Part of the Series
The Public Intellectual
The drums of fascism are beating louder. The catastrophe of war and outpouring of support for the millions of Ukrainians suffering under the brutal attacks by Russia has morphed into increased warmongering from the West. The shock of war has been transformed into a cinematic spectacle used to fan the flames of militarism. The sheer boldness, violence and ruthlessness of Russia’s attack on Ukraine has created a global political crisis accentuated by both a crisis of ideas and a crisis of historical reckoning, at least in the Western mainstream media.
The wider public’s inability to reflect on the underlying causes of the war is due at least in the United States to its long-standing dominant belief in its own exceptionalism, reinforced by a moral righteousness endlessly reproduced in the mainstream media.
Tragic pictures of the agonizing hardships faced by the Ukrainian people too often appear with little or no critical commentary in the corporate-controlled cultural apparatuses. Endless images of unfathomable agony by the Ukrainian people dominate the conventional news outlets and other monopolies of information governed by the spectacle of 24/7 coverage, matched almost entirely by a lack of historical analysis. While widespread moral repulsion to the tragedies of the war are understandable, what is not acceptable is the refusal of the mainstream media to reflect on the historical, political and economic conditions leading up to the war.
The U.S. public is being fed continuous nonstop images of technologically sophisticated weapons being used in Ukraine — in effect this appears to function as a sort of advertisement for the weapons industry, coupled with the sensational presentation of gratuitous violence. Within this militarized aesthetic, operating in the service of permanent war, as cultural critic Rustom Bharucha writes, “there is an echo of the pornographic in maximizing the pleasure of violence.” The corporate media are thus rendering war as riveting, emotional and free from demanding intellectual complexities since it emerges out of an either/or view of good and evil.
Images of violence are replayed in the mainstream media over and over again, making violence not only more visible but also rootless. The sheer monopoly of such images gives them a fascist edge, all the while dissolving politics into a cinematic pathology. Writer and philosopher Susan Sontag’s observation about war coverage, made in a different historical context, is even more relevant today. According to Sontag, the endless images of war and suffering, removed from the context of rigorous historical analysis, represent a contempt for “all that is reflective, critical and pluralistic [and are] linked to forms of rabid masculinity [that] glamorizes death.”
Talking heads in the dominant media landscape churn out cheap binarisms about good and evil, democracy versus authoritarianism. In doing so, they reinforce the mythic narrative that the U.S., a model of liberal innocence, is furthering the global fight for democracy, untainted in its false assertion that fascism is always elsewhere — in this case exclusively in Russia. There is almost no talk about the role of the military-industrial complex, both in its push for war, and how it usually emerges as the only winner. Nor is there any talk about who profits from an embrace of war talk, the spectacularization of war and war itself.
When more critical explanations of the war appear, especially from those criticizing the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which created one set of conditions for the conflict, they are often mocked, ignored, or at worst, accused of being treasonous. In this instance, a rampant militarism collapses the difference between a critical analysis and a justification for Russia’s actions.
As New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz observes, many government spokespersons and pundits who condemn critics of NATO’s role in contributing to the start of the war often fail to distinguish their own “slippage between explanation and justification.” For instance, numerous Democratic lawmakers lambasted the Democratic Socialists of America and accused it of aiding Putin’s war after the socialist organization critiqued NATO’s buildup to the war, despite the fact that it simultaneously condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, calling for an end to “militarization, and other forms of economic and military brinkmanship that will only exacerbate the human toll of this conflict.”
We have seen a similar shutting down of dissent before in the face of catastrophic events, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing “war on terror.” Yet, the frenetic opposition to dissent today seems more dangerous, especially given the multiple cultural platforms calling for “virtual war, for participating in it, and being manipulated by it, [including] crowd funding urban militias on Twitter, posting videos of captured tanks or ‘army cats’ to Instagram and TikTok.”
The need for community is too often now organized around a bristling war fever feeding on militaristic language in mainstream outlets such as The Atlantic, The New Republic, New Yorker, The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. In all cases, rightful moral outrage over the brutality of Russia’s unlawful invasion morphed quickly into a fog-of-war hysteria demanding more military aid, more punitive sanctions and bolstered by the discourse of unchecked jingoism. The call for peace or a diplomatic solution is barely mentioned.
With the war in Ukraine raging, more nuanced analyses along with dissent disappear in the suffocating discourses of hyper-nationalism and the growing bonfire of militarism fueled by what Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, writing in the London Review of Books, calls “an infotainment media [that] works up citizens into a state of paranoid patriotism.” The military-industrial-intellectual-academic complex has reasserted itself in the face of Russia’s violation of international law, accelerating the prospect, if not welcoming, the potential of another looming Cold War, aided greatly by media apparatuses that bask in the comfort of moral certainty and patriotic inanity. In this atmosphere of hyper-war culture, military victories become synonymous with moral victories as language becomes weaponized and matters of ethics no longer inform the urgent call for peace.
