Canceling Russia

A moral panic surrounding all things Russian has followed Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. A few examples illustrate the reflexes of a well-practiced cancel culture, allowing us to understand better both Western elites’ struggle to deal with retrograde acts of violence in an unusually peaceful era, as well as the nature of the culture that preceded and will outlast its application to the war in eastern Europe.

The panic has been bizarre to watch, impulsive and thoughtless, yet it feels so familiar. After Putin launched his invasion on February 24, international organizations and corporations have mobilized their counterattack, as it were, not against the Russian army but against Russians (or people of Russian descent) who have nothing to do with the war—even those who have been dead for centuries.

On March 4, The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) banned Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials from their competitions. Why? FIG offered only platitudes: “these exceptional and emergency measures . . . constitute preventive measures aiming at preserving the integrity of Gymnastics, the safety and integrity of members and all athletes and participants, and at fighting against all forms of violence and of sports injustice.”

A few days prior, the New York Times reported that the Metropolitan Opera in New York “would no longer engage with performers or other institutions that have voiced support for” Putin. Though artists such as soprano Anna Netrebko had taken to social media to denounce the war, the Times reported, it remains “unclear” whether she will perform as scheduled starting April 30. After all, she “has ties” to Putin “and was once pictured holding a flag used by some Russian-backed separatist groups in Ukraine.” Though all of that has been known since at least 2014 (when the Times first pictured her holding the Novorossiyan flag), the cultural moment has caught up to her.

Similar examples have come fast and furious from across the West. Even as I was already in the process of writing this piece, CTV News in Canada reported that the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM) will not allow 20-year-old Russian piano prodigy Alexander Malofeev—“who has been outspoken against the invasion of Ukraine” where some members of his family live—to perform. The Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra, for its part, announced that it will not perform its scheduled all-Tchaikovsky concert, calling it “inappropriate” to feature the 19th-century Russian composer’s work.

These examples bear all the hallmarks of what is often called “cancel culture,” which renders public figures untouchable due to previously expressed positions or affiliations, even if the punishment—tarnished reputation, if not loss of a job—seems vastly disproportionate to the “crime.”

The resonances are unmistakable: The FIG issued a paean to “safety” with no one at risk, appending a modifier to justice/injustice to cap off a near-perfect imitation of a campus activist justifying shutting down an unwanted speaker. Netrebko may suffer long-lasting consequences completely irrelevant to her actual profession or position, like a public figure who as a teenager used a term now considered offensive. She is irreparably tainted by association, no matter how much she apologizes or insists the past is past.

The OSM relented, like a feckless executive, to complaints from Ukrainian-Canadians, who, as reported by CTV, have adopted the lingo of the campus activist: “I frankly don’t understand why Montreal Ukrainians have to fight this with OSM,” goes a typical argument, “while we live every minute in anguish for our families in Ukraine.” No one contends that Malofeev has anything to do with Putin or has done anything but condemn the war. The OSM relented simply because of “the serious impact on the civilian population of Ukraine caused by the Russian invasion.” Down to its use of “impact” and the passive voice, OSM struck a pitch-perfect imitation of a bureaucratic machine punishing an avatar for the enemy du jour over an irrelevant set of concerns about things beyond anyone’s control. 

It is worth noting the great irony here: After Islamist attacks or Chinese viruses strike the West, elites frequently worry aloud about the “backlash.” (The late comic Norm Macdonald lampooned the sentiment in 2016: “What terrifies me is if ISIS were to detonate a nuclear device and kill 50 million Americans. Imagine the backlash against peaceful Muslims?”) Yet the backlash against innocent Russians and Russian culture has not come from the benighted salt-of-the-earth but from elite institutions. Feeling the need to do something to show that they are on the right side of a tragic but clear debate, these institutions have done just what they’ve been trained to do: Cancel. In most cases, they are not responding to any particular demand, but exercising a well-developed reflex.

