“Woke” is a fighting word in America these days, grist for the mills of rage farmers. Though the name “Bandera” is far less known, any search-engine algorithm tuned for controversy will find it tasty. So it won’t be a surprise if the title of this essay, “My Woke Take on Bandera” has the effect of triggering people who game attention on the Internet. But I’m not writing this for the sake of joining an anger circus. My goal is to propose a maneuver for peace.
I live in Florida, whose Governor declared it “Where Woke Goes to Die.” Authentically woke people have indeed perished here. Famous ones, murdered with impunity, such as NAACP activists Harriet and Harry T Moore. Their house was bombed on Christmas, in 1951. The killers were never charged.
Harry and Harriet set the mold for Florida woke, braving danger at home so America could someday be the land of the free. It’s not for me to speak for them, nor to tell modern champions of woke what their priorities should be, other than staying awake to them.
The Moores shouldered a level of personal risk in Jim Crow Florida that seems unimaginable in America today. The Governor’s insults and threats notwithstanding, he won’t be killing me or diminishing my respect for those who speak up for empowerment of the disenfranchised.
What’s woke? The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition: “woke, adjective: Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in stay woke.”
That works, but there’s more to it. Not long ago, Ryan Newman, my Governor’s own General Counsel defined woke as… “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” Fair enough. The ethic has many facets. One of those facets reflects the lifework of the Moores… claiming the full dignity of citizenship by and for those who have been denied it. Another facet that’s become very apparent to me is knowing the difference between history’s power to shape us and our own power to shape a better heritage.
My Governor, however, prefers a different meaning entirely. For him, “woke” is a word spit in anger. He’s confrontationally unmoored himself from solemn concern for America’s racist legacies, and therefore of any sense of obligation or determination to confront them. He chants the word to summon amnesia, if not worse. He means to demean, to skewer. “Woke,” in his mouth, is weaponized odium. It’s a siren, screeching hate. His message is primed for the business model of rage-baiting media and the national audience he wants to agitate.
Leveraging that mantra to advance his Presidential ambitions, the Governor has been polishing a stump speech fit for a demagogue. He portrays the woke as an alien herd of creepy zombies under the spell of a pernicious mind-virus. It’s a derisive caricature cued up for contempt. It’s pitch-perfect for the base-baiting politics he’s sought to master. The point is to provoke disgust, fear, loathing, and revulsion… reactions he’s eager to harvest.
My Governor’s political brand is to play the sheriff in town, like some brutal hero in a preachy Western. Woke is made to play the foil.
In this storyline, a maniacal mob and its malevolent masters get what’s coming to them when he brings down the hammer on a rogue’s gallery of parasitic lay abouts, over-educated evildoers, pesty lefty politicos, and globalist puppeteers. He cleans things up by throwing out the garbage. He wants to be feared by those he hates. He loves his job. Somebody’s got to do it.
Woke, the pejorative, is the successor to CRT, which was the successor to Social Justice Warrior, and on, back through Progressive, Secular Humanist, Feminist, Liberal, and uppity. The villainizing pattern repeats again and again. One group’s expression of aspiration is flipped into another’s bogeyman.
Among skilled practitioners of political vitriol, demonization never goes out of season. Hostile antagonism is a perennial fashion. Crusaders wear vengeance as a talismanic cape. They wave retribution as a flag. Polarizing epithets conjure beasts and freaks a vote-seeker can pledge to destroy.
My governor’s media strategy is to treat woke as a punching bag. He’s putting on a show for people who relish the attack. His sadistic assertions of moral and metaphysical superiority delight his donors and rally his base. But he also means to walk the talk. We’ve seen how he leads. The destination looks darker than the journey.
It’s perfectly clear my governor wants me and people like me to take note; he considers himself bound and determined to inflict havoc on our kind. He intends to savage us, and to justify that savagery by redefining woke to deny the fullness of our humanity.
Readers brought here by the keyword Bandera are likely to have a very different take on woke than mine. But for those who think Ukraine and Russia need peace now, and that the sad trend of global politics should be reversed, take a moment to consider the obstacle of Bandera, and what my woke-informed take on removing it could mean.
Lviv is the largest city in Western Ukraine. Near its center, just a short walk from the main rail station, there’s a monument park named “Gateway to Lviv.” It’s on a street named after Stepan Bandera. Its focal point is a supersized likeness of him, erected in 2008. It’s the largest statue of any Nazi or Nazi collaborator standing anywhere in the world.
The street’s name should be changed, and the statue should be taken down. These relics of Bandera’s influence should be removed for the same reason that Confederate statues and placenames should be removed here in the United States. Champions of bigotry and genocide don’t deserve to be celebrated with grand new monuments, and certainly not by governments.
That last week of February 2022, right after Putin’s invasion, when I mentioned that statue of Hitler’s Ukrainian partner on Facebook, some friends pushed back. A few even dropped me.
As someone who had studied Russian for 3 years in college, and who’s been tracking international politics longer than most folks, I had a few perspectives to share. Americans who were just now looking for Kiev on a map were bound to be in the dark about Bandera’s dark past. What I was trying to get across was that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine in this century can’t be understood in isolation from the bitter inheritance of the last one.
Like it or not, the US is involved. For anyone who thinks that winning this war is a priority, or that ending it once and for all is a necessity, a constructive response to legacy complaints should be on the menu. Each side’s story deserves a fair account. If there are insights on how to settle stewing grievances, why not find them? Making a turn toward peace might depend on it. Making a durable peace probably will.
The proclaimed mission of Putin’s “Special Military Operation” is “DeNazification.” He would have us believe that US-backed Nazis and Banderists took control of Ukraine in 2014 and made it their pawn. What the Ukrainians call the “Revolution of Dignity,” he calls an American-orchestrated coup.
I don’t buy it, and neither did my online friends. I regard the Euro-Maidan uprising as authentic. I know that it started quickly, following a surprise reversal by the country’s President, Victor Yanukovych. He had been elected on a pledge to build ties with the EU in favor of reabsorption into Russia’s sphere. But in late 2013 he betrayed his country and sold out to Putin, fully understanding the effectively irreversible isolation and subordination to autocratic corruption it would have entailed.
Ukrainians who had been yearning to join free Europe didn’t take this treachery sitting down. They understood the stakes. Yanukovych’s consent to Russian vassalhood was a step toward authoritarian rule and social suffocation. Resistance to that fate was widespread and unequivocal. Dissenters were intransigent. Perhaps 20,000 protesters showed up in Kiev’s Independence Square. The number grew tenfold or more over the next few months. Having lost political legitimacy, Yanukovych deployed an anti-riot force called the Berkut, sparking violent responses that were answered with deadly escalations.
Americans cheered on the resistance, aghast at the brutality of the regime, and inspired by the resolve of the opposition.
Yanukovych’s behavior throughout that episode exposed his cowardice and confirmed his illegitimacy. Just as he had buckled under pressure from Putin, he fled the country when his political opponents finally deposed him. Ukraine’s current President set a better example. When push came to shove with Putin, he didn’t buckle, and he never ran.
That’s generally how most Americans see it. Regrettably, many people in Russia, and quite a few here as well, prefer to believe Putin’s lies. They’d rather indulge in false flag theories about who killed whom during the battle of the Maidan. They claim that Banderists run the whole country, neglecting to note that their political party won barely 2% of the vote in the last election and has no seat in the legislature. Russians steep themselves in paranoid speculation about global conspiracies to destroy their country. They ignore the record of Russia’s destructive territorial ambitions, and they diligently avert their attention from the plain facts of who deserves accountability for the shootdown of MH17.
