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25 March 2022

Vladimir Putin, JK Rowling, and the difference between culture war and real war

An American debate has no place in Russia’s war, in which hundreds of people are dying each day.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC — Today (25 March) Vladimir Putin made a live address. In it, he brought up someone unexpected: JK Rowling.

“They cancelled Joanne Rowling recently, the children’s author — her books are published all over the world — just because she didn’t satisfy the demands of gender rights,” the Russian president said. This was a reference to criticism of Rowling for her opinions about women’s rights and expressions of concern about alleged “trans activism”. A secondary school in eastern England, for example, dropped her name from one of its houses because of her “comments and viewpoints surrounding trans people”.

Putin then claimed that “they are now trying to cancel our country. I’m talking about the progressive discrimination of everything to do with Russia.”

Rowling, for her part, responded that “critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians”.

Here, I could note that JK Rowling has not actually been “cancelled”. I could go through the difference between cancellation and criticism. I could note that boycotts of Russian products — even boycotts I personally think are downright foolish, like those of Russian literature and music — do not amount to “cancelling” a country. I could remark, with amazement, that the whole brouhaha amounts to a sort of sad reminder of the endurance of American soft power. We have even managed, somehow, to export our debate about cancel culture to Moscow.

[See also: The meaning of Vladimir Putin’s attack on liberalism]

But all of that seems like a red herring. Because the Russian war in Ukraine is not a culture war. More than ten million people have been displaced in Ukraine. That number includes more than half of Ukraine’s children. Three hundred people were killed by a Russian airstrike on a theatre in Mariupol, according to the city council. That was just one attack.

Each of those people killed had interiority. They had likes and dislikes. Had they been left to live in safety and dignity, perhaps they too would have formed opinions on cancel culture. Maybe some of them already had. But they were turned by an air strike into a number of casualties.

I have written before that there are, in the United States, individuals on the right who find themselves defending Putin’s Russia, or at least sympathising with it, because they project onto Russia their own cultural beliefs and grievances. And I have written that this war, and condemnation of it, is not about that. It’s not about their war against wokeness or about cancel culture. It’s about Ukraine’s right to national sovereignty.

That remains true even if the right-winger airing his personal grievances and whining about cancel culture is sitting not in the United States, but in the Kremlin.

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