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Let's not be idiots this time, okay?
Wise up to the disinformation and the fashionable problematization that's giving Putin's oligarchy the advantage. Solidarity, unity and morale are important. Hearts and minds matter. Ukraine matters.
If you think that the fate of the Ukrainian resistance won’t much matter either way to those of us who are privileged to live in the world’s liberal democracies, your ideas are perfectly in tune with the fashionable cynicism of the times. No offence, but you’re also deluded and dangerously wrong.
In this special weekend edition of The Real Story, I’m going to show you why. You might want to put your feet up.
The global police-state bloc has been on the rise for 16 years now. The world’s democratic space is shrinking. Only about a fifth of the world’s people still live in fully free countries. Immediately before Russian tanks crossed the border into Ukraine on February 24, the venerable Freedom House organization released its annual report: “The global order is nearing a tipping point, and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail.”
Now that Vladimir Putin is waging a bloody war of conquest in Ukraine after obtaining all those “no limits” assurances from Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping during their Winter Olympics get-together, we’ve reached that tipping point. But there are powerful cultural and political forces at work within the NATO countries that are determined to lead you to believe otherwise, and to do Putin’s propaganda work for him. Pulling the Kremlin’s RT propaganda platform off the air won’t change that.
This matters a lot. It’s the subject of my National Post backgrounder & analysis this weekend. I’m going to be a more explicit in this newsletter, a lot more detailed, and a lot less polite in identifying the operators running this machinery. I’ll lead off with this bit, from the Post column:
In the United States, the Kremlin’s post-Soviet agitprop has coursed mostly through the veins of the far-right, or more precisely the Trumpist phenomenon that most Canadians across the spectrum would situate on the far right. . . In Canada, Russian disinformation and outright apologetics for Vladimir Putin can be found at the fringes of the “conservative” fringes. But it’s most ubiquitous in the environs of what you might call the “left.” Sorry about the quotation marks, but some attention to terminology will be useful to you if you want to know when someone’s messing with your head with tall tales about what “the mainstream media” is hiding from you.
As I point out in the piece, I had to put quotation marks around “the left” because there’s no functional difference between what the right-populist loon Maxime Bernier has to say about Ukraine and what the Toronto Star’s reliably unoriginal progressive woke-boomer Thomas Walkom, for instance, has to say.
Don’t come at me about this. I give full marks in that column to the New Democratic Party’s Heather Macpherson, and also to the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union. There’s still a Left out there that doesn’t require quotation marks around the word. It’s just that it’s been eclipsed by a phenomenon that consists almost entirely of certain radical-chic preoccupations of the bourgeoisie.
While its acolytes fancy themselves to be the arbiters of all that is “progressive” and all that is not, its entire rhetoric and he/she lexicon have been happily adopted by the corporate boards of banks, insurance companies, multinational high-tech giants, and certain not especially “liberal” governments.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether it’s really as radically “anti-establishment” as it purports to be. Its lineage descends most immediately from the post-911 jumble of Chomskyite incoherence that couldn’t even distinguish the Anglo-American misadventure in Iraq from the United Nations’ NATO-led national rebuilding mission in Afghanistan, and forcefully opposed any effort to draw such distinctions. It was all about U.S. imperialism, and the fixation stuck, right through the death-from-the-skies war crimes that Vladimir Putin dispatched his air force to carry out on behalf of the mass-murderer Bashar Assad, which began a decade after 911.
A lot of people were taken in by this, and now we’re admonished to carry on and unpack and problematize the outpouring of global solidarity with the Ukrainian people and their beloved president, Volodymyr Zelensky, using the same rhetorical toolkit, the same reliance on disproven allegations and the same lazy habits of mind. If you wanted to undermine the upwelling of righteous anger that will be necessary to sustain the commitments of otherwise reluctant NATO governments to the defence of Ukraine, you couldn’t choose a more cunning methodology if you tried.
But before I get into that, a brief word. I’m going to be taking a couple of days off. I’ve been at it without much of a break for 12 days and nights. So if you’ve come here via the webpage, be a good citizen and subscribe, ideally by paying the ridiculously generous low fee. If you’ve already subscribed and you’re getting the free version by e-mail, upgrade to a paid sub, $5.month.
In the weekend National Post I run through a shortlist of some of more outrageous lies and conspiracy theories that are at work in this milieu. I note that there’s really no point in explaining the details, because anyone who insists on trafficking in these tropes and narratives will not be disabused by facts. But there are devils in the details that warrant some close attention here. There’s an especially sordid story that needs to be understood about all this business about Chrystia Freeland, for instance, the politician Bernier describes as Canada’s “Nazi deputy prime minister.”
So now there are creepy elements on the “right” getting in on a hustle first popularized by the “left”. Conservatives are invited to be appalled that Freeland was photographed at a rally in Toronto holding a big scarf that’s really a banner for a group led by the notorious Nazi-era Ukrainian Jew-killer Stepan Bandera. Except it’s a lie. The words “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine) appear on the banner - a slogan that you’ll hear quite a lot from Ukrainian patriots of all political inclination these days. Oh dear, the banner was black and red! The colours of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army! During the 1940s the UIA factions fought both the Nazis and the Soviets. And besides, those colours have been associated with Ukrainian patriotism going back to the 1600s.
