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Western rush to ban everything Russian, from cats to Dostoevsky, smacks of totalitarianism

Russophobic campaign straddles the entire western political spectrum, with the full endorsement of cultural elites
A pro-Ukraine demonstrator protests against Russia outside the venue of the MWC (Mobile World Congress) in Barcelona on 1 March, 2022 (AFP)

Western Russophobic hysteria is now in full force. German political culture, heir of the most totalitarian system the world has ever known, has led to the recent firing of a Russian orchestra conductor who refused to condemn Moscow’s military actions in Ukraine, and Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko.

As a German Jewish activist friend recently told me, this incident is not totally unrelated to the firing of German Jewish musicians in 1933 as well as German Christian musicians for refusing to support National Socialism, and that was before the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. 

And a few weeks ago, Germany’s state-owned Deutsche Welle was busy purging Arab staff who expressed views critical of Israel - views that are identified in rabidly pro-Israel Germany as “antisemitic”.

In Italy, whose political culture is also an heir of fascism, a university course on Dostoevsky was suspended in the name of the new Russophobia - though as a result of pressure, it was later reinstated. In the US, video game giant EA Sports removed Russian teams from its FIFA video game series.

Western liberal 'democratic' regimes foster utter conformity and subservience to the 'Ministry of Truth'

The Russophobic campaign straddles the entire western political spectrum, and it is fully endorsed by western liberals and cultural elites. The political credulity of the majority of the populations of the US and Western Europe has always been shocking to me. Ever since I arrived in the US to attend university in 1982, I could not believe how gullible my American peers of all races were in their unshakable belief that whatever their government or corporate media said, especially about other countries, was the absolute truth.

Having grown up in Jordan under an autocratic regime, I learned, like many Jordanians, to believe very little that the government or media said. I remain partial to the idea that autocratic regimes foster democratic scepticism in their populations, while western liberal “democratic” regimes foster utter conformity and subservience to the “Ministry of Truth”, as George Orwell dubbed it.

Add to that the mob mentality and mainstream rejection of contrary opinions to prevalent beliefs in most western countries, and the situation is not that different from the fascistic culture of many European countries in the interwar period. 

Incessant racist attacks

None of this is surprising. In the US, Americans shot Dachshunds in large numbers, stoned them, and stomped on them in the streets during World War I on account of their German pedigree. An American campaign was launched against beer as a German beverage, purporting that it was “unpatriotic” to drink it. Americans even renamed sauerkraut “liberty cabbage”.

This is in addition to the fact that German Americans and German residents of the US were placed in concentration camps (called “internment camps” in official lingo) during WWI and WWII. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, US jingoism was at an all-time high, with incessant racist attacks on Japan for allegedly undermining the US economy. Campaigns to boycott Japanese cars and electronics were widespread, with some accusing the Japanese of committing an “economic Pearl Harbor” and warning that the “Yellow Peril” was back (here, it should be remembered that Japanese Americans and Japanese residents of the US were shipped to concentration camps during World War II and had their property confiscated by the US government).

A replica of a Japanese internment camp is pictured in California in 2015 (AFP)
A replica of a Japanese internment camp is pictured in California in 2015 (AFP)

In 1982, two white men who worked in the auto sector beat a Chinese American man to death, apparently mistaking him for being Japanese. The two killers were fined $3,000 and did not serve jail time. US congressional representatives even used sledgehammers to destroy Toshiba products in front of the Capitol - and that was in the era of President Ronald Reagan, long before Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

After the Iranian Revolution, racist attacks and harassment of Iranians, or anyone mistaken for them (as I was by white fraternity boys a week after my arrival in the US), was the order of the day in the US. An anti-Iranian poster has been hanging at a Houston, Texas BBQ restaurant since 1979, showing a reenactment of lynching, something that endeared it to fans as late as 2011.

The Islamophobic pitch was raised to unprecedented proportions across the US and Europe after 9/11, with one of the earliest racist attacks killing, alongside a Muslim victim, an Egyptian Christian and a Sikh man who were apparently mistaken for Muslims.