The context of an international conflict reveals that at some level this is not new. As part of the World War I propaganda effort, Americans were encouraged to disparage German culture, such as calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” (you can blame Woodrow Wilson for the silliness of “freedom fries” a century later) and banning German-language instruction in schools. In World War II, FDR targeted flesh-and-blood people rather than words and ideas when he imprisoned Japanese-Americans without due process of law. That is, of course, morally worse than depriving Russian artists of their performances, but only equally stupid. The West is not (yet) at war with Russia, and these cancelations are justified neither in terms of boosting morale nor ensuring national security. They are most often couched in concerns about what is “appropriate”—that is, what message embracing Russianism would send.

In short, the Russian Cancelations are sanctions—cultural warfare, a battle without violence, directed not at Russia the combative actor but at avatars for Russianism. This is certainly revealing of the Western psyche as it encounters an old-school war driven by one man’s imperial expansionism: Our elites do not know how to deal with it. Rather than approaching the problem with a clear head, examining what kinds of social sanctions would actually strike back at Putin and thinking what actually standing up to Russia would cost, our most powerful institutions engage in shallow protest. They try to show that they are for the good guys and against the bad guys, though they are actually punching down, attacking individuals on account of an identity for which they stand.

Our domestic culture wars are driven by an enormous category error that has the unfortunate side effect of degrading human beings and reducing them to the sum of their identities. 

Our elites make this mistake because they have learned in our domestic culture war to conceptualize bad guys as avatars for bad -isms; we Americans have trained our institutions to think that by fighting the abstraction we can somehow undercut the whole enterprise. This is not just useless, but counterproductive, because it risks alienating Russian expats in the west who could prove useful allies in the fight against Russian expansionism. Institutions wielding their power as thoughtlessly as despots do hardly makes the case for Westernism as a preferable alternative to authoritarianism.

Projecting this insight back onto the American cultural context, we can better grasp what drives the impulse to cancel individuals who once said a disfavored thing or shared an unsavory affiliation. To critics of cancel culture, it seems patently ridiculous to shun someone because their old tweets have resurfaced, or because they are tarnished by affiliation with a bad character, just as it is ridiculous to punish Russian pianists because they share a nationality with a warmongering thug. Individuals are not merely symbols of broader ideas, but humans with dignity. They ought, therefore, to be accountable only for things within their control, and their punishment should fit their crime.

But there is a reason a national obsession with “identity” drives our cultural madness. Identity, according to the prevailing view, is a collection of the abstractions that constitute a person: White, male, “cisgender,” Jewish, left-handed, Mets fan. A person comes into view only as we perceived more elements of his intersectional identity, as we can put aspects of his existence into more categories.

Given this lens, a 20-year-old Russian piano prodigy loses his status as Alexander Malofeev, a unique individual with his own will and his own set of debts and credits, and takes on a new status as avatar of his identity. He is, first and foremost in this new context, a Russian national. When people trained in identitarian analysis think of him, they will not think of his musical skill, nor any of the idiosyncrasies that surely make him who he is. They will think of him, in context of the salient battle, as the symbol of Russianism. It is therefore “inappropriate” to elevate him, even if it’s a punishment for things he could not control, infinitely disproportionate to his “crime” of merely belonging to the wrong group.

Just as the pagans of the ancient world saw world events as reflections of the supernatural battles of the gods, today’s identitarians view world events as cosmic struggles between the good -isms and the bad ones. Russianism has recently joined the pantheon of bad -isms, and we have much catching up to do in taking it down a peg. It joins racism, sexism, transphobia, and all the others as the opponents in our rapidly shifting battle against all bad things. By taking Malofeev or Tchaikovsky down a peg, the gods of progressivism claim another victory over the gods of Russianism.

As with so many ills of our era, the cure is quite simple: Return to honoring human dignity. If we succeed in reinvigorating the cultural ideal that every person is an individual created in the image of God, we will score a major hit against identitarian forces engaged in a persistent, if unspoken, denial of human dignity. Our domestic culture wars are driven by an enormous category error that has the unfortunate side effect of degrading human beings, reducing them to the sum of their identities, or to the identity that we may pick out as the catalyst for bad things they do. 

Other people are not avatars, and our cultural battles are not Manichean struggles for all that is good and true. Whether in our domestic cultural politics or in the lay practice of foreign affairs, rejecting God-given human dignity clouds our decision-making, counterproductively trains our focus on the wrong people, and worst of all, presents a profound affront to humanity—to others’ and our own.