The whole “Freeland is a Nazi” canard is being circulated in tandem with the proposition that the only reason we’re so concerned about Ukrainians in the first place is because they’re a bunch of “white people.” I’ll come to that in a moment, but there’s also the lurid confection that Ukraine itself is a Nazi hellhole and we’ve all been duped by the mainstream media into liking it. That one persists even though Ukraine has a relatively mild infection of extreme-right politics compared to Russia and the rest of Europe. And President Zelensky is Jewish. And Ukraine’s entire spectrum of rightist parties managed to cobble together only 2.15% of the popular vote in the 2019 national elections, not enough to secure even a single seat in the Ukrainian parliament.
The charge can’t stick. It still won’t die. "Despite corporatist media denials, the neo-Nazi nature of Ukraine’s new pro-American regime is by now well established." So claims the British media personality Maajid Nawaz, the charming former Hizb ut-Tahrir fanatic turned celebrity counter-extremism activist turned radio presenter. He’s got 451,000 Twitter followers and an inclination to the conspiracy theory that the Covid-19 pandemic is a “fraud” concocted by Beijing to cripple western economies. He’s asked the FBI to investigate.
As for the conspiracy theory that Freeland is a closeted Nazi (she isn’t) and that she has been caught trying to hide her family’s “Nazi past” (also untrue), it’s one of the Kremlin’s most successful disinformation operations of recent years. And that’s saying something, when you consider all the mischief Moscow’s intelligence agencies carried out on Donald Trump’s behalf during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Macleans magazine sent me on a deep dive into the Bad Freeland, Bad Nazi scandal five years ago. You can read the result of my inquiries here if you like. Short version: No Nazi, No Scandal. What’s immediately pertinent, and what has tended to be overlooked or ignored: The “story” was quietly mainlined into the Canadian news media straight from Russia’s embassy in Ottawa on January 11, 2017. That was the day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the foreign-affairs portfolio from Stéphane Dion, one of the best friends the Kremlin ever had in a G7 country, and gave it to Freeland, one of the Kremlin’s most determined adversaries in the G7.
You’ll understand why this is significant right now if you’ve read the report In Plain Sight in this newsletter from this past Tuesday. See? That’s why you should subscribe. If you haven’t read it here’s the short version. After Dion had so bitterly opposed the idea of Canada enacting a “Magnitsky law” targeting Putin’s oligarchs, and after having courted Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov so passionately and for so long, Freeland and most of the Liberal caucus made it quite plain to Trudeau that Dion’s unseemly conduct was intolerable. He had to go.
For agreeing to be amicably shuffled off, Dion grudgingly accepted his reward: the plummiest of all diplomatic posts, which comes with the title the Honourable Stéphane Dion, Ambassador to Germany and Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe.
But here’s the really nasty part. While the heaviest millstones around the necks of German and European diplomats were being dramatically thrown off last weekend in a chain reaction of tectonic upheavals caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you’d think Canada’s Man in Europe would be at least somewhere in the vicinity of the drama. Even just leaning up against a wall in some Brussels palace, smiling tearfully and humming Ode to Joy. But not Stéphane Dion. While all those killer Magnitsky sanctions he doesn’t like were being launched at Putin’s oligarchy from the United States, Europe and Canada last weekend, Dion was elsewhere.
He wasn’t even hiding, either. He was down in Yerevan, Armenia, hanging around with the sullen senior officials of the only country in the 47-member Council of Europe to oppose Russia’s expulsion from the council for invading a European country.
As for the matter of Bad White Ukrainians, it’s true that over the past few days there have been some appalling reports from the Polish-Ukrainian border to the effect that Ukrainian refugees were being waved through while people who clearly weren’t ethnically Ukrainian were being held back. Although this story has been gleefully weaponized to Moscow’s advantage, those incidents should be rightfully condemned. But it would be useful to at least acknowledge the context.
It was only a few months ago that Vladimir Putin and his corpulent Belarusian marionette Alexander Lukashenko were “weaponizing” migrants in a hybrid-war confrontation with the European Union that involved luring thousands of Middle Easterners and North Africans to the Polish border with the promise of an “easy journey” into the EU states.
It’s also true that some British and American journalists have stumbled through dreadfully off-putting language to describe the shock of about a million Ukrainian refugees suddenly showing up in European transit camps and train stations - references to refugees “with blond hair and blue eyes” who drive “cars like ours” and come from “civilized” countries. The truth of it is that beginning in 2015, in a wave of refugees without precedent since the Second World War, more than a million people, mostly from the Arab world and Afghanistan, made their way to Europe, fleeing countries that tend not to be especially civilized, often arriving by treacherous and deadly voyages across the Mediteranean Sea. It’s true enough too that hardly any of them had blond hair or blue eyes.