Inattention to why Putin’s lies resonate for his loyalists struck me as a huge mistake. I wanted to understand precisely where their baselines of truth diverge from mine. And I knew that unraveling the Bandera controversy would be critical for solving the puzzle.
The reaction to my post was quick. A few Ukrainian expats insisted that the middle of an invasion was the wrong time to be engaging the invader’s propaganda.
I understand. If there’s no mitigating moral excuse for Russia’s criminal aggression in Ukraine, why put Bandera in the news and give people a way to imagine there is?
That risk isn’t unwarranted, except there’s a bigger one… the ignorance of history that got us into this mess.
History shouldn’t be news. Not breaking news. Not trending news. Not old news. Knowing how to tell the difference shouldn’t be news either.
This is a call to action. Let Ukraine bequeath a better heritage. Bandera should be relegated to history, familiar to those who read it, rather than standing in stone as a clear and present monument to hate.
When the war started, I experienced a shift in attitude that astonished me. For the first time in my life, I felt like a hawk. It was eye-opening.
Russia lost a lot of friends that morning. This was an atrocity of enormous consequence. Giving George Bush Jr. a run for the title of Greatest War Criminal of the 21st Century is not a good look. Now a monster, Putin had to be fought. There seemed no other way to stop him.
For what it’s worth, I had always agreed with those who denounced the folly of taking former Warsaw Pact territories into NATO without having Russia fully on board. I can get very wonky about it.
In the years since the Soviets folded, instead of fashioning a security architecture for a “new world order” likely to last, and despite our victory pledge to respect the sovereignty and security of the Kremlin-based successor state, the US went on to stack the deck against the descendant institutions of our old adversary.
NATO expansion was bound to alarm the Russian people and undermine their willingness to trust America’s promises ever again. So was our unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which had been the cornerstone of the nuclear arms-control framework between the two superpowers since the Nixon era. And so was our wanton destabilization of countries that had previously been in the Soviet sphere. Without a countervailing superpower to deter us, we launched interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen that sparked massive humanitarian crises in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
At the end of the Cold War we told the Russians it was safe to drop their guard against us. We then proceeded to back them into a corner, rudely encroaching into their old sphere by arming their neighbors. Our most seasoned and significant geopolitical experts predicted that the Russian leadership couldn’t ignore the powerful American weapons and live ammunition moving closer to their borders. They would come to regard it, rightly, as a heedless betrayal.
The misadventures arising from our country’s proclivity for intervention only made things worse. Russian ministers called it the “regime change road show.” America’s main contribution to the global security architecture over those decades is clear. We made the world ever more foolishly dangerous for both of us.
It’s fair to ask why we did it.
The easy answer is that America’s political culture has been captured by corporate titans of a military industrial complex run amok. They and their entourage in government and industry pile up the dividends of war while the rest of the globe reaps a suffering planet. The sociopathically-inclined among them celebrate Ukraine’s fight as a way of killing Russians on the cheap. It’s hard not to notice how so many of America’s biggest political scandals circle back to Ukraine… or that it’s become a perennial fountain of paydirt for political lobbyists and arms suppliers rooted in the DC establishment. Business keeps booming. As the comedian Jon Stewart correctly observed, “The military industrial complex is the one undefeated combatant in all of our adventures.”
When we were on top of the world, as the last superpower standing, we pridefully told ourselves that liberal democracy had prevailed and that our former Communist opponents would evolve institutional manners that increasingly resembled ours. Our old rivals may have thought so too, but not for long. America’s political culture has suffered a sharp decline since then. Our wretched dysfunction is no role model for anyone. Instead of becoming like us, today they ask, “What’s become of you?”
That easy answer reflects a hard truth. America’s toxic polarization is becoming more aggravated each election cycle. Continuing the trend jeopardizes our resilience as a constitutional republic. The creaking and cracking of America’s political edifice has been noticed, most of all by people expecting to witness our tumble from global preeminence.
Some think it’s wiser to bide their time and let us decompose until we fall. Others want to accelerate things by acting openly to kick us over. Either way, no one with much knowledge of history would declare the United States immune to the cycles of empires.
It’s like clockwork. You don’t need to welcome our decline to anticipate it. Especially if we keep flushing our best cards away.
The bottom line is that Putin’s war is intolerable. America’s mismanaged turn at global hegemony is no excuse for his violations of international law. If the Russians care about their country’s reputation as a trustworthy member of the international community, they’ll need to honor their commitments as a state to respect their neighbor’s territorial integrity. And Russians who claim to cherish a shared lineage with the people in Ukraine should think again about the virtues of waging a war that calls to exterminate them.
Imagine a teen who feels they’ve been bullied and exploited by some kids in school, year after year, grade after grade. Finally, one day, that simmering resentment boils over. However much it might be our fault that he finally went nuts, now the shots are flying, the dead are dropping, and urgent response is necessary. Putin won’t stop until he’s stopped. The Ukrainians are first in the line of fire.
Metaphors aside, the reality is worse. Throughout this war, Russian media have reeked with cutthroat, genocidal rhetoric. Murderous hatred floods their airwaves, spewed by celebrity extremists at the top of their lungs. Russian television has come to treat the broadcast of malevolent bigoted bluster as an art form. Huge swaths of the public lapped up content from the warmongers Prigozhin and Girkin before those two got on Putin’s wrong side. Their popularity was inseparable from their demands for tools to kill Ukrainians faster, and there’s been no shortage of pundits stepping in to fill the gap.
Americans who get exposed to snips of Russian media on YouTube will recognize the open bloodthirst. Anti-Ukrainian animus runs deep there. Understanding the historical background will show how far.
The bottom line is that many Russians – perhaps 15-25 percent – think Ukrainian identity is a scam. They consider Ukraine and Ukraine-ness to be a historical con job. They believe its leaders are perpetrators of a massive fraud. They want the country eliminated, exterminating as many people as it takes to get the job done. They call Ukrainians ghouls and bacilli and want the Ukrainian language removed from existence. They can’t imagine that the territory they see as a provincial backwater could be someone else’s lovely heartland. They claim to love Kiev, but only to justify war in the same way the Crusaders loved Jerusalem.
These “angry patriots” are overjoyed to see Putin ruin Ukraine. What they want is no less than genocide.
This mindset is nurtured by a myth based on a real event that occurred very early in the 20th century, over 100 years ago. It was a Polish intelligence operation involving the pre-radio equivalent of a “fake news” campaign. The goal was to undermine Russia’s political cohesion by triggering ethnic instability throughout its territories.
Russia’s hawks have convinced themselves that, but for Poland’s trickery, no person living on the lands between Kiev and Crimea would have ever come to believe that Ukraine existed as a nation. That Polish ploy, goes the tale they tell each other, made traitors to the motherland out of gullible hicks who were duped into forgetting their Russian-ness.
In Putin’s embellished telling, Ukrainians owe everything to Vladimir Lenin, who made excessive political concessions to localized nationalists after the Bolshevik Revolution. Putin faults Lenin for playing a weak hand too generously while attempting to reconsolidate Russian-controlled dominion over territories lost in World War I. Then, to make matters worse, Lenin fed Ukraine’s counterfeit roots by instituting a cultural revivalist policy called korenizatsiya. Stalin reversed Lenin’s tolerance of a distinctive Ukrainian social identity, but gets some blame, too. Stalin not only left nominal structures of Ukrainian sovereignty in place, he also fortified them by securing a seat for Ukraine in the United Nations
In other words, Russian hawks repeat a familiar story… Ukrainian identity is a nasty mind-virus planted by outsiders.
