The Putin and the Pea
“The most well-known far-right wing party, Svoboda (similar to say [Marine] Le Pen’s party or other corollaries in Europe) won 2.15 percent of the vote in 2019 election and holds one seat in the Rada – meaning they are politically irrelevant.” (Le Pen is the leader of the French far-right party the National Rally.)
Indeed, Pew finds that Ukraine is the least anti-Semitic country in Eastern Europe.
Still, some mainstream Western writers insist that Ukraine has a “Nazi problem” despite these numbers. Their argument is largely historical: Many Ukrainians were complicit in the Holocaust during World War II - yet modern Ukrainians, yearning for national heroes, overlook this complicity:
In another ominous development, Ukraine has in recent years erected a glut of statues honoring Ukrainian nationalists whose legacies are tainted by their indisputable record as Nazi proxies.
How Nazi is Ukraine really? Factcheck.org provides a typical punchline:
Eugene Finkel, an associate professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told us the influence of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi faction is relatively small.
“Neo-Nazi, far right and xenophobic groups do exist in Ukraine, like in pretty much any other country, including Russia,” Finkel said. “They are vocal and can be prone to violence but they are numerically small, marginal and their political influence at the state level is non-existent. That is not to say that Ukraine doesn’t have a far-right problem. It does. But I would consider the KKK in the US and skinheads and neo-Nazi groups in Russia a much bigger problem and threat than the Ukrainian far right.”
Is there any way to acknowledge all these facts, yet still demonize Ukraine as a “Nazi country”? Sure. Just do a linguistic bait-and-switch. Normally, we picture a “Nazi country” as one where self-conscious Nazis run the government. But why not redefine a “Nazi country” as one where the government fails to make stamping out any hint of Nazism its top priority? If you’re a fanatic, you could even start lecturing Ukrainians about their “implicit” and “structural” Nazism. Then you’re ready to tar anyone who opposes reparations for Israel a “Nazi.” It’s like The Princess and the Pea: If you take Nazism seriously enough, even the smallest dose will keep you up at night.
Perhaps you now sense where’s I’m going with this. Self-conscious white supremacists haven’t run the U.S. government in many decades. Not even at the state or local level, much less the federal level. In the U.S., self-conscious white supremacists are a microscopic and hated fraction of the population. By normal standards, the United States, then, the U.S. is not “white supremacist” country. Not even close.
But especially since 2020, that hasn’t mattered much. Even outside of academia, I actually encounter people who treat America’s “white supremacy” as settled fact. If you make the obvious observation that the KKK and Aryan Nation are a tiny cults, they’ll start lecturing you about “implicit” and “structural” racism. For these fanatics, a few murderous cops - and a bunch of old statues - prove something fundamental about a country with a few hundred million inhabitants. Again, it’s The Princess and the Pea. If you take white supremacy seriously enough, even the smallest dose will keep you up at night.
I know it’s tempting to question the sincerity of the Princess who “can’t sleep.” No one really believes that the U.S. is a white supremacist country, right? Speakers and listeners alike know they’re using poetic license to inspire us to take radical action. And much the same goes for Russia. No one really believes Ukraine is a Nazi country, right? Speakers and listeners alike know that Putin’s people are using poetic license to inspire Russians to take radical action.
But we should take a more nuanced view of the mindset of the Princess. Sometimes she’s just method acting. Other times, she’s a true believer. Part of “inspiring” people with hyperbole, after all, is to get them to stop asking questions like, “Is this literally true, or just poetic license?” When people stop asking such questions, their ability to believe the absurd is mighty indeed. See the whole history of religion.
Still, isn’t there a vital distinction between using absurdity for good and using absurdity for evil? Logically, maybe. Yet in practice, absurdity is the evil genie you foolishly release from the bottle. Why would you want to inspire radical action against a vestigial problem? Gross exaggeration is a recipe for a pea hunt - burning massive resources and persecuting lots of innocents to “handle” an issue that is trivial by comparison.
P.S. I asked DALL-E to draw Putin as the princess in The Princess and the Pea, but the software refused.