It happened the other night, it was nearly 3 a.m.—a telephone call in the middle of my slumber. I could hear it ringing from downstairs. Thinking it might be something serious at that late hour, perhaps a neighbor in distress, I picked up the receiver next to my bed.
The voice inquired: “Is this Dr. Cathey?”
“Yes,” I answered, still half asleep. “Who is this…what’s going on?”
The male voice at the other end continued: “We know who you are—you are a traitor to the United States, you are a Communist who supports that war criminal Putin. Well, you need to watch your back, ‘cause things can happen to traitors.”
That got my attention; I repeated: “Who is this…why are you calling me?” No answer, and my interrogator immediately hung up.
About my three recently published 2022 essays concerning Russia and Ukraine (on January 7, February 19, and February 25), I had already received a couple of very ugly, profane email messages earlier accusing me of being a “Putin apologist.” Unlike several correspondents and good friends who have expressed rational if very different opinions from the ones I have, those messages were unsigned. I am pleased to discuss the Ukraine crisis with friends, and I understand that if you express strong views, sometimes you’ll get blowback. But the depth of venom, hatred, even personal threats? Even as a strong supporter of my Confederate heritage and my support for keeping our monuments to that heritage up, I’ve never been the recipient of such unrestrained vitriol as now.
It got me to thinking about questions I ask anyone who approaches me about my stance on what is going on in Ukraine: Why the over-the-top passion on this topic? Why Ukraine? Why such an hysterical response when Ukraine and its position in Europe and in the world are not strategically important to us? After all, the United States has been on the invading-end of conflicts for decades…Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and so on. Yet, somehow our foreign ventures are always virtuous and noble? And what kind of outrage did we express for those hundreds of thousands of Tutsis killed in Uganda or the thousands of Kurdish inhabitants eliminated by our ally Turkey?
Look at the intensity and what can only be called unleashed hatred directed at anything Russian and its leader—look at the expansive, all-encompassing campaign, from North Carolina’s governor Roy Cooper ordering that all state liquor stores dump Russian-made vodka, to the firing of one of the world’s greatest classical music conductors Russian Valery Gergiev from his position as head of the Munich Philharmonic because he wouldn’t publicly condemn Putin (he’s also had contracts with the Metropolitan Opera and a dozen other musical organizations cancelled—which was never done even in the “hottest” moments of the Cold War), to the attempted banning in Italy of the works of the great Russian novelist Fydor Dostoevsky, to the suspension of Russian television broadcasting in the US, to the cancellation of dozens of sporting events which were to feature Russian athletes, to the growing persecution of Russians living in the West, including vandalism of the Russian embassy in France. The list of such actions is endless.
Why the frenzied fury and the passion?
There are, I believe, several reasons for this.
First, there is an imperfect analogy with what happened regarding Germany long after the end of World War II in 1945. I recall when I was growing up that every “war film” I watched featured a nasty and cruel, smartly-dressed uniformed German soldier, monocled, in jackboots, probably with a whip, who was personally responsible for all sorts of mayhem and vicious criminality and murder. We knew those Germans were all evil Nazis, and they were soon to be “taken out” by the super-courageous American grunts, who became in a strange way the “new supermen.” We could do anything…We never lost, and, in fact, in Hollywood our heroic and valiant boys kept winning glorious victories for three decades after Germany was defeated. We knew that Lee Marvin and “the Dirty Dozen” would get it done.
The Germans, you see, were intrinsically evil. And that meme built on the narrative dating from World War I. One of my great uncles would repeat to me when I was young a little ditty from that war, popular among Americans of the period: “Kaiser Bill went up the hill, to take a look at France; Kaiser Bill came down the hill, with bullets in his pants!”
And many of us over the age of forty will remember “the evil empire” that Nikita Khrushchev said “would bury us.” In primary school, I recall those air raid drills when we would crouch under our desks, lest a Commie missile somehow target our school. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam and the Tonkin Gulf affair—it was those evil Soviet Russians who were responsible. At that time, arguably, we at least had a convincing case to make about the Communists and their efforts at world domination.