That myth is deployed as a permission slip. It opens the door to bombing cities and shooting civilians. It transforms Ukraine’s lush fields into a shell-pocked hellscape. It provides a rationale for destroying jewels of Ukrainian culture. It justifies the theft of washing machines and the return to trench warfare. It writes a sordid new chapter in the history of aerial warfare. It allows the kidnapping and resettlement of Ukrainian children for the sake of restoring their “stolen” Russian identity.
This fable sanctions a war to expunge and exterminate any remaining Western influence on Ukrainian territory, its human hosts be damned. This dream of domination unleashes human capacities that, left unchecked, devolve into venal irrationality.
Americans of the Vietnam era justified the obliteration of Vietnam with the same façade of cleansing liberation. Their “pacification” policy pretended to explain the wanton demolition of peoples’ homes and livelihoods with the logic, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Earlier in American culture, during their war to perpetuate slavery, the Confederates adopted a similar pretext of purifying violence. They had a catchy song with a lyric in the chorus that went, “To arms! To arms! And conquer peace for Dixie!”
To plumb the depravity of Russia’s descent, watch TV there. Read their papers. Listen to their radio. State-sanctioned media traffic in misleading tropes and shameless slurs. Like Soviet-era propaganda, the goal is to keep domestic audiences compliant and complacent. The proclivity for building a cult of personality around a single autocrat is still there. And so is the grinding censorship and political repression. But there are some exceptional differences.
Start with their emblems. The Communist Party hammer and sickle on the Soviet flag signaled alignment with workers and peasants. Like the Christian cross and the Islamic crescent seen on many flags, it’s a universalizing crest, upholding expansive ideals deemed greater than those of just one nation. Putin’s Zwasitka, however, is overtly inward looking and exclusionary. It’s based on the letter Z in the word “za” which means “for,” In Russian. It’s shorthand for the slogan “Za Rossiya! Za Putina!” This typographic mascot appears on tanks, banners, billboards, and bumper stickers, and presumably in the heart of every zed patriot.
Like many insignias of the fascist aesthetic, Putin’s Z has a bladed look. The propaganda campaign that introduced the war’s cunningly simple logo was launched over the caption “Svoikh Ne Brosaem,” meaning “We don’t abandon our own.”
It’s a far cry from “Workers of the world, unite!”
Soviet media and propaganda traditionally celebrated what was called the “family of nations,” Ukraine included. The campaign sought to legitimize the USSR’s assimilationist designs and grow its international appeal. Communist ideologists had always modeled their ambitions as explicitly anti-racist. Though life in the USSR certainly failed to meet that ideal, public aspirations matter. This partly explains why the US and the USSR could find common ground for a successful wartime alliance against Hitler, and also one of the reasons why the rabidly anti-Bolshevik Churchill unabashedly preferred Stalin. Despite all too many shortcomings in practice, our charter myths shared a sincerely self-congratulating sentiment of goodwill for all sources of humankind. Hitler’s certainly did not.
Soviet-style inclusivity turned out to be a fairy tale, as Jewish refuseniks, Crimean Tatars, and countless others learned the hard way. That didn’t stop state television from proclaiming it as an honorable dream or from showcasing cultural diversity. The normative commitment may have been largely superficial, but things could have been worse. Failure to meet an attractive aspiration is better than walking away from it. Take heart in the observation by Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld that “Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.”
In contemporary Russian media, the tone is obviously different. The airwaves over Moscow have lost their manners. Respectable decorum has given way to hateful tirades. Paeans to multi-cultural dignity have been drowned out by orgies of bigotry.
What’s also been lost is the traditional Communist preference for adult-in-the-room, matter-of-fact atheism. Russian media now normalize astrologers, soothsayers, and prophets of the Christian apocalypse. Evening television features pundits and preachers who brazenly welcome World War III and the consequent extinction of human life on Earth. They tell their audiences that Russians are guaranteed a joyous afterlife in Heaven while the satanic heathens of the Woke West are doomed to burn in Hell. Loyal viewers keep tuning in. They won’t hear of anything else. Putin says it too, as he portrays himself waging holy violence in service of an Imperial mission.
Faith in historical determinism has given way to rooting for rapture. Vanguards of the proletariat have been replaced by hyper-national mystics.
Predictions of Communist Utopia and Heavenly Eternity reflect very different flavors of magical thinking. The Marxist version of destiny would have let most people live (at least according to the original theory). But the people who now run the show in Russia declare themselves to be righteously remorseless agents of God’s eternal vengeance. They’re on a mission. Smiting Ukraine is not the end for them, it’s the beginning.
There’s nothing new about people claiming the authorization of mystical agency to justify murder. Supernaturalism provides a license to behave with vindictive violence under the guise of an obligation to do so. Putin’s regime is simply an instance of one of the deeper pathologies in the human condition.
But magical thinking isn’t necessary for this. There’s also nothing new about people indulging in careless caricatures to justify bigoted behavior. And there’s nothing new about people seeking to punish an entire nation or group or class in perpetuity, assigning collective guilt for an ancestor’s crime.
Ukrainians are no slouches at that venomous game. Bandera’s statue is proof.
For readers who want more, Wikipedia has the gruesome details about Bandera’s life and his efforts to join the constellation of fascist dictators who had been coalescing around Hitler across Europe. Suffice it to say that he led a fighting force that rounded up Jews and Poles for either immediate murder or the camps. He also coordinated that organization’s wartime alignment and joint operations with the Nazis against the USSR. About 220,000 combatants were loyal to him while nearly 4,400,000 Ukrainians fought in the Red Army. The Nazis and their Banderist allies were responsible for the deaths of at least 5,500,000 Ukrainian civilians, leaving a legacy of notorious massacres in Lviv and Volhynia.
Bandera died long ago. Why, in 2008, did Ukrainians give life to a symbol bound to stir resentment? Why make a move certain to antagonize if antagonism is not the intent?
That’s a rhetorical question. Antagonism was indeed the intent.
The Bandera statue in Lviv wraps an act of insult in a myth of honor. It’s an example of how our deep-seated capacity for tribal cruelty gets amplified by modern institutional power. We humans have inherited an instinct for territoriality that’s been channeled into crafting monumental affronts as intentional impediments to convivial peace.
A cunning strategy goes into this. Americans who wish to understand it can use our own country’s history as a mirror.
The Bandera statues that appeared across Ukraine in recent years are sadly comparable to the Jefferson Davis statues that were erected across the American South early in the 20th century. About 700 statues celebrating Confederate leaders were finally built, mostly in the 1920s, mostly in Virginia and Georgia. Across America, as the statues rose, white supremacists felt free to attack thriving but outmatched black communities. It happened methodically. Their savage campaign to block social development among descendants of the formerly enslaved cheated millions of the country’s blessings.
Jim Crow America was a world built for trodding on the downtrodden. Its infrastructures forced black populations into submissive postures and chastening behaviors. Those who designed the landscape were rather proud of their handiwork, which left them free to laugh at the sorrows and mock the destitution of their oppressed subjects. Statues of their Confederate heroes complemented the horrific “strange fruit” of Southern scenery, along with the segregated water fountains and the other so-called “separate but equal” features of that world’s material environment. These grand monuments were capstones of a resurgent white supremacy, vainglorious declarations of victory in a drive to reimpose domination.
