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The Cancellation of Russian Culture


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First Things

Gary Saul Morson

3 . 14 . 22


The overwhelming majority of Americans and Europeans now side with Ukraine. To be sure, the Democratic Socialists of America maintain that Russia is more sinned against than sinning and that the solution to the present crisis is to dissolve NATO. And Prof. John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago argues that the crisis confirms what he has long argued, that by encouraging Ukraine to Westernize, we would invite understandable Russian interference. But these opinions now seem decidedly fringe. I was not surprised at Putin’s aggression, brutality, or spurious accusations—what else should one expect from a former KGB agent in power?—but I did not anticipate the welcome decision of Western powers to pressure Russian leaders and aid Ukrainian resistance. Germany doubled its defense budget and even perpetually neutral Switzerland took sides.

If only “moral clarity” had stopped there! But as with the cancel culture of recent years, the further one goes, the more virtuous one feels. Whatever assertion favors the right side must be accepted and whatever action harms opponents must be justified. True enough, official Russian propaganda transmits outrageous lies and the regime suppresses dissenting voices. Does it follow that everything said by the Ukrainian government and sympathetic observers must be true—or that anyone who calls for the skepticism normally applied to all partisan sources must be a Putin supporter? Should we, too, banish dissenting voices?


Academics now cancel (or fire) American colleagues and ban speakers they find objectionable, so it is hardly surprising that they would extend the same courtesy to objectionable foreigners. According to Chicago City Wire, a group of University of Chicago students are “circulating a letter demanding the school force political science Professor John Mearsheimer to change his views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” Not just renounce his views but change them? Isn’t that the defining feature of totalitarianism—to compel not just obedience but actual private agreement? But this is what happens on campuses all the time, where professors and students are asked not just to observe rules with which they may not agree but to accept the ideology on which they are based.

If Russian history teaches anything, it is that such “moral clarity” has no limits. If all right is on one side, then anything—literally anything—one says or does is justified. Indeed, to stop short of the most extreme measures is to indulge evil, which means risking the charge of complicity. When Stalin sent local officials quotas of people to be arrested, they responded by demanding still higher quotas. It was the safest thing to do to prove one’s loyalty. No one ever secured his position by calling for less severity to enemies. When everything is black and white, sooner or later everyone is at risk.

“If only it were so simple!” reflected Alexander Solzhenitsyn about such thinking. If only it were a matter of good people always doing good things confronting evil people and those directly or indirectly aiding them. Such thinking is not only profoundly dangerous, it also fundamentally misunderstands the very nature of moral judgment. The more serious the question, the more, not less, care should be taken in addressing it. And we must never forget, as Solzhenitsyn frequently observed, that “the line dividing good from evil” runs not between one people or one class and another. Rather, it “cuts through every human heart.”  


The Narrative Lives To say Anything positive about Russia/Putin (See Trump saying Putin is smart)  is akin to talking about the positive aspects of cannibalism. 


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