Leftwing columnist Bill Press sums up what we hear constantly from the media: “It’s about a lot more than Ukraine,” he writes. “It’s about world security. It’s about the sanctity of national borders. It’s about the rule of law and the strength of international treaties. It’s about the future of democracy. It’s about the unchecked power of autocrats anywhere to invade and destroy their neighbors.”
Really? Let’s unpack that a little.
For far too many Americans, especially those self-identified conservatives, their view of Russian history just stopped sometime around 1980, frozen in time. It is as if Communism never went away, and all the characteristics of “the evil empire” are once again threatening the very existence of democratic, freedom-loving America (well, Ukraine is in the surrogate position as our client state). Putin has become—has channeled—Adolf Hitler, a kind of combination of Hitler and Stalin, intent on “restoring the Soviet Union” and conquering the world.
There are dozens of examples illustrating this theme, both in the media and in Congress, including such insane, frothing-at-the-mouth examples as Representative Adam Kinzinger embracing Senator Lindsey Graham’s call for assassinating the Russian leader or declaring a “no fly zone” over Ukraine, which would most likely lead to nuclear war.
Yet a careful reading of Putin’s actual comment about “the tragedy of the collapse of the Soviet Union,” offers a far different interpretation, as various scholars have indicated (e.g., Russia Against the Rest: The Post Cold-War Crisis of World Order, by Professor Richard Sakwa, and Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft, by Professor Allen Lynch). Putin has forthrightly condemned in the strongest terms both Communism and the hateful Soviet period of Russian history. Was he not correct to lament the break-up of the old union into fifteen economically-fractured, ethnically-divisive republics? Did not that break-up resemble in some ways the arbitrary and disastrous break-up of the old Austro-Hungarian empire which helped propel Europe into a Second World War?
A second reason is the intense “yellow journalism” media coverage of the conflict. Every national network, from CNN and MSNBC to Fox News, is acting like a well-oiled megaphone for Dr. Goebels’ propaganda bureau. It seems our media are attempting to outdo each other in portraying just how cruel and brutal those Russian soldiers are, and how evil that “reincarnation of Hitler in the Kremlin” is. There is practically no attempt at objective coverage, no attempt to balance the completely one-sided accounts. Thus, Jesse Waters, with a grim, deeply pained expression on Fox News Primetime detailing in lurid detail how Russians were attempting to explode Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia and were raping defenseless Ukrainian women. Indeed, those stories still circulate as the latest Russian “outrage” and “war crime.”
But no one stops to question them. Why would the Russians launch strikes against a nuclear reactor that would, if exploded, potentially maim and kill hundreds of thousands of nearby Russians? Another different version, difficult to discover at Fox or CNN, is that Ukrainian irregulars occupied the administrative building at the site and began directing fire at oncoming Russian troops. No projectiles were aimed by the Russians at the nuclear component, and apparently now it has been safely occupied by them. But it is significant that the Ukrainian government continues to charge the Russians with attempted “nuclear blackmail.”
The independent journalist, Glenn Greenwald, has reported on a number of “fake news” pro-Ukrainian war memes spread across our supposedly “free and balanced” media. I list some of them here:
- the inspiring story that the Ukrainian military shot down two Russian Il-76s transport planes (no evidence for this);
- a Russian tank purposely and randomly ran over a civilian car (the video suggests an accident and, more importantly, subsequent news accounts acknowledged: “it wasn’t immediately clear if the armored vehicle was Russian or more likely Ukrainian hardware, or when this crash took place”);
- a mega-viral thread from a member of the EU Parliament claiming Russian oligarchs and Putin were screaming at each other in a bunker in desperation (pronounced “likely disinfo” by the US-intel-friendly and vehemently anti-Russia site Bellingcat);
- a gratifying story that Turkey told Ukraine that it informed Russia it was barred from using Turkish straits to enter the Black Sea (Turkey denied telling this to President Zelensky and said they could not and would not do that, then on Sunday said they had determined these events constitute a “war” such that they may have the power them to ban both Ukraine and Russia, but had not yet decided to so);
- a thrilling photo of Zelensky in body armor on the front lines against Russia (it was from months ago), and,
- claims that Russia targeted a civilian apartment building with a missile (it appears now that the missile was a misguided Ukrainian air defense weapon).