Also appalling: The creepy Maxime Bernier came so close to winning the leadership of the Conservative Party back in 2017 that he could have ended up our prime minister, theoretically. A fair point. We might also remember that the oddball backbencher Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the British Labour Party in 2015, and if it weren’t for all the caucus revolts and scandals involving barely-reconstructed Stalinists and drooling antisemites in his inner circle, Corbyn could have ended up the British prime minister in 2019.
Corbynism is the English iteration of the same bizarre compendium of leftish affectations that prevailed in Canada during the height of protests against Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan. Corbyn has lately returned to his old habits in alliance with the weird American outfit Code Pink, staging rallies to loudly ask, what about Iraq? And to blame NATO for Ukraine’s agony, on account of so rudely upsetting President Putin that the poor man had no choice but to invade Ukraine.
The Syrian activist Leila Al Shami has helpfully described the politics at work here as “the anti-imperialism of fools.” Now that this anti-imperialism that gives Putin a pass is up and running again, the popular progressive columnist George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian this past Wednesday, settled on describing the thing as “a kind of leftwing QAnon.” This was a reference to the rightist American conspiracy theorists whose ideas really are so outlandish it’s difficult to describe them succinctly. Something about pedophile rings and secret extractions of baby genes during Covid-19 vaccinations.
The leftish version of QAnon that Monbiot writes about is a bit like Scientology, too, except perhaps with a cast of higher-profile celebrities: the journalists Seymour Hersh, John Pilger and Robert Fisk, along with Pink Floyd’s undead Roger Waters and Hollywood documentary fabulist Oliver Stone, people like that. Just one conspiracy theory among this crowd - an outright lie, really - is that the heroic Syrian first-responder organization known as the White Helmets is an auxiliary of Al Qaida that has murdered people in gas chambers to pin chemical-weapons charges on Bashar Assad.
In the horrible autumn months of 2014, the great Syrian revolutionary democrat Yassin Al Haj Saleh described the same bad smell that’s now wafting in from the edges of high-society “discourse” around Ukraine. What Saleh noticed was that that the parochial pseudo-leftism that prevails in the cultural elites of the NATO countries is “better suited for the right and the ultra-right fascists.”
A NATO-enforced no-fly zone that would have saved hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives was taken off the table just as quickly back then as it has been denied the Ukrainian people now. From a genuinely progressive Syrian perspective, there is no functional difference in the NATO capitals between “the right” and “the left” in their embrace of reactionary isolationism: “I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle,” Saleh said. “My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate.”
Like the Syrian revolutionary democrats, their Iranian sisters and brothers have noticed this too, as have Iranian-Canadians within what you might call the old-school Left. Well before the Arab Spring - which badly damaged the elaborate rhetorical machinery set up to implicate the beastly Zionists as the source and cause of Arab suffering - the Canadian Labour Congress vice-president Mehdi Kouhestaninejad told me:
“In the West, the Left [this should be in quotation marks but I’m citing directly] sees only the Ahmadinejad propaganda - death to the U.S., death to imperialism. It claims it is anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, but the people in Iran know that this is baloney. We have to challenge our attitudes.”
Quite a few of us haven’t, as the Polish Left parliamentary coalition, the Razem National Council has just noticed. The Council has bolted from Progressive International, and from the Democracy in Europe 2025 Movement for their failure to unequivocally recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty and issue an “absolute condemnation of Russian imperialism.”
Imagine if Vladimir Putin wins in Ukraine the way he and Assad and Hezbollah won in Syria. “Imagine a boot,” a certain English writer warned us in a certain book published the year NATO was established, “stamping on a human face, forever.” If that’s too rich for you, here’s Canada’s less scary deputy premier Chrystia Freeland: “There are moments in history when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight in one place which is waged for all of humanity. In 1863 that place was Gettysburg. In 1940 it was the skies above Britain. Today in 2022 it is Kyiv.”
It matters very much what those of us who live in the NATO countries think, and what we say out loud, because our democratically-elected governments have to deal with it. They’re accountable to us. If you want to know why our elected leaders appear to have suddenly grown some backbone in the matter of Vladimir Putin’s barbarism, it’s because they’ve seen and heard the righteous anger of their voters, the hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets of the NATO capitals demanding their governments take on an urgent, unflinching militancy on Ukraine’s behalf.
We can’t allow apologetics and whataboutery and the boring habits of unpacking and problematization to dampen the fire under the backsides of Justin Trudeau and Britain’s Boris Johnson and Germany’s Olaf Scholz and U.S president Joe Biden. It’s a fair guess that if they had their way they’d just as soon let Putin get away with his war crimes in Ukraine the way they’ve allowed Putin and Assad to get away with destroying Syria.
So no, this isn’t just about Ukraine. This is about all of us. After 16 long years of democracy’s retreat and the rise of the gargoyles, we’ve coming to the tipping point. There’s the endless possibilities of one future course, and the certain future of the other. The one with the boot.