Theatrical adolescence

When France refused to support the US imperial invasion of Iraq in 2003, American restaurateurs began to throw away French wine and pour the content of bottles in the streets. Congress was also pioneering in that regard when the Congressional cafeteria renamed "French fries" as "freedom fries".

In the current atmosphere, the same theatrical adolescence of US political culture manifested in ditching Russian vodka and even boycotting American-owned Russian restaurants. Spotify closed down its Moscow offices and IKEA closed its Russian stores. The Glasgow film festival dropped two Russian films.

 * Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performs on stage with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on 18 September, 2020 (AFP)
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performs on stage with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on 18 September 2020 (AFP)

Not to be outdone, New York’s Metropolitan Opera declared that it was ending its partnership with Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and cut ties with opera singer Anna Netrebko, while the Venice Biennale removed the Russian Pavilion, amongst a flurry of boycotts of Russian cultural products.

And, if German dogs had to be killed in the US during WWI, the France-based International Cat Federation has just banned Russian cats from competitions. Lithuania went as far as stopping its shipment of Covid vaccines to Bangladesh as punishment for the latter’s decision to abstain on the UN vote to condemn Russian intervention. 

Boycotting Russia at the official level could be an important political act, including cancelling state visits, joint military exercises, however, boycotting Dostoevsky, Vodka, and Russian musicians is not

If the West were not so hypocritical about which countries could be quickly boycotted and which could not, boycotting Russia at the official level could be an important political act, including cancelling state visits, joint military exercises, declining official invitations to government-sponsored events, cancelling invitations for Russian state officials to speak at private or public institutions, etc.; however, boycotting Dostoevsky, Vodka, and Russian musicians is not.

Imposing litmus tests on Russian musicians to keep their jobs in German orchestras smacks of nothing less than totalitarianism. Just think of how controversial the boycott - not of Israel - but of its illegal settler-colonies in the occupied territories has been over the last two decades, and you get the picture.

Vladimir Lenin castigated some Russian communists in the early 1920s for their lacklustre support for the rights of many non-Russian peoples inhabiting Russia by declaring: “Scratch some [Russian] communists and you will find Great-Russian chauvinists."

As the ongoing Russophobic campaigns have unified western conservatives and liberals in the US and Europe, I feel confident in saying that most likely if you scratch many a white liberal, you will find a white supremacist Cold Warrior. 

Ironic phenomenon

The recent contemptible and despicable Russophobic acts reveal that the juvenile nature of US or West European political culture under fascism or liberalism is not so different when it comes to heaping racist scorn and fabricated fantasies on chosen enemies.

This also extends to western academia. Sovietology, a right-wing academic discipline that emerged in the 1950s, propagated sophomoric theories about Soviet "anti-democratic" culture as due to the fact that Russian mothers swaddled their babies more tightly than in other nations, an act that allegedly ingrained in them the love of being politically constricted. Arabs and Muslims, western academia and media told us for decades on end and continue to tell us, love dictators and violence, as it is part of their religion and culture. 

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In the year 2000, I co-organised with Edward Said a large literary conference to which we invited 40 world-famous literary figures, including 20 novelists and poets from the Arab world. The conference was funded by a private American cultural foundation and was to take place at Columbia University, where both Said and I taught.

Weeks before the conference was to be held, the 9/11 attacks took place. The anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hysteria that engulfed the US in the aftermath of the attacks greatly worried the sponsor and the university with regards to security issues and fear that the conference would be bombed by anti-Arab US zealots. As the security requirements of the university increased, the cultural foundation’s anxiety about security threats surged. The conference, which was two years in the making, was cancelled. 

The ironic phenomenon of western mainstream political and popular culture being most conformist and lacking dissidence except on questions that western elites themselves are in disagreement, persists in the face of western propagandistic notions that the liberal West is the place where a "hundred flowers bloom", unless of course they bloom in a direction that opposes the political mantra churned out by governments and the corporate media, in which case western mobs are unleashed.

A few decades ago, Noam Chomsky analysed how the western manufacturing of consent to produce an obsequious populace had been achieved. If the current western hysteria is any indication, very little has changed in the intervening years. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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