Nationalism as Cancel Culture
The Ukraine crisis illustrates a depressing truth: The closer America gets to war, the more likely Americans are to be called traitors for opposing it. In recent days, some of the same pundits who called critics of the Iraq war apologists for Saddam Hussein twenty years ago have begun calling critics of America’s policy toward Russia apologists for Vladimir Putin. There’s an irony here. Many of these hawks accuse progressives of using accusations of racism or sexism to shut down legitimate debate. But they’re deploying accusations of disloyalty in the same way. Nationalism creates its own “cancel culture.” And when America is close to war, it’s the most dangerous kind of cancel culture there is.
But first a word about Friday’s conversation. (We send out the Zoom link to paid subscribers on Wednesdays.) Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Boston—the most Irish big city in America—but I’ve long been fascinated by the conflict in Northern Ireland and the way it shapes Irish American identity. That fascination was rekindled a couple of years ago by conversations with a brilliant Irish political scientist, Brendan O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science and Director of the Penn Program in Ethnic Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania, and stoked again last month when I read Patrick Radden Keefe’s acclaimed book about the Irish Republican Army’s gruesome secrets, Say Nothing. Although captivating in itself, the conflict in Northern Ireland also sheds an interesting light on the conflict in Israel-Palestine. In Protestant neighborhoods of Belfast, you see Israeli flags; in Catholic neighborhoods, Palestinian ones. That’s one of the many subjects I’m excited to ask Brendan and Patrick to explain. Join us.
Back to nationalism and cancel culture. In a column last week in The New York Times, Bret Stephens wrote, “The prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is being treated by Vladimir Putin’s many apologists as a case of reasserting Russia’s historic sphere of influence, or as predictable pushback against NATO’s eastward expansion.” The implication is that if you think NATO’s march towards Russia’s borders played a role in fueling the current crisis you must have a soft spot for a kleptomaniacal tyrant. Given that (as I argued last week), figures as diverse as George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin warned that NATO expansion could spark the kind of backlash we’re witnessing today, Stephens’ argument isn’t all that convincing. But it packs an emotional punch. Who wants to be accused of harboring sympathy for a guy who has his critics jailed, shot, poisoned, and hung. Calling someone a “Putin apologist” implies that they approve of his brutal rule and enjoy siding with foreign dictators against their own country.
We’ve been hearing this language a lot lately. Last week, The Atlantic’s David Frum castigated unnamed “pro-Putin writers” and “Putin’s propaganda voices” who “keep yapping that somehow Russia is the victim of Ukrainians.” Stephen Hayes, editor of The Dispatch, accused “prominent figures on the American right” of “amplifying” Putin’s “propaganda” and “effectively cheering him on.” Last month, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby claimed that “for years, Putin and his apologists have railed against NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement.” To be fair, some of this vitriol is directed at one person: Tucker Carlson. Carlson is the worst possible critic of US policy toward Russia because he’s a lying conspiracy-theorist (he recently claimed that the US was “hoping for some kind of explosion” in Ukraine) and because he actually does admire authoritarian leaders, as evidenced by his devotion to Viktor Orban and Donald Trump.
But Stephens’ and Frum’s charges of pro-Putinism go far beyond a critique of Carlson’s particular pathologies. They’re broad and vague enough to encompass virtually anyone who expresses reservations about the administration’s current path. And they imply, falsely, that’s there’s a connection between dovishness on Ukraine and sympathy for authoritarian rule. In fact, Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna, a fierce Trump critic and supporter of human rights around the world, has argued that the US should seek a solution that leaves Ukraine neutral between Russia and the West. By contrast, Mike Pompeo, who supports Trump and Viktor Orban almost as slavishly as Tucker Carlson, espouses roughly the same hawkish line on Ukraine as Stephens and Frum.
Unfortunately, some of the commentators currently impugning anyone less hawkish than themselves as dictator-lovers have done this before. Frum, who now rails against “Putin apologists,” began an October 2002 column about Canadians who opposed the Iraq War with the sentence: “One thing you can say about Saddam Hussein: He sure does not lack friends in Canada.” The following spring he described right-wing Americans who opposed George W. Bush’s prosecution of the “war on terror” as “unpatriotic conservatives.” Hayes titled a November 2001 profile of UN weapons inspector-turned-Iraq war critic Scott Ritter, “Saddam Hussein’s American Apologist.” In 2004, after the late Senator Ted Kennedy called America “the most hated nation in the world” because of its human rights abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Jacoby wrote that, “with barely a change of pronoun, those words could have been dictated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Moqtada al-Sadr, or the mullahs in Iran.”
