Putin, Ukraine, American Exceptionalism, and the Fake Left

One year ago, yesterday, I did the initial episode of this podcast, entitled “Why This Podcast.” And yet, I don’t feel much like celebrating the one-year anniversary of the podcast because of events that happened then and now.

Life is something that you plan, but other things happen, and I had for months planned on February 2022 being the launch of the podcast along with all the other activities I have in life. Of course, February 2022, the specter of Putin’s upcoming invasion of Ukraine, was looming over everything. And indeed, a few days after my first introductory episode, he did. He invaded a peaceful country and entirely unjustifiable war.

The first full episode of the Insert Philosophy Here podcast was a discussion of the philosophy of just war. Can war ever be justified? Some wars can be justified. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine cannot by any stretch be justified, no matter how you look at it. Yet, amazingly, there are some people who do justify it. And even more amazingly, these people who try to justify the invasion are people who claim to be against war, against imperialism.

And yet, they approve of and are against being against an imperialist war of aggression.

In my book What Left and Right Mean, which I discussed in Episode 24 of this podcast, I discussed this weird phenomena of who I call the “fake left”—people who are so fixated on opposition to who they perceive as the right that they cease to have any liberal progressive principles. Their only focus is on hatred and opposition of their perceived enemies.  I have known for a while that these people exist, and I’ve never terribly respected them for their hypocrisy. But that hypocrisy has never been larger than this past year.

The two questions that I’m trying to ask in this week’s episode is why do these people have such a hypocritical view about Putin’s war? They say they’re against war, and yet they’re not against this war. And two, what factors brought them to reach this point of such extreme hypocrisy?

So to the first question, how could people who claim to be anti war and anti imperialist end up supporting an imperialist war even if that support is just tacit because they think that no one should help Ukraine militarily or economically?

The answer, simplistically put, is that happens when ideology trump’s reality. Ideology is not just one thought or set of thoughts, but a way of approaching reality.

Ideology is a simplistic view of reality, simplistic binaries. Nietzsche put it well when he talked about this dichotomy and simplistic binary of good and evil. There are things that are good and there are things that are bad. But ideology paints everything in terms of good and evil. As Nietzsche correctly pointed out, that’s just too simplistic and very counterproductive.

The opposite of ideology, or at least the counterpoint to ideology, is to be philosophical. The approach in which you take in information and base your opinions and perspectives on the world on facts, evidence. Things that are going on, events in the world that don’t fit your previous paradigm means you change your paradigm to fit reality. Ideology is the approach that you just change reality or ignore reality to fit your preferred ideological paradigm.

In a sense, left and right as political denominations, so to speak, are philosophical. They respond to the world; they interact with the world. You could of course say that there are the far left and far right—the extremists on supposedly both sides of the spectrum, but as I say in the book  What Left and Right Mean, these far left and far right are really just anti right and anti left, respectively, because they’re ideologically based. They’re good and evil, oppositionality based.

Those in the far left, these people who are now tacitly supporting Putin’s war, are not actually leftists. They’re not liberal. They’re not progressive. They are anti right. There are people so full of hatred for who they see as the right wing that their opposition is their focus, rather than positive action to increase power and rights for all people in the world.

The left, by definition, is about increasing the circulation of power within society, increasing the number of people who are included within society and social institutions, and building community. None of the positive traces of the left are found in the anti right. The fake left who, being a mirror image of the anti left, have perverted anything positive in the left wing into a hostile reactionism. The fake left hate what they perceive as the right more than they love their own community.

The fake left is characterized by bitterness toward people and institutions with power. The feeling comes from an honest place in that yes, excessive concentrations of power are harmful to society, and historically, most concentrations of power have come about because of abuse and exploitation of others. Indeed, people in the fake left will say that’s what they’re about. They’re against abuse and exploitation of others. Certainly, dismantling unjust power structures is essential to increasing the circulation of power, and, by extension, social justice.

However. The anti right are fixated with the destruction of power and in their opposition to what they perceive as the right. They are more interested in taking away power from other groups than in building up power for the groups they claim to support. They claim to be the left, but think and behave more like the right wingers. They are the fake left.

The fixation with opposition leads the anti right into contradictory rather than honest responses to abuses of power. A stunning recent example of this fixation is the fake left’s tacit support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The anti right claimed to be leftists who are against war and against imperialism. But when a very clearly imperialist war breaks out, they aren’t against it. Instead, because they are so fixated on opposition, they can only repeat their animosity toward the US government, and push their bogus conspiracy theories that most everything wrong with the world is caused by the US and they therefore blame Putin’s war on the US rather than on Putin.

The authentic left is about supporting peace and increasing power for the oppressed. The fake left is not fixated as they are on opposition and even more opposition only to particular institutions. The fake left is so blinded by their animosity that they are more anti right than pro left, more just anti people than pro people.

