For the cheerleader, there is no nuance, no dialectic, and everything is black and white. Nothing is apolitical; every discussion is an opportunity and an obligation to fight for the cause! The people whose cause they support are blameless, oppressed victims, and anyone who fails to uphold their cause to the same standard set by the cheerleader is nothing but a dastardly apologist for the sinister oppressors. Why they support those people is usually a mystery. They picked them, and now you must pick a side.
I’ve been encountering this type for years, since the time of the Kosovo conflict. Hell, I was guilty of being one myself at one time. Eastern European politics seems to attract a lot of them. I’ve run across them repeatedly for over a decade, spotting them without fail, and yet I never had a name for them. As the conflict in Ukraine has spawned so many of them, I decided that I had to give them a name. There’s simply no other way to write about them. Thus I settled on cheerleaders. Deal with it.
What is a cheerleader, exactly? It’s a lot like obscenity- hard to explain but you’ll know it when you see it. A cheerleader is firstly someone who takes up the cause of some nation or ethnic group. This in itself wouldn’t be too unusual were it not for the fact that the cheerleader typically has no logical connection to their “team.” At best they might have very distant ancestry, but they weren’t born in their new adopted country, nor were they raised there. In fact, some of the most rabid cheerleaders have never set foot in the country they carry a torch for.
In general, a cheerleader doesn’t necessarily pick his or her team by closing their eyes and spinning a globe to see where their finger lands, though at times this may seem to be the case. There’s usually a reason, but it’s often rather irrational. Maybe they visited the place once. Maybe they have an in-law from that country. Perhaps it’s a mail-order bride (yes, I’ve seen this happen). I think perhaps some of them studied for a year or maybe spent a summer in their adopted second homeland and had a magical experience. Whatever it was, their reasons are rarely rational.
So how does one boil all these traits down in such a way that we get a clear picture of the archetypical cheerleader? Personally I think the best we can achieve is a rule of thumb. A cheerleader is someone who fanatically and tenaciously takes up the plight of a people or country he or she isn’t really deeply connected to. They live vicariously through this country’s struggle. They treat said struggle like a debate on a comments section, and the only immediate concern is winning. Theoretically, if they got bored of the fight and decided to move onto something else, they really wouldn’t suffer any tragic loss as they have no real stake in the game. What is more, they tend to only increase polarization and prevent meaningful dialog with their relentless, us-against-them mentality and the antics which derive thereof. There is never any thought given to winning hearts and minds on the other side — that’s the “enemy.”
I think some of my readers might suspect that the cheerleaders I have in mind are part of “Team Russia,” the gaggle of foreigners both inside and outside of Russia who slavishly support the Kremlin line even when they aren’t paid to do so (in which case they are suckers). Well sure, many of them are cheerleaders, but in my experience, you often find them on the other side, and specifically these days, the Ukrainian side. This is sometimes even more annoying because the only thing worse than a fanatical opponent is someone on your own “side” who represents it poorly and attacks their own for not being as fanatical as they are.
Such was the case the last time I encountered this idiocy. I, following others, posted the names of 23 Russian paratroopers who were killed when their barracks collapsed on top of them. The names were published because the Russian state-run media didn’t do so. Along comes a cheerleader who basically says “To hell with them,” because that’s 23 fewer paratroopers who could be sent to Ukraine and “kill Ukrainians.”
These particular soldiers were recent recruits, and we have no reason to assume they would have agreed to be sent to Ukraine. They certainly hadn’t yet. Our cheerleader totally forgot that there are Russian contract soldiers sitting in prison right now, some facing as many as ten years, for deserting rather than be sent to Ukraine. They forgot that corruption, the underlying problem of post-Soviet Russia and the main pillar of Putin’s regime, was likely a factor in barracks’ collapse. They ignore the fact that Russia has a conscript army, and that these soldiers might have felt better off joining the airborne forces on a contract, most likely due to a lack of other opportunities.
They also neglect the fact that many Ukrainians fighting this war, indeed some on the front lines, have relatives in Russia. The people I’ve met in Ukraine, including combat veterans, don’t hold an “only-good-Russian-is-a-dead-one” mentality. On the contrary, they say they’d rather not fight this war at all, and they do so only because it has been thrust upon them. Of course the cheerleader would probably upbraid them for their lack of enthusiasm, something that’s really easy to do from behind a keyboard.