The monumental symbols of the Confederacy come with a lovely cover story much like those of Bandera’s. Their builders will say they want to give tribute to the struggle for sovereignty. They’ll say they want to show pride in the readiness to fight for that sovereignty by honoring the courageous leadership of those willing to sacrifice themselves for it.
Similar narratives are heard all around the world. They herald sacred traditions of political autonomy. They uphold the virtues of independence and self-determination. They ennoble the urgent power of resistance when resistance is called for.
Defenders of the Confederate statues plainly admit they want to bake their heritage into the American scenery and keep it there. Filling the landscape with shackling symbols and humiliating constraints was the plain purpose of their project.
These statues are, at the root, primal dominance displays. People who build them do so to convey targeted threats via icons that embody vigilant antagonism. They take pride in the act of taking pride at another’s expense.
Like the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, the Banderist project reflects a thirst for return to some imagined state of purity. It assumes the inherited glory of what is “ours” and what makes “us” us. It pits that claimed entitlement against anyone who would intentionally dare to spoil it or, simply by their presence, adulterate it. It sanctions pre-emptive revenge.
Masquerading as memorials to sacrifice, these projects explicitly celebrate violent suppressors, and implicitly, suppression. They provide vehicles for feeling part of something bigger than you by reducing others to something smaller. It’s as if to say, “The symbol of our dignity is the one that denies yours.”
Soviet-era Ukraine was a forest of symbolic yokes. Over 5,000 monuments to Lenin were taken down there following the USSR’s dissolution in 1991. During the removal process, which spanned decades, a new generation of fascist ultranationalists arose to exploit lingering resentment of Russian domination. The name of their party, Svoboda (freedom), masks what they would deny certain others. Forty or so Bandera statues have gone up since the mid-2000s, and numerous streets have been named after him. There is nothing tacit about the exclusionary hatred being voiced by his unrepentant devotees. Their model of a civic hero would never be mistaken as a unifying one.
Bandera is the rudest possible proxy for Russophobia. Ukrainians who dislike Russia have plenty of national grievances to choose from, especially the famine that Stalin forced on the country in the 1930s. That national catastrophe, called the Holodomor, took about 8,5000,000 lives. Historians argue whether Communist-led militant collectivization was the chief cause of the disaster. Some ascribe it to ethnic cleansing. Either way, for survivors, the Holodomor was a hell engineered in Moscow.
Independence after the Cold War opened space in Ukraine for learning how to say, “Never again” and for experiencing the joy of finding creative solutions to common problems. But that space is poisoned when a champion of sacred retribution stands as the steward of Ukraine’s tranquility. The noxiously discordant Bandera is utterly miscast for that role.
Bandera never valued an enduring peace with an independent Russian state, which is precisely what the Ukrainian state should seek. He never valued neighborly relations with Russian people on Ukrainian territory, which is exactly what all Ukrainian citizens should welcome.
If Ukrainians want to rule out any possibility of steadily improving sociability with Russians, keeping Bandera’s statues and the street signs bearing his name is sure to guarantee it. Otherwise, these unworthy symbols must come down. If Zelensky means what he says about “fighting for the values of Europe and the world,” the statues and signs should come down now.
Russophobia is a real thing. I got a small taste of it one day, very long ago, when I had just started learning the language. While standing in line for a movie I tried out a simple greeting to some people I heard chatting in a Slavic tongue which I had naively misconstrued. That’s how I discovered that speaking Russian can be a good way to get a bad look. The couple, who turned out to be Polish, relaxed when I explained I was an American student. I’ve since learned that this nasty kind of interaction happens to Russians a lot, and not just around Poles.
Tensions between Russians and Ukrainians are supercharged by short-sighted geopolitics, state-sanctioned millennialism, and a metastasizing global gun plague. But tense personal interactions catalyzed by hostility, grievance, and fear can be the most poisonously dire of all. People know very well when they’re on the receiving end of a slight.
Russians around the world can recount the details about a nightmare that saw daylight in Odessa in May 2014, when a pro-Ukrainian mob got into running street fights with a pro-Russian one after a soccer game. The battle culminated with the Ukrainians trapping the Russian group inside a building that was then set on fire. Over forty people died; another 200 were injured.
Russians also remember what happened immediately after Yanukovych’s government was deposed that year. The very first bill passed by Ukraine’s 450-member Supreme Council – the Vokhovna Rada – was designed to severely undermine the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Government in post-Soviet Ukraine has been riven by an inability to ensure equitable language protections across the county. The challenge is to strike a balance between confirming Ukrainian as the official state language and safeguarding Russian as a popular regional language, or else finding some other way around. The point is to deal with it.
This ongoing political failure prior to the invasion stemmed from a mutual refusal to address that challenge directly. Brawls and fistfights on the floor of the legislature substituted for discourse. Every exchange of the political upper hand was used by the winning side to deliver payback to the other, rather than as an opportunity to move the whole country forward.
It’s an instance of a general problem. Each side’s drive for sacred retribution is sharpened by the other’s.
Blood feuds like the Hatfields and the McCoys or the Crips and the Bloods or the Medicis and the Pazzis recapitulate habits of multi-generational revenge. Mass murder plagued European Catholics and Protestants for centuries. We see the same proclivity for gleeful savagery and escalating butchery visiting new horror on Palestinians and Israelis. Organic hatreds pour out tragedy. Sibling rivalries can go on interminably as opponents learn to live in peace with the crimes they commit in the name of priority. Each side weans its children on the nectars of grievance and spite.
History never fails to demonstrate humanity’s acute aptitude for inciting strife beyond reason. We are adept at locking ourselves into a purifying philosophy of lethal simplicity… “It’s either us or them.”
Putting an end to such codependent catastrophes is always possible. When the mayhem stops and healing begins, shattered bonds can yield newfound strengths.
Over several weeks prior to February 24, 2022, let’s recall, the American government announced its prediction that Putin would attack Ukraine. The Russian government said there would be no attack. The Ukrainian government said little. Many observers, Russians included, said no attack would happen because Putin wasn’t crazy. Yet he and his riled up inner sanctum of sycophants and war merchants proceeded as predicted. Now Sweden and Finland are in NATO, Germany is rearming, uncounted thousands of Russia’s young men have died or fled, and the American military industrial complex gets itself a windfall. And now many millions of Ukrainians have found new cause to hate Russians as much as the tiny pockets of Banderists ever did.
Putin’s best hopes for escape from this fiasco ride on the American election system failing his way again.
Let’s also recall how, as events unfolded after Putin launched his war, his astonishing failure to take Kiev resulted in worldwide admiration for the Ukrainian national character. Global respect deepened again when the invaders were pushed out of Kharkiv and Kherson.
During World War II, in battle after punishing battle, Soviet valor won the same sort of appreciation for turning back the Nazis. An American President rushed to help then too, gladly and generously.
Russians and Ukrainians share a distinctive capacity for showing spine while suffering. They’ve both earned stellar reputations for facing down unparalleled danger. Both prize their culture’s own claim to inexhaustible fortitude and final invincibility. But the sheer intensity of their in-group loyalty whets chronic appetites for revenge.
That’s how rival duos get so deeply locked into internecine incivility. To keep their own blood untainted by the rule of another, they’ll fight to the last pure drop of it. Doomed by “honor” and determined to go on this way, they’ve reconciled themselves to a life of taking solace or taking pleasure in spilling the blood of others. They embrace the destiny of ever more resourceful warriorhood and ever accumulating memorials of grievance deserving retribution. It allows them to believe their own sins are washed away by some higher righteousness, while those of their opponents will be eternally unforgiven. They’ll burn down the world till the last thing alight is their hatred.