As in previous wars and conflicts in which the US has been involved I am reminded of what Senator Hiram Johnson (R-CA) said in 1917 about the First World War: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Every media pundit and announcer should be made to read the classic study of war propaganda parading as objective news: Arthur Lord Ponsonby’s Falsehood in War-time, Containing an Assortment of Lies Circulated Throughout the Nations During the Great War (1928). Remember the fake stories of German soldiers severing the hands of Belgian babies, the unprovoked sinking of the Lusitania (which was indeed carrying munitions to the Brits), and the violation of innocent nurses? Does this not remind us of what we are now seeing and hearing constantly on Fox and at other venues?
After six years of drenching Russophobia and dozens of fake news stories which conservatives rightly batted down and that were finally disproven, one would think that the torrent of lurid reports brought to us by those same newscasters, politicians, and Intel agencies would engender some serious doubts. But apparently not.
A third reason is the fevered view of our managerial elites who see Russia as the major obstacle to their efforts to achieve global suzerainty and a new world order. Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum, defined this movement as “the Great Reset,” the “window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world.” It combines the globalism of the Neoconservatives who have dominated the American foreign policy managerial class for decades under both Democrat and Republican presidents, with the xenophobic anti-Russian stance of those on the farther left who despise Putin for his purported persecution of homosexuals, refusal to countenance same sex marriage, and staunch defense of the traditional nuclear family (with these policies reflected in Russian laws and education).
Some on the far left have gone so far as to, once again, attempt to tie President Trump to Putin, yanking his comments out of context. But to call President Putin a “genius” (as Trump did) is not to endorse his actions with regards to Ukraine. No opportunity is lost to damn and paint as opposed to equal rights, even as racists those Americans, mostly traditional Christians, who have approved of Putin’s defense of the traditional family. The Washington Post asserts that over the past three decades many traditional Christians “have forged a partnership [with Russia] in a global family values movement that not only embraces sexual and gender traditionalism but sees these practices as a solution to demographic changes around the globe.” Obviously, then, such Americans are, to revive an old charge from columnist David Frum, “unpatriotic.” Or, as Senator Mitt Romney told Yahoo News, “almost treasonous.” Dissent from the anti-Russian template will not be tolerated. Is this not, then, “cancel culture” on an international level?
It should also be noted that many of the major voices of Neoconservatism—the Irving and Bill Kristols, the David Frums, the Max Boots, and others of Russian Jewish descent see a nationalist Russia, which openly embraces its Orthodox Christian heritage and traditions, as somehow the reincarnation of the old Tsarist empire which persecuted their ancestors who emigrated from the Pale of Settlement in the last years of the 19th and first years of the 20th centuries. Just as anti-Teutonic sentiment lingered long years after the end of World War II, so an animus against a revitalized nationalist, traditionally Orthodox Russia cannot be excluded as a reason for how prominent journalists and media personalities instinctively react to Putin’s Russia.
Some of the anti-Russian, or more precisely, anti-Putin managerial elites claim that the Russian president is (still) a KGB agent and a “thug.” Yet, a careful study of his life and his long-past membership in that organization (he held a desk job in Dresden in the defunct German Democratic Republic for a few years) give the lie to this portrait. As Professors Lynch and Sakwa detail at length (e.g., The Putin Paradox, by Sakwa, and Vladimir Putin & Russian Statecraft, by Lynch), Putin left the KGB and denounced it (just as he firmly denounced Communism). He was Deputy Mayor of Leningrad under and supporting pro-democrat Anatoly Sobchak, and when the August 1991 KGB counter-coup occurred it was Putin who saved Sobchak, then the leader of anti-Communist elements in Russia, from being arrested by the KGB. Charges of his personal corruption and venality are equally debunked.
But never mind the facts during war time. Our situation is one where attempting to ferret out something close to the truth is extremely difficult. As I have asked my friends—pleaded with them—can we not have just a bit of skepticism and doubt at all the suffocating feculence which is engulfing us?
And once again, my questions: Why? Why is Ukraine so goldarned essential and important that a prominent symphony conductor in Bavaria must lose his job and his contracts because he won’t publicly denounce his native country and its president? Or that we attempt to purge Dostoevsky or ban Russian films? Or that prominent American politicians urge actions which would inevitably entail nuclear war?