They are in a sense not within the ordinary left wing side of the political spectrum, they, like the anti left, the reactionary right are emotionally opposed to progress and diversity and civil discourse about society and power. And indeed, that’s why they cannot have, will not have, refuse to have a dialogue about the war and how to support the people of Ukraine and other people who are affected by Putin’s war of imperialist aggression.

Which then leads to the second question. How is it that these fake left people, so fixated in opposition, lose the plot, literally, and come to be so hypocritical in this support for an imperialist war? My answer to that obviously it’s a very complicated one because there are personal issues involved in every single person. People are individuals. People have free will.

So why would a particular person come to this ridiculous point of view? Well, there’s a story there. But in general, one factor that is really large in this group of people is just plain a lack of perspective.

These are people who sit in their privilege in a country, the United States, that has no war, has no real threats. And they sit in their privilege, and they cast judgment upon the world and reality.

Am I being harsh? Perhaps. But I’m not wrong, because I have had more perspective. Not because I’m smarter than anybody else, but simply because I’ve had a more experience than a lot of these people.

I grew up in the United States. I was born late in the Cold War, and as a child, I was one of those Americans continually told to beware of the Soviet evil empire, and a threat of nuclear war always simmered in the background. But that was all a rather distant notion, a hypothetical that few thought would ever come to pass. And indeed, thankfully, it didn’t.

For Americans, wars happen over there—other continents. And that’s not entirely without reason. The genocidal wars against native populations in the United States were over by the early 1900s, and generations later, Americans had become accustomed to feeling that wars never happened on US soil.

The two world wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, caused deaths to American soldiers over there. But the US was not threatened. Not directly.

When I saved up enough money to return to school to earn my PhD, I narrowed my choices down to two schools. Why am I talking about me? Because this is that issue of perspective here. Both schools told me that I would thrive in their department. And they really wanted me to join them. It was kind of fun to have people wanting me. “Oh, please come study with us. Please. You’ll be wonderful here.”

Well, I chose the school in England over the one in the US, of the two finalists, in large part so that I could experience living another culture. True, England is not radically dissimilar from the US, but there are cultural differences, both subtle and more obvious.

One difference I soon realized living in England was the cultural attitude toward the rest of the world. In the United States, not only are wars over there, everything is. The US borders only two countries, Canada and Mexico. England has eight different countries within 1000 miles of it, with different languages and cultures.

For the people in England, foreign nations are right there, a short flight or even drive away. You can take the Chunnel to the European continent. These countries and cultures aren’t over there. They aren’t far removed. Thus, with few exceptions, people living in England have a much better grasp than do Americans on the reality that they are part of a larger world.

In part, people living in England knew that because they knew about war happening right there. Their parents or their grandparents were bombed during World War Two. Much of the rest of the war took place within that short flight or drive away.

A few years later, when presented with the opportunity to move to Prague in the Czech Republic, I jumped at the chance. It’s a beautiful city with a richly amazing culture. Prague has been my home since 2018, and I enjoy it here. I have learned a lot being immersed in a different culture. Ale ne, moje čeština je pořád příšerná. And yes, my pronunciation is bad. Oh well, I’m still learning.

The Czech people—ah, bless the Czech people—the Czech people have a different view of the world than do the English or Americans. As a Czech business executive explained it to me: Czechs have always been a small country surrounded by larger neighbors, usually hostile ones. The Czech people have learned, he said, how to live with bullies and how to deal with oppression. And he’s true.

He’s right. The Czechs know war. They know military occupation and oppression—a lot of occupation and oppression. I admire a country that celebrates four independence days (from Austria-Hungary, from Nazi Germany, from Soviet Union, and then the amicable divorce from Slovakia).

The Czechs are strong and resilient people, but yes, they know war. Not over there, but right here. Right here.

Within two blocks of my home in Central Prague are multiple plaques marking where Czech civilians were killed, either by the Nazis or the Soviets. Whoever was living in the room in which I am currently speaking would have heard gunfire on certain dates in 1945 and 1968. I’ve been told that right outside my window were stationed Soviet tanks during the repression of the Prague Spring Revolution, 1968. People were killed right outside my home.

After several years of listening to Czechs who lived under Soviet occupation and were children or grandchildren of those who lived under Nazi occupation, I have learned how incomplete are Americans’ concepts of war, freedom, and tyranny. That includes my former self. I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else here. I was just as bamboozled and fooled by this American exceptionalism.

My wife remarked after we moved to Prague, how for the first time in our lives, we were not living in a seat of empire. The English had an empire. The United States is now an empire. The Czechs have never invaded or colonized anyone else. That makes a difference to how you see the world.

