Discover more from Matthew's Notebook
Every side has its "Tankies"
You can always find an oppressed person to excuse someone else's oppression. The best answer is radical humility.
I have a Jordanian friend who’s now studying abroad. This friend comes from a Palestinian family that fled the Israeli conquest of Lydda and Ramla in 1948. As the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit later wrote, Israel “obliterated the city of Lydda” in “forty-eight hours of hell,” and the Palestinian inhabitants of the region left their homes “under the indirect threat of slaughter.”1
This friend met an Iranian acquaintance abroad. The acquaintance had recently left behind government repression, as well as a very conservative family environment. At some point, the conversation turned towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Iranian, not knowing my friend’s family history, started insisting that Israel isn’t so bad and “everyone is making peace with them.”
That notion is a natural reaction to the Iranian government’s anti-Israel jingoism, which it uses to rally its supporters to beat up the opposition in the streets. But to my friend, a person personally and directly affected by Israel, it was an insulting and out-of-touch form of atrocity denial.
This kind of interaction is more common than people think. This week, millions of fans in Africa and the Middle East have been cheering on Morocco’s World Cup team as an anticolonial standard-bearer. Sahrawi refugees who fled Moroccan rule are not.
While there has been a lot of hand-wringing about “tankies” and “Westsplaining” — that is to say, privileged left-wing apologia for brutal enemy states2 — Anglophone media doesn’t dive too deeply into the question of oppressed people acting as apologists for each other’s oppression.
In fact, U.S. media sometimes encourages that phenomenon when it helps Americans feel better about their own government. Many a foreign dissident, such as North Korean defector Yeonmi Park, has gone on Fox News to scold audiences for being too critical of American society or U.S. foreign policy.
There’s no easy answer for those kinds of situations. At the very least, they should serve as a cautionary tale about “oppression Olympics,” the game of comparing trauma to determine who is more credible. Listening to someone with empathy does not mean taking them as an authority on every subject.
Otherwise, the sword cuts in multiple directions. Every regime in the world has genuinely downtrodden people willing to go to bat for it — even the Axis powers of World War II.
Thanks for reading Matthew's Notebook! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Governments like to take up the cause of people oppressed by enemy states. It not only helps convince citizens of the righteousness of the nation’s geopolitical positions, but also helps draw attention away from the state’s own abuses. And, of course, it builds a potential constituency to undermine the enemy from below.
Such a policy often backfires, because nothing gets people angry like elite hypocrisy. Watching politicians cry over corruption or brutality in another country while they fill their own pockets and order police to beat up the masses is infuriating.
This righteous anger can often breed resentment towards the foreign victims that the government is parading around. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these are real human beings facing real adversity.
The writings of pan-Africanist thinker W.E.B. Du Bois show how this phenomenon unfolds. A genius when it comes to analyzing American society, he had an embarrassing turn towards cheerleading for Imperial Japan.
In his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk,” Du Bois called white Americans hypocritical for acting concerned about the Armenian genocide and the German occupation of Belgium during World War I while carrying out racial terror against their black neighbors:
Conceive this nation, of all human peoples, engaged in a crusade to make the "World Safe for Democracy"! Can you imagine the United States protesting against Turkish atrocities in Armenia, while the Turks are silent about mobs in Chicago and St. Louis; what is Louvain compared with Memphis, Waco, Washington, Dyersburg, and Estill Springs? In short, what is the black man but America's Belgium, and how could America condemn in Germany that which she commits, just as brutally, within her own borders?
And he sensed that the American fear of Japanese power was really anxiety about white nations losing their global dominance:3
White supremacy was all but world-wide, Africa was dead, India conquered, Japan isolated, and China prostrate, while white America whetted her sword for mongrel Mexico and mulatto South America, lynching her own Negroes the while. Temporary halt in this program was made by little Japan and the white world immediately sensed the peril of such "yellow" presumption! What sort of a world would this be if yellow men must be treated " white"? Immediately the eventual overthrow of Japan became a subject of deep thought and intrigue, from St. Petersburg to San Francisco, from the Key of Heaven to the Little Brother of the Poor.
In the following years, Du Bois took those instincts way too far. After going on a tour of the Japanese Empire — including occupied Manchuria — he praised Japan as the one force that could keep European imperialism out of the region, and even labeled the Chinese opposition to Japanese rule as “Uncle Tom.”4
Du Bois was not alone in this position. A segment of black nationalists in the 1930s, including the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad, praised Japan as a coming savior. Some allegedly made contact with Japanese intelligence.
One of those leaders reportedly called Adolf Hitler the “greatest white man alive” and promised that Germany would have “Roosevelt picking cotton.”5 Another flamboyant preacher nicknamed the “Harlem Hitler” courted Nazi German diaspora leaders as allies in his disputes with Jewish business owners and black Communist organizers.
Needless to say, this sentiment was misguided, horrifically so. The Axis powers matched centuries of Euro-American brutality in a few genocidal years. Most of the violence was aimed at Japan’s “fellow Asians” and those whom Germany deemed “racially inferior.”
