“Why are you pro Putin?” This was how a woman responded to me on Twitter when I provided some historical context to the current war between Russia and Ukraine, though nothing I had said implied what I thought about Putin either way. It’s a common tactic in media and social media. When someone tries to present a contextual history of the conflict that is inconvenient to the overly simplistic Marvel comic book depiction that is constantly pounded home by most establishment media in the US, they and what they say are equated with being pro-Putin or a Russian propagandist.
It’s a convenient way to avoid engaging with the substance of the argument being made. Indeed, it often is a way to avoid facts the person employing this device doesn’t like. And that represents a disturbing trend highlighted by this conflict – the increasing tendency for people to decide whether to acknowledge facts based on whether they like them or not. Even more disturbing is that this anti-intellectual line of thinking is often being practiced by people who consider themselves to be liberals.
When I was growing up liberals would never have accused a sociologist who studies crime and tries to understand its dynamics of being pro-criminal. A scientist who studied cancer would not have been considered a cancer apologist. Quite the contrary, liberals would have hailed the sociologist and scientist as carrying on in the best tradition of the Enlightenment principles of open debate and fearless, in-depth exploration of a topic to gain a constructive understanding of it. But if someone tries to apply these same principles in 2022 to geopolitics and a war that has the potential for grave escalations, it’s beyond the pale.
A recent commenter on one of my articles posted to Medium, in which I relayed the thoughts of several people in Russia I’m in contact with about the war and sanctions, asked me why I didn’t say what I thought about Putin and the Russian government. She clearly couldn’t accept the merits of hearing what Russians had to say unless the person who’d reported it had made an anti-Putin statement first. Because I hadn’t done that, my reporting was “sus” as the saying goes these days. Apparently, Americans are so used to “reporting” that reinforces one viewpoint that they can’t fathom someone reporting what people in another country think that doesn’t jibe with their preconceived ideas. There must be something nefarious going on. As another commenter on the article warned, I might be getting paid by Russia. After all, a writer who lives in a one room studio and doesn’t own a car must have a Putin-affiliated Russian oligarch benefactor. It’s the only explanation.
What Does “Pro-Putin” Actually Mean?
I’ve stated several times on social media, in a podcast interview in early March, and in my last feature-length article that I oppose Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I had even made it clear in the Twitter exchange with the lady mentioned above right before she accused me of being pro-Putin. How I could oppose one of the most consequential decisions Putin has ever made and still be pro-Putin is a bit of a mystery to me. But I’ve seen this thinking even used against solid Putin critics when they don’t engage in the requisite vilification of the Russian president and preface every statement with “I hate Putin.”
I’ve even seen famous Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner characterized as pro-Putin. I know for a fact, based on words directly out of Pozner’s mouth, that he “doesn’t like the guy” (referring to Putin) and has publicly criticized the Russian president numerous times over the years. But if you try to explain why Putin’s attitude toward the West changed over the years or you don’t use over-the-top rhetoric about Putin being Hitler, Stalin and Jeffrey Dahmer all rolled into one, then you’re simply pro-Putin.
It’s hard to understand how this childish level of discourse helps anything. I’m guessing that it makes people feel good on an emotional level to disregard what anyone has to say that might cause the slightest bit of cognitive dissonance. But, as an analyst of Russia, I don’t see my job as providing people with emotional comfort. I see my job as providing factual analysis about Russia to the best of my ability. In this vein, I’m not pro-Putin or anti-Putin, but have tried to study and assess the Russian president based on the best information I could find, including the historical, social and geopolitical context of his governance. I’ve also tried to convey how Russians view him and why.
I’m fallible so there will be – and have been – times when I’m wrong. This is why people should read a wide variety of sources and hear different views and then draw their own conclusions. But this widespread attitude of only wanting to hear what makes one feel good or secure blocks that endeavor by shutting down anything beyond one simplistic and decontextualized viewpoint from the debate.
The bottom line is that if one is interested in figuring out how to end this terrible conflict without a dangerous escalation, then one needs to understand how we got here. That means understanding the complex contextual background of it and that includes discussing the less-than-innocent role of our own government. Anything else strikes me as empty sloganeering and virtue signaling.