How does all this relate to Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the fake left? Well. Think about it.

Kyiv, Ukraine is the exact same distance from Prague as Chicago is from New York City. Not next door, no. But not that far away. Ukrainians are the largest immigrant group in the Czech Republic and have been for a few years now, prior to the war. Ties between the countries are strong. A Russian invasion of Ukraine has been vividly felt here in Prague.

Leading up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, I felt that looming possibility of war. Growing up in the US, where war was a distant, abstract thing, the prospect of war so close was very unnerving, and it still is. Living within a block of the site of former battles where civilians were slaughtered, and walking by the plaques, memorializing these people for years has only partially prepared me for dealing with war next door.

One night I was at my local pub talking with the owner, who shares my passion for craft beer, and I asked him, knowing that he is Russian, how the Czechs who he knew were thinking about the prospect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He said very interesting things. It depends on what information sources they access, he said. If they listen to a variety of international sources, they have a good idea of what’s going on. But, he said, if they only listen to local media or the Russian propaganda channel, they don’t know what’s going on.

That made sense to me, knowing that most Czech media outlets are owned and operated by two corporate conglomerates with strong right-wing leanings. Yeah, it’s very similar in the US. Propaganda works the same everywhere.

The Czech President at the time was openly pro Russian, although to his credit, as soon as the happened, he condemned it because Zeman was not fake left. He may have been fooled into this idea that placating Russia would help save Europe from Russian aggression, but when he realized he was wrong, he admitted it.

My Russian pub owner friend went on to say that people who know people in Ukraine—and his girlfriend is one of several thousand Ukrainians living in Prague—they’re worried about their friends and family in Ukraine.

But to the Czech people’s credit, They have never wavered at all in their support for the Ukrainian people. They shrug to the inevitability of Russian aggression because they know Russian aggression, but they have asked “what can we do?” And they do it.

I understand this attitude now because I’ve been immersed in it for four years. I am reminded of the conversations that I had with my client, the Czech executive. The Czechs have learned to live with oppression and war. They are a small country that is proud and independent, but know they are part of a larger world, and know that more aggression, more oppression, and more war is right there as far from them as the middle of the United States is from the East Coast.

It is a shame that any people anywhere have had to learn to live with oppression and war. Yet how many millions of people are living that life now? With all due respect to Americans, they get so worked up over issues that are, in the grand scheme of things, quite small, and some of their complaints, quite petty.

The politicians are correct when they have been saying for the last year that a Russian attack on Ukraine is an attack on Europe, is an attack on the world. Americans have the luxury of discussing the Ukraine crisis in the abstract. The people here in Central and Eastern Europe? Not at all. They have been through this before. Ask someone in Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia. They understand. They know about Russian aggression.

The fake left Americans, sitting in their privilege, don’t understand. I’m sorry, they just don’t. I like to say I respect people. I like to say I respect differences of opinion, differences of perspective. And for the most part I do, I really do. There are many, many things that can be discussed and should be discussed. If you’ve been listening at all to my podcast, you know how big I am on discussion of difficult issues. But I’m sorry, I can’t respect people who refused to stand up against Russian aggression, against Putin’s aggression, because, I’m sorry, it’s not all Russians. Of course, granted, a lot of those Russians who are against the war have left Russia. They’re hiding someplace else.

No, I can’t respect the hypocrisy of people who don’t know oppression, who don’t know war, refusing to stand up, and worse, condemning those who do stand up against this aggression. This is an emotional issue for me because the truism is true that when you have experience, when you’ve gained greater perspective, you can never go back to being as closed-minded, as narrow-minded, as you used to be.

The fake left in the US is so fixated in opposition against the imperialist United States that they can’t see the reality in front of them.

And yes, and in case there’s any confusion here, if you haven’t been paying attention to my podcast and my writings throughout these years, I am 100% against American imperialism. Completely, utterly against American oppression and injustice inside the United States, and the injustices and oppression that the United States commits against other countries in the world. No question about it.

But here’s the thing, the thing that the fake left doesn’t get in their fixation on a very, very limited opposition. Acknowledging that the US has a long, disgraceful history of violent imperialism is not incompatible with the idea that the US should join the rest of the world in the effort to defend Ukrainian people from violent imperialism.

You’re not antiwar if you’re not against Putin’s war.

You’re not anti imperialist if you’re not against Putin’s imperialism.

The sins of the United States against the world are not the issue here.

One country has invaded another country. That’s imperialist aggression.

You can’t say you’re anti war, you can’t say you’re anti imperialist, you can’t say you’re leftist, if you refuse to stand against that. It’s that simple.

Next week, I promise I’ll talk about something more pleasant. Thank you for listening. Please support this podcast.

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