Evolution has constructed an odd adaptation out of this strange symbiotic exchange. Honed by long infighting over competing claims to innate superiority, we humans are masters at the skilled practice of fooling ourselves.
Fortunately, history is a mixed bag. It also provides some wisdom about how to break the pattern. There is a rich heritage available to us that calls for ending the “eye-for-an-eye” cycles of slight after slight by waking up to the possibility of mastering our urge to master others.
There was a time when I romanticized Crimea as traditionally Russian. I imagined that its return could ultimately be good for everyone. Reversion to its pre-1954 territorial alignment would have helped secure the voting majority of pro-European Ukrainians, reducing the knife-edge instability of the country’s politics. Moving to temper such a delicate flashpoint, I predicted, would have made the prospects for investment and development in Ukraine’s eastern regions far more favorable. I expected many Ukrainians would have welcomed that promising kind of split-the-difference solution if they took the time to think about it.
Not anymore. As I see things now, Putin forfeited his best chance to win back Crimea lawfully. He closed the window on constructive diplomacy when he let his belligerence get the best of him. Perhaps some decent interval of years after he’s dead and buried, Crimean voters could cast ballots on it. But the outcome should depend on proper legal processes, not bullets. Now I want to see Ukraine’s flag prevailing over every inch of ground that was within its internationally recognized borders before Putin’s little green men appeared.
I want to see a Ukrainian victory. Victory means that the Russians turn their artillery around and go home. It would mean that they stop their aerial bombardment of Ukrainian territory, and that their soldiers put down their guns and start cleaning up the mine fields they planted. It would mean that all the land taken would be surrendered back in an orderly process subject to negotiation and oversight. Refugees and stolen children would return home to safety. For starters.
I’m still lined up with the hawks. I don’t begrudge the Ukrainian army any weapons it needs to take its territory back. And I don’t begrudge Zelensky for having been so demanding toward Nato. He’s asking everything of his soldiers, so it’s his job to ask everything for them. Moreover, I don’t begrudge him for accepting help from soldiers who celebrate monsters like Bandera.
I’ve participated in enough demonstrations and observed enough history to recognize circumstances in which people find themselves working shoulder to shoulder with otherwise incompatible collaborators but persist anyway. Despite the risk of being associated with principles and behaviors at odds with my own, it’s encouraging when diverse hearts and minds somehow find alignment in a struggle we deem so essential, we’re grateful to have each other. When confronting a threat so urgent that immediate response is vital, it’s natural to welcome allies who demonstrate exceptional initiative, dependability, and strength,
By the same token, when I’m seen standing among the hawks, refusing to impede them, it doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten why I was standing in opposition to them before. I haven’t abandoned respect for the dovish principles that would have kept the world out of this mess. What matters most immediately is victory. The sooner Ukraine wins, the sooner war is over.
My compromise with the hawks isn’t meant to condone their principles but to advance the prospects for victory. That doesn’t stop me from pointing out that their way of agonizingly murderous attrition is not the only way. There’s an open field for a battle of ideas, subject to well understood strategies and maneuvers. Moral high ground is available for the taking. From there, all the conditions can be reset.
That’s why it’s necessary to recognize that Bandera’s statues and placenames must come down now. When the Ukrainians get all their land back, they’ll get back all their land’s problems. Victory on the ground can’t bring an enduring peace if Ukrainians refuse to rid themselves of the Banderist taint. Public veneration of a Nazi collaborator is no way to build a national brand compatible with regional concord. Antagonistic statues must go, and so must policies that confer second-class citizenship on people who speak Russian. This is how to turn the page to more normal neighborly relations within the country and more happiness adjacent. It’s not “unwise or untimely” to say so.
Ukraine’s soldiers aren’t fighting for Bandera. They’re fighting for a Ukrainian state that’s a safe harbor for the Ukrainian nation. They want a righteous victory. They’d be happy for a big one. The point is to think virtuously about how to raise a unifying flag. If only Bandera could father Ukrainian statehood, then it couldn’t be done.
Ushering away the statues and the placenames will be delightfully easy for nearly everyone, but very hard for a few. Some will suffer to lose a hero but will move on. Some won’t give up holding a grudge over the loss, but won’t demand that others do. Some, however, may simply refuse to surrender their animosities. And some among those, unfortunately, will insist on amplifying their compulsions for extremist ethnic nationalism. There’s no guarantee their number, though few, will become extinct. It makes sense, therefore, to offer my analysis of the attitude that drives the ideologies such people tend to find fashionable. Its prospects for success warrant attention:
Members often claim Spartan inspiration, glorifying a hyper-vigilant territorialism that tends to breed purveyors of violence. They belong to their war and thereby to each other in their collective struggle against some common enemy. They constitute an in-group of people who barricade themselves into isolation, to be alone with their customs and the authenticity of the immutable truths they proclaim for themselves. They preserve and expand their grandiose self-projection by pushing out-group people away, if not subjugating them. Taboos are clear: Diversity is anathema; outsiders belong outside; mixers are traitors; apostates are the most traitorous of all.
They decorate themselves as holy avengers, in this case with death masks and crosses.
Their insular worldview is antithetical to a flourishing world. It equates national survival with perpetual warfare and near-constant sense of crisis (barring realization of a supremacist’s Utopian dreams, whether successful genocide or unchallenged domination). In broad form, it’s an exclusionary policy of hypervigilant autarky. It rejects cultural or ethnic contributions from any entity deemed insufficiently pure, except, perhaps, as trophies.
Having no object other than war itself makes a policy of ethnic supremacy likely to fail. Having only the attractions of everlasting blood feud, its audience is limited, and its adoption is maladaptive.
War is deep in our nature. Ancient Greek myths characterized it through the god Ares, whose children were Deimos (terror), Phobos (fear), and the cursed Harmonia. Following that god before all others invites a chaotic fate. But the Greeks also had a goddess specific to victory in war… Nike, with her brothers Zelos (rivalry), Kratos (strength), and Bia (force).
Victory in the war at hand calls for grand strategies and effective utilities grounded in first principles that promise political success at scale.
Carl von Clausewitz famously taught that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” For Clausewitz, war is “the means of reaching” the war’s actual goal. He carefully defines that goal as the “political object.” In other words, when war ends, resort to diplomatic means returns. Peacetime, therefore, puts a premium on knowing how to win at policy.
Hans Morgenthau’s strategy for peacetime triumph boils down to a prescription to become more powerful by acquiring allies. It suggests that conquests turned allies will be more reliable as such when they feel empowered by the deal. If the parties calculate that their alliance is mutually beneficial, each with a stake in the other’s success, and if they are competent at basing that calculation on fair assessments of risks and rewards, they’ll be well positioned to collaborate in reduction of common vulnerabilities and threats. Morgenthau would call that a good deal. Winning at policy, therefore, links purposes in ways war does not.
This alliance-valuing perspective links the concept of political victory with esteem for skill at joining virtuous cycles of constructive partnerships. It incentivizes leaders to become effective purveyors of alliances by practicing responsible diplomacy and neighborly manners. The theory promises far more value to modern states than exasperated resorts to war ever could.
