Russia's brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was not even a week old when there was a backlash against Western ladies who thought Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was sexy. "Enough With the Zelensky Thirst," scolded the feminist website Jezebel. Added The Forward: "It's weird."
Weird, maybe; inexplicable, not at all.
Sure, the comedic-actor-turned-president is charismatic and easy on the eyes in his tight olive T-shirt, if a tad short for my taste. But the real reason the Ukrainian leader became an "unlikely sex symbol as photos defending Kyiv emerge[d]," per a Daily Mirror headline, is right there in the word defending. Defense is inherently sexy.
"We are here," Zelenskyy said in the video that catapulted him to international celebrity. "We are in Kyiv. We are defending Ukraine." This image was enhanced by a possibly apocryphal response to U.S. offers of evacuation: "I don't need a ride; I need more ammunition." Only an icy heart would fail to feel some warmth toward anyone brave enough to defend his home against heavily armed, openly murderous intruders.
The natural human sympathy for stoic self-defense is why the English-speaking world will never tire of Winston Churchill biographies, and why the countries overrun by Nazis and/or Soviets tend to venerate whatever "resistance" groups fought back. The fiercest and most respected acts of World War II resistance—Finns against Soviets, Yugoslavs against Germans, Poles and Ukrainians against both—continue to generate headlines today, historical echoes reverberating in the current moment. Small countries in imperial no-man's-lands tend to produce hardy stock.
The allure of defense is also why U.S. presidents during the Cold War tried (and usually failed) to convince Americans that such-and-such band of Washington-backed rebels in a given civil or proxy war were "freedom fighters" reminiscent of our own colonial revolutionaries. We instinctively understand the injustice that the Founders felt when they were unable to shape the rules under which they lived.
But try as President Ronald Reagan might, American kids of the 1980s were more likely to identify with the Wolverines of Red Dawn than the Contras of Nicaragua. I refused to register with the Selective Service out of fear of being drafted to enforce the Reagan Doctrine. But if the Russkies somehow took California? All Molotov cocktails, all the time. In April, pictures of Ukrainian tanks bearing the graffiti "Wolverines" began circulating online.
The built-in sexiness of defense contains lessons far beyond foreign policy. In America, social change often comes after a politician or government goes too heavily on offense against individuals wishing merely to stand their ground and assert their rights. Bull Connor's fire hoses and George Wallace's billy clubs helped tilt public opinion toward brave civil rights protesters. Susette Kelo may have lost her little pink house in New London, Connecticut, to profit-seeking eminent domain abusers, but the Supreme Court's refusal to intervene provoked public outrage that led 40 states to pass laws trimming the government's power to forcibly transfer property from one private owner to another. The Institute for Justice, which represented Kelo, has built an entire practice out of identifying and rallying support for sympathetic victims defending their turf from an aggressive state.
Populists and other government aggrandizers forget this principle at their peril. Democrats generated support when they rallied for gay people's rights to enjoy the same adoption and marriage rules as straights, but they began alienating people by going on offense against bakers and photographers who eschew gay-wedding work. Republicans are right to decry public education training seminars that conflate critical thinking with white supremacy, but they are wrong to write broad legislation restricting what books can be taught and what language can be used in the classroom.
When everyday people suddenly feel the imposition of alien practices, rules, or jargon, they tend to react badly. It is a paradox of our populist political moment that both large political parties are perennially surprised at how unpopular they can get when they go on offense. In a fractious country, we'd all be better off concentrating on individual protection rather than social engineering. Repeat after me: Defense is sexy.