The Bad Man's Bad Faith
At the heart of every bad-faith political argument is a seething desire to create a reality in which a person or group or nation has not choice but to do the awful thing, to take the objectionable course, to kill or maim or remove human rights, to accomplish a political goal.
A good bad-faith argument does wonders to alter the landscape enough to make the unthinkable not just thinkable, but practical. Bad faith turns horror into necessity. Arguing that abortion is unsafe – and finding judges who will play along – makes banning abortion a viable policy stance. Saying poor folks use welfare to go on luxury cruises makes it feasible to rip the fucking guts out of the social safety net. Pretending the cancelation of student loan debt is a boon for the country's elite – Chip and Buffy sunning on their yacht in the South Pacific – makes it politically unviable to do the right thing and unburden an entire generation of spine-crushing debt.
And saying Ukraine is crawling with nazis is the only way to butcher the Ukrainian populace in a colonialist war of aggression. Vladimir Putin, like all monsters, is a master of bad faith politics. No one deploys bad faith with such a straight face. Arguing in bad faith comes naturally to him, as it does anyone bent on domination, subjugation, and the unending accumulation of power. He's ruled Russia for 22 years – most of that time as an illegitimate president winning sham elections – with the repressive and highly effective combination of state violence and lies.
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The most devastating of these bad-faith stances is that Russian forces had no choice but to invade Ukraine. It was their moral duty to flush out the vile nazi regime running the country, the progeny of the nazis the Soviet Union defeated 80 years ago by throwing 27 million men into the meat grinder of Wold War II. Crafting a reality in which Russian soldiers are sacrificing life and limb to rid the earth of Hitler's descendants is the perfect bad-faith stance: It recalls the glory of military victories past and projects into a future where Russia is the world's guardian against the rise of fascism.
Putin on Monday used Victory Day – a national holiday commemorating the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany – to further push the tragically laughable idea that his military forces were simply ridding the earth of Ukrainian fascists. Putin used Russia's most important secular holiday to link the country's newest war to the war of their fathers and grandfathers, saying Russian troops in Ukraine are fighting for "the liberation of their native land from nazi filth," a tradition like no other.
Such liberation apparently requires the execution of Ukrainian families in the streets where they once walked and played and lived. The mission mandates dropping bombs on schools filled with refugees. Beating naziism means putting right-wing death squads in charge of tiny eastern Ukrainian towns.
Putin critics and Soviet historians today regret the lack of attention paid to Putin's use of Victory Day over the years to instill a creeping militarism of Russian society. Long obsessed with reclaiming Soviet glory (sans the collectivism), Putin has for decades extolled the virtues of Russia's military adventures. He was, according to Russian journalist Maxim Trudolyubov, laying the groundwork for the justification of a wholly unjustifiable war against former Soviet states. Venerating the Soviet destruction of the Third Reich and linking that fight to the nation's war against Ukraine, Trudolyubov said, was a “convenient way of thinking about ourselves as being on the right side of history.”
Today there are tens of millions of Russians connected to a steady drip of lies and half-truths who wholeheartedly support Putin's war against Ukraine because they – like their grandmothers and grandfathers before them – hate nazis. It's the transmutation of bad faith into good faith. It's the victory of lies.
If you disagree with this glorious mission, you are a nazi sympathizer at best and a real-life nazi at worst. Such is the power of bad faith.
It's been disheartening, bordering on devastating, to see leftists in the US buy into Putin's nonsense about nazis running Ukraine from top to bottom. American leftists will point to a famed fascist military group in Ukraine as proof that the country is, at best, nazi-adjacent, and consequently undeserving of military aid from the United States and other western democracies. Don't give guns and money to nazis, these leftists proclaim. Well, I wish them luck finding a single military on the planet without a significant fascist contingent – a mean, lean fighting force whose wokeness cannot be questioned. War seems like a messy business in which one might have to back some bad guys ready and willing to kill the aggressors. Moral clarity isn't always clear. But saying Vladimir Putin has some good points isn't going to help matters.
