In the medieval era, when a thinker successfully claimed divine revelation, he placed his words beyond dispute. Only the hopelessly benighted or demonically inspired could doubt him. In recent decades, the claim of “science” achieves a similar result. Politicians maintain they “just follow the science” while supportive mass media platforms banish questioners as enemies of science. Pseudoscience never had it so good.
There is another way to silence opponents today: Claim an issue is one of “moral clarity,” a phrase that signals the question is “settled” and allows for no further discussion. In such cases, facts don’t give rise to a narrative, the narrative determines the facts. When an issue is declared “morally clear” in this way, the implication is that only the immoral could entertain the slightest doubt. The world divides neatly into good and evil. There can be no conscientious skeptics. And when people are unqualifiedly evil, anything one says about them or does to them becomes justified.
As a specialist in Russian literature and thought, I am more than familiar with this way of thinking. It is how the Soviet Union operated. Once the Party ruled on a topic, gray areas vanished. That is why every vote of the Soviet parliament was unanimous and elections offered only one candidate. The very idea of disputable questions was a bourgeois mystification, designed to keep the working class from acting decisively in its interest. By the same token, all issues became zero-sum games. In first-year economics, one learns that in any unforced transaction both sides benefit or they would not make the exchange, but in Marxist-Leninist thinking, one side’s gain is necessarily the other side’s loss.
I was therefore less than happy to discover an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal expressing relief that the present situation in Ukraine offered “moral clarity.” In recent years, the author explained, “collectivism found new life and morphed into a form of progressive authoritarianism,” but the present situation is so morally clear that it offers “a chance to rediscover the principles of freedom and democracy, eroded by illiberal intellectual fads.” My Russian training prompted a question: How could a situation where everyone was morally bound to agree help overcome a collectivist mindset? Freedom and democracy, after all, depend on legitimate differences of opinion. Issues that look morally clear may be so only up to a point. Not everything favoring the virtuous side is necessarily virtuous. The last thing we need is to assume that once we are confident in our position, there is no more thinking to be done. Quite the contrary, the more we favor one side of a question, the more we need to entertain the possibility of selection bias in assessing evidence.
The overwhelming majority of Americans and Europeans now side with Ukraine. To be sure, the Democratic Socialists of America maintain that Russia is more sinned against than sinning and that the solution to the present crisis is to dissolve NATO. And Prof. John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago argues that the crisis confirms what he has long argued, that by encouraging Ukraine to Westernize, we would invite understandable Russian interference. But these opinions now seem decidedly fringe. I was not surprised at Putin’s aggression, brutality, or spurious accusations—what else should one expect from a former KGB agent in power?—but I did not anticipate the welcome decision of Western powers to pressure Russian leaders and aid Ukrainian resistance. Germany doubled its defense budget and even perpetually neutral Switzerland took sides.
If only “moral clarity” had stopped there! But as with the cancel culture of recent years, the further one goes, the more virtuous one feels. Whatever assertion favors the right side must be accepted and whatever action harms opponents must be justified. True enough, official Russian propaganda transmits outrageous lies and the regime suppresses dissenting voices. Does it follow that everything said by the Ukrainian government and sympathetic observers must be true—or that anyone who calls for the skepticism normally applied to all partisan sources must be a Putin supporter? Should we, too, banish dissenting voices?
In the spirit of moral clarity, anything “Russian” has become immoral. Consider that in the Netherlands a Russian grocery store was vandalized, a Russian Orthodox church was defaced, and a Russian school intimidated into going offline. The “Russian supermarket” in fact specialized in food from many Eastern European countries, and could more accurately have been called a “Slavic supermarket,” but as its Armenian owner explained, “nobody knows what that means.” The Russian church, which serves Orthodox Christians from several countries, actually collected money for the Ukrainians. The Russian school’s pupils included Estonian, Uzbek, and Ukrainian students. “People think that the Russian language is spoken only in Russia,” the director sighed, but anyone who knows recent history is aware that it is the language of educated people in several former Soviet republics.
