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The two Zelenskys

Zelensky is neither saint nor sinner, but a leader trying to do his best.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics World

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Choose your Zelensky. He can be either saint or sinner. Either valiant repairer of the liberal international order or compliant puppet of the WEF. Either a one-man defender of liberal democracy or a stooge of nefarious globalists. These are the only two Zelenskys. There’s no in-between. He’s either a Guardian editorial made dashing flesh or the willing jester of Davos Man. Take your pick.

What has happened to Volodymyr Zelensky over the past year has been extraordinary. First, of course, his nation has been subjected to the barbaric imperial aggression of its Russian neighbour, transforming Zelensky from improbable president into even more improbable commander of a war of national liberation. Then there’s been his memeification. Zelensky as virtual emblem, whether of good or ill. This global deification / demonisation of a man at war has provided a grimly fascinating insight into the tech age.

At first, the Zelensky memes were favourable, and funny. Most of them were about his testicles. ‘Things you can see from space: Amazon river, Grand Canyon, balls of Volodymyr Zelensky.’ Even Babylon Bee, which is now pretty firmly in the Zelensky-sceptical camp, was having genital-based fun at the expense of the Russians. ‘Mysterious Large Circles On Russian Radar Turn Out To Be President Zelensky’s Massive Testicles’, said a headline in February last year.

Soon, though, a divergence emerged. The virtual world came to be split between eyelash-fluttering Zelensky fanboys and girls and people who all but come out in a rash at the mere mention of the Ukrainian’s name. Between the witless gushing of media luvvies like Caitlin Moran, for whom Zelensky was a new ‘Hot Priest’ (see Fleabag; better still, don’t), and the inexplicable venom of Very Online right-wingers who started to damn Zelensky as a global welfare queen taking money from the West’s coffers to fund his probably phoney war. The shallow polarisation of what passes for public discussion in the 21st-century West had rarely been so starkly illustrated.

Both sides are projecting. Take the pro-Zelensky set. These liberal fawners over a handsome president are not really expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian struggle for national freedom. How could they, given most of them are allergic to the ideal of national sovereignty, as evidenced by their seven-year hissy fit over Brexit? No, for them Zelensky’s fight to restore Ukraine’s national integrity takes a distant second place to what they imagine he’s doing – giving voice to their views, embodying their beliefs.

They’re so vain they think this war is about them. Zelensky has become ‘the standard bearer for liberal democracy’, said the Financial Times. He isn’t only battling Russian aggression, but the broader ‘authoritarianism’ of the 21st century. Tell that to the brave young Ukrainians on the frontlines, I dare you – that they’re laying down their lives for the pompous ‘liberal’ pretensions of FT types as much as for their own right to self-determination. Zelensky’s Ukraine has given many of us a ‘renewed sense of unity and purpose’, said one observer. This sad war has an upside, hinted the NYT: it proves that ‘liberalism has some life left’. A writer for the i was more shameless still, marshalling Ukrainians into battle with, you guessed it, Brexit. Where Brexit implied the EU was a spent force, and that the future would be populist, Zelensky’s fight reminds us of the ‘absolute moral imperative’ of modern Europe, he said. European unity is ‘the dream which now moves [Ukrainians] as they throw their bodies in front of Russian tanks’.

Is it, though? We’re expected to believe that the dream of being governed by Ursula von der Leyen and interminable regulations on the sale of cabbages were the inspiration for those bold 19-year-old men who have risked their lives against Russia? The supposedly pro-Zelensky side are treating Ukrainians as a stage army, a military outpost to their own anti-populist, Brexit-hating, pro-‘international community’ prejudices. Zelensky’s ‘blend of human and political virtues’ has given ‘a shot in the arm for the waning self-confidence of liberal democracies’, said one writer. There it is. The narcissism is staggering. Ukraine is celebrated less for its singular stand for its right to nationhood than for the fuzzy emotions it stirs in beleaguered-feeling Western liberals, the injection of momentum it gives to readers of the New European who are still reeling from Brexit and Trump and all the rest of it. This isn’t solidarity – it’s the cynical milking of a foreign war for feels.

Then there’s the other side in the memeification of Zelensky. His haters. And man, do they hate him. I find the virtual hostility to Zelensky incredibly disturbing. It is most pronounced among what we might refer to as the post-Covid right – that corner of the world wide web where the understandable agitation with lockdown has morphed over time into anti-vax conspiracism, an unhealthy obsession with the World Economic Forum, a distrust of everything and everyone, and a cast-iron conviction that Volodymyr Zelensky is a puppet of the globalist elites determined to drag us all into World War 3.

It’s like a mirror image of the liberal-elite fawning: where that lot dreams Zelensky will help to bring about the ‘rebirth of the liberal world order’, the Ukraine cynics think he is the liberal world order. The new world order. A mouthpiece of globalism. Zelensky is ‘working with globalists against the interests of his own people’, says Candace Owens. He’s a ‘globalist puppet for Soros and the Clintons’, said Arizona State senator Wendy Rogers. Apparently he’s aligned with those ‘global bankers’ who are ‘shoving godlessness and degeneracy in our face’. Donald Trump Jnr reckons he’s an ‘international welfare queen’. You don’t have to be a fan of the West’s sending of ever-more weaponry to Ukraine to recognise how infantile it is to describe an invaded nation’s plea for arms as welfare queenery. Talk about globalising the culture war.

Anti-Zelensky cynicism speaks to the ceaseless spread of conspiratorial thinking. Of course, it is entirely legitimate for people to criticise Zelensky and to oppose Western support for Ukraine. But the dark, swirling vision of Zelensky as a globalist clown is something different. It gives voice to the modern, tech-enabled culture of suspicion, to the fashionable pessimism of the Very Online. They don’t believe in anything, but they believe everything, including that dastardly Zelensky, is faking atrocities in order to keep the dollars rolling in. The smartarse scepticism towards everything Ukraine-related can also be glimpsed in the use of that infernal phrase ‘The Current Thing’. Apparently supporting Ukraine is ‘The Current Thing’ now. It demeans those who genuinely want to offer solidarity to a nation fighting for its survival to suggest they’re only putting the Ukraine flag in their bios because some algorithm surreptitiously instructed them to.

There’s a very important debate to be had about Russia, Ukraine, the West and war in the modern era. But what we’ve mostly had over the past year is the cheap exploitation of a serious global conflict to score points in petty wars at home. Chaise-lounge Churchills on one side, armchair Chamberlains on the other. And they’re all really talking about themselves, not Ukraine. Let’s change the record. Maybe Zelensky is neither saint nor sinner. Neither the world’s saviour nor its destroyer. Maybe he’s just a man doing what he thinks is best in the most horrifying and existential of circumstances. Call me a brainless dupe of Davos propaganda, but that’s what I’m going with.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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