Knee-jerk solidarity with Ukraine has exposed the blind spots of BIPOC 'punditry'
How even progressives of color have fallen victim to the imperial narrative of Western exceptionalism.
Last year, journalist Marc Lamont Hill and former co-director of the NGO Jewish Voice For Peace (JVP), Mitchell Plitnick, published their highly acclaimed book “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics”. The title is self-explanatory: so-called progressives will call out any injustice under the sun, but will only go as far in their outrage and empathy as it doesn’t mean having to call out "Israel’s" oppression of Palestinians.
Western discourse surrounding the ongoing war in Ukraine has extended these “limits of progressive politics” to include Russia. So-called progressives have been fanboying much of the regressive measures taken by the US and its European vassal states in response to Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, such as the renaissance of German militarism (initiated by a Social Democratic/Green party/Liberal coalition government!), the EU’s economic war on Russia (that has turned the country into the most sanctioned nation in the world in the mere course of two weeks) and providing Ukrainian Neo-Nazi regiments with material support.
While much has been said and written about Western media’s selective empathy for Ukraine and the racist double standard of its war coverage, with reporters and news anchors casually spouting white supremacist views on live TV, little has been said about the Western BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) progressives chiming into that knee-jerk pro-Ukrainian solidarity chorus.
Shaun King’s ahistorical Russian colonialism claim
One instance of existing blind spots within the progressive mind of color which the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has exposed I came across on the social media of Shaun King. An award-winning civil rights activist who commands 3,7 million followers on Instagram alone and is included in TIME magazine’s 2018 list of 25 most influential people on the Internet; King put the American back in African-American when he, the partial descendent of slaves (his mother is white), had the ahistorical gall to classify “[w]hat Putin/Russia are doing right now as they attack a sovereign nation with missiles” as “colonialism”.
Seriously, dude? Colonialism? As in the genocidal trail of destruction Western Europeans blazed for hundreds of years in Africa, Australasia, and Latin America, brutalising and murdering millions and millions of people until the third quarter of the 20th century? I was flabbergasted that a racial justice warrior so knowledgeable in domestic issues could be so deficient in foreign policy (and world history, for that matter) and make such an ignorant statement that is not only an insult to every living Black, Brown, and Indigenous person, but also to the memory of their ancestors, including King’s own.
It may behoove him to take a gander at a political map of Africa from the time of the Berlin Congo Conference of 1884/85, a gathering so heinous that African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) likened its influence on world history to that of the Atlantic slave trade, and during which European political elites cut up the African continent like a celebratory cake and distributed the pieces among their gluttonous selves: apart from a short-lived settlement in present-day Djibouti founded by a rogue adventurer, not a single colonial possession in Africa was Russian.
But the avowed antiracist that is Shaun King did not stop there: he went on to publish a post in which he had the sacrilegious audacity to legitimise his attacks on what he called “disgusting” and “criminal” Russia by way of misappropriating Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. These words were written in the context of the most illegitimate of wars, the American war in Vietnam, and Shaun King used them to guilt his followers into caring about Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the illegitimacy of which is hotly contested.
Conflating the Civil Rights Movement in the US with a geopolitical conflict in Europe is insensitive at best, a willing corroboration of the hegemonic narrative of American exceptionalism and moral superiority at worst, to which even Shaun King, a tireless critic of America, seems to have fallen victim to. That particular post has since been deleted from King’s Instagram.
Khaled Beydoun’s fanboying of neo-fascist EU states
An equally epic fail was a post by scholar Khaled Beydoun, a Muslim-American version of King who also uses social media as a primary avenue for his activism: Beydoun in all seriousness reposted a tweet of his to his 436,000 Instagram followers in the first days of the war which read: “Salute to the nations accepting Ukrainian refugees”, listing Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova with their respective flag emojis.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Did a guy that had authored a book titled “American Islamophobia” just celebrate neo-fascist and Islamophobic EU states like Hungary, where anti- Muslim sentiment is so vicious that a female journalist was famously caught on camera intentionally tripping a refugee who was running away from police with a child in his arms? Or Poland, which only a few weeks ago was brutalising Middle Eastern refugees entering from Belarus and has since started construction work on a 186 kilometer border wall to keep them out?
One user by the name of @cmooresoprano had to remind the amnesic Beydoun that “[i]f they were Afghan, Yemeni, Syrian or Palestinian, they wouldn’t be”, to which he answered that this was “painfully true”, but “not the fault of Ukrainian refugees in dire need of safe haven.” In response, I wrote that this did not “warrant saluting right-wing countries”.