Without the benefit of hindsight, the outcome was not so obvious. Not only was slavery a living memory in the 1930s, but many black Southerners still lived in feudal conditions enforced by escalating violence. Millions fled the lynch mobs to Northern cities, where they were met with yet more ethnic discrimination.6
None of that justifies the rose-colored glasses Du Bois or Elijah Muhammad looked at the Japanese Empire through, but they can’t be dismissed as ivory-tower academics pontificating from a place of comfort. Elijah Muhammad grew up a sharecropper and witnessed lynchings. Both he and Du Bois were making political choices while staring down the barrel of a proverbial gun.7
Colonized people in other countries made the same mistakes. Some Indian and Iranian nationalists embraced their “Aryan” identity, and Arab nationalists appealed to Nazi antisemitism.8 A significant faction with all of these groups sought Axis support against the British Empire.
In the early 1940s, the Polish-Jewish refugee Avraham Stern flirted with the Axis as a potential ally in overthrowing the British Mandate of Palestine and establishing a Jewish state.9 Stern was shot dead by British police in 1942, around the same time Nazi Germany was signing off on its decision to kill millions of Jews as the “final solution to the Jewish question.”
Though very few regimes have matched the brutality of the Axis powers, many oppressed people today make similar judgement calls on a smaller scale, looking to enemy states as their saviors and dismissing the reports of atrocities as propaganda.
The world is complicated. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, as they say. One state that claims to be backing brave freedom fighters abroad can also shoot them at home in the name of combatting terrorism.
As the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò recently wrote, trauma is “a poor teacher. Suffering is partial, short-sighted, and self-absorbed. We shouldn’t have a politics that expects different: oppression is not a prep school.”
Consider the Latin American leftists who have declined to stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression. The reason is quite simple: they have experienced the United States as the regional source of torture and killings over the past century, and Russia as a spoiler to U.S. ambitions.
Then there’s the striking parallel between Palestinian chauvinist attitudes towards Kurds and Kurdish chauvinist attitudes towards Palestinians. Both peoples are stateless nations repressed by a variety of regional actors.
However, Turkey and Iraq have presented themselves as pro-Palestinian champions against Israel, while Israel has made a show of defending Kurdish aspirations against Turkey and Iraq.
And so some Kurds wave Israeli flags, while some Palestinians flaunt symbols of Turkish nationalism or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The justification is the same on both sides: the Kurds/Palestinians don’t have it so bad, they’re pampered by our oppressors, and they’re willing to step on us to keep it that way.
Right-wing media tends to lean into these contradictions if they bolster hawkish foreign policy. Why not hit liberals with their own rhetoric? Why not respond to accusations of oppression by getting someone else from an oppressed group to criticize them?
Soviet exile Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a former prisoner of the gulag, became a darling of the Right for his attacks on Western liberal “decadence.” Criticizing the antiwar movement in a speech to Harvard University, he said that the “American Intelligentsia lost its nerve” in Vietnam. He responded to boos from the crowd by accusing students of privileged ignorance about the reality of Communism.
Solzhenitsyn did indeed suffer worse things than the average American college student ever will. But the anticommunist war in Vietnam also involved bombing or arresting millions of people who were, to put it lightly, not very privileged.
Liberal media, on the other hand, tends to uncomfortably shy away from these contradictions. The closest thing to an acknowledgement is the call to oppose all oppressors equally. Such calls are often addressed in a way that implies that cranky white academics are the only people in the world who have adopted an “enemy of my enemy” attitude.
Whether or not social justice principles are the right way to approach society’s internal issues, they are badly suited for international geopolitics. Injustice isn’t always intersectional on a global scale; sometimes people’s oppressors are unrelated, or violently at odds with each other.
All these examples of oppressed people supporting oppression elsewhere may seem like a cause for misanthropy. On the contrary, they’re a call for radical humility. No one has all the right answers to every political question. It’s liberating to realize that.
The push for total solidarity, however well-intentioned, can actually get in the way. Empathy for the downtrodden should not require going down a checklist of their beliefs. Nor does it mean buying into anyone else’s worldview wholesale. Du Bois was right about Memphis and wrong about Manchuria.
People are morally complicated, and that’s ok.
Thanks for reading Matthew's Notebook! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Shavit considered the action necessary and justified: “Do I wash my hands of Zionism? Do I turn my back on the Jewish national movement that carried out the destruction of Lydda? No…Those events were a crucial phase of the Zionist revolution, and they laid the foundation for the Jewish state. Lydda is an integral and essential part of the story. And, when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”
The word “tankie” originally referred to British Communists who wanted the Soviet Union to “send in the tanks” against the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. It now refers to any left-leaning apologist for foreign tyranny.
“Westsplaining” was a more recent term, coined by Eastern European academics to describe the feeling that their Western counterparts were condescending and dismissive about the dangers of Russian power.
Du Bois’s feeling was right. American leaders cast their struggle with Japan in racist terms, which reached a fever pitch during World War II.
Sidney Pash, “W.E.B. Du Bois: From Japanophile to Apologist”, Studies in English and American Literature, 51 (March, 2016), pp. 21-35.
Although Kanye West’s bizarre pro-Hitler rant calls to mind this history, it is really a different phenomenon. Kanye is not cheering on an active enemy state; he is digging up a historic trauma in order to terrorize Jewish-Americans.
Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. Alfred A Knopf Inc (1991).
After the war, Du Bois settled on socialism with an ambivalent view towards the Soviet Union. Elijah Muhammad, however, continued to promote antisemitism and cozy up to neo-Nazi activists.
Of course, many people in these countries saw the Axis powers for what they were. For example, the Egyptian writer Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad was a ruthless critic of the Fascist regime.