As the world has rallied to Ukraine’s side, it has isolated Russia, not just economically but in all international relations:
In Switzerland, the Lucerne music festival canceled two symphony concerts featuring a Russian maestro. In Australia, the national swim team said it would boycott a world championship meet in Russia. At the Magic Mountain Ski Area in Vermont, a bartender poured bottles of Stolichnaya vodka down the drain. . . .
Russia has been banned from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which it last won in 2008, with Dima Bilan performing his power ballad, “Believe.” Russia’s Formula 1 Grand Prix, scheduled for September in Sochi, has been scrapped. St. Petersburg has lost the Champions League soccer final, which was relocated to Paris. . . . The National Hockey League also suspended its business dealings in Russia.
This comprehensive isolation of Russia has led some of the usual suspects to complain about “cancel culture.” Yet much of the boycott of Russia, and of some Russian musicians and athletes, demonstrates that under the right conditions, ostracism of evil is a legitimate and necessary social tool—so long as what you are ostracizing is, in fact, a clear and dangerous evil.
A New McCarthyism?
Russia’s foreign intelligence director, Sergei Naryshkin, is screaming about being canceled:
“The masks have been dropped. The west is not just trying to surround Russia with a new Iron Curtain,” he said. “We are talking about attempts to destroy our state—it’s ‘cancellation,’ as it is now customary to say in a ‘tolerant’ liberal-fascist environment.” Mr. Naryshkin’s comments were posted on the website of Russian intelligence agency SVR, and then appeared on the Russian site RIA Novosti.
A Russian spy whining about freedom of speech in a Russian propaganda outlet is pretty rich—and I also have to add that if you represent a dictator who is trying to resurrect the Soviet Union, it seems like a bad idea to bring up the Iron Curtain.
Yet the same complaints have been taken up by American conservatives, to whom that line about “liberal fascists” is aimed. Fringe right-wing legislator Wendy Rogers, an Arizona state senator, complains that “the West is trying to deplatform and debank Russia,” which “is just as wrong as invading Ukraine.” Just as wrong as a war in which Russia is bombing maternity hospitals?
There are certainly some excesses in the global ostracism of Russia and Russians. Twenty-year-old piano prodigy Alexander Malofeev had a concert canceled in Montreal, even after denouncing the war: “‘The truth is that every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict,’ he wrote on Facebook.” An orchestra in Cardiff removed works by Tchaikovsky from its program, and a university in Italy briefly postponed a course on Dostoevsky, as if there is anything to be accomplished by punishing long-dead composers and writers. There have also been reports of anti-Russian sentiment directed against restaurants and small businesses run by Russian immigrants. Tyler Cowen goes so far as to call this a “new McCarthyism.”
Perhaps—but we should also remember that even under the old McCarthyism, there still were real Communists, people who knowingly backed a murderous Russian tyrant, and there was a genuine reason for people not to want to employ them.
The Culture of Free Speech
Most of the debates we have about freedom of speech are not really about government censorship. They are about the culture of free speech, an ethos that favors open discussion and welcomes a variety of viewpoints. This debate is about the decisions made by private individuals and institutions about whom they will continue to broadcast or support. Yet everyone has to draw a line somewhere, cutting off certain ideas: conspiracy theories that are too absurd, evasions that are too dishonest, lies that are too vicious to be entertained.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a reminder of why we have to draw these lines. Ideas have consequences, and the consequences of some ideas are so clearly destructive, on such a large scale, that decent people have to reject them and refuse to cooperate in spreading them, just out of self-preservation.
For example, was it a good idea to let Berlin host the 1936 Olympics and let Hitler use it as a tool for Nazi propaganda? Would you have invited Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who created that propaganda, to a film festival? This is not a mere academic question. In 1938, Riefenstahl was on an American tour for her propaganda film “Olympia” when the Nazis unleashed the Kristallnacht pogrom against German Jews.
Would it have been “cancel culture” to disinvite Riefenstahl and to ostracize her from civilized society—instead of giving her tours of Hollywood film studios, which is what actually happened? Obviously, given the result she contributed to with her hagiographic portrayals of Hitler—the millions killed and the lives shattered by war and genocide—someone like Riefenstahl should have been ostracized, as a necessity of defending civilized life against barbarism.
Not every evil is the equivalent of Nazi Germany. We tend to resort to that example precisely because it is so extreme that it helps clarify our answers, even though most cases we encounter are not as clear-cut. Yet there’s not that much difference between Hitler’s aggression in Europe and Vladimir Putin’s war of unprovoked aggression, which has been characterized by the wanton slaughter of civilians, including artillery bombardment of residential neighborhoods and the murder of fleeing families. So it is entirely reasonable to cut off his cronies and apologists.
For example, one of the complaints about anti-Russian “cancel culture” specifically defends Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. But Gergiev is not just some random Russian. He is a regime insider who has long used his connection with Putin to promote his career.
Gergiev’s loyalty toward Putin’s politics and person—he considers the Russian president a personal friend—has frequently manifested in bizarre propaganda stunts. In 2016, Gergiev performed for Russian troops in conquered Palmyra, Syria. In March 2018, he canceled a performance of Wagner’s “Siegfried” at the Mariinsky in order to attend a Putin campaign event (“For a strong Russia”) at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. . . .
In 2018, Gergiev signed an open letter from artists in support of the annexation of Crimea.
Similarly, we should not sympathize with the employees of Russian state-run media outlets such as RT, who are now finding themselves out of a job and deprived of an audience. Some years ago, there were ambitious young people, often on the left, who signed up to work for RT so they could cover Occupy Wall Street. But they long ago discovered that their real job was just to pump out pro-Putin propaganda. Those who remained knew what they were signing up for, yet they have been complaining about being labeled as “state-owned media” and, in a spectacular failure of self-awareness, quoting George Orwell to protest cable and satellite companies dropping RT from their lineup. You don’t get to quote Orwell in your defense if you work for the Ministry of Truth.
A Blunt Instrument
This does not mean, though, that the need to cancel Russian cronies and propagandists justifies the kind of ordinary “cancel culture” we have been worried about in recent years. Quite the opposite: It should put the claims of the would-be cancelers in perspective. By reminding us of the full brutality of a real war, it should make the hypersensitive claims of college kids who feel “unsafe” seem that much more ridiculous by comparison. People in a bomb shelter in Kyiv are unsafe. People hearing ideas they disagree with at college are not.
The comprehensive social ostracism of “cancel culture” is a blunt weapon to be used in the most clear-cut and extreme cases, not lightly and casually, to satisfy a momentary urge to feel superior to others. It should be saved for the truly big evils that unleash mass death—that is, for precisely a case like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.