Events in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world underscore the degree to which democratic values ought to be cherished and protected by nations fortunate enough to benefit from their practice.
It is unwise to throw around terms like “fascist” and “Nazi” in analyzing and comparing the iniquity of specific regimes. Nazism was beyond compare in the scope of its wickedness, and fascism belongs to a particular era and place.
But commentators see connections and similarities between the methods of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the fascist aggressors of the 20th century. It is not useful to call him a fascist because then the debate becomes about terminology. It’s better to analyze the dangerous threads that connect him to the past.
Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is characterized by national resentment, a desire to reclaim past glory and the use of scapegoats who can be used as enemies. Putin’s methods include the quashing of debate and the systematic use of propaganda to spread a fiction used to justify aggression.
Truth becomes one of the first casualties when this sort of regime takes hold. The words spoken by Putin are merely instruments of his will and, clearly, in his mind, have no relationship with reality, or even the pretense of a relationship. He agreed in Geneva to restrain the pro-Russian insurgents, but it was all a ploy. He blames what he calls a fascist regime in Kiev, but it is he who is using fascist tactics, and it is Kiev where extreme nationalists are marginal. He revs up a moralistic campaign against gays in Russia so he can seize the banner of morality.
Fortunately, Putin is no Hitler, and Russia is no Germany, which in the mid-1930s was becoming the strongest industrial power in Europe. Putin has seized Crimea, but he appears to be stalling out in adding other Ukrainian provinces to his list of acquisitions, and it is clear he is in no position to march westward across the nations of Europe. It is important, however, to identify the anti-democratic thinking and methods that he is deploying, partly because there are right-wing movements in other countries — Greece, Hungary, France — with the potential for anti-democratic mischief.
It is the assault on the truth that becomes a pernicious harbinger of anti-democratic demagoguery. We remember the famous quote by Karl Rove in an interview where he chastised the news media for being “reality-based.” The Bush administration was in a position to create its own reality, he said.
The other disturbing trend posing a danger to democracy is the brutality of Bashar Assad, president of Syria, used against insurgents there. Assad has shown that for the short term a dictator can survive if he has no conscience and is willing to destroy his country in order to save it. (Putin demonstrated a similar ruthlessness in quelling the uprisings in Chechnya.) Democratic movements rarely survive that sort of repression, at least in the short term.
It is useful to remember that democratic values are a recent invention, and they are constantly imperiled by leaders who think they can gain by means of guile or brutality. Even within democratic nations, humane values have required a long struggle from committed citizens for them to survive. It was only 150 years ago when the American democracy was fighting a war to end slavery, the ultimate anti-democratic institution.
This is not to say that democracies can wage war everywhere that democratic values are in danger. No nation is all-powerful, and there is inherent contradiction in seeking to conquer others for the sake of their freedom. We need only consult the Iraqis about that.
But it is important to recognize Putin for what he is and to be stout in defense of democracy and cagier than he in how we defend it.
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