Times of peace are naturally auspicious for disciples of victorious alliance. Times of war shouldn’t have to sideline them. A conflict like Putin’s War can fail to run out its Clausewitzian course for quite a while. It doesn’t help matters that it’s being driven by students of violence in Russia and Ukraine who are so well steeped in traditions of resourceful determination. Thus far, their mutual diligence has left us quite a bloodbath.
Alternatively, readers of Mohandas K. Gandhi are guided to experiment at achieving political objectives via strategies and tactics that reject resort to violence. Rather than compounding violence till one’s opponent is physically vanquished, Gandhi’s method is concerned with creating dialog spaces for alliance building. Provocations are grounded in truth telling. Each move to advance seeks a position that can be simultaneously occupied by values presumably shared with the opponent. He coined the term satyagraha, meaning insistence on truth, to express the essence of his method, and to embody the mission of empowering people to resist evil without participating in it.
Gandhi’s thinking about strategic nonviolence profited greatly from his exchange of correspondence with the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, whose own views on the subject combined the Hindu doctrine of virtuous non-harming called ahimsa with his own radically humanist interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Their renowned dialog about how to awaken people to their moral potential linked Tolstoy’s wry observation, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,” with Gandhi’s, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Both believed in shouldering the burdens of self-suffering for the sake of loving one’s enemy. Both were alert to the predicament of people who were subject to the seemingly opposite but similarly dehumanizing intoxications of tyranny and servility. Both expected successful social transformation would depend on personal self-transformation.
Gandhi’s application of those insights in British India began with gathering complaints from thousands of oppressed farmers and submitting those documents to the authorities. Political drama ensued. His efforts soon escalated into organizing highly publicized acts of civil disobedience, including boycotts, strikes and marches.
Lessons from the Gandhian tradition were employed with great success by Martin Luther King Jr. as he experimented with alliance building techniques appropriate to the defeat of Jim Crow. That model focuses on developing tactics for meting out suffering aggressively, but in a manner designed to ensure the burden of suffering is shared. King referred to this as militant non-violence.
For example, the bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama triggered by the arrest of Rosa Parks in December 1955 juxtaposed the involuntary economic losses of the bus company’s owners against the voluntary and significant inconvenience of the riders. Between 30,000 and 50,000 residents of the area participated, achieving victory at the end of the following year when the Montgomery City Lines bus company agreed to drop the notoriously discriminatory and segregationist practices it had been imposing on African American riders.
Another example nearly ten years later occurred 55 miles away in the same state, when a group of well over 600 marchers demanding voting rights headed out from Selma to Montgomery. They recognized the likelihood of being clubbed and firehosed by police determined to block their way.
Determined to meet any violence without resistance, the showdown was set for Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the police behaved as expected, precipitating an event now called Bloody Sunday.
The goal of the confrontation was to ensure that the dreadful truth of Jim Crow would be witnessed everywhere. Predictably, images from the event shocked the American public, riveting national attention as new bids to complete the march were undertaken. That’s what the suffering of Bloody Sunday was for. King justified it as a Gandhian tactic intended to rouse observers from their “apathetic slumber,” disturbing their peace and thereby stirring their consciences. The method worked in that case, galvanizing bipartisan support for the Federal response that finally made it possible for the march to proceed and, just a few months later, for the Voting Rights Act to become law.
King spoke emphatically and often about refusing to seek retribution against oppressors. His nonviolent militancy was not intended, he said, “to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” In other words, despite the bitter realities and the brewing civil strife of the era, King found a way to become a purveyor of alliance.
White Americans had feared that centuries of oppression against people of African descent was on the verge of erupting into an organized violent backlash. Instead, black liberation activists elevated a champion who explicitly and eloquently decried the urge for retaliation. King’s broad and enduring popularity is testament to the power of unswervingly moral tactics. We Americans should thank our lucky stars we have him. As a symbol and statue, King is the anti-Bandera.
Like Clausewitz, King was concerned with how to achieve political objectives. But his method for reaching them stressed firm alignment of means and ends. Maneuvers within the framework of militant nonviolence sought “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor” so that each battle would move the sides toward reconciliation. Awakening involved making “good trouble” intended to upset habits of complacency and acquiescence that allowed oppression to thrive. The focus on shame reveals how means were linked to ends.
Aiming to awaken an opponent’s sense of shame is rooted in faith that the opponent possesses an inherent capacity to honestly reflect about an issue and then feel shame. The strategy is bound up with a belief that oppressors and oppressed share the same human capacity to distinguish justice from injustice, and the same instinct to recoil at undue suffering. Rather than dismissing oppressors as congenitally blind to injustice, purveyors of nonviolence strive to compel oppressors into repeated confrontations with evidence of injustice until their role in it becomes immediately apparent to them.
Getting to a happy ending is not necessarily a happy process. But the discomfort of shame isn’t meant to be permanent; the power of reflection is. Again, the point is to align means and ends. Adversaries can’t hope to reach the fertile oasis of potential policy alliance as long as one of them remains oblivious to its very existence. Applied to Ukraine, this means curing each side’s blindness to the dignity of the other.
It’s an open question how effective King’s techniques could be today. People know less about them now, over half a century later, because they’re so less often seen in action. He is still celebrated as a champion of justice here in the USA and across the globe, but more for the sake of good tradition than for sophisticated modeling of how to make good trouble. His message has been lamented by some as hallowed but hollowed. Moreover, with hindsight, criticisms abound. King’s nonviolent militancy, say the detractors, didn’t spare our country from recurring patterns of urban unrest. Inauspicious circumstances, sniff the disparagers, spell doom for the message of politically transformative nonviolence. Likewise, caution the sceptics, Gandhi’s message failed India and Pakistan after the British surrendered political control.
The critical task of awakening shame seems as daunting as ever. We live in an era of the inured. The previous American President built his brand on treating shamelessness as virtue. The current Russian one makes a big show of calling it out, except when he looks in a mirror. In both countries, across broad swaths of the public, but especially in Russia where it could count for so much right now, apathetic slumbers have hardened to diligent comas.
If a statue of Bandera falls in Ukraine, would any Russian hear it? Ukrainians have more than enough good reasons to take those wicked symbols down as soon as possible, regardless of how Russians react. But means align quite well with ends in this case, delivering the bonus of a good shot at provoking Russian media. Frame it as a nationally transformative embrace of the humanistic values propounded in the collectivist West. Give the people of the Russian Federation something to talk about.
Sanctioned media may dismiss the move as “info war,” but however the news of this gets spun, for some Russians it will be as jolting as the dawn.
Americans can get a sense of how to address Russia’s capacities for shame – and practiced incapacities for it — by recognizing how they line up with our own.
“For those who have been wronged and betrayed,” declared our last Republican President in a major speech, “I am your retribution.” No words could be more antithetical to how Dr. King worked the problems of the wrong and betrayed. But, as a man of his times, the ex-President knew that pledge would draw cheers. His notoriously loyal base thrills to his uninhibited mendacity and the utter brazenness of his contempt for propriety. His enablers adore him for getting away with it so skillfully.
No one questions his mastery of spiteful condescension. No one would deny that his unalloyed belligerence set the mold for my own Governor’s war on woke. But it’s important to recognize this is a theme in our politics. It’s cultural. These figures are not outliers. The prior Republican nominee ran on the slogan, “No Apologies,” a truculent blast against anyone willing to admit that America ever had anything to atone for or any need to transform itself.
