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Russia, Ukraine, and the Fogs of Culture War by Jonathon Van Maren

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Essay

Russia, Ukraine, and the Fogs of Culture War

While in Ukraine on a reporting trip with a fellow editor recently, I posted photos of some bombed buildings and burned-out Russian tanks to social media. Most people responded the way one usually does to evidence of tragedy. But a not insignificant percentage of right-leaning users had a knee-jerk reaction of suspicion. Don’t buy into propaganda, I was told by several. I’ve noticed this attitude proliferating almost since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Many conservatives are insisting, against all evidence, that what is unfolding on the ground in Ukraine somehow isn’t happening; that photographs and videos are all fakes; that all reporting is merely propaganda. My own interlocutors fell silent when I told them that I had taken the pictures myself.

In the past, horrifying imagery has transformed public opinion and produced empathy for targets of military aggression. But we are in the digital age, and the Russia-Ukraine war has been the first major conflict to unfold on social media, with a daily, nonstop firehose of information flooding our feeds. The result has been that many people have decided that it is too difficult to figure out what is actually going on, settled on instinctive scepticism, or tuned everything out altogether. After a few weeks of shock and concern about the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, folks have settled back into their respective culture war trenches and resumed fire. The Russia-Ukraine war, unfortunately, has simply become another issue that many seem to be determined to see through the lens of their pre-existing ideological arguments.

The ‘fog of war’ has long been a shorthand phrase to describe the difficulty (and at times inability) of discerning precisely what the truth is in the chaos of conflict. But what conservatives must realize is that the fog of the culture war has permeated our thinking such that we are often rendered incapable of seeing—or even thinking—clearly. Thus, clear evidence of Russian bombing of civilian areas and the perpetration of war crimes—I investigated these things on the ground—is viewed with suspicion. Many conservatives end up inadvertently playing Alex Jones to Ukraine’s Sandy Hook—and many Ukrainian Christians feel precisely the way the Sandy Hook parents felt. Your children weren’t really murdered. Your homes weren’t really bombed. In interviews, the frustration of those who endured these things was often palpable.

However, there are good reasons that so many are suspicious of what they view as the mainstream narrative. Progressives have, in many cases, created the conditions that have led to this instinctive suspicion of the mainstream media. It may be helpful to review a few of them.

Reason 1: Progressives have worked hard to make the Ukraine war about their agenda.

Progressives have worked hard to create the impression that support for Ukraine is inextricably intertwined with support for a laundry list of progressive agenda items. To cite one example of this, I refer you to a March 25 tweet by Julia Ioffe, who is an intelligent journalist with a lot of insight into Putin’s Russia. A mere month into the war, she stated that to support Ukraine was to support the LGBT agenda: “To all the people who think Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump are crazy but that trans people are made up, that ‘cancel culture’ has gone too far, that ‘men should be men and women should be women’—congratulations, you agree with Putin. You are his ideological ally.”

That sentiment is appalling to the many Ukrainian Christians suffering from the war—Christians who happen to believe that “men should be men and women should be women” but are, Ioffe would presumably admit, not Putin’s ideological allies. Many Western conservatives have succumbed to the belief that the Russia-Ukraine War is about these issues because progressives have attempted to make it about these issues (thus all the memes mocking the blue checks swapping their Ukrainian flags for ‘progress’ flags come June 1). 

Ironically, it is Ioffe who is playing the role of Putin’s puppet. As I found during my research trip to Russia several years ago, Putin has worked hard to exploit Western culture wars to his own ends by highlighting the insanity of gender ideology and mocking Western decadence to shore up his Russian nationalist machismo. For Ioffe (and those of her class) to equate support for Ukraine in the face of a hostile Russian invasion to support for the transgender agenda is to amplify precisely the message that Putin wants Russians and Westerners to hear—because plenty of conservatives hearing that message are going to conclude that this war is indeed about those issues rather than the expansionist aims of an aggressive dictator. Putin would much rather we think that this war is about the LGBT agenda than his indiscriminate bombing.

There’s also the steady flow of human-interest stories tracked down by intrepid journalists who have hunted high and low throughout Ukraine to find LGBT people to interview. Headlines like “Putin’s Anti-Gay War on Ukraine” served two purposes: To get progressives to care, and to get conservatives to tune out. The chattering classes ensured that as often as possible, the rainbow flag was flapping right next to the Ukrainian colors. 

Indeed, LGBT activists and liberal leaders have taken advantage of the Russian invasion to push for the legalization of same-sex ‘marriage’ in Ukraine—a step that is emphatically not supported by a majority of Ukrainians. Zelensky has already indicated that such a step is not possible during wartime and has suggested that civil unions may be an agreeable compromise, but from a political perspective, this is likely seen as good PR as Ukraine negotiates membership in the European Union. LGBT activists are aware of this and sense an opportunity to push their demands. 