Accusing someone who criticizes US policy toward a foreign adversary of resembling or supporting that adversary isn’t a good faith argument. It’s a smear. The implication is that doves aren’t truly loyal to their country or to democracy itself. There’s an irony here. When progressives accuse opponents of Biden’s domestic agenda of not caring about poverty, women’s rights or Black lives, conservatives like Stephens and Frum howl. But on foreign policy, they’re doing a version of the same thing.
A point conservatives often make when opposing progressive domestic policies is that good intentions can have negative unintended consequences. That’s even more true in foreign policy, especially when you’re using as blunt and violent an instrument as the US military. In deposing Saddam, the US launched a war that took roughly 200,000 Iraqi lives, strengthened Iran, and helped create ISIS. In deposing Muammar Qaddafi, the US helped turn Libya into a failed state, thus scattering weapons and fighters across West Africa, some of whom reportedly helped launch a coup in Burkina Faso last week. All of which makes it quite plausible that keeping NATO membership open to Ukraine will help provoke a Russian response that leaves that country less stable, less free, and less peaceful than it would be if the US supported Ukrainian neutrality. (Go back and read Kennan and Kissinger’s warnings about NATO expansion; they hold up pretty well.)
Calling someone pro-Saddam or pro-Putin is a way of discrediting their criticisms of American military intervention. And in American history, this form of nationalist intimidation has a long and dark history. During World War I, a New Hampshire judge employed the newly passed Espionage Act to sentence a man to three years in prison for alleging that “this was a Morgan war and not a war of the people.” When a minister named Herbert Bigelow tried to address a peace rally in Cincinnati in 1917, he was seized, bound, and gagged by a pro-war mob, which whipped for him for having betrayed “the poor women and children of Belgium” that the US was fighting to protect. (Both of these incidents are recounted in David M. Kennedy’s excellent history, Over Here: The First World War and American Society.) In 1949, near the height of the McCarthy-era red scare, a mob screaming phrases like “go on back to Russia” attacked a crowd returning from a concert sponsored by the left-wing Civil Rights Congress, injuring 140 people. In 1951, the 82-year-old sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois was arrested and tried for being a Soviet agent after calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In 1970, construction workers in lower Manhattan screaming “Commie bastard” and “U.S.A., All the Way” used lead pipes and crowbars to beat anti-Vietnam war protesters, sixty of whom were sent to the hospital. After Representative Barbara Lee cast the sole vote in Congress against a resolution authorizing war on September 14, 2001, the conservative Washington Times denounced her as a “supporter of America’s enemies,” and she received so many death threats that she was assigned police protection.
Throughout American history, people who question America’s wars—or even just its military deployments—have endured a form of “cancel culture” far more severe than anything being meted out by today’s supposed woke totalitarians. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that Stephens, Frum, or Hayes—whom I like personally and admire for their staunch opposition to Trump—want to beat people up or throw them in jail. But for many Americans, being accused of sympathy for foreign dictators is just as intimidating as being accused of racism, sexism, or transphobia. And this kind of intimidation helped produce the groupthink that plagued America in the run-up to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
If you think NATO should keep its doors open to Ukraine, fine. It’s not my position but there are people who know a lot about that part of the world—Michael McFaul, for instance, or Anne Applebaum, or Fiona Hill—who hold that view. But keep labels like “Putin apologist” out of it. In American history, jingoistic bullying tends not to end well.
In Jewish Currents (subscribe), Orly Noy—who was brilliant in our Zoom conversation a couple of weeks ago about Mizrahi Jews—writes about the bizarre new Hebrew-language website created by the government of Iran.
I talked about Ukraine and NATO expansion last week on Pod Save the World.
On February 8, I’m moderating a Jewish Currents panel discussion on the ethics of organized tours to Israel-Palestine.
The fruits of human decency, on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
See you Friday,