How to compare Ukraine to other wars without sounding like a monster
This should be easy for anti-imperialists.
I’ve been struggling for weeks to put my finger on what exactly it is that I find so grotesque about a certain line or rhetoric circulating among some leftists over the past month or so. It goes like this: first, you scan the news for the latest international atrocity committed by the US or one of its allies. (There will always be something new.) Then you ask: “Why don’t Americans care about this as much as they care about they care about what is happening to Ukrainians?”
Some of our more thoughtful anti-imperialists will at least clarify that the problem is not Americans caring too much about Ukrainians — it’s Americans caring too little about Palestine, and Yemen, and Afghanistan, and Syria, and so on. But just as often they don’t. And among our “heterodox anti-imperialists”, of course, the point is that we should care about those nations but that we should not care about the people of Ukraine, who are all Nazis and NATO lobbyists after all.
Anyway, I think I’ve finally put my finger on it. Allow me to propose an alternative way of making the exact same point:
Why do Americans support Israel but oppose Russia? Why don’t we withdraw our support from the Saudis, just like we’ve refused to support the Russians?
All I have done here, in both cases, is shift focus from American attitudes towards the victims to American attitudes towards the aggressors. This framing still draws attention to the exact same problem of American imperialist hypocrisy towards Enemies and Allies.
Why is this a better way of putting it? Two directly related reasons. The first is that we should not want Americans to care about Yemen and Palestine in the same way that they care about Ukraine because Americans do not actually care about Ukraine. Americans care about opposing Russia, and Americans have found it useful to use Ukraine as an instrument of aggression and vilification against Russia, but Americans absolutely do not care about Ukraine in the way that we should care about what happens in the third world. What better proof of this do you need than the undisguised glee we’re seeing from the blob when they fantasize about Ukraine becoming Russia’s next Afghanistan?
American compassion for Ukraine right now is analogous to nothing so much as the crocodile tears our neocons shed for women oppressed by the Taliban or for the victims of Saddam Hussein. The blob doesn’t give a damn about any of that, they never have, and it’s absolutely absurd and embarrassing that even a single US anti-imperialist has gone into the business of pretending otherwise.
Which brings me to the second point: the reason some of the more responsible anti-imperialists go out of their way to add “you shouldn’t be concerned less about Ukraine” is that when you use the hypocritical sympathy frame, there’s an obvious possibility that people will read what you’ve said as “have less sympathy for Ukraine”. If you give a damn about the third world this is absolutely the worst possible misinterpretation imaginable and you will obviously be going out well out of your way to avoid it.
And that, of course, is precisely why I expect a lot of US leftists to not avoid it.
On one hand because, as noted, a significant number of “heterodox anti-imperialists” do not actually have a politics grounded in peace and justice for the third world, or in opposition to the international bourgeoisie. They may pick some of the correct fights and may even have good reasons for doing so, but their politics ultimately do not emerge from a systematic understanding of the material economy and its expression in international militarism and exploitation; this is why, in the case of Ukraine, they have bizarrely found themselves adopting ghoulish crypto-neocon narratives about pacifying the extremists at the expense of the civilian population of one of the poorest countries in the world.
And on the other hand, because even anti-imperialists who know better are finding it hard, in some cases, to take on old friends and allies who’ve gone down the road of right-wing heterodoxy. For them, the ambiguity of “Why do you care so much about Ukraine” is a feature, not a bug; everyone can read into it what they like. If this proves inconvenient for Ukrainians, well, they can deal with that problem too.