Christians and conservatives in Eastern and Central Europe have long complained that the EU pushes a progressive agenda as part of the membership package. Socially conservative nations such as Poland and Hungary have been targeted with sanctions for implementing protections for the pre-born and limits on LGBT propaganda. (As an engineer in Belgrade told me a few years back: “They trade aid for gay pride parades. Why do they want us to have this?”) For good reason, conservatives see the European Union as a purveyor and enforcer of anti-Christian values, and thus view any cause flying the EU flag with suspicion. This is not because of conspiracy theories; it is because of the EU’s public record and clearly stated intentions.

Reason 2: With friends like those…

Political polarization across the West has not helped. Many on the Right have become knee-jerk reactionaries: If Biden, or Trudeau, or [insert progressive villain here] supports this, it must be wrong. Thus, photos of liberal leaders with Zelensky are not seen through the lens of diplomacy—a Ukrainian leader desperately shoring up international support and glad-handing for guns. Because so many people have created airtight ideological frameworks into which every new set of facts must be somehow stuffed, the Russia-Ukraine war is cast as simply another aspect of the New World Order, or the World Economic Forum, or some other internationalist scheme. Thus, this cannot simply be an expansionist war by Russian invaders seeking to occupy parts of Ukraine that they feel entitled to for political and historical reasons. It must primarily be about whatever we have already been talking about.

Reason 3: The ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect

We also see the ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect. For years, Democrats yapped about the Trump-Russian collusion scandal that went nowhere. Putin was declared the de facto decider of the 2016 election (when I covered the 2018 ‘election’ in Moscow, there were t-shirts for sale joking that since Russians had elected the American president, it was time to elect their own leader). TIME Magazine even published a memorable cover with a sinister Kremlin rising from the White House. Anyone who dismissed the scandal was dubbed a Putin shill. When the Mueller Report produced nothing of substance, the media quietly moved on—but not from the ‘Putin puppet’ pejorative.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election, Putin proved a reliable villain. Alternative points of view were always Russian disinformation—to the point that progressives created the perfect conditions for Russian disinformation to proliferate. Who, after all, will ever believe the label ‘Russian disinformation’ again after the Hunter Biden laptop story—which has now been confirmed—was wiped from Twitter and hidden by Facebook after the FBI stated that it was probably ‘Russian disinformation’? Time and again, stories that were dubbed Russian disinformation turned out to be true. And then Putin invaded Ukraine and the propaganda war began in earnest.

In the early days, fog-of-war stories flew fast and thick from both sides: the Ghost of Kyiv; the prematurely reported martyrdom of the soldiers who told the Russian warship to “go f____ yourself”; and a nonstop stream of imagery that immediately flooded all feeds. With social media driving journalism, many unconfirmed stories were tweeted and spread without being checked. And when people started asking questions, the familiar accusation was levelled once again: Putin shill! Russian disinformation! Only now, people are inured to it. They’ve been told too many times that by asking questions, they are playing into Putin’s hands. That, as it turns out, has played nicely into Putin’s hands. There is no question that Russian disinformation is being pumped out on a massive scale. But as a villain, Putin has lost his potency for many people.

The tragedy of media malfeasance

The fundamental tragedy of progressive and media malfeasance is that the very real plight of millions of Ukrainians is being lost in the social media roar. Cities were—and are—being bombed flat. War crimes are being perpetrated by Russians against Ukrainian civilians—on-the-ground reporting confirms this. But healthy conservative scepticism about the mainstream media has turned, in many quarters, into a determination to believe nothing the media publishes. Because trust has been broken, people have become far more susceptible to conspiracy theories that, in a media landscape where bearded criminals are routinely referred to by female pronouns, seem more plausible to many than the idea that the mainstream media’s reporting on anything can be trustworthy. 

Progressives presented the Ukrainian cause as their cause, and the media, with notable exceptions, pulls for progressive causes. Thus, many have understandably reasoned that media coverage on the Russia-Ukraine war must be as biased, selective, and ideologically driven as their reporting on the transgender movement, abortion, or conservatives in general. This has done the Ukrainian people—and Ukrainian Christians in particular—a great disservice. The reality is that sometimes things are what they are. Yes, historical context is essential. Yes, mainstream media coverage should always be viewed carefully. But the core facts remain indisputable: Russia invaded Ukraine. Regardless of their grievances—historical, political, or otherwise—they have no right to invade another sovereign nation. The Russian military is in Ukraine; the Ukrainian military is not in Russia. There is a clear aggressor and a clear victim. 

I want to be clear: I am not advocating for any position on sanctions, foreign policy, NATO, or anything else. I am saying that as we attempt to discern what is true and what is not in this hyper-polarized, social media-driven new world, we should not lose sight of that simple set of provable facts in the fogbanks of the culture wars. 

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Prairie Lion: The Life & Times of Ted Byfield.

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