How we all became Ukrainian
Hi everyone - instead of my usual social change exercises, this week I felt compelled to post this essay about Ukraine — or really, about the kind of social movement that seems to be emerging in the U.S. and elsewhere in response to the conflict. The piece is also posted on LinkedIn. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ll be returning to regularly scheduled programming next week.
The past week has shown us that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is leading to a new kind of social movement. I’m no expert on Eastern Europe, but I do know a thing or two about social change in these parts, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what seems to be going on.
Of course, international movements in support of democracy against tyranny are not new. Nor is expressing support for those movements online — plenty of us tweeted enthusiastically about the Arab Spring and the Color Revolutions.
But what’s happening now is qualitatively different. I think the key difference is that many of us in the West feel that we are participants in this struggle, not just enthusiastic observers. Though we have far less at risk than the people in Kyiv, this is our war. (Wonky aside: folks who talk with me about this stuff a lot will recognize this as the parthood dynamic of social change — we feel we are a part of something that we were not a part of before.)
For most of us, this started with Trump. Do you remember the French election in 2017 a few months after Trump was inaugurated, when it came down to Macron and Le Pen? I didn’t follow it in detail, but I remember looking at the map as results came in and thinking, “Oh, they have red states too.”
Yet Macron won, and in the months after Brexit and Trump, it was a relief to see that not all of the dominoes would fall. When Democrats won the governor’s election in Virginia later that year, I noticed that it fell into the same mental category as that map of France — oh good, our side is winning! — and wondered what that might mean.
The shift was just getting started, though. Starting in 2020, all of our ideas about political agency got thrown in a blender full of firecrackers. The pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the Jan. 6 insurrection — each of these simultaneously made us doubt the effectiveness of our institutions while also showing us new ways of exercising power.
We’re all still figuring out what this means, but I think there are two features that are relevant for understanding what’s going on with Ukraine now.
It no longer makes sense to complain about “slacktivism.” Without handheld video and social media, no one would have seen the video of George Floyd’s murder. But just as relevant was the way international networks spread the message of Black Lives Matter, inspiring folks all over the world to do things like topple statues of slavers into the sea. Combine this with the fact that so many of us couldn’t leave the house anyway because of covid, and it becomes clear that social media is now an essential site of political sensemaking. Where else would we go?
We all became very confused about the boundaries of winning and losing. In 2020, Democrats rescued the White House form Trump and also took both chambers of Congress, yet many of us feel less powerful than we have in years. We don’t know whether to be more frustrated about Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema or the yahoos on the school board banning critical race theory. We don’t know whether to focus on protecting the majority in the midterms or preventing a coup in 2024 or decarbonizing before 2030. And we are all very tired.
The result of these two forces is that over the past few years, many of us have been storing up frustrated potential energy, like a stretched rubber band.
And then there was a war. Not a trade war or a border dispute, but the type of shameless conquest that so many of our international institutions claimed they could prevent. In Europe, no less, with Trump’s favorite dictator as the adversary and an ill-conceived pipeline as secondary villain. And every inch of the assault documented on video and broadcast worldwide. After the decade we've had so far, how could we NOT feel like we are a part of this?
Now like I said, I don’t know anything about military strategy or the geopolitics of Eastern Europe, so I have no idea whether this sentiment among Americans and our peers will make any difference. I’ll say that the response is about ten times stronger than I would have expected, and I think that has to mean something to someone.
But for the moment, what I’m noticing is the way that all sorts of different people are aligning with President Zelenskyy and choosing a very intentional attitude of hope in victory over tyranny. As charismatic as Zelenskyy is, this is about much more than one man or one country. I think it is a manifestation of the clarity that has developed in so many of our nations these past few years, the understanding that democracy is fragile and its enemies have developed new weapons against it. We see that we have no choice but to take a stand now, not just on behalf of some poor benighted people across the sea, but on behalf of our own wounded polities.
I think that’s why every post with the blue and yellow flag seems irresistible, and why it seems so hard to write about anything else — because though we may not understand what it means yet, this conflict actually does contain everything else. I’m scared and pissed off like everybody, yet I cannot deny that I am so curious to see what it will mean.
You’ve doubtless already seen dozens of “how to help Ukraine” links, but I nevertheless feel obligated to include one here. This is the Washington Post’s roundup of how you can help everyone: the volunteers fighting on the frontlines, the journalists getting the word out, the refugees and children who will suffer most: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/27/how-to-help-ukraine/