A Russian medical student in Amsterdam, who fled his homeland, described how, time and again, he has had to explain that there are good Russians as well as bad Russians. In fact, a large number of Russians opposed to the present situation have become refugees. One Dutch news source reported, “Prime Minister Mark Rutte called on the Dutch on Tuesday to stop verbal abuse against Russians.” The mayor of Amsterdam likewise felt compelled to explain: “We have a problem with Putin and the Russian state, not with the Russian population or the Russian inhabitants of Amsterdam. . . . This war must not lead to discrimination.” One might suppose that those who objected strenuously to discrimination against Arabs (or people taken to be Arabs) after 9/11 might also caution against abuse of people who happen to be Russian, but in a situation of “moral clarity” nuance and consistency disappear.
Some Russian performers and public figures now must publicly declare opposition to Putin in order to perform. How long before Jewish performers and academics will have to declare their opposition to Israel, or Muslim ones to whatever Muslim land we are presently fighting?
When the Vancouver Recital Society cancelled a concert by Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, winner of the 2014 International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians, the society’s founder and director, Leila Getz, explained that the society could not “present a concert by any Russian artist at this moment in time unless they are prepared to speak out publicly against this war.” Far from supporting Putin’s actions, Malofeev asserted that “every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict.” All the same, he continued, demands like Getz’s are morally wrong. After all, they feed hatred of people simply because of their nationality and “people cannot be judged by their nationality.” In other contexts, would we not call such judgments racist or fascist? “I have never seen so much hatred going in all directions, in Russia and around the world,” Malofeev reflected. “Why, in a few days, has the whole world rolled back into a state where every person has a choice between fear and hatred?” “I am contacted by journalists now who want me to make statements,” Malofeev explained, but to do so would endanger his family in Russia. Surely those who demand such statements must or easily could be aware of such dangers. One wants to ask: What risks are these journalists taking?
Russian Soprano Anna Netrebko observed: “Forcing artists . . . to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right. This should be a free choice. Like many of my colleagues, I am not a political person. . . . I am an artist and my purpose is to unite people across political divides.”
Indeed, Russian culture itself has become a target. Russian artists who lived long before the birth of Putin, or the creation of the Soviet secret police that trained him, have been cancelled. In Italy, writer Paolo Nori’s lectures on Dostoevsky were “postponed.” “This is to avoid any controversy,” explained the email he received, “especially internally, during a time of strong tensions.” Nori responded: “I realize what is happening in Ukraine is horrible, and I feel like crying just thinking about it. But what is happening in Italy is ridiculous. . . . Not only is being a living Russian wrong in Italy, but also being a dead Russian. That an Italian university would ban a course on an author like Dostoevsky is unbelievable.” After a backlash, the university reversed its decision.
But numerous cancellations have not been reversed. In Belgium, a Stravinsky concert was cancelled. In Wales, the Cardiff Philharmonic removed a Tchaikovsky program. In the Netherlands, the Harlaam Philharmonic, explaining that it “would be inappropriate to celebrate Russian music,” cancelled a mini festival featuring Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. “They are afraid of threats. But you shouldn’t succumb to that,” Russian expert Michel Krielaars observed. “These seem like Soviet practices.” Are we becoming more like Russia every day?
“You have Putin’s Russia and Pushkin’s Russia,” Krielaars observed. To blame a whole culture, past and present, for a current political action implies that everything about that culture contributed to that action. If Germany succumbed to the Nazis, don’t listen to Beethoven; because of Mussolini, cancel Dante and Raphael; if you reject American actions in Vietnam, the Middle East, or anywhere else, no more Thoreau or Emily Dickinson. Could there be a better way to encourage national hatred than to treat a whole culture and its history as a unified whole, carrying, as if genetically, a hideous quality?
