Ukraine is not a woke vs. anti-woke war
A persisting line of embarrassing commentary tells us little about the war in Ukraine, but a lot about Americans.
US commentary on international affairs has always been notoriously parochial, and nothing has made this clearer than the current war in Ukraine. Instead of trying to understand it on its own terms, much of the analysis we’ve seen so far just tries to extrapolate from our familiar narratives about domestic politics. In my next article I am going to argue for a relatively neglected analysis instead, but before we get into that, it’s worth looking at just how hard our pundits have been working to avoid stating the obvious. And nothing does a better job of demonstrating this than the increasingly bizarre attempts to shoehorn this war into our interminable woke vs. anti-woke discourse.
These tweets are both extremely typical among pundits who are defending the Russian invasion — and as far as I can tell, basically none of them seem even remotely aware of the inconsistency. On one hand, we have a persistent attempt to understand NATO’s role in this conflict as an instance of “woke imperialism”: in theory, the libs are trying to impose their egalitarian views about identity on the rest of the world. On the other hand, however, invasion apologists have also been eager to point out that NATO is arming and collaborating with Ukrainian neo-Nazis. That is an important point and one that opponents of the invasion have been making as well — but isn’t it directly at odds with the first one? If you want to spin NATO as an army of soy SJWs starting down based Putin and his redpilled army, you can’t also argue that NATO-Ukraine is a fash menace and that the Russian army is antifa.
It’s not hard to see where this incoherence is coming from. If you are the sort of person who thinks that being critical of the liberals on Russia means that we should support Putin’s invasion, you’re probably also the sort of person who thinks that being critical of liberals about wokeness means that we should oppose egalitarian politics. This is not a perspective emerging from a clear analysis of Ukrainian-Russian relations; it’s just coming directly from an overcorrection against the US libs. For the exact same reason, invasion apologists can’t resist the opportunity to hoist the woke libs by their own petards by pointing out that they are collaborating with Nazis — even though this completely undermines their “woke imperialism” analysis.
Conservative politicians seem to be somewhat more aware of this inconsistency, to their credit, and get that they have to pick one line of attack or the other. So what happens when you ask a Republican to choose between complaining about wokeness or complaining about Nazis? WRAL:
“Remember that Zelensky is a thug,” [North Carolina Rep. Madison] Cawthorn said in a video obtained by WRAL. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredible corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies and really just a new woke world empire,” the congressman added.
Superficially, Cawthorn’s rhetoric about “pushing woke ideologies” seems to echo the “woke imperialism” analysis — until one notes that he blames Zelensky, not the United States. This is more in line with narratives on the American hard right that see the war as Putin’s heroic last stand against the “new woke world empire” championed by Jews like Zelensky; but even America’s hard right can’t decide whether their true opponent is Zelensky or Putin and his Jewish puppetmasters.
Meanwhile, others on the right have just completely stopped trying to make the “woke imperialism” narrative work:
It’s a testament to how absurd the antiwoke takes on Ukraine have become that Rep. Higgins’ comments are somehow the least insane. I have to admit that I have no idea what a “woke sky” or a “non-binary fuss” is, but Higgins has at least noticed that the people who oppose war are generally egalitarians as well. This is infinitely more grounded in reality than memes about pink tanks.
It’s even more grounded in reality than the sporadic attempts we’ve seen from liberals to reinterpret Ukraine as a woke war:
I am not sure what’s funnier:
Taking for granted that Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is building his grand geopolitical strategy, down to particular arrests, around the interests of the US Democratic Party, almost exactly as understood by the electoral demographic analysis of upper-middle class MSNBC fans;
Stipulating all of this as a jumping off point for a single exception: Putin thinks about geopolitics exactly like Joan Walsh thinks about electing Hillary Clinton except that Putin has sorely underestimated the wisdom of Black women activists in the United States and their unwavering allegiance to the Democratic Party;
Setting up this whole elaborate theory about Putin’s political calculations so that you can use this war as an opportunity to praise black American women activists (like yourself!) for graciously not abandoning all of Ukraine (and indeed the world) to fascism for the sake of a single political prisoner. Which seems like damning with faint praise to me, but thanks I guess?
Cooper’s narrative obviously isn’t reactionary in the same way that the anti-woke narratives are, but they do share the exact same US-centric perspective and the same compulsion to understand any and every political development through the woke / anti-woke binary. This is not to say that this lens is always useless: the role that black women activists play in US politics is worth paying attention to, just like the role that egalitarian rhetoric plays in marketing military intervention is also worth paying attention to. But there is a deep intellectual rigidity here, a deficit of curiosity about the problems that other people face in situations quite unlike ours, and it is completely crippling everyone’s ability to think and talk critically about international affairs.
Another example of the exact same problem:
It’s true that people in the US have an obnoxious habit of talking as if all or even most Ukrainians are Nazis.1 It’s also true that anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in Russia has often otherizes them in a way that we ordinarily regard as bigoted and reactionary.
But analogizing Russian-Ukrainian relations to racial conflict isn’t just unilluminating — it’s actively misleading! Putin, in his February speech just before the invasion:
These are our comrades, those dearest to us - not only colleagues, friends, and people who once served together, but people bound by blood, by family tries…Ukrainian authorities…began by building their statehood on the negation of everything that united us, trying to distort the mentality and historical memory of millions of people, of entire generations living in Ukraine. It is not surprising that Ukrainian society was faced with the right of far-right nationalism, which rapidly developed into aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism.
The Russian imperial position is not that Ukrainians are some alien race of Nazis who need to be defeated — it’s that Ukrainians are basically Russians, “bound by blood”, who need to be liberated from their fringe Nazi oppressors. Putin has to rationalize the war in this way precisely because ordinary Russian and Ukrainians feel such kinship with each other. One of the great tragedies of this war of nations is that it’s continuing a long history of turning against each other people who have every reason to call each other comrade.
That, I will argue in my next post, is how the war in Ukraine has to be understood.
It’s hard not to notice that an extraordinary number of pundits and activists who think it fundamentally unfair to call someone a fascist if they’re a North American — but who have no problem with wild generalizations about this if we are talking about Ukrainians. I am beginning to suspect that people who are overly defensive about fascism in the US may have some troubling attitudes towards people in other countries…