On “CBS Sunday Morning” yesterday, there was a remarkable exchange between Jane Pauley and Hillary Clinton.
PAULEY: Are you surprised, though, that many of your countrymen actually might share Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin?
CLINTON: I’m surprised, and I’m deeply disappointed because what they’re looking at is a white authoritarian leader who has murdered journalists and his political enemies, who runs a regime of repression, who makes aggressive moves against neighboring countries, who considers himself an adversary to us, the United States of America.
If you watch the clip, you can see that Hillary pronounces the words “white … authoritarian … leader” very deliberately. This wasn’t a gaffe.
Now of course, Putin is white, and most people would agree that he is more-or-less authoritarian. But it’s almost impossible to imagine Hillary using “white” as the first word to describe any other European leader. Why would she do this?
Reasonable minds can differ on why Hillary chose to stress Putin’s whiteness. I haven’t read her new book, so I don’t know if this is something she expands on in What Happened. But to me it’s clear what she’s doing: implying that Putin is a “white nationalist,” and that Trump and his followers are also white nationalists marching to Putin’s drum.
Hillary has been on the receiving end of hundreds of briefings about Russia, and she’s generally renowned as being highly intelligent (though Steve Bannon would beg to differ about that).
But Hillary knows, or should know, that most of Russia’s historical issues relating to discrimination and interethnic violence don’t have to do with skin color. Yes, there have been beatings of African students in Russia in recent years by skinheads. But these are what you might call “international skinheads”: they’re of the same ideological bent as skinheads in Europe and North America, inspired by 20th Century fascist rhetoric, not by a history of race relations. Historically, conflicts in Russia have been much more about nationality, religion and social class than about what Americans think about as “race.”
Take Alexander Pushkin for example. He’s Russia’s most beloved poet, embraced as the quintessence of Russian romantic poetry. He died in 1837, at a time when slavery was the law of the land in the American South, and serfdom (a form of slavery) was the law of the land in Russia for Russia’s peasant class. Pushkin’s great-grandfather was a full-blooded Ethiopian who became a close friend of Peter the Great and a member of his court. Pushkin himself was born into nobility. The fact that he was one-eighth Black was a nonissue as far as his social standing went, even though under the “one drop” rule in the United States at the time, being one-eighth Black made you an “octoroon,” or fully Black for legal purposes. Thomas Jefferson’s famous slave Sally Hemings, who bore him several children, was one-eighth Black. Pushkin owned serfs, who were white. In Pushkin’s Russia, racial differences were insignificant compared to differences in religion (Pushkin was Russian Orthodox, and his great-grandfather was Ethiopian Orthodox) and social class. A Black nobleman was far socially superior to a white serf in early 1800s Russia.
This is not to say that Russia hasn’t had many, many problems relating to interethnic conflict. They just weren’t predicated on skin color. There was the Pale of Settlement, pogroms of Jews, the Holodomor, the exiling of the Chechen people (among others) during World War 2, the list goes on. But they weren’t based on “white supremacy” based on skin color as Americans understand it and have experienced in their history.
Hillary’s reference to Putin as “white” is also symptomatic of another unfortunate development that seems to be snowballing: the immediate, and selective, application of the most “woke” social views currently prevalent in the United States to other countries, without any regard for the fact that every country has its own specific context of interethnic and interfaith conflict and its own specific challenges in the area of social justice.
In America, Barack Obama, a mixed-race man who identifies as Black, being elected (and re-elected) President of the United States was a historic moment of reconciliation and hope for a country whose African-American population has experienced a painful history of prejudice, repression and worse.
Russia doesn’t have many Black people, but it does have a large number of people that would be considered “Asians” by appearance. But if one of these Russian “Asians” were to become president of Russia, it would hardly change anything in terms of race relations in Russia. As a matter of fact, one of the people most seriously considered a potential successor to Putin is an Asian: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He not only looks Asian, but he was brought up a Buddhist in the Siberian region of Tuva.
Sergei Shoigu, Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation
There would certainly be some militant Russian Orthodox believers, and possibly the Russian Orthodox Church itself, that would be upset if a Buddhist became president of Russia. And it’s a safe bet that the Tuvan Republic, and Russian Buddhists, would be pretty happy about it. But it wouldn’t be the same kind of watershed moment in race relations in Russia as Obama’s election in America. It wouldn’t bring Russians any closer to seeing civil and human rights the way Americans do. It’s just a completely different context. For example, upon being shown pictures of a Tuvan and a Kazakh, an American would say “those are Asians.” And Russia does indeed have a Kazakh minority as well as Tuvan.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan
If Shoigu or Nazarbayev were US citizens, we’d expect them to check the “Asian or Pacific Islander” box. But most ethnic Kazakhs in Russia aren’t going to think “finally we’ve got an Asian president” if Shoigu succeeds Putin. Kazakhs are Muslims from the Central Asian steppe, and Tuvans are Buddhists whose homeland is Siberia. There’s no “Asian” box to check on the Russian census form: there’s a “Tuvan” box and a “Kazakh” box.
The world-changing idea at the heart of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States was the idea of natural or universal rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
This is a powerful idea, one that has inspired not only Americans, but people all over the world. But it also creates in some Americans a belief that the ever-evolving American model of social justice has universal–and, moreover, immediate–application.
Liberal-minded Americans take for granted that it is a social good for identifiable minorities to be represented everywhere, and this is a goal that should be pursued in all prestigious fields. It almost goes without saying that should be more [female/minority/transgender] CEOs, Supreme Court justices, TV anchors, Oscar winners, scientists, computer programmers and so on.
But Hillary Clinton is coming close to saying (or maybe this is exactly what she meant, I don’t know): we prefer to deal with countries whose leadership reflects American attitudes towards diverse representation. Some people might read that and say “yeah, that would be great, we should do that.” I think it would be a disaster. Would France have been more “woke” if it had elected Marine Le Pen president instead of white male Macron? Should the United States treat Ireland more favorably now that it has a gay, half-Indian prime minister? Is it to Joseph Stalin’s credit that he was an ethnic Georgian (considered “nonwhite” according to the Russian ethnic spectrum) who spoke Russian with a thick accent all his life? A foreign leader should be judged based on policies and governance, not on diversity criteria. To impose, or even to imply, some kind of diversity litmus test towards the people who represent foreign governments is absurd.
EPILOGUE. Some might point out that, rather than being the Russian equivalent of a “white nationalist,” on the Russian political spectrum Putin is not considered a Russian nationalist, though he’s played with Russian nationalist themes in the past. He supports immigration from Central Asia (where the people are, um, Asian), he is supportive of Russia’s large Muslim population, he frequently speaks about Russia’s diversity. Russia’s most famous challenger, Alexey Navalny, is by contrast a Russian nationalist who wants to limit immigration from Muslim countries, limit mosque construction and other visible manifestations of Muslim participation in Russian civic life, and stop financial subsidies and autonomy for Russia’s restive Muslim-majority regions in the Caucusus (Chechnya being the primary target).
Of all the labels Hillary could’ve legitimately hung on Putin, and there are many, emphasizing that he’s “white” is probably the least important, and shows either that Hillary really, really doesn’t understand Russia, or that she couldn’t resist a chance to try to connect Putin to Trump through the thread of them supposedly both being white nationalists.