Cohen: Ukraine forces us to see the world’s problems more clearly


Over the last fortnight, the invasion of Ukraine has brought thousands of deaths, the decimation of the country’s industry and commerce, a plague of widespread homelessness and hunger, and the dislocation of some two million people.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to destroy Ukraine to save it, he’s succeeding. With every advance, he tarnishes his prize and strengthens the resistance. He may raze Ukraine but he won’t beat it.

Welcome to the insurgency, Mr. Putin. This is your Afghanistan. Your victory, whenever you dare declare it, will be pyrrhic.

For the world watching in horror, two weeks of war is a hard shot to the solar plexus. It has winded us. But let’s be grateful: the conflict has become a moral struggle around the world that has forced us to see ourselves with refreshing clarity.

Suddenly, freedom looks different. Ukraine throws into sharp relief, for example, the cries of those protesters on Parliament Hill last month. Had the war broken out earlier, their big complaint would have been ridiculed rather than tolerated for as long as it was.

As Ukrainians hide underground from relentless shelling, as the heater dies, the line goes dead and the grocery shelves empty, their plight puts our grievances in new light. These grievances look petty, small and narcissistic; the “freedom from vaccines” that has roiled Canada suggests the paranoia of a snowflake society.

Note to anti-vaxxers: no one forced you to take the vaccine. You are not being sterilized like millions in India in the mid-1970s. Yes, vaccination was a condition of crossing the border in a truck, a job you were free to leave, in a near full-employment economy, for another line of work.

Ukraine reshapes the narrative of our little melodrama. The “occupation” of Ottawa? “Journalism under Siege” was a recent lively public forum in Ottawa that ignored the mortal danger to journalists in Ukraine. Well, it’s all relative, isn’t it?

Ukrainians understand freedom well: freedom from war, privation, starvation and death. They fight for the freedom to survive as an autonomous people. Their defiance is heroic.

Here, our shallow, showy discourse mocks freedom. MP Leslyn Lewis, a woman of colour who is a social conservative, rants about “a socialist coup” in Canada. With faux outrage, she claims the media is trying to “lynch me into silence” as she’s forced “to sit in the back of the bus.”

Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks understood freedom when they led a year-long boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to avoid sitting in the back of the bus. Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry, Robert Moses and other brave Mississippians challenged a regime of lynching that killed Blacks in their state. From the comfort of Canada in 2022, Lewis looks woolly-minded.

Ukraine, and the horror it represents, clarifies everything. It gives moral licence to cancel culture. In Russia, we can cancel a leader and a country doing horrible things, and we should.

Putin’s war is a corrective to obsessions that have assumed outsized influence. When people are dying, assertions of “cultural appropriation” seem less outrageous, “trigger warnings” less urgent, “safe spaces” less necessary.

Will sensible Americans tolerate their representatives debating lifting “racist” names off schools in San Francisco (Abraham Lincoln, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Washington among them) when Russians are lifting the roofs off Ukrainian schools?

Already, Ukraine is changing perceptions of leaders. The war will probably rescue Boris Johnson, re-elect Emmanuel Macron, revive Joe Biden and most of all, deify Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Hell, it might even make a statesman of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s purveyor of “non-lethal weapons,” who has shown little interest in the world.

Why? Quite simply, because things that mattered before don’t matter now.

Ukraine marks the end of “the end of history,” the conventional wisdom of the 1990s. Ukraine is the revenge of history: a return to the Cold War after the collapse of Communism and the spread of democracy.

Now, as the threat of nuclear war returns, so does a more serious culture, rinsed of superficiality, self-indulgence and hyperbole.

Source: Cohen: Ukraine forces us to see the world’s problems more clearly

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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