Base-baiting partisans in the media feed on the business they get from broadcasting the ex-President’s taunts and slurs. Finger pointing outperforms problem solving. But it’s not just business. They revel in the sadistic kicks they get from “triggering” his movement’s political opponents. For the millions upon millions watching at home, whether in support or in horror, the political games of Character Assassination and Caricature Amplification – CACA – have become the new national pastime.
Beware the misdirecting anger circus. An earlier Republican President, George Bush, Jr. may have conveyed a more genial tone, but he brought far more damage to the world and, therefore, shame to this country. His geopolitical catastrophe set the stage for Putin’s. The disgrace of Trump’s Insurrection, on top of its leader’s many other repugnant associations, pales in comparison to the ignominy of Bush Jr.’s war in Iraq.
We keep repeating big mistakes. Our long record of needless wars, particularly Vietnam, speaks to our habitual evasion of historical responsibility. Passive insouciance to memory frees us to skip from one careless disaster to the next. This is no less true for the Russians, who might be able to understand their own predicament better if they could put it in perspective with our own.
In other words, for the Russians, Ukraine is akin to what Vietnam was for us — a quagmire that devours precious young lives and poisons the land where it is fought. Like Vietnam, Ukraine was justified as an existentially necessary response to the encroachment of a malevolent enemy empire. The fate of the Free World was supposedly at stake then, as it’s alleged to be for the Russian World now.
Like Iraq, Ukraine was invaded with expectations of a glorious speedy victory, but the conflict bled on and on. Like our “Low Intensity Conflict” wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, Ukraine is just peripheral news for the great majority of people back home. They go about their lives oblivious to the horrors of the reality that’s being manifested in their name, just as so many did during Russia’s devastation of Chechnya and Syria. When reporters trying to tell those stories were killed, most Russians, marinated in complacency, just practiced their shrugs.
Such self-degrading habits are not easily overcome. As a character in a Dostoyevsky novel put it, “Man gets used to anything, the scoundrel!” Enabling evasion of truth and responsibility is a solid business model. We’ve built a world for people who’d rather see themselves in the limelight than in a mirror. Like Americans, Russians happily assault themselves with weapons of mass distraction built from consumerism, carelessness, and infantilizing entertainment. Preoccupying the masses with bread and circuses is a venerable art. Truth is as good as concealed when so many heads stay turned away, fixated on the drama of the moment, or incapacitated by the lies drummed into them.
In that sense, for Russians, Bandera is like an enveloping curtain. It leaves their government free to keep the atrocities of its criminal war hidden from view. It leaves the public free to pretend they can see enough of what matters to know all that’s necessary to know about what’s going on. Few in the press or the public dare peek behind the curtain, satisfied with the confining but familiar opacity of their bogey-man draped perspective.
Removing Bandera’s statues would steal a Putin talking point and make the ugly reality of his enterprise distinctly less easy to conceal. It would advance a strategy of unveiling truths too troubling to tolerate.
11, The Maneuver
Our nation’s strategy in World War II was to insist on explicit unconditional surrender from our adversaries until the end of the war, and then to show energetic magnanimity toward them thereafter. It was plainly successful. Since that time, over the span of many wars, American leaders and political influencers have spoken less of victory in this or that war and more in terms of “police action” and “exit strategy.” Many of those wars were subsidiary to either the long-running Cold War, or the ongoingish War on Terror, aka “the forever wars.” The current proxy war in Ukraine suggests another category of doctrine altogether.
According to US State Department, the US “will stand with Ukraine… for as long as it takes.” That’s the extent of America’s clarity about its political objective. The intentionally fuzzy “it” offloads the task of bothering to explain any endgame at all.
American strategy currently boils down to guaranteeing the survival of Ukraine. Yes, for as long as Russia brings war, sustaining Ukraine’s capacity to resist is a legitimate national interest. But we have an even greater interest in a Ukrainian victory that brings peace.
If Ukraine is to win, the US will win as well. Victory requires framing what a fair and lasting peace would look like while. Tests of satyagraha, I have argued, can move the war to a more advantageous place faster by attending to obstacles and conditions disregarded by people who plan wars of attrition. In effect, this document is a petition to Ukraine’s Commander in Chief. A US government that wants victory in this war has good reasons to endorse it, and to give this provocation momentum.
The new vector of action proposed here does nothing to interrupt the operational and material support for Ukraine currently provided by the Biden Administration. Its primary goal, described earlier, is to help Ukraine develop institutional capacities for both domestic tranquility and peaceful relations with its neighbors. The secondary goal is to foster new allies in Russia by opening terrain for political awakening among the Russian people themselves.
We can begin to understand the political topography of the Russian Federation by comparing with it our own.
There is a scale at which Americans and Russians sort themselves into analogous political buckets, though at revealingly different levels. It’s not unreasonable to guess that the hawkish audience of Moscow’s “Turbo Zed” media corresponds in size to “Ultra Maga” partisans and fellow travelers here. Both have a taste for programs that play up vindictive traditionalism and wild storytelling. Their top talking heads like to appear on each other’s shows.
Unlike Russia, however, in the USA the right-leaning population is balanced in size and institutional heft by citizens who generally support the Democratic Party. The Russian analogue of nominally left organized liberals is tiny. Nevertheless, a small fraction of the Russian people adds up to millions.
The sooner Ukraine moves on from Bandera, the sooner more Russian cohorts who would rather oppose the war openly will step up and do so. Assume it will be hard on the pioneers. But we already know about Russian valor.
Americans have two other buckets in common with the Russians: One is for people cowed into silence by fear of persecution by the state apparatus. Regardless of how they feel, they know they will be denied the right to express it. They see themselves as making the best of the worst; they’re satisfied to tell themselves that silence is not support. Another bucket accounts for those who carry on aloof, escapist, and “comfortably numb” in willful oblivion with nothing to say at all. That pair of buckets accounts for the resolutely uninvolved of each country. The size of this combined group is thought to be significantly larger in Russia, at perhaps 60%, than in the USA, at around 35%.
I won’t hazard a guess at the ratio of Russians in the fearful bucket compared to the placid one, though it’s fair to assume the US tilts far more heavily toward placid. But this was not always as true. Our fearful bucket was much fuller during Jim Crow. At that time, black Americans in former Confederate states typically made up between 30% and 50% percent of the residents, meaning that a significant proportion of the US population was explicitly deterred from making expressions of grievance and demand through political speech. In light of that bucketed confluence, and, given the pedigree of thought back through Gandhi to Tolstoy, the steps developed to overcome Jim Crow in America might be relevant to motivated Russians.
There were two. First disrupt obedience to the system’s injustice; then disrupt indifference to that obedience.
Given the remarkably high level of practiced indifference in Russia to be surmounted, it’s useful to consider the challenges of the second at more length.
Functionally indifferent Americans who prefer to dodge contentious subjects typically do so by saying it’s not polite to talk about politics because political talk almost never is, and always is a waste of time anyway because speaking out makes no difference. Russians take avoidance to the next level. They’ll say they’re not qualified to challenge the experts or the powers-that-be because truth is buried in a haystack of irrelevance, trivialities, and falsehoods, leaving no way to know which media to trust, or to know what the truth really is.
Talking about politics, impolitic or not, is a choice many Russians tend to treat as strictly unavailable. They won’t just decline to discuss what are euphemistically called “provocative” topics… they’ll refuse. They’ve paid their tongues as ransom to keep out of trouble, resigned to the eternal stability of the motto, “We can do nothing to change our government’s policy. Just live and don’t worry.” The familiar phrase, “Ne voznikaiytye” translates colloquially as “Don’t stand out,” but etymologically as “Don’t raise anything original.” This inert alignment of deeds and creeds may represent the only example of moral achievement within their reach. In the worst-case scenario for Russia, that fatalistic copout, “We didn’t have a choice,” charts a course toward the North Korean model, ending up at a place where it’s not safe to go, not safe to leave, and where free inquiry has no quarter.
