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Contradictory Ideas Abound in Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has come to my Facebook page. You may have experienced something similar if you haven’t already abandoned the “metaverse.”

Broadly speaking, my Facebook visitors have come in three varieties: Trolls (some perhaps afflicted with mental illness) out to cause trouble and spread disinformation about the conflict; leftists who cite U.S. foreign policy as the primary cause of the war; and liberals and progressives who blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for the carnage without attributing fault to the U.S.

These cross-currents converged after I posted a Feb. 23 tweet by Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley, addressing the claim that Ukraine is a Nazi-run state.

Stanley is a leading expert on fascism, and the author of the highly acclaimed study, How Fascism Works. His tweet stated:

“The President of Ukraine is Jewish, and has many family members who died in the Holocaust. Putin's claim that he is invading to ‘de-Nazify Ukraine’ should shock the world.”

Stanley’s observation went viral, eliciting over 44,000 Twitter “likes.” It also sparked a minor shockwave on my Facebook page.

I responded to the traffic uptick, as is my custom, by blocking anyone—or any bot (you never meta know)—suspected of trolling or in need of therapy.

I engaged with other posters, however, and was heartened to find intelligent life on both sides of the divide. Without identifying anyone by name, there were some in the anti-U.S. camp who pointed out Ukraine’s long history of anti-Semitism. Others noted that Ukraine’s present-day national guard includes a virulent neo-Nazi unit known as the Azov Battalion. Still others condemned the provocative decision to expand NATO to the borders of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On the opposite flank were posters who to varying degrees echoed the thinking of Professor Stanley, who followed up his earlier tweet with a column for the Guardian on Feb. 26, writing:

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“Vladimir Putin is himself a fascist autocrat, one who imprisons democratic opposition leaders and critics. He is the acknowledged leader of the global far right, which looks increasingly like a global fascist movement.

“Ukraine does have a far-right movement, and its armed defenders include the Azov battalion, a far-right nationalist militia group. But no democratic country is free of far-right nationalist groups, including the United States. In the 2019 election, the Ukrainian far right was humiliated, receiving only 2% of the vote. This is far less support than far-right parties receive across western Europe, including inarguably democratic countries such as France and Germany.”

Contradictory Ideas Abound in Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Wikimedia Commons

Harnessing my experience as a judge and training as a mediator, I attempted to bridge the gap, posting:

“To try -- and I use that word because it is very difficult-- to understand what is happening in Uk [Ukraine], you have to embrace some seemingly contradictory ideas. Yes, there are anti-Semites in Uk (Azov). But Zelensky is not a Nazi, either with a small "n" or a capital one. Yes, NATO has encircled Russia and that was a tragic error (in my view), but Putin is not Uncle Joe [Stalin] defending the world against fascism.”

Without getting overly academic, what I meant is that to understand the war in Ukraine in a way that can lead to a peaceful resolution and a better world, we need to sharpen our abilities to think critically. We need to adopt what researchers call the “paradox mindset” and engage in “integrative thinking” rather than all-or-nothing rigidity.

The most revolutionary thinkers actively consider “multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously,” Loizos Heracleous and David Robson wrote in an article published by the BBC in Nov. 2020, citing the pioneering work of psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg, who has spent decades examining the creative process.

“Einstein,” Heracleous and Robson explained, “contemplated how an object could be both at rest and moving depending on the position of the observer, a consideration that ultimately led to his relativity theory. Danish physicist Niels Bohr tried to reconcile the ways that energy acted like both waves and particles: states that existed simultaneously, even though they could not be observed together. This train of thought ultimately inspired a startling new understanding of quantum mechanics.”

Can we arrive at a new synthesis on Ukraine and change our thinking to repudiate both American imperialism and Putin-style fascism? Sadly, the jury, as they say in my profession, is still very much out on the question.

Bill Blum

In the meantime, we should at a minimum be able to agree that the bloodbath must end. As I put it in another comment on my thread:

“The building is on fire. We can talk about the corrupt builder[s] and the building code inspectors who didn’t do their jobs when it’s out. Translation: the Russian invasion is an atrocity and has to be stopped now.”

Bill Blum