and polarizing. He made things worse.
He did. The answer, though, is not to stand up the American power elite. The answer is to stand up to the American power elite, but to do so constructively. This is where Viktor Orban comes in for us American national conservative types.
Look, I’m not asking you to support Orban. I’m sure as hell not asking you to support Putin and his war, which I certainly do not. I am asking you to wake up and realize that we are being gaslighted, again. Savodnik is right: the world we now live in is going to be treacherous. But we had damn well better learn how to live in that real world, not in the dreamland of Davos, Harvard, Washington, Brussels, and Silicon Valley.