For Russians who want to live unmuzzled, challenging the indifference of the muzzled mindset entails finding places to do it. But Russia lacks many of the venues available elsewhere, especially of the kind which served so well in the Civil Rights era. These included open media, a competitive political environment, and sustenance from a thriving, independent clergy. Today’s Russia has none of those. The Russian Orthodox church is all but fused to Putin’s mystical Imperialism. Other institutions have been fully weaponized as his complicit henchmen, including the legal system, media, and the schools.
Virtual space seems more auspicious. It’s fast and it scales. It provides connection with an activated diaspora and a rich platform for organized messaging. But the Internet’s emancipatory potential means little if people stay indifferent to it.
The Russian system stays ossified because vestigial totalitarianism begets tranquilized discourse. Abdication of moral reflection is sleep. Which, like sleep, induces a docile kind of peace.
To advance new narratives in Putin’s Russia is not just a matter of saying no to the night, but marshaling the power to say what the sunrise should deliver.
Though Tolstoy’s wisdom lies dormant in Russia today, fewer Russians might hit the snooze button on their moral alarm clocks if they heard a wake-up call chiming his message. But stirring themselves to respond is ultimately up to them. In the meantime, Americans should attend to unanswered reveilles here. For example, how long will we continue to insist that Russia respect Ukrainian territorial integrity while providing funding and political support that facilitates Israel’s unlawful taking of Palestinian land? How can we expect our adversaries to adhere to international law while we so obviously fail to hold our allies to the same standard?
There’s a doctrine of warfighting about how to confound an opponent’s ability to retaliate… Meet them when and where the battleground available to them hampers them, or from a level they can’t reach. A principled reversal suggests meeting at the most timely, accessible, and massive one, welcoming retaliation of Tolstoy’s caliber.
Or maybe this was just fan fiction for the good guys… A story about how to transform a friendly pitch to the Ukrainians into a Hail Mary pass for the Russians, and perhaps a gamechanger for the world.
Leadbelly’s 1934 recording “The Scottsboro Boys,” included a warning about the dangers of being black in Alabama: “I advise people to be a little careful when they go down through there. Stay woke. Keep your eyes open.” That same phrase, “Stay woke,” sung by Childish Gambino, opened Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film “Get Out.” Its meaning there was no different, essentially: “You are in extreme danger. Make the right decision.” In both cases, visceral dread motivates prudent advice about how to navigate what philosopher Cornell West calls the “catastrophic background” of the African American experience.
But Leadbelly also graced us with a sense of woke worthy of the entire American experience. On “Jim Crow Blues,” in 1939, he recounted a day when he was denied service at a restaurant in Las Vegas, concluding, “I just feel sorry for the people because they ain’t woke up yet. We’re in the same boat, brother. Why not be kind to each other?” He was able to fit that compassionate sense of the word to the world as a key, like a decent moral code that could prefigure a happier modus vivendi. Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King had the same end in mind.
Not everyone finds themselves so predisposed to working out merciful solutions. There will always be those who conceive of power as mastery over others rather than mastery over oneself. It’s our decision which conception to honor.
If it’s a surprise to think of woke in a noble way now — the way it was before it was hijacked by the culture wars — it’s partly because today, nearly a century later, we’re subject to a media that proliferates incommensurable architectures of existence and meaning. Taking on the cultural scourge they call wokeism has become a career choice for a legion of thought leaders in my Governor’s camp. Specific views on how to be anti-woke may differ among them, but they share the same conquering sign and pantheon of enemies.
This is a community that equates woke with obnoxious absolutism, incarnate arrogance, punitive zealotry, pious yet hypocritical virtue signaling, and an abundance of characteristic behaviors deemed tyrannical. The most outspoken of these thought leaders often make their charges quite vehemently, as if abrasive grandstanding absolves them from any culpability for the same complaint.
The meaning of the beautiful old word is not completely lost to them. It’s just a matter of no concern.
The linguist John McWhorter describes the original woke as a “positive term referring to an awareness of abstract but powerful sociopolitical arrangements that disempower too many people.” The other woke – the pejorative he prefers to write and talk about — is captured by the oxymoronic title of his 2021 book, “Woke Racism.” His subtitle “How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America,” calls out the worst kind of mind-virus a confirmed atheist such as McWhorter can conjure.
McWhorter coined “The Elect” as an alternate epithet for woke, naming the object of his disdain more precisely in order to strike it more bluntly. He says there is “no discussion to be had” with members of that mob because their project is indeed, he insists, tyrannical. The word elect fits his revulsion for the phenomenon, which he diagnoses as a nonnegotiable claim of superior entitlement to wisdom regarding America’s inheritance of inequality and how to address it.
Concerns about discriminatory inequality drive both generations of woke, so their roots do share an important bit of common ground. But for McWhorter the new version stands for “woke, but mean about it.”
McWhorter heaps extra scorn on a stream of thought called anti-racism. He faults it for an overly reductionist focus on power differentials that he considers to be myopic and tragically misleading. As a black American he’s directly aware that systems of oppression continue to shape inequality in America, but he argues that anti-racism creates perverse incentives to recapitulate it by subsuming human agency into an identity “stamped” by that inequality.
In other words, according to the anti-wokers, woke was co-opted by proponents of anti-racism (and compatriot ideologies such as Identity Politics) to serve an agenda predicated on sanctification of the oppressed through demonization of the oppressors.
America is burdened by the perennial embarrassment of people who find the demand to face down racism more discomfiting than racism itself. The same applies to poverty and abusive policing. The list goes on. Of course, as expressions of urgent political grievance, such demands are intended to be discomfiting. But indifference is a skilled practice. The reaction to the nationwide protests following George Floyd’s murder is a case in point. Rather than make an honest attempt to drill down and understand what the fuss was about, expert ringmasters in the anger circus found a word they could contort for their own purposes, refashioning it into the one that became my governor’s favorite slur.
The anti-wokers have artfully exploited a distinction between contemporary woke tactics and formulas developed during the civil rights movement. Activists back then concerned themselves with acquiring platforms from which to spread their message. Building a reputation for silencing opponents and quashing debate was not compatible with their task or purpose. This discrepancy hands celebrity anti-wokers a pretext to cast themselves the new stewards of free speech, even as their cohorts in the trenches are fully engaged in banning books and disenfranchising their opponents.
In that sense, the censorious anti-woke and the most strident vanguards of contemporary woke turn out to be two of a kind. For both, “there’s no discussion to be had.” Each side is motivated by an intent to exterminate the other’s power. Both are viscerally opposed to collaborative engagement.
Rather than admit we’re all in the same boat, they draw lines in the sand.
Regardless of which side of woke you’re on, when it comes to Bandera, the good thing to do is the right thing to do, which is a transformative thing to do, and a difficult thing to do.
I expect Ukrainians won’t give up on freedom. They can take heart from Mitch Landrieu, who, as Mayor of New Orleans in 2017, presided over removal of the city’s last remaining Confederate monuments. Reflecting on how those installations “sanitized” the Confederacy, he observed, “We justify our silence and inaction by manufacturing noble causes that marinate in historical denial.”