Updated: Mar 14, 2022
North Carolina fascist worm Madison Cawthorn, who had tried preventing U.S. aid to Ukraine, called Zelensky "a thug" yesterday and claimed Ukraine is "incredibly corrupt and incredibly evil and pushing woke ideologies." Even Republicans in North Carolina are angry about this display of pro-Putin ass-kissing. Ted Lieu's response was to tweet that he commends the United States Naval Academy for having the foresight to reject GOP Rep Madison Cawthorn, who had lied about getting accepted by the Academy."
Olga Khazan is a big-time, award-winning writer on the staff of The Atlantic. This morning she wrote about Russian opposite-world where Cawthorn's and Tucker Carlson's statements about the Russian special operation to "denazify" Ukraine would make perfect sense to Russian TV viewers. "In Russia’s version of the war," she wrote, "Russians are liberators, Ukrainians are Nazis, and the West is full of mendacious hypocrites. To turn on Russian TV news is to enter a parallel universe, one where even the word war is forbidden. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has now blocked or restricted any other sources of coverage, so this is the only version of the world most Russians see."
And Russians, with dwindling news options, tend to buy what their government and its media allies are selling. Russians with Ukrainian relatives buy it... The alternative-- that the invasion is not justified, that Russians are the aggressors-- is too horrific to entertain. A recent series of man-on-the-street interviews from the independent outlet Current Time shows everyday Russians saying the invasion is meant to protect Russians, or that they don’t believe that Kyiv is being bombed. “I’m for Putin,” one woman says while walking away from the camera. “In everything I’m for him.”
Most Russians still support the war, and only 3 percent blame Putin for it, according to independent surveys. Support is strongest among those who trust state media. “Your beliefs are more important than facts,” Oates said, “and I think [Channel One] is good at helping people to lean into their beliefs. This is the narrative that people would like to be true.”
Russian news clouds the difference between truth and lies, between heroes and villains. Over time, uncertainty hardens into cynicism and resignation. “There are lots of calls in the U.S. for Russians to come out protesting and getting rid of Putin,” Maria Repnikova, a global-communication professor at Georgia State University, told me. “But the cynicism factor is a very, very strong thing when it comes to not coming out or not resisting.” Cynicism creates a sense that “nothing is true and everything is possible,” to borrow the title of the journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s book about modern Russia.
Despite what Russian news says, Ukrainians are the real victims of Putin’s war. But everyday Russians are the victims of his information war. They are like the Americans who endorse the Big Lie because all they watch is Newsmax, or the ones who burrow into the warrens of Facebook and emerge with a belief in QAnon. Putin knows that if you can control information, you can control your people.
Perhaps the saddest fact is that Russians-- now cut off economically, geographically, and culturally from the rest of the world-- may not know what they’re in for. Watching their own channels, they are left with the rosy view that victory is near, and that they will be the victors. In the words of one talk-show pundit I saw on Russian television last week, “This will all pass. Without Russia, Europe is not Europe, and the world is not the world.”
As promised earlier this morning, let's look at why the "telegenic and combative qualities that made Zelensky an unexpected symbol of resistance have also been a source of discomfort for Western leaders." John Harris is obviously an admirer of the courageous Ukrainian president, writing today that "The Ukrainian president’s public willingness to court death to defend his country is probably now his best protection against death. Zelenskyy’s new stature-- suddenly, he is likely the free world’s most admired person-- has increased the costs Russian President Vladimir Putin will pay if Zelenskyy is killed during the Ukraine invasion. But no one, least of all Zelenskyy, can have much confidence that Putin cares about those costs... His message is a barely cloaked taunt for everyone cheering him from a distance: How much are you willing to sacrifice for your beliefs? The fact that Zelenskyy-- joined by vast numbers of his fellow Ukrainians-- is willing to sacrifice everything makes him a clarifying agent in the great contest of the age, between free societies and despotic ones. For the past generation, liberal democracy and individual freedom have been defeated by tyranny in multiple arenas. The reasons are diverse, but unified by a common truth: Most people, on most occasions, aren’t willing to follow the Ukrainian example. Never mind risking death or prison. In general, people aren’t willing to sacrifice career prospects or everyday material comforts by standing up to autocrats."
When she was running for Senate, Columbus, Georgia mayor Teresa Tomlinson wrote a guest post for us: Crippling Political Fear, the premise of which is that "one cannot lead if one is afraid. The thing about leadership is that people want their leaders to be brave. They care less about what you think on the issues than whether you have the moxie to fight for them and the strength of conviction to tell them what you really think... That’s what the Right can’t stand about The Squad. Those women are fearless about their beliefs. They refuse to be bullied, and that is dangerous to the Republican playbook of shaming scared Democrats into milk toast, mealy-mouthed, baby-splitting positions that are equivocal and stand for nothing. American voters revile those who won’t tell the people what they think. Even if you don’t support the policies-- or certainly some of the statements-- of The Squad, you can’t deny that you appreciate that they unabashedly tell the world what they think."
