Last week, former Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard released a video calling for a ceasefire in areas around American-funded biolabs in Ukraine. She also called for the United States to reconsider its support for these facilities, which experiment with pathogens that could be accidentally released in a time of war.
For the crime of preferring that Europeans not die en masse from biological poisons, Gabbard was accused by Senator Mitt Romney of “parroting false Russian propaganda” and spreading “treasonous lies.”
Gabbard quickly responded with tweets of her own, citing plenty of evidence that, yes, Washington is funding these biolabs, and no, this isn’t just a Kremlin talking point. And really, it was all a bit much, this accusation of treason from a sitting senator. The optics, first of all, are absurd: while Gabbard was defending her country in the Army National Guard, Romney was defending investors at Bain Capital from cost overruns (acquiring KB Toys was his Vietnam).
Yet Romney’s smear was more than just an unseemly hypocrisy. It was a glimpse into the future, an example of how war and propaganda are going to work in our very online and very interconnected world. The formula seems to go something like this: an American voices less than full-throated support for Ukraine — or just endorses a position that happens to dovetail with Russian interests. This is then trumpeted by Russian media (Gabbard’s remarks have been played on Moscow TV). Back in the States, hysterics on Twitter seize on this as ironclad proof of secret allegiance to a hostile power. Free inquiry is chilled accordingly.
In fairness, some of these comments (Gabbard’s) are far, far more defensible than others (the lunatic shilling of One America News, say). Yet if Gabbard is a Russian stooge because Russian media picked up on some of her words, then so am I. Several years ago, I wrote a piece advocating against American involvement in the Syrian Civil War. It was picked up by Sputnik, a Russian online media outlet, which espouses the Russian line in only the finest of broken English. And understandably so: Moscow was then fighting in Syria to prop up the Assad regime. They wanted the West to stay out, which also happened to be my position, albeit for different reasons.
Did this accidental alignment make me guilty of treason? What about my skepticism over expanding NATO or my questioning why American troops are still in Germany? Does my sedition know no bounds?
Somehow, despite my relentless propagandizing, I’ve never seen a single ruble for my troubles (what am I, chopped pelmeni?). One of the best kept secrets in American politics is that the anti-fracking movement is rolling in Russian money, since Moscow wants to eliminate the U.S. as a competitor to its own fossil fuels industry. Yet I don’t see leftists standing underneath wind turbines screaming “TRAITOR!”
The fact of the matter is that Russia opposes American and Western influence in the world, whether military, economic or cultural. If a commentator expresses any skepticism of that influence, Moscow tries to amplify their voice. Yet that also doesn’t by itself invalidate the position. Debating natural gas extraction is not verboten just because Moscow happens to have an opinion on it. Biological pathogens don’t suddenly lose their kick because morons on Twitter are screaming about kompromat, which they still think is where Russians go to do their laundry.
This is what happens in a time of war: inconvenient truths become unutterable; the Overton Window narrows to a pinhole. The climate right now feels as hysterical as it’s been since the 2002 run-up to the invasion of Iraq. That was when dissenters were casually maligned as turncoats, when David Frum was writing his hilariously overwrought essay “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” which all but accused the antiwar right of adoring Saddam Hussein. “They began by hating the neoconservatives,” Frum intoned. “They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.”
Cue sting music, crows flying out of trees, etc. Yet you can see the appeal of such rhetoric. Frum apparently thinks very little of the paleoconservatives and very highly of himself. The binaries and imperatives of war allow him to draw a blazing line between the two, to paint himself as a patriot and his enemies as seditious, turning a policy disagreement into a self-flattering moral test. This is political thinking at its most indulgent; it is also deeply lazy. And it’s even more attractive today than it was in 2002, thanks to social media’s prizing of virtue signaling and otherization over rational debate and discourse.
It’s a shame, because I’m not in total agreement with Gabbard here. She and her fellow foreign policy realists were right about Iraq, Libya, Syria. But when it comes to Russia’s invasion of a sovereign country, it doesn’t seem like enough to sigh “I guess we shouldn’t have pushed NATO eastward” and then go back to your breakfast croissant. America didn’t force Putin to invade Ukraine. His decision to do so was his own; it was also flatly, explicitly evil.
But then that’s a discussion we can have among rational adults, free from the din of the online mob. As for Romney, I don’t know whether he considers Gabbard’s remarks to be treasonous or severely treasonous. But maybe he ought to spend a few minutes breathing into a paper bag.