Picture Credit: Omer Messinger/Getty Images

Is the Ukraine conflict about me?

A narcissistic generation reacts to the shadow of war

Artillery Row

Putin has trampled over the liberal post-war order yet again, throwing his newly modernised army into a war of annexation against Ukraine. Thousands are fleeing their homes, hundreds of civilians have already died, and war has returned to the European continent where it had seemed to be banished. Naturally, the main question on most Westerners’ mind is: how can I make this about me and my issues?

Simple-minded souls may have mistakenly imagined that the standoff between Moscow and Kiev is about democracy, nationalism, the aftermath of the Soviet Union and the ancient divides of Eastern Europe. But more subtle thinkers have taken to social media to correct the record. Head of MI6 Richard Moore pointed to the real dividing line:

Yes, the real difference between Ukraine and Russia is “LGBT+ rights”. Never mind that Ukraine is, like Russia, a socially conservative country with an influential Orthodox church, that it has no gay marriage, that same-sex couples are banned from adopting children, or that, as of 2021, there were only 16 openly gay soldiers in the entire Ukrainian army.

Putin could have chosen no better month to exploit radioactive levels of self-involvement

Nor is Russia, conservative country though it is, even remotely close to the intolerance shown by Western allies like Saudi Arabia or the UAE, where homosexuality is punished with everything from public flogging and chemical castration to the death penalty. In Russia, though homosexuality may not enjoy the legal protections of the West, or be socially approved of, it is entirely legal, and Moscow and St Petersburg have large and thriving gay communities.

You may wonder what then “LGBT+ rights” have to do with the conflict in Ukraine, but that’s because you’ve forgotten the most important rule to this game: nobody cares about Ukraine; they just want to make it about themselves, and whatever idea they’re flogging this month.

Putin, wily strategist that he is, invaded during February, which is LGBT History Month in Britain and Black History Month in the USA (Eastern Rite versus Western Rite Anglosphere), meaning that Western liberals would be distracted by their elaborate liturgical rites. He could have chosen no better time to exploit the radioactive levels of self-involvement generated by the professional activist class.

The British security services are firmly on team introspection at present: “The chiefs of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ have told staff to avoid using words such as ‘manpower’, ‘strong’ and ‘grip’ because these can ‘reinforce dominant cultural patterns’.”

But don’t be fooled — diversity is our strength: “This toolkit is called Mission Critical because a diverse and inclusive culture is critical to succeeding in our national security missions.” Now the British intelligence services may have somehow stumbled along for the past 100 years without the benefit of a “diverse and inclusive culture”, but surely it couldn’t manage much longer.

Americans, meanwhile, are talking about race:

That’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, leading light of the New York Times, Pulitzer-prize winner, inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at the Howard University School of Communications, founder of the Centre for Journalism and Democracy and the (in)famous 1619 Project; high queen of US racial politics.

What the Ukraine conflict, a war between two white Eastern European countries, is really about you see, is US racial politics. It’s a remarkable coincidence that the single media figure who has most benefited from the elevation of US racial politics to a national obsession should be the one to point out that Ukraine is actually about the perils of euro-centrism, but who after all is better placed to make the link?

According to Professor and Pulitzer-prize winner Hannah-Jones, Europe is a made-up continent, a crude mash-up between Narnia and Middle Earth dreamed up by white nationalists to distance themselves from Asia. Regardless of whether we see this perspective as credible, it is incredible that she thought that a good moment to have a bash at “euro-centrism” was whilst thousands of Europeans were being mown down in a terrifying invasion.

Perhaps the many journalistic remarks about the greater shock of a conflict in Europe, rather than Africa, reflected racism but it certainly wasn’t the racism of journalists. Quite apart from the cold fact that military conflict is rarer (and thus more surprising) in Europe than Africa or the Middle East, journalists were not commending the greater shock that viewers would experience from seeing white Europeans invaded; they were simply reporting it.

But worrying about truth and proportionality is missing the point again: the Ukraine conflict should be about Nikole Hannah-Jones and about US race politics, not the lives and histories of the people actually engaged in the struggle in Eastern Europe.

Social media has always encouraged narcissism, but micro-blogging about your breakfast and your latest holiday turn out to be the most benign of self-involved interventions. The worst offenders are those who claim to care, but are really little better than vultures, picking over the corpses of distant conflicts for a few likes and moments of attention.

The smarter carrion eaters shield their self-interest behind diversity, but more brazen attempts to cash in on the carnage have been caught out. Daniella Bernstein, social media influencer, fashion designer and, at the age of 29, already a ruthless and canny capitalist, pushed things a little too far:

Selling US racial politics or LGBT+ rights puts a useful halo of virtue around exploiting a terrible war to push your agenda, but using Ukraine to flog bikinis was a bit much even for a hardened and cynical social media generation. Daniella has been suitably reprimanded, but only because she took it too far.

It’s not just the Instagram stars, the journalists and the politicians who are the problem; it’s every person who uses the war to whinge on about why Corbyn should be PM, or puts a flag in their bio but would never consider putting a hand in their pocket; it’s everyone who starts spelling Kiev “Kyiv” but couldn’t find the place on a map. For the love of God, please remember: if there’s one thing this complex war isn’t about, it’s you.

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