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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits troops in Donetsk on February 17, 2022. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Things Worth Fighting For

What we can learn from President Zelensky.

Hi friends — A little warning: This is a long one. I had a lot to say. If you’d rather listen to this essay, just click right here:

It feels like we are living through President Volodomyr Zelensky’s moment in history. Kyiv is being shelled and has been for the past three weeks. But the former comedian remains at his desk, wearing his army t-shirt and sitting in his green leather chair on Bankova Street in the center of the city. More than two million Ukranians have fled the country, but he will not budge.

“The fight is here,” he said, responding to an offer from the Americans to help him evacuate. And then, reportedly: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” (I’m in Florida right now, and I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt with the line printed in yellow and blue—already there are t-shirts!)

There is a reason that line—apocryphal or not—instantly became a meme. It is because we live in an era in which acting like sheep has become the norm. In which cowardice is the default. In which the ideas of leadership and sacrifice seemed like dead letters. 

And yet here was the real article. A leader showing courage, real courage, and in doing so inspiring bravery in others that they did not think themselves capable of. Duty, responsibility, moral clarity—he is breathing life into virtues many Americans thought were on life support or already dead.

Zelensky knows what he is fighting for. “We are all at war,” he said in an address to Ukraine. “Everywhere people defend themselves, although they do not have weapons. But these are our people. They have courage. Dignity. And hence the ability to go out and say: I'm here, it's mine, and I won't give it away. My city. My community. My Ukraine.”

And he knows what he is willing to do to get it: In his speech last week to British Parliament he said it through the words of Churchill: “We will fight till the end, at sea, in the air. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.” He promised to “never surrender.”

My favorite Zelensky line of all though—the most profound thing of many profound things in these shocking weeks—came when a reporter asked him how he was doing given the circumstances. Here’s what he said: “My life today is wonderful. I believe that I am needed. That’s the most important sense of life, that you are needed, that you are not just an emptiness that breathes and walks and eats something.” 

Cynics will point out that Zelensky is an actor, adept at delivering lines, even at playing a president. They’ll say that he knows how to tug at our heart strings and he is doing it purposefully to draw the West into the war and get Ukraine the help it needs. Maybe. Probably.

But this isn’t a movie. His life really is on the line. And that explanation, in any case, does not account for the millions of ordinary Ukrainians who are taking up arms to defend their land. 

In one video I watched a computer programmer waiting in line to get his weapon in Kyiv to fight “the Russian invaders.”

“Their objective, clearly, seems to be the occupation of my entire country and the destruction of everything that I love. I’m just a regular civilian. I have nothing to do with war or any other thing like it. And I wouldn’t really want to participate in anything like this. But I don’t really have any choice. This is my home.” 

In another I watched a choir in Odessa sing. I came to find out that the name of the song they were singing is called “Choir of Hebrew Slaves,” from the opera Nabucco. It recalls the tragedy of the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians: “O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost!” 

Listening to such people speak (and sing) so plainly is deeply moving and inspiring. It is also, if I am honest, unsettling.


Why is witnessing such courage uncomfortable?

It is because I cannot help but notice the gap between them and us. Between the bigness of their vision and their mission and the smallness of ours. Between their moral clarity and our moral confusion. Between their spine and our spinelessness. Between their courage and our epidemic of cowardice. Between their commitment to civilization and our resignation to chaos. 

Watching Zelensky and his people reminds me what we have lost. Of how uncertain and fragile we have become. 

Bearing witness to Ukraine’s answers forces me to ask some hard questions about us—questions I worry we have forgotten how to ask: How would we act if the guns were to our heads? Would we similarly feel no choice but to fight for our home, for everything we love? Would we have the courage to live by the values we profess if our backs were to the wall? Or the sense of national unity? Or have we gotten so comfortable, so coddled, so removed from the world of flesh and blood, that we have forgotten how to name those values at all.

We are not yet in an actual war. I pray we never are. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t in an ideological one. We are—and have been for a while now. And it is one that we—heirs to the Enlightenment and the American experiment—are losing very badly. 