In the face of the brutal Russian invasion, the concept of militarization is being amplified and put into service as a call for more upgraded weapons. Talk of war, not peace, dominates the mainstream media landscapes both at home and abroad. Such talk also fuels a global arms industry, oil and gas monopolies, and the weaponization of language itself. Militarism as a tool of unchecked nationalism and patriotism drives the mainstream and right-wing disimagination machines. Both fuel a global war fever through different degrees of misrepresentation and create what intellectual historian Jackson Lears writing in the London Review of Books calls “an atmosphere “poisoned by militarist rants.” He goes further in regarding his critique of the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine, writing in the New York Review of Books:
Yet the US has failed to put a cease-fire and a neutral Ukraine at the forefront of its policy agenda there. Quite the contrary: it has dramatically increased the flow of weapons to Ukraine, which had already been deployed for eight years to suppress the separatist uprising in the Donbas. US policy prolongs the war and creates the likelihood of a protracted insurgency after a Russian victory, which seems probable at this writing. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has refused to address Russia’s fear of NATO encirclement. Sometimes we must conduct diplomacy with nations whose actions we deplore. How does one negotiate with any potential diplomatic partner while ignoring its security concerns? The answer, of course, is that one does not. Without serious American diplomacy, the Ukraine war, too, may well become endless.
The horrific events in Ukraine have mobilized a global response against the brutal acts of violence inflicted on the Ukrainian people, but such massive acts of violence have also taken place in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen without eliciting comparable condemnations or humanitarian aid from the U.S. and Europe. Moreover, while public outrage in the U.S. is warranted in light of the “horrendous crimes by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians—massacre, murder, and rape, among them,” memory fades, and the line between fantasy and historical consciousness disappears, “erasing the brutalizing crimes committed during America’s Global War on Terror.”
U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood; torture; the violations of civil rights; abductions; kidnappings; targeted assassinations; illegal black holes; the scorched bodies of members of a wedding party in Yemen killed by a drone attack; and hundreds of women, children and old men brutally murdered by U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam village of My Lai.
In a war culture, memory fades, violence is elevated to its most visible and mediating force, and logic is refigured to feed a totalitarian sensibility. Under such circumstances, as London School of Economics Professor Mary Kaldor has argued, we live at a time in which the relationship between politics and violence is changing. She states: “Rather than politics being pursued through violent means, violence becomes politics. It is not conflict that leads to war but war itself that creates conflict.”
Behind this disproportionate response by the international community and its media platforms lies the ghosts of colonialism and the merging of culture and the undercurrents of white supremacy. For example, the general indifference to comparable acts of war and unspeakable violence can be in part explained by the fact that the Ukrainian victims appearing on the mass media are white Europeans. What is not shown are “Black people being refused at border crossings in favor of white Ukrainians, leaving them stuck at borders for days in brutal conditions [or] Black people being pushed off trains.” The mainstream media celebrate Poland’s welcoming of Ukrainian refugees but are silent about the Polish government boasting about building walls and “creating a ‘fortress’ to keep out refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.”
The war in Ukraine makes clear that racism is not deterred by global boundaries. Empathy in this war only runs skin deep. It is easy for white people in the media to sympathize with people who look just like them. This was made clear when CBS News Senior Correspondent Charlie D’Agata, reporting on the war, stated that it was hard to watch the violence waged against Ukrainians because Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European [country] … one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” In this case, “civilized,” is code for white. D’Agata simply echoed the obvious normalization of racism as is clear in a number of comments that appeared in the mainstream press. The Guardian offered a summary of just a few, which include the following:
The BBC interviewed a former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, who told the network: ‘It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair … being killed every day.’ Rather than question or challenge the comment, the BBC host flatly replied, ‘I understand and respect the emotion.’ On France’s BFM TV, journalist Phillipe Corbé stated this about Ukraine: ‘We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin. We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives…. And writing in the Telegraph, Daniel Hannan explained: ‘They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.’
There is more here than a slip of the tongue; there is also the repressed history of white supremacy. As City University of New York Professor Moustafa Bayoumi writing in The Guardian observes, all of these comments point to a deeply ingrained and “pernicious racism that permeates today’s war coverage and seeps into its fabric like a stain that won’t go away. The implication is clear: war is a natural state for people of color, while white people naturally gravitate toward peace.”
Clearly, in the age of Western colonialism, a larger public is taught to take for granted that justice should weigh largely in favor of people whose skin color is the same as those who have the power to define whose lives count and whose do not. These comments are also emblematic of the propaganda machines that have resurfaced with the scourge of racism on their hands, indifferent to the legacy of racism with which they are complicit.
Historical amnesia and a prolonged military conflict combine making it easier to sell war rather than peace, which would demand not only condemnation of Russia but also an exercise in self-scrutiny with a particular focus on the military optic that has been driving U.S. foreign policy since President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in the 1950s of the danger of the military-industrial complex.
The Ukrainian war is truly insidious and rouses the deepest sympathies and robust moral outrage, but the calls to punish Russia overlook the equally crucial need to call for peace. In doing so, such actions ignore a crucial history and mode of analysis that make clear that behind this war are long-standing anti-democratic ideologies that have given us massive inequality, disastrous climate change, poverty, racial apartheid and the increasing threat of nuclear war.
War never escapes the tragedies it produces and is almost always an outgrowth of the dreams of the powerful — which always guarantees a world draped in suffering and death. Peace is difficult in an age when culture is organized around the interrelated discourse of militarism and state violence. War has become the only mirror in which alleged democratic capitalist and authoritarian societies recognize themselves. Rather than defined as a crisis, war for authoritarian rulers and the soulless arms industries becomes an opportunity for power and profits, however ill-conceived.
Peace demands a different assertion of collective identity, a different ethical posture and value system that takes seriously Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition that human beings must do everything not to “spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear annihilation.” This is not merely a matter of conscience or resistance but of survival itself.
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