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Sean Speer: The brave resistance of ordinary Ukrainians should rouse the privileged West

Commentary

At a dinner event marking the thirtieth anniversary of National Review on January 1, 1986, the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., told the story of how he ultimately persuaded Whittaker Chambers, the communist-spy-turned-conservative-intellectual, to join the fledgling enterprise.

Chambers, who was known for his dark, obtruding pessimism, was initially unmoved by Buckley’s case for a journal of ideas dedicated to the defence of democracy, capitalism, and the virtues of a free society. He was convinced that the West was already doomed in its ideological struggle against communism and so any effort to save it was necessarily doomed to failure as well.

Yet as Buckley recounted in his remarks:

“…that night, challenged by his pessimism, I said to him that if it were so that Providence had rung up our license on liberty, stamping it as expired, the Republic deserved a journal that would argue the historical and moral case that we ought to have survived: that, weighing the alternative, the culture of liberty deserves to survive. So that even if the worst were to happen, the journal in which I hoped he would collaborate might serve, so to speak, as the diaries of Anne Frank had served, as absolute, dispositive proof that she should have survived, in place of her tormentors — who ultimately perished. In due course that argument prevailed, and Chambers joined the staff.”

I’ve thought about this story in recent days as we’ve witnessed the powerful images and videos of Ukrainian politicians and ordinary citizens expressing brave defiance in the face of Russian aggression.

Think of the reports for instance from the Associated Press that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rejected calls from the American government to evacuate Kyiv and instead is now helping to lead the defence of his country’s capital city.

Or the CNN interview with Zelenskyy’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko who when asked how long Ukrainians would resist Russia’s occupation, answered in one word: forever.

Or the New York Times’ front-line interviews with ordinary Ukrainians who have taken up arms “to fight the Russian invaders” in defence of “everything [they] love.”

Or a story released by the Ukraine military of a young soldier named Yitaliy Volodymyrovych Skakun who courageously blew himself up on a bridge to stop Russian soldiers trying to advance.

Or the viral video of the old Ukraine woman who sought to give a Russian soldier sunflower seeds so that sunflowers (which are the country’s national flower) “will grow when you all lie down here.”

These extraordinary images and videos stand, as Buckley put it, as dispositive proof of the Ukrainians’ courage, grace, and strength in the face of an existential threat. No matter the outcome of Russia’s belligerence, they will provide posterity with overwhelming evidence that Ukrainian independence and self-determination ought to have survived in place of the country’s jackboot tormentors.

In the more immediate term, one gets the sense that these images and videos are having a profound effect on Western populations. A combination of factors – including war fatigue after the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the slow-moving nature of Russia’s aggression, and our own decadence – had contributed to a tragic disconnect between the threat facing Ukraine and the West’s attention and investment. We failed the Ukrainians through a policy of self-absorbed neglect.

Yet the ubiquity of modern media means that we cannot hide from the consequences of such neglect. In a world of 24-hour news cycles and the pervasiveness of amateur journalism, it’s impossible to look away. We have no choice but to reckon with our collective choices.

Canadian public intellectual Marshall McLuhan understood better than anyone and certainly sooner than anyone the power of television and images in shaping our common cultural reference points including with respect to geopolitics and war. As he famously said of the Vietnam War: “Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.”

The opposite may be true in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s hard to think that anyone could observe what we’ve seen in recent days – including images of Russian tanks and troops rolling into Ukraine, the brave resistance of ordinary Ukrainians, or even the extraordinary courage of Russians protesting in Saint Petersburg and Moscow – and not be moved. They’re something like a modern equivalent of Buckley’s persuasive case to Chambers.

On a personal note, I confess that that these images and videos have certainly influenced me. My initial response to Russia’s invasion wasn’t necessarily neo-isolationist but it was circumscribed due in large part to the formative experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while I haven’t “gone full neocon,” I admit to having had a visceral reaction to the stories of extraordinary bravery and courage and the devastating images of kids.

We cannot let our hearts overtake our heads. These are complicated questions that have major geopolitical implications including for the great power competition with China. A forthcoming episode of our Hub Dialogues podcast with U.S. foreign policy expert Elbridge Colby will place our options vis-à-vis the Russia-Ukraine conflict in this broader context.