Harris wrote that Zelenskyy has joined such iconic figures as the Chinese student who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or the Flight 93 passengers on 9/11, or the firefighters that same day who raced up the stairs of the burning World Trade Center. All of them cause many people to interrogate themselves: What would I have done in those circumstances? If you had school-age children, as Zelenskyy does, would you stay and fight for your country, or would you become part of the massive lines of refugees? Most people, thankfully, never get to learn how they would respond in existential crisis. But there is lots of evidence of what people tend to do in the less dramatic circumstances of everyday life-- they look to compromise, they seek to avoid a fateful choice, they try to muddle through until tomorrow."
When I was a child, I was taught to admire the American leftists who had volunteered, two decades earlier, to fight the fascists in Spain's Civil War. Leaving aside American fascists like Cawthorn and Carlson, many American leftists today seem aghast at the idea of fighting the Russians in Ukraine. I think it goes beyond what Harris referred to as our "muddle-through instinct. While we properly laud Zelenskyy’s physical and moral courage, it’s worth remembering that a willingness to trade one’s life for a cause is not by definition admirable. Many of history’s great crimes, including the 9/11 attacks, are committed by people who had precisely such willingness to surrender everything to a higher purpose."
That kind of devotion always comes more easily to the absolutist mind-- people in the grip of authoritarian belief systems-- than it does to people oriented to the pluralistic, materialistic, relativistic cultures that characterize most liberal democracies. To put it bluntly, autocrats often believe that people animated by liberal values are too soft to withstand the steady, ruthless application of force. The past generation offers many examples of why autocrats believed this. Tiananmen Square signaled hope that freedom was on the rise in China; the three decades that followed showed that it is mostly in retreat there. The joyful optimism of the Arab Spring protests of 2011 has long since curdled. Along the borders of Europe, leaders in Hungary, Turkey and many other places have far more in common with Vladimir Putin than Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Even in the United States, the notion of people risking personal fortunes in defense of ideals can seem rather remote. The person currently most hailed as courageous in American politics right now is Rep. Liz Cheney. The Zelenskyy example reminds us that what Cheney is risking with her criticism of Donald Trump is the loss of her Wyoming congressional seat, in favor of a new career of board seats and speaking engagements and TV network contributor contracts. That is far more nerve than nearly all of her colleagues in the Republican caucus, which includes many people who share her views privately but are afraid to share them publicly.
That is what makes Zelenskyy’s story so remarkable. Until a month ago, he was himself someone trying to muddle through until tomorrow. He was urging President Joe Biden to tone down his rhetoric about imminent war, instead hoping to play it cool and avoid a climactic confrontation. Until the moment of that confrontation, he probably didn’t remotely conceive of himself as a Churchill for the social media age: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Zelenskyy has gone beyond pleading with his Western neighbors for help to lecturing them. In response to NATO’s refusal to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, he declared, “All the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you, because of your weakness, because of your lack of unity.”
Historically, liberal democracies have acted this way-- divided, self-protective, irresolute-- until their backs were forced to the wall. Only then do democracies, led by the United States, summon the kind of strength that ultimately defeated the totalitarian challenges from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th Century. It may be Putin’s misjudgment that he pushed events so far that the lines are once again drawn that sharply.
Even the most interventionist voices are not urging the United States or NATO countries to directly join the war to save Ukraine. But, in what now promises to be a long and costly conflict in a multitude of ways, it’s becoming impossible to avoid the Zelenskyy test: What are you willing to sacrifice in the name of your ideals?
I spoke with a smart and well-educated friend of mine today who knows who Neville Chamberlain was but didn't know why he knew... and had never heard of the Sudetenland. I feel like I have to explain that to help put why the resistance to Putin is so important to people who do know what that was all about. Keep in mind, Putin claims he just wants to protect Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine (the Donbas region). The Sudetenland was an amalgam of German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia-- a country created after World War I-- bordering on Germany and Austria. After Hitler got away with kicking the French out of the Rhineland in 1936 and then annexing Austria in 1938, he felt emboldened to threaten war with Czechoslavakia if they didn't hand over the Sudetenland. Neville Chamberlain, a Conservative Party appeaser and political coward, forced them to do it in return for a promise to not attack the rest of Czechoslovakia. A few months later, German troops marched into Prague and annexed all of Czechoslovakia while the French and the British sat around with their thumbs up their asses. Seeing how easy that was, Hitler invaded Poland the same year. Even after Chamberlain declared war on Germany, there was no fighting for 8 months-- as Germany (and Russia) gobbled up Poland. Chamberlain was sacked and the war, which would have never happened had France and Britain stood up to Hitler in the Rhineland, Austria or Czechoslavakia, began. History teaches us that you don't prevent war by giving in to tyrants.