We are losing because we are unserious.

We say: I am a brand. Follow me. Like me.

Zelensky says: I am not iconic. Ukraine is iconic. 

We ask: Is America ill-gotten?

Zelensky says: Ukraine is mine.

We say: Words put us in danger.

Zelensky says: I will never surrender.

We LARP on Twitter. And work hard to get people fired for bad Halloween costumes.

Ukranians line up for guns and say: I want to defend what I love. 

We take down statues of our founding fathers. Of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson.

They say: Glory to Ukraine. 

We say: there is no real truth, only power.

They say: Might does not make right.

We say: anyone who disagrees with me is a Nazi. (Which, by the way, is exactly what Putin said to justify his invasion.)

They say: We are one people, united.

But the world is changing fast. History is roaring back to life. And the difference between the world of Zelensky’s Ukraine and ours is only a matter of degree and time. 

One of the core lessons of what’s happening right now in Ukraine is that fighting for noble causes matters—indeed, it is the only thing that matters. It can mean the difference between life and death. Between freedom and slavery. 

Everything happening in Ukraine right now is happening because human beings are willing to fight for it, to bend the arc of history. What would happen if we could be stirred to care about causes bigger than ourselves, our comforts, our reputations, what comes up when we Google ourselves? 

If we are the home front of the free world—and I believe we are and must be—what are the principles that should guide us? What are the things worth fighting for? 

I want to suggest three of them.

The first is individual liberty. Individual liberty is worth fighting for. 

Since the war began, the following things have happened: 

Russia House, a restaurant in Washington, D.C. near Dupont Circle, was vandalized more than once—its windows were broken and its door smashed in.

In Vancouver, St. Sophia’s Orthodox Church had red paint thrown on the front doors.

The Montreal Symphony canceled a performance by the Russian virtuoso Alexander Malofeev. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Opera dropped one of its most celebrated sopranos and replaced the Russian singer with a Ukrainian. And a Formula 1 racing team fired the Russian driver Nikita Mazepin. 

The Paralympics Games—these are games for handicapped people—banned Russians from participating. In the United Kingdom, a planned tour of the Russian State Ballet of Siberia was canceled.

Oh, and let’s not forget the cats: The International Cat Federation has banned Russian felines. Seriously.

Michael McFaul, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Russia, wrote on Twitter: “There are no more 'innocent' 'neutral' Russians anymore.” Think about that for a second. And ask yourself where you might have stood after Pearl Harbor when told how important it was to put Americans of Japanese descent into giant holding pens. 

This is a very incomplete list, only a few of the latest victims in a series of never-ending moral panics.

But this mob mentality—presenting itself now as anti-Russian bigotry, but as something entirely different a week or two from now—can never, ever be made normal. It cuts against the most foundational principle of liberal democracy: individual liberty. 

As my friend Jacob Siegel put it in Tablet: “The notion that individuals should have their employment conditioned on the actions of a foreign government, or their willingness to denounce those actions, is frankly gross and authoritarian—the kind of thing I was raised to believe happened in Russia, not the United States.” 

In free and just societies, we judge people as individuals, not as members of a group. We judge them based on their deeds, not based on the deeds of their parents. Or people of the same gender. Or ZIP code. Or skin color.

The fetishization of group identity, whether by religion or race or gender or whatever, is poison. It leads to a zero-sum war within groups, and the subjugation and, ultimately, the dehumanization of the individual. 

The great achievement of America was to move beyond bloodline. It was to say—for the first time in human history—that we are not constrained by the circumstances of our birth or the sins or merits of our mothers and fathers. We are bound together not by clan or tribe but by a commitment to rights and principles. This distinction is core to what makes America exceptional—the prioritizing of the value of individual life over that of the kinship group.

That is why any ideology—by whatever name it goes by, no matter how seductive— that grants some people a demerit  and others extra credit because of the circumstances of their birth, that denies our individual value and our common humanity, is illiberal and un-American. It needs to be totally rejected.

To build a strong home front in this new era requires us to recover the radical, world-transforming proposition that we are all created equal because we are all created in the image of God.