When I visited Soviet-dominated Poland in 1970, people understandably resented Russian rule. Ill-disposed to the forced consumption of Russian culture, some responded, as oppressed people often do, with the sort of blind hatred that prepares victims to be oppressors as soon as the tables are turned. As a character in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov observes, “it can be very pleasant to take offense.” One Pole I met proclaimed proudly: “I even hate Russian trees!” “You have something against birches?” I asked incredulously. But the more absurd his pronouncements were, the more righteous he felt.
Perhaps it was such a feeling that led one of my Northwestern University colleagues, a passionately pro-Ukrainian professor, to try to cancel a lecture on Russian idealistic philosophy and to demand that my department, the department of Slavic languages and literatures, remove a picture of the Kremlin from its website. That picture has been there for many years, and symbolizes not Russian foreign policy but Russian culture. Had we used a picture of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, would my colleague have accused us of promoting Russian Orthodoxy? Another of my colleagues wondered whether we would soon be asked to stop teaching Tolstoy.
A recent statement signed by numerous Slavic organizations, the Harvard University Library, and 162 individuals demands a rejection of anything objectionably Russian—anything with the slightest connection to wealthy Russians or government institutions, which means museums and libraries. It instructs universities to rename buildings or programs that have received Russian financial support. It demands the banning of various artists, including Anna Netrebko. Considering the highly charged rhetoric throughout the document, I do not know how much faith to place in its assertions of close or remote connections with Russian oligarchs; it provides no documentation. Objectionable ventures denounced in the statement include Columbia University Press’s series of translations of Russian literary classics, like Alexander Griboedov’s great early nineteenth-century comedy Woe from Wit. Is everything Russian, including the finest works illuminating the world, fair game? Perhaps those deplorable Russian birch trees were also planted by the Russian government and should be mown down?
Will the statement's demands be accepted? Yes. I recently received an email from a colleague who is working on translating a Russian classic for the Columbia University Press series. He was told by his editor that, since the press has refused the financial support sustaining the series, its publications would have to be drastically curtailed. Does Columbia University hope that banning Griboedov will bring Putin to reason?
Even at the height of the Cold War, no one thought of banning Russian literature, art, or music. Quite the contrary; that is when Russian studies first flourished in America. Russian language began to be widely taught, in secondary schools as well as colleges, and the National Defense Foreign Language Act included Russian as a “critical language” to be supported. The very fact that the U.S.S.R. was perceived as a mortal enemy meant that Americans should know more, not less, about Russian culture. And it was also hoped that great literature and art, which everyone could share, might bring people together.
Academics now cancel (or fire) American colleagues and ban speakers they find objectionable, so it is hardly surprising that they would extend the same courtesy to objectionable foreigners. According to Chicago City Wire, a group of University of Chicago students are “circulating a letter demanding the school force political science Professor John Mearsheimer to change his views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” Not just renounce his views but change them? Isn’t that the defining feature of totalitarianism—to compel not just obedience but actual private agreement? But this is what happens on campuses all the time, where professors and students are asked not just to observe rules with which they may not agree but to accept the ideology on which they are based.
If Russian history teaches anything, it is that such “moral clarity” has no limits. If all right is on one side, then anything—literally anything—one says or does is justified. Indeed, to stop short of the most extreme measures is to indulge evil, which means risking the charge of complicity. When Stalin sent local officials quotas of people to be arrested, they responded by demanding still higher quotas. It was the safest thing to do to prove one’s loyalty. No one ever secured his position by calling for less severity to enemies. When everything is black and white, sooner or later everyone is at risk.
“If only it were so simple!” reflected Alexander Solzhenitsyn about such thinking. If only it were a matter of good people always doing good things confronting evil people and those directly or indirectly aiding them. Such thinking is not only profoundly dangerous, it also fundamentally misunderstands the very nature of moral judgment. The more serious the question, the more, not less, care should be taken in addressing it. And we must never forget, as Solzhenitsyn frequently observed, that “the line dividing good from evil” runs not between one people or one class and another. Rather, it “cuts through every human heart.”
Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.
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