A History of Bad Fucking Faith
Because Putin's aims have always been unpalatable for any decent human being – hardline Russian nationalists not included in this group – he's had to time and again use bad faith to defend his actions and justify his goals. A journalist critical of the Kremlin disappears? She was an agent of the meddling West, which hates Russia and wishes for its demise. An objective media outlet is ransacked and shut down? It was funded by foreign enemies. Russia's legislation banning the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” – known as the "gay propaganda" law? It had to be passed if the nation's children were to be protected from pedophiles (a bad-faith argument now being used by the American right).
It goes on and on with Putin. In March, while his military of plumbers butchered Ukrainian civilians by the hundreds, Putin went so far as to charge Russia as a whole was being "canceled" by the US and Europe, whose unprecedented sanctions threaten to crater the Russian economy. He said the “proverbial ‘cancel culture’ has become the cancellation of culture.” Russia's thousand year old culture hung in the balance, he charged.
Putin even cited the so-called cancelation of anti-trans Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, comparing criticism against her wildly problematic social media screeds to the international treatment of Russia during its ransacking of Ukraine.
Putin isn't really speaking to Russians when he rambles on about cancel culture. He's deftly reaching out to potential allies in the West – British and American and German conservatives who can hear the right-wing dog whistle of cultural grievance and embrace the Strong Man trying like hell to get the Soviet band back together (again, without the communism). These potential Putin allies – we'll call them fascists – are vitally important to his long-term goal of making Russia and its poisonous politics a homogenizing force not just in eastern Europe, but across the globe. Putin knows speaking the language of the Lauren Boeberts of the political world is as important – maybe more so – than speaking to his own people.
Putin, to no one's great shock, didn't miss the chance to link cancel culture to naziism: The last time Russia faced "cancelation," he said, was at the hands of Hitler's troops marching east to topple the Soviet Union. Spotify boycotting Russia is akin to the Third Reich goose stepping toward the Motherland. Everyone knows this.
(This is where I'll say states and local jurisdictions and schools in the US banning Russian athletes from participating in various sporting events will only drive them into Putin's grip. He's speaking to them. Isolating everyday Russian folks – many of whom are horrified by the war against Ukraine and have long despised the Putin regime – is the best and quickest way to create Russian solidarity with Putin against the West. So please, stop that.)
Putin's Words Echo In The West
Americans of a certain age might recall the urgent need to disarm Saddam Hussein of his nuclear arsenal before his Iraqi forces or Hussein-aligned terrorists somehow nuked the United States or Israel or somewhere else we care about – it was never clear what, exactly, we were supposed to fear. Millennials had these bad-faith arguments relentlessly drilled into their heads by media outlets and government officials for months and months, images of the 9/11 attacks still bouncing around our fear-drenched brains. And many of us rejected the bad faith and pleaded with our parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents to do the same.
But no. The generation that had lived through the bloody lies of Vietnam drank greedily from the Bush administration's fountain of bad faith, and they supported a ground invasion of Iraq, and they ignored the hundreds of thousands of civilians blown to pieces as a result of those bad-faith, pro-war arguments. Pro-war arguments the administration knew to be false created an American populace thirsty for blood and supportive of anyone who would maximize the blood flow. When support for the calamitous war against Iraq waned even a little bit, new bad faith would be shoved into our heads: We're still looking for those weapons of mass destruction (we'll find them any day now), we have to support and protect Iraqi women and girls, we have to give them the gift of democracy. People ate up these arguments and for a moment that tested my sanity, Republicans cared deeply about the rights of women in autocratic Middle Eastern nations (we saw Republicans once again cry crocodile tears about girls and women in the Middle East when Joe Biden ended our Forever War in Afghanistan).
Americans have been poisoned by the same bad-faith politics Putin is deploying to ramp up support for his war against Ukraine. It led to the deaths of thousands of U.S. troops and countless Iraqi innocents and helped plunge us into the rising tide of fascism. Listen carefully to Putin and you can hear an American politician. The man sounds like a congressional Republican raving on the House floor. Putin understands western culture. He gets us. Hence, the bad faith.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter @CDCarter13 for maximum alienation.