The second thing worth fighting for is America. America is worth the fight. 

The other day on The View, I watched as a man with a Harvard law degree and a denizen of the most exclusive institutions in America, stumbled on the real problem facing the world: “The Constitution is trash,” he said.

If you are looking for the definition of the privilege of living in America, of living in a country with the First Amendment, it is the ability to say something so foolish on daytime television.  

But what struck me was that he actually homed in on the right pressure point: The Constitution, the thing he was so blithely tearing down, is precisely the thing we need to recover. We need to recover, above all, the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

We do this, as the Founders did, by resisting tyranny in all its forms.

That means refusing to participate in moral panics. It means resisting mob mentality, since mob justice is no justice at all. It also means opposing any entity that uses its power to undermine democracy and strip us of individual liberty. 

There are a thousand examples I could point to. But just consider one: Facebook announced last week that even though it’s wrong to call for some people to be killed, it’s not wrong to call for others to be. I’m serious. Facebook, which bars users from expressing hate speech, decided to allow people in Ukraine, Poland and Russia to call for violence against Putin, Russia and Russian soldiers. Then, Sunday, perhaps because of the backlash, the company reversed course: No assassination advocacy allowed on Instagram. At least for now.

I believe what Putin is doing is evil. I suspect you do, too. But what’s allowed to be said—and not—should not be left to the mandarins of Menlo Park. 

Why have we resigned ourselves to living in a country where a few companies have arrogated to themselves the power of government even though we never elected them. Companies that control the 21st-century public square but have no obligations to any kind of digital First Amendment? 

The Founders may not have been able to imagine the internet, but they surely could have understood the danger of a centralized force that had the power to determine what people could say and what they couldn’t. They would have called that tyranny.

If you want to understand why some people have been so cynical about this war—why they almost seem to be rooting for Putin—this is one of the major reasons why. It is because many Americans notice that the most powerful forces in America are exhibiting the kind of behavior we expect from countries like Russia….and that they aren’t being opposed by those who claim to be our moral betters. Instead, they are being cheered on.

They see American companies toying with our freedom of conscience and free expression, and they wonder: Sorry, which country has the problem with totalitarianism? Which country has a social credit system?

They see an elite that has lied to them about peaceful protests and Russiagate and masks and school closures. An attorney general who suggested parents who stood up for kids were domestic terrorists. A CDC that covered up science. A president that abandoned our allies in Afghanistan. A White House, right now, that is pouring one out for Ukraine . . . while using Moscow to negotiate a deal with Iran. An administration that opposes fracking and nuclear power while buying gas from despots. They see an elite that says that words are violence but violence is just a hallucination. That leaps from hashtag campaign to hashtag campaign, from BLM to vaccine mandates . . . and they think: Nope. I’m out. They think: the smart bet is to bet against that.

I want to say two things about this posture:

The first is that one can acknowledge the lies and the hypocrisies of our experts and our institutions. I do. But acknowledging it says nothing about the reality that Russia is actually bombing maternity hospitals. That it is killing journalists.

And if you have hardened yourself to that—if you hate us or part of us more than you hate that—then you have lost the plot. Then you are justifying the unjustifiable.

The second thing is that you can oppose the lies and the hypocrisies without giving up on America and its exceptional proposition. Indeed, the way to recover America isn’t to become moral relativists or isolationists or apologists for evil. It’s to look our moral and practical failings in the face and fix them.  

It’s also to recognize what we have gotten right. I heard that in Ketanji Brown Jackson’s unapologetic formulation of gratitude when she was nominated to the Supreme Court:

“If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans,” she said. How shocking in its clarity.

I listened to a talk the other day in which a historian, an expert on Russia, said that societies that are conquered from outside can recover. But societies that destroy themselves from within cannot. 

We need to right our ship not just for ourselves but for the world. The world needs us to be the moral actors we used to be, because we need to engage in the world. And we need to be because civilization has to be defended.

Civilization. Civilization is worth fighting for. 