Beydoun’s lapse of judgment proved to be temporary, as on the same day he uploaded a post in which he meekly, yet indirectly distanced himself from his preceding one, saying that “[w]hile Ukrainian refugees deserve immediate safe haven - so do refugees fleeing Afghanistan and Yemen, Syria and Myanmar”.
Mr. Beydoun who from time to time reveals that he is as American as he is Muslim, has a history of knee-jerk applause for tenuous white allyhood, occasionally displaying a gross ignorance of European affairs that is typical of the average American, like in the aforementioned instance of “saluting” xenophobic EU states: I cannot count how often he has praised former German chancellor Angela Merkel for her hollow gesture politics or Germany as a whole for some tepid instance of performative Islamophilia, glossing over the staunchly neoliberal and anti-immigrant policies of Merkel’s conservative CDU party and the unchecked Islamophobia rampant within oh so “progressive” German society.
Palestine is not Ukraine
Another surprising phenomenon that the war in Ukraine has elicited is that of some Palestinian activists stooping to the level of comparing their situation to that of Ukrainians. Yes, I do get the reasoning behind these desperate efforts to cozy up to the coloniser: by equating Palestinian and Ukrainian victimhood, the hope is to engender the same collective empathy for the Palestinian liberation struggle as the West has been doling out to Ukraine.
But, if history has taught us anything, it is that bowing to the terms and conditions of the wholly fickle and selective mood that is white empathy is only detrimental to the integrity of one’s own struggle. Look at where collaboration with "Israel" has gotten the Palestinian Authority (PA), a governmental body that, despite the name, has no authority other than the breadcrumbs of pseudo-autonomy afforded to it by its two-faced Israeli benefactor and which are solely designed to keep up the shambolic appearances of Palestinian self-rule.
By comparing themselves to Ukrainians, some Palestinians are falsely equating their unambiguous victimhood to the more obfuscated one of Ukraine, whose military has been shelling the separatist republics of the Eastern Donbass region for eight years straight. A Western-backed settler-colonial conquest and establishment of a system of racial domination designed to consolidate a supremacist power hierarchy in perpetuity, as is the case with "Israel’s" colonisation of Palestine, is not the same as a conflict between two neighbouring countries.
Therefore, by equating the Palestinian cause to that of Ukrainians, some Palestinians are forgetting the words of one of their most influential revolutionary intellectuals, Ghassan Kanafani, who said: “It’s not a conflict. It’s a liberation movement fighting for justice”. Remember that "Israel" assassinated this prominent figure of Palestinian liberation in 1972.
With anti-Russian bigotry constituting the other side of the double-edged sword that is pro-Ukrainian solidarity, (pro-)Palestinian activists should not demean themselves by participating in the West’s febrile anti-Russian hysteria, however honest the former’s intentions.
Urinating on a human being is considered satire?
The vilest expression of misguided anti-war protest and one that is particularly detrimental to the Palestinian cause has come from the street artist known as Cakes Stencils, famous for his barbed wire stencils on the Israeli Apartheid Wall in the Occupied West Bank. It provides a cautionary tale of why it is paramount to choose one’s allies carefully.
In an interview with Indian media network The Wire, this EU-based Banksy clone describes his street art as “working-class activism”, yet his stencils dealing with the war in Ukraine reveal nothing but a penchant for over-the-top tastelessness to which (pro-) Palestinian activism should put as much distance as possible: one of his posts is a stencil of a young boy urinating into Vladimir Putin’s mouth.
This “caricature”, captioned “Make Piss Not War…Little Ukrainian Boy Taking a Pee on Putin’s Face”, is so charliehebdoesque in its depravity and dehumanisation it makes me cringe.
This is the level anti-war activism has sunk to? How is this any different from the heinous images of imperial US soldiers urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters?
Another stencil by the artist that has since been deleted from his Instagram was equally dehumanising: it showed a dead Putin hanging by his neck from a balloon which read “I am an imbecile.” How is this any different to US senator Lindsey Graham calling for the assassination of Putin, the sitting president of the largest country on earth, or mobs of East German demonstrators protesting against the former German chancellor’s pro-refugee stance in 2015 by holding miniature models of gallows, hangman’s noose and all, with signs that read “Reserved for Angela Merkel?”
Putin might be a lot of things in the eyes of the Western world, but an imbecile is definitely not one of them. What is imbecilic though is the way in which even progressives are unleashing their reactionary and revisionist demons when it comes to Russia.
As a person of color, it particularly pains me to see that certain segments within Westernised BIPOC “punditry” are not immune to this. They should know better than to fall for the cheap trick that is incorrigible Whitey’s relentless propagation of Western exceptionalism.