Yet even if we cannot afford to lose our heads in such a moment, we can still draw on Buckley’s powerful exculpation to Chambers. The culture of liberty deserves to survive and those of us who are marked by real privilege have some responsibility to protect, sustain, and strengthen it. If we fail to do so, posterity will rightly condemn us.

Sean Speer: Will Putin’s invasion of Ukraine finally wake the decadent West?

Commentary

I wrote a column late last year for the National Post marking the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. My main point was that the West’s combination of liberal democracy and market capitalism had been too powerful for the soullessness and inefficiencies of the Soviet system to ultimately keep up. 

But I also warned that it wasn’t self-evident that we still have the collective energy, resolve, and sense of purpose to respond to new and emerging threats. Western decadence may be materially plentiful, but it also makes us increasingly vulnerable to confident, focused, and strong-willed foes.  

I was writing mainly with China in mind. I didn’t anticipate that the foe would be our old Cold War rival, Russia, which as Boris Rassin recently outlined at The Hub, dominated Eastern Europe for several decades through its combination of authoritarian tactics, mechanistic collectivism, and totalizing ideology. 

There’s something striking that Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine was launched so soon after the major anniversary of the Soviet Union’s demise. It’s as if while we were writing columns commemorating the end of the Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin was systematically planning to relitigate its outcomes. 

A revanchist Russia will be alien to those for whom the Cold War is mostly an abstraction. As the passing of time creates growing distance from that tense era, younger generations in Canada and other Western countries have come to lose a sense of both the inherent tyranny of communism and a world marked by conflict and struggle.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned about this historical innocence in a 2014 speech to a Tribute to Liberty fundraiser. As he put it: “My fear is, as we move further into the 21st century, Canadians, especially new generations, will forget or will not be taught the lessons hard-learned and the victories hard-earned over the last 100 years.”

Harper’s concern is well-founded. After all, more than 40 percent of Canadians were barely born before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Our collective memory and understanding of what he described as a “poisonous ideology” will fade away as older generations pass on. There’s no reason to think that provincial education curricula, which these days seem more focused on faddish ideas than foundational facts, or the broader culture, which has succumbed so much to frivolousness, will reverse these worrying cultural and intellectual trends. 

But the problem isn’t merely about our lack of historical awareness. It’s the deeper drift into decadence that undermines our capacity to withstand major challenges and defend our ideas, interests, and values. The COVID-19 pandemic is a good (or bad) example. 

There was a time early in the pandemic when it seemed like our collective survival instinct would kick in. There was a fleeting moment of national unity, political solemnity, and innovation and dynamism. Early polling in Canada and elsewhere showed that people were prepared to set aside differences, make sacrifices, and do big things. 

Although the extraordinary progress on the vaccines is the most obvious expression of this momentary burst of anti-decadence, it also manifested itself in simple acts like the clanging of pots and pans for health-care workers, a global surge in volunteerism, and a renewed appreciation of the contributions of so-called “essential workers” like grocery clerks, delivery drivers, and long-term care staff. 

The departure from decadence however wasn’t lasting. We soon fell back into the destructive habits of identity politics, sclerotic state action, and cultural shallowness. The persistent yet highly-debatable public health restrictions in Canada and poor vaccination numbers in the United States were a case of our societies snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. 

It now seems clear that the outcome of the pandemic experience won’t be to galvanize our societies out of our collective stupor, but instead to exacerbate the socio-political pathologies that have wrought it. We are bound to emerge from the pandemic more attenuated, more divided, and in turn less capable of confronting future challenges like the next pandemic or responding to geopolitical threats including Russia and China. 

Where do we go from here? We must start by seeing these recent developments with a clear eye. Putin’s excursion into Ukraine is a bet that the West no longer has the wherewithal to stand up to his provocation. There’s no doubt that China is watching closely to see if his bet is right.

If there was ever an action-inducing event, one would think that the first instance of a major power trying to conquer a sovereign nation in 80 years ought to be it. Yet early pronouncements from Western leaders aren’t promising. That the Italians reportedly sought the exclusion of luxury goods from European sanctions is symptomatic of the West’s cultural malaise. 

Let me end with another anniversary of sorts. Late last month, neoconservative thinker Irving Kristol, who passed away in 2009, would have celebrated his 102nd birthday. Kristol used to define the intellectual movement which he helped to found as a group of idealists “who had been mugged by reality.” Western societies must similarly face reality sooner rather than later or risk sliding irreversibly into decline.