It should come as no surprise that once progressive American social justice paradigms, brewed in the guts of academia and activism, weighed in on the conflict in Ukraine they quickly became instruments of the Kremlin’s agenda. For the American woke, Ukraine can be no more than the occasion for one of its favorite forms of outrage. In the middle of a war in which one of the main targets has been the civilian population, and where daily reports include the shelling of kindergartens, the American academic and militant left showed first a pathetic irrelevance and then a dangerous susceptibility to the moral proclamations and justifications of the Kremlin. The war and its horrors became yet another opportunity to peddle pet ideological projects. Ukraine became about sexism, about racism and about transphobia—and not one thought spared for Ukrainian families slaughtered under the Russian shelling. And for some, the inhumanity became just another episode of white-on-white violence.
Images of apparent discrimination against non-white refugees trying to leave Ukraine helped the woke cause enormously. Television host Trevor Noah, who leveled the charge of racism not only on whoever mistreated refugees at the border, but also on all of Ukraine, put responsibility for these acts on white people collectively. Reporters, politicians, and the general public—all complicit in the mistreatment of people of color at the Ukrainian border. Much like the Kremlin suggests in its justification of the invasion, suddenly Ukraine became an expression of racial supremacy. The charge also alleged a differential treatment for white refugees above what had been afforded refugees of previous conflicts in predominantly non-white countries.
One of the great skills of Noah and the American social justice program he promotes is to have made a distant conflict in which civilians are dying in an unprovoked attack by Russian military forces about themselves. A conflict that was about fathers leaving their children who they might never see again to defend their future became another episode in the American tale of backyard injustices.
A conflict that was about fathers leaving their children who they might never see again to defend their future became another episode in the American tale of backyard injustices.
But it is the question of the impact of the American progressive perception of the war that is more troublesome. Efforts to hijack the story of Ukrainian victimhood in order to elevate accusations of racism fuel Russian propaganda and put Ukrainian and other lives in danger. If Putin claims that his attack on Ukraine is about “de-nazifying” the country, then accusations of racism at Ukraine’s border and in media reporting support this claim. That the woke machine is actively promoting claims made by the Kremlin should concern everyone.
But the progressive tendency to distort local and global conflicts to elevate their own agenda is nothing new. Only weeks ago Americans were enraged over co-host of “The View” Whoopi Goldberg’s comments that minimized the atrocities of the Holocaust and reduced them to “white-on-white” fighting. In the realm of American racial discourse in which victimhood confers moral fitness and whiteness is synonymous with “perpetrator,” Goldberg’s account diminished the moral standing of the victims, now identified as “white.” And anyone seen as “white” cannot be a victim—even if Putin’s tanks roll into their cities and kill their children. The whiteness of one’s skin transcends the violence done to the body.
And anyone seen as “white” cannot be a victim–even if Putin’s tanks roll into their cities and kill their children. The whiteness of one’s skin transcends the violence done to the body.
White-on-white violence, as the Holocaust was described by Goldberg, is the deflation of criminal mass violence to what proponents of these ideas view as the innately violent state of white nature. In other words, this is simply what white people happen to be: no innocence, no guilt, just violence.
While this idea is politically perverse, it is the policy upshot that should really concern us. We saw in real time that the anti-racist version of race cannot account for the most profound and systematic racial factory of death of the 20th century. But the policies that would issue from it—should activists like Ibram X. Kendi, who proposes an amendment to the Constitution that would make racial inequity over a certain threshold unconstitutional, have their way—would be entirely useless in preventing, punishing or offering redress to any genocidal episode in the past half century. In this moral equation, Rwanda becomes black on back, Bosnia white on white, Myanmar POC on POC, and on.
Perhaps Goldberg should not be faulted for presenting such a clear expression of the symptoms festering in the bowels of the self-appointed American progressive left. What she offered is the logical conclusion of reducing not only racial identity to skin color but moral identity too.
Are we surprised when we find the moral denigration of white people applied to global conflicts, especially when the global conflicts concern predominantly white countries? The cultural ethos of the woke is one of narcissism and myopia: If their agenda can’t be furthered by exploiting the conflict or tragedy at hand, then there is no empathy to be found.
The cultural ethos of the woke is one of narcissism and myopia: If their agenda can’t be furthered by exploiting the conflict or tragedy at hand, then there is no empathy to be found.
A recent statement by Rutgers Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Brittney Cooper epitomizes this: “We can’t continue to expect Black folks to be in solidarity with these national movements and foreign policy when that requires us to sacrifice ourselves for the wellbeing of a project that can never take care of us.” If it’s not about us, then we shouldn’t care about it. But Cooper takes it further, suggesting that American sympathy for the Ukrainian cause is deeper evidence of our racism. We recognize ourselves in the “racist” behavior of the Ukrainians fleeing from their persecutors, and so we sympathize with them. It’s hard to imagine that feeling heartbroken at the idea of families, many with children, fleeing for their lives is shameful. It’s hard to imagine that we should feel guilty for being haunted by the stories of little children who are being killed in Ukraine. But according to Cooper, herein lies the proof that we are, indeed, racists.
In case the argument for race as the basis for judging any given conflict isn’t compelling enough, on March 1 CBS aired a story about a transgender woman in Kyiv who says she cannot leave her home because of rampant transphobia. Certainly Ukraine is not without the social and cultural tensions that plague most countries. But it is hard to understand how in light of suspected atrocities committed, CBS thought that pointing the finger at Ukrainians for presumed transphobia could really be a sensible editorial decision. An American television channel entered the war raging in Ukraine with the tools of the parochial culture war back home and declared, like Putin did, Ukrainians the perpetrators.
An American television channel entered the war raging in Ukraine with the tools of the parochial culture war back home and declared, like Putin did, Ukrainians the perpetrators.
Suddenly Ukraine is the country Putin described: a country unworthy of sympathy.
Lithuanian-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested that evil is justifying the suffering of others. While blatant justification of Ukrainian suffering has not been forthcoming, it’s just around the corner. Nobody with a certified Twitter account has yet dared to suggest such a thing, but many of their bases and followers, hearing the message loud and clear, already have. Suddenly it’s Ukrainian racism—the racism of the whole nation, the structural type that the American left holds so dear—that dominates much of the discussion of progressive circles online. And the implication of this collective assignment of guilt and moral deficiency certifies the heteronormative-whiteness of Ukraine.
Certainly racism, antisemitism and transphobia can be found in Ukraine. But when schools are being bombed and families are fleeing for their lives, crouching for cover in makeshift bomb shelters, or being shamelessly murdered, it’s disingenuous for mainstream media outlets to focus their storytelling on issues that serve only to reinforce the insidiousness of American culture wars.
Monica Osborne is a former professor of literary and cultural studies. She is Editor-at-Large at The Jewish Journal and is author of “The Midrashic Impulse.”
Martin Gak is Senior Producer of the show “Conflict Zone” on Deutche Welle (German Television) and Religious Affairs correspondent. He is also an independent scholar.