Even Vladimir Putin—who is currently waging an unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine—finds himself distracted by the culture war, it seems. In a televised speech on Friday, the authoritarian Russian president criticized the West for engaging in cancel culture against the Russian people.
"They are trying to cancel our country," he said. "I'm talking about the progressive discrimination of everything to do with Russia—this trend that's unfolding in a number of Western states, with the full neglect and sometimes encouragement of Western cultures. They are now engaging in cancel culture, even removing Tchaikovsky."
Putin also criticized the West's treatment of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, whose high-profile disputes with transgender activists earned her condemnation from many liberals, progressive media figures, and even the broader Harry Potter fan community: Warner Bros. appeared to distance itself from her, declining to include the franchise's creator in the recent 20th anniversary HBO special.
"They canceled J.K. Rowling recently, the child's author," said Putin. "Just because she didn't satisfy the demands of gender rights."
It's certainly odd to listen to Putin fretting about a fabulously wealthy author of children's books catching flak for her public statements at the same time that he is invading a sovereign country, destroying its cities, and murdering its people—as if the (not entirely justified) cancellation of Rowling is somehow a justification for Russia's violent aggression. To use a metaphor that feels appropriate (and since I refuse to "read another book"), this would be like Voldemort complaining about the declining quality of the meals at Hogwarts while sending his army there to kill everyone.
Indeed, in some sense the ultimate "canceler" is Putin himself: He silences his critics, not merely with the kind of informal social stigmatization typically implied by the term cancel culture, but by actively imprisoning and killing them. This irony is not lost on Rowling, who clearly wants nothing to do with Putin's hypocritical appeal to her.
"Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics," she wrote on Twitter.
Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics. #IStandWithUkraine https://t.co/aNItgc5aiW
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) March 25, 2022
As for the broader embargo of Russian culture now taking place in the West following Putin's invasion, it's perfectly reasonable to point out that canceling Tchaikovsky concerts is foolish and borderline xenophobic. The West's quarrel is with Putin, not with the people of Russia, their music, their literature, or their history. We gain nothing by demonizing all Russians; if anything, we give intellectual ammunition to Putin when he inveighs against the West in his speeches.
There is plenty to criticize with respect to how various governments, organizations, and private citizens are cracking down on Russian media outlets, punishing Russian composers, and in general engaging in performative denunciation. Similarly, the public effort to hold Rowling accountable for her views on gender issues has also taken a sinister turn, most notably with The New York Times running a bizarre ad campaign in a Washington, D.C., Metro station that asked commuters to envision "Harry Potter without its creator."
None of those decisions are as morally deficient as Putin's war in Ukraine, however—nor do they begin to justify his actions. Cancel culture is bad, but Putin is not a victim of it, and widespread destruction and murder are considerably worse.