“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen“
I, like many of you, were immediately unnerved by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The geopolitical (and frankly, nuclear) implications alone were enough to keep you up at night; this is before even talking about the massive humanitarian catastrophe Ukrainians were facing daily. It was tough to handle the news thousands of miles away, let alone as a civilian on the streets of Kyiy.
But while great tribulations come with horrific struggle and brutal tyrants, they also come with heroes and grand ideals worth fighting and dying over. Regardless of whatever else he has done before in his life and – (hopefully) assuming he continues to stay alive – whatever he does after this, Volodymyr Zelensky will now always be remembered for what he did in a single month, doing so in a way essentially unrivaled in human history (due mainly to our modern instantaneous global communications network).
Zelensky single-handedly bitch-slapped the West out of it’s thirty-year cynical downward spiral in such a visceral and consistent fashion – and in such a short time – that there really isn’t a comparison to draw on. Policies and repercussions that were literally unthinkable forty days ago are now in place, permanently. Germany will likely become the world’s third largest military. For once, the sanctions agreed to had real teeth and truly weakened the Russian economy immediately. Small and so-called “third world” countries (typically seen as mere pawns with no autonomy) banded together to collectively punish Russia and organize in ways that had major impacts on the war. NATO, a collection of democracies, has complete unity.
This last point is particularly important. It flies in the place of a sacred tenant of authoritarians: The divisions and self-interests inherent in a representative government will always be trumped in conflict by one man who commands complete obedience.
Throughout the late ’00s and accelerating in the 2010s, various parts of the fringes on both the left and right not only recognized this belief as having merit but more importantly began espousing that this tent was also just. In the mainstream, cynicism had taken hold in not only popular media but in the minds of many voters as well. Fringe and extremist candidates became more appealing as many even in the center across the West lost faith in the founding ideals of liberal democracy and the necessity of freedom.
The Left decried what they believed to be the inherent flaws of the West; it’s only impacts, in their eyes were colonialism, slavery, and subjugation. All of the benefits of the West were more than cancelled out by what they saw as it’s unique evilness, informed by the discredited New Left historians of a half century ago, hemmed in by a euro-centric and myopic view of humans and freedom. The anti-Western ideologies began to grow in academia and the white Left. They successfully used justified concern over climate change and income inequality to exploit these concerns and inject a very specific strain of anti-Americanism that saw the country and it ideals as only important for the monied and the connected. The legitimate outrage over the stratification of American society gave way to a legion of candidates and figures (many of them earnest and well intentioned to be fair) that saw the decline of the power and the influence of the West – and specifically the ideals of the West – as not only inevitable but a good thing.
At the same time, the far-right was going through a parallel transformation that is strikingly similar to the changes that occurred on the left. Rather than the West being evil for it’s periods of subjugation and oppression, it was depraved and rotten. Those in this camp on the right simultaneously rallied around ultra-patriotic yet deeply anti-American and anti-Western sentiments. The West had decayed, in their view, from the influence and tolerance of Western media and it’s acceptance of certain progressive values, often (incorrectly) citing this was indicating the societies had drifted from it’s initial intent. As one will find out with interacting with these groups, however, what they believe that “intent” was, it somehow always lines up with what their chosen leader would prefer be done. Many of these types are fans of Putin, and for obvious reasons: they respect superficial strength over genuine ability, they are boisterous yet generally untested, and wish for a simple black-and-white world where might makes right. These types made stunning gains in the conservative movement, and only now are being pushed out in any concerted effort.
All of this is written to say, Zelensky provides the cure to the intellectual poisons of the fringes. Instead of cynicism, there is passion and cause. For once, we have an actual battle of good vs. evil, of a man leading a nation that has for all intents and purposes been beating the shit out of a major nuclear power fueled by their love of freedom and the ideals of the West. In a way we have not seen since the Cold War, there is not only a renewed sense that liberal democracy is still the best form of governance and path to liberty for all peoples – despite its flaws – but there is a resolve. A true cause to rally around. And we have found it, and the man who in so few days changed the world in a way few is to thank for it.
As for the authoritarian tenant I mentioned above, my personal retort has always been the same: The power of one man exerting total command over a people is only effective when the people being ruled believe in the same cause. As we are seeing in Russia, this is the fatal flaw of authoritarians the world over. While a liberal democracy is messy, scandalous, and often a gridlocked mess, it is still the people’s. And that deserves protecting, as the brave men and women of Ukraine prove every day.
The West has been changed, irreparably and in ways vital to it’s survival. We can thank God, and Zelensky, for that.