Among the wise admonitions imparted to us boys at my Jesuit high school was the injunction “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.”
I am not so sure about the interdiction against denial—it seems to me that there are plenty of things that call out for that—but there is a lot to be said for the celebration of making distinctions.
I wish more people were heeding that desideratum with respect to the events unfolding in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, many commentators and, urged on by an overexcited media, the public at large seem to have embraced an updated Manichaean view of the world.
It does have the virtue, or at least the character (I’m not sure it is a virtue), of simplicity.
In brief, according to this new Manichaenism, world affairs are a battle between good and evil.
Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is evil.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, is good.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that Putin is a thug, and a murderous thug at that.
Vocal opponents of Putin in Russia do not have a long life expectancy.
And let’s acknowledge, too, that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an outrageous violation of international norms.
It has been going on for a month now.
Reliable figures are hard to come by, but it is clear that there have already been thousands of casualties on both sides, as well as enormous property damage.
So, yes, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a moral outrage.
It is also shaping up to be something that Machiavellian commentators deplore even more vigorously: a huge strategic blunder.
But if Vladimir Putin is evil, what of Volodymyr Zelensky?
In the drama prepared for us by our government and the commentariat, he must be the opposite: the very incarnation of everything good and noble, right?
Well, Twitterers like Bill Kristol think so.
He recently issued a bulletin declaring his fondness for “Zelensky Democrats” like Liz Cheney (and himself, of course).
I don’t doubt it.
But what manner of democrat is Volodymyr Zelensky?
Telegenic, that’s one thing.
Before he was a politician Zelensky was an actor, and he clearly understands the importance of image.
He has gotten a lot of mileage out of his T-shirt, for example.
It’s an accoutrement that reeks of authenticity and was one thing, I believe, that prompted the entire Congress of the United States to give him a standing ovation when he addressed that august body via a video call last week.
I was in Washington, D.C., earlier this week and the embrace of all things Ukraine was patent everywhere.
Walking up “Embassy Row” on Massachusetts Avenue, I saw the Ukrainian flag hoisted in front of many embassies.
According to the commentator David Frum, “Ukraine may be the first example in human history of a country that, under the pressure of war, is becoming more tolerant and more liberal.”
That’s the narrative.
The reality is more complicated.
He also nationalized all media outlets in order to propagate a “unified information policy.”
How do you spell “Gleichschaltung”?
There are atrocities aplenty in war-torn Ukraine.
Not all of them are perpetrated by the Russians.
One of the more grisly episodes comes to us courtesy of a Ukrainian front-line medic, who announced that he had just ordered that captured Russian soldiers be castrated because, he explained, they were “cockroaches” not “human beings.”
That did not play very well in Peoria, so he apologized and assured his critics that he spoke out of turn and he would not order the mutilation of POWs after all.
That was nice of him.
Here’s a question: Is criticizing the behavior of Zelensky tantamount to supporting Putin?
I do not think it is, but it appears that Zelensky Democrats like Bill Kristol think so.
Bill seems very eager to push the United States into war with Russia.
Recently at The Bulwark, he got dressed up in his Winston Churchill costume and told us that 2022 was the new 1936.
He, just like Churchill out in political wilderness you see, is ringing the alarm bells, warning against the new Hitler (or is it the new Stalin?) Vladimir Putin.
“No matter how trying this moment is,” Kristol writes, “the period of great testing lies ahead of us. The immediate crisis is merely the beginning of a series of challenges that we’ll face for quite a while.”
Forever, if he has his way.
A better guide to current predicaments, including the war in Ukraine, is a comment the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig made in his memoir “The World of Yesterday” (1942) about the mood of irrationality that swept over society with the outbreak of World War I.
“War does not permit itself to be coordinated with reason and righteousness,” Zweig noted.
“It needs stimulated emotions, enthusiasm for its own cause, and hatred for the adversary.
“It lies in human nature that deep emotion cannot be prolonged indefinitely, either in the individual or in a people—a fact that is known to all military organizations.”
I think this is true. And Zweig’s next point follows as the night the day: “Therefore, it requires an artificial stimulation, a constant ‘doping’ of excitement; and this whipping up was to be performed by the intellectuals, the poets, the writers, and the journalists, scrupulously or otherwise, honestly or as a matter of professional routine.
“They were to beat the drums of hatred and beat them they did, until the ears of the unprejudiced hummed and their hearts quaked. In Germany, in France, in Italy, in Russia, and in Belgium, they all obediently served the war propaganda and thus the mass delusion and mass hatred, instead of fighting against it.”
And what was the result? Exactly what you would have expected:
“The results were disastrous. Shakespeare was banned from the German stage, Mozart and Wagner from the French and English concert halls, German professors declared that Dante had been Germanic, the French that Beethoven had been a Belgian, intellectual culture was requisitioned without scruple from the enemy countries like grain and ore …. It was not enough that thousands of peace-loving citizens were killing each other daily at the front. In the hinterland there was mutual berating and slandering of the great dead of the enemy countries, who had been slumbering in their graves for centuries.
“The mental confusion increased in absurdity …. It soon became impossible to converse reasonably with anybody in the first war weeks of 1914.”
What would he say about 2022?
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.