If the past three weeks have reminded us of anything, at root, it is that the line between civilization and what we might call uncivilization is paper thin.

Just ask the people of Odessa, who not four weeks ago were going to the opera and the parks and the movies and who are now, mothers and their children, knitting camouflage and filling sandbags and learning how to shoot. They are standing at the borderland between democracy and subjugation. They will tell you.

Or ask Serhiy Perebeinis. 

Last week, his wife, Tatiana Perebeinis, 43, along with his daughter, Alise, 9, and son, Nikita, 18, tried to flee the town of Irpin, a suburb about 15 minutes from Kyiv. They had just dashed across a partially destroyed bridge over the Irpin River into Kyiv when a Russian mortar hit. They were all killed. So was the church volunteer who was trying to escort them to safety.

Serhiy was in Eastern Ukraine at the time helping his sick mother. He found out that his entire family had been murdered after seeing a photo of their dead bodies on Twitter. 

Tatiana was the chief accountant of a Palo Alto start-up called SE Ranking. And I just keep thinking to myself: what would the life of this family be if they had not been born into a country that Putin decided actually belonged to him? It is the difference between a weekend family hike in California and a weekend family funeral in Ukraine.

Reckoning with the flaws and failings of past generations, grappling with our history are part of the civilization for which we are fighting. But that cannot be confused for a second with the zeal to purge and purify, to cancel and punish and tear down, to the nihilists who say we have to repudiate the tools that allow us to improve and progress and forgive. The tools that have made our civilization the freest in all of history.

Western civilization is an enormous achievement—the gradual development of thousands of years of human will and wisdom, of political, economic and cultural capital. We should treat it with the preciousness it deserves. Pretending as if what we have is bad or ill-gotten is beyond ignorant, and the ideologues trying to drag us back into pre-Enlightenment tribalism should be seen for what they are: useful idiots doing the bidding of Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Tehran. We should never indulge them. We should say their ideas are wrong plainly and without apology.

It’s time to set that kind of relativism aside. Time to judge and discern again. Time to choose.

There are complicated debates to be had about no-fly-zones and NATO expansion. But there are other questions that every single American is equipped to answer:

Do we root for Russia, and its partners in Beijing and Tehran, or do we cheer on Zelensky, and with him London, Paris, and Washington, D.C.? Do we imagine a future in which each citizen is closely monitored by the state, assigned a social score and tracked by tech giants that record her every move, or would we prefer free and unfettered speech and respect for privacy? Are we ok with concentration camps for religious minorities and corporations whose profits are downstream of genocide, or do we believe that every human life is sacred? 

Do we say, sorry we can’t do anything about the Chinese Communist Party, it is too strong and we are too intertwined and the price would be too high. Or do we say: no. That’s not true. Look at what Churchill did in 1940. Look what Zelensky is doing right now. Look what a nation can achieve when the stakes are their highest, when their hearts and minds are focused on one mission.

Do we believe in nation-states with sovereignty, or land grabs and might making right? Do we fight for civilization or do we resign ourselves to decline? Do we insist that nothing is destined, that the choice of decline or ascendance is ours?

I know what I choose.

There are people who fought very hard for the freedoms and privileges that we have. And a lot of Americans are using those freedoms to turn on other Americans. To suggest that disagreeing about the war makes them traitors.

Others are sleepwalking. Giving them up without a second thought. That’s what Putin and the rest of the world’s tyrants are counting on. They are counting on the fact that the superpower that considers receiving groceries in under an hour its major achievement won’t interrupt a good online sale for anyone else’s sake.

Zelensky’s wisdom—and what he is calling on in us—is a rejection of that myopia. “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” Who knows if Zelensky’s ever heard that line from Pope Benedict but he seems to know it in his bones. Once upon a time, so did we. 

It was America that once gave the world the courage and the inspiration to keep the fight going. It was our founders that themselves stood against evil tyrants, who demanded glory for their fledgling democracy. These days, it’s the guy in Kyiv with the army green t-shirt. 

God bless him. And may we all take on his fight. For his sake and for ours. 

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