Well, Tucker Carlson’s interview with Vladimir Putin on X, formerly known as Twitter, gained 100 million views in less than 12 hours. Nothing on planet Earth coming from corporate media gains that level of reach. This feels like several turning points at once, not only in Western perceptions of the war between Russia and Ukraine plus the perceptions toward Mr. Putin himself but also in the cultural control by the old media.
We are at a strange moment in U.S. perceptions of geopolitics. For years now, really since 2016, we have been instructed by political elites that Mr. Putin is a demonic monster and that Russia needs regime change. There has always been an element of nostalgia about this outlook, one that taps into a deep memory of the Cold War and long before.
But was this valid? It’s a long habit of statecraft for the leaders of one nation to demonize the whole of another nation. Throughout most of history, people largely went along with this because that was all the information we had. The result was a long history of wars from which only the elites benefited. The habit also introduces a moral hazard: Domestic leaders can deploy foreign despots as suitable distractions against domestic depredations.
In this little game, Russia has long been a useful black beast (the bête noire, in French) from abroad. It’s just a bit strange because Russia certainly made a huge difference in the U.S. war of independence from Britain. In 1780, Catherine the Great formed the League of Armed Neutrality to prevent the British from blockading U.S. trade ports, which kept the U.S. economy afloat in hard times.
For most of the 19th century, Russia was considered by Americans to be a Western nation and a cultural ally. Americans loved everything Russian, from music to novels to ballet. The Bolshevik Revolution rattled the United States and kicked off the first of several major red scares, but by the 1930s, Fred Astaire was singing songs about a popular dance craze: “It’s like a fever. It’s like a plague. It’s swept all Europe, from Moscow to The Hague.”
Russia was allied with the United States in World War II and did a vast amount of the work to defeat the Nazis. As grim and horrible as Stalin was, the U.S. president sat down with him as allies in this struggle against the Nazi empire.
Oddly, this changed again in 1948. Having agreed to cede to Moscow vast control of Eastern Europe, the United States rediscovered the Soviet threat, and a new war commenced. The flip from friend to enemy was so sudden and extreme that George Orwell wrote it up: His book “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was really about 1948, when national leaders could turn on a dime and reverse the past.
As a child of the Cold War, loathing Russia and all its works was integral to my ideological formation. In general, the left wanted peace and negotiated arms control while the right wanted to contain and roll back the Soviet empire and even flirted with the idea of initiating nuclear war. This struggle was not only geopolitical, it was ideological, framed as a struggle of freedom versus tyranny.
But then something amazing happened in 1989. Reforms dating back years, even all the way to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, ended up toppling the entire empire about which we had read for many years. It was there, and suddenly it was gone.
It was a time of great celebration, a period celebrated as the “end of history” because now the world had developed a consensus against communism and for democratic capitalism. That turned out to be an illusion, but what was absolutely true is that Russia normalized as plain old Russia: a very religious, nationalist, quirky, quasi-Western, and resource-rich home of artistic excellence and brooding novels about human nature.
But then came 2016, and Donald Trump wrecked all the plans of the U.S. power elite by winning the presidency. The decision was made early on to blame Russia, however implausibly. Years of reporting and investigations into this supposed conspiracy turned up absolutely nothing. The election was really about how the American people generally loathed Hillary Clinton and decided to give Donald Trump a chance. It’s pretty simple.
Still, one faction of the U.S. ruling class could not let it go. Russia was slated to be the new enemy, period. So when Mr. Putin decided during COVID-19 lockdowns to regain control of an Eastern portion of Ukraine, packed with ethnic Russians who were smarting under the rule of Kyiv, all hell broke loose.
Nearly the whole of the U.S. ruling class announced that this was a struggle for the future of freedom itself—more or less like President George H.W. Bush said about Iraq’s move against Kuwait in 1990 over disputed oil lands.
It was never clear whether the American people were going along with the level of intensity that was being demanded of them. Nonetheless, during extremely hard economic times at home, the United States has sent more than $75 billion to fund Ukraine’s war of resistance. If you pay for war, there will be war.
Why exactly this came to be prioritized is a matter of some speculation but, regardless, as part of this has come the inevitable claim that Mr. Putin, a very popular leader at home, is a Hitler-like demon who needs to be overthrown.
But we live in different times, and some journalists have stepped up to question the seemingly mandatory narrative. Independent journalist Mr. Carlson has done an interview with Mr. Putin, the first Western journalist to gain access since this whole Ukraine thing broke out. In the interview, Mr. Putin claims to want peace and an end to the hostilities. Surely, there can be a brokered agreement here to spare more lives and expenses. And let’s face it: Mr. Putin said many seemingly sensible things.
To top it off, the interview is being viewed 100 times as much as any broadcast of the corporate news. This is largely because of the rise of Elon Musk’s X as an information portal, one of the few that is free of the aggressive censorship that took hold of U.S. media during former President Donald Trump’s presidency.
Agree or disagree with Mr. Carlson or Mr. Putin, this kind of information sharing is precisely the hope that the internet promised the world when it came along. It was supposed to emancipate us from government and corporate control of the public mind. This is an example of exactly that. And it is an example full of hope. With more of this sort of thing, we might see a greater chance for peace and less manipulation by elites of every nation.
Some advice to the corporate media that will go unheeded: Be careful in treating Mr. Carlson as treasonous or seditious. It’s not clear that it is going to work this time. At great risk to himself, he flew to Moscow to let the hated enemy speak directly to the American people. Agree or disagree, isn’t this how an intelligent and mature society deals with conflict? The whole idea of free speech is to allow the freedom to listen, too. That’s all that is going on.
I’m perfectly willing to grant that I had very likely accepted as true many untruths about Russia during the Cold War. This is what happens when you back yourself into an ideological corner. You are then ripe for being propagandized by people who want you to see the complicated geography of politics as a simple Manichean struggle between good and evil.
Now 35 years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. corporate media behaves like how we were told Pravda operated in the old days, while X is the new Samizdat. Except there is a difference: The previously unsayable is drowning out the mandatory narrative.
Meanwhile, the U.S. president is the one pushing for ever more mandates and controls on enterprise, while the Russian president shocks the Western elites by proclaiming his desire for peace over war.
The truth is always more complicated than simple geopolitical ideologizing suggests. Surely adults can handle that.