To the cheerleader, there are no distinctions. There can be no sympathy. Never mind the fact that these and other members of “the enemy” are themselves victims of Putin’s regime and the rot it engenders. Cheerleaders consider the suffering justified, and trying to show it in a sympathetic way is portrayed as a propaganda tactic. Apparently if you write articles about how Russian cancer patients kill themselves because they are unable to acquire proper painkillers thanks to the system’s bureaucracy, you’re going to feel bad about those people and then decide that Putin, the man who presides over this system, isn’t so bad after all. If that doesn’t make sense to you — good. It’s a sign you’re not a cheerleader.
How not to be a cheerleader
Are you a cheerleader? To find out you need to ask yourself a few important questions and answer them honestly. First of all, what is your actual connection to this conflict? Have you actually spent time in this country or the country you now hate because it’s “the enemy?” Have you dedicated years of your life studying a wide variety of viewpoints from these different countries? Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps what you took to be “the” viewpoint of this country might have only been that of the people you happened to encounter or spend time with during that “magical” first summer you spent in that country?
Okay, so your great-great-grandfather emigrated from this country. Wonderful, but you’re still American, Canadian, or whatever. Probability says you’ve probably got a few more countries in your heritage as well- do you uphold the interests of all those countries with equal tenacity? If not, why not? Even if you were born in this country, if you were raised nearly all your life outside of it, in a different culture, you don’t get to pull the “my people” card.
Now suppose you have no “blood” link to this country. Why are you so fighting for it so tenaciously? I posit that this is a type of Dances With Wolves complex. We all know this trope, whereby an outsider finds himself in a tribe of Native Americans, an army of samurai, or a community of giant blue cat people, and within a short amount of time the outsider becomes the most proficient warrior, samurai, or..er…blue cat person of the whole group. In a similar vein, our cheerleader visits a country, becomes enamored with it, and then comes to believe that they can be more Ukrainian or Russian than the people themselves.
Alright, alright, so you may not have any blood ties to the country but you have spent significant time there, have lots of friends from there, speak the language, etc. Great, but you’re not helping anyone by taking the perspective you personally encountered and insisting that all citizens of this country and other supporters conform to that particular point of view. If you’re an outsider and you really want to help these people, put your outsider-ness to good use by striving to become a more objective observer. When people are deeply involved in a conflict, they often get very emotionally invested in it. It can be hard to step out of oneself and see the forest rather than the trees. You have the benefit of being able to do that.
Cheerleaders refuse to accept any criticism of their team; that is unless they encounter a member of that team who doesn’t think the way they personally believe the team should think. What they fail to realize is that they aren’t doing anyone any favors by rejecting criticism and introspection. I think we can all remember a situation in our life where someone told us a hard truth about ourselves, one which we never would have admitted on our own. The people who observe and aren’t afraid to share such advice are valuable, whereas “yes-men” and sycophants are at best, useless, and at worst, harmful.
Another key way to tell if you’re a cheerleader is if you find yourself putting people on your enemies list just because they differ from you on a minor point. One way to figure this out is if you read an article that seems to be on “your side,” you find yourself in total agreement at first, and then you totally dismiss the author as soon as you come to something you disagree with. Do you ever get in arguments with people on the same side of an issue because they don’t agree with every point on your checklist? Do you tell them things like “sometimes you’re reasonable but…” where “sometimes” refers to any time they’re perfectly toeing your line? If you do any of this, you just might be a cheerleader.
There is one last key feature of the cheerleader you can look for in yourself. When you hear or see some totally apolitical story about your chosen country’s rival, do you attack it because it’s apolitical, as if apolitical information about a country is some kind of subtle propaganda? For example, if you see an article about matryoshka vendors on Old Arbat street, do you feel the need to chime in on the comments section to remind everyone about Putin’s bloody war in the Donbas? Yes, we know that you are on the morally right side of this, but believe it or not, there are things in Russia which are not political. All you’re doing is making your own cause look bad by acting like an ass. You’re also reinforcing the idea that Russia can be boiled down to its government and vice versa.
What can you do if you suspect you might be a cheerleader? Here are a few helpful hints:
— Realize that most people in the adopted country you love so much probably don’t care about you, nor do they see you as one of them. It doesn’t mean you can’t be part of a cause, just stop pretending like you are a spokesperson for them. I support Ukraine though I know my politics are incredibly unpopular there. I deal with it, usually by hearing a wide variety of opinions and supporting those I can agree with. You should do the same.
— Realize that non-political topics exist. Authors writing about famous Soviet kids cartoons or bliny recipes aren’t subtle propagandists trying to justify the Kremlin regime. Calm…the…hell…down.
— Nobody cares that your great-great-great grandfather came from the country. Nobody cares about your magical summer abroad when you lost your virginity or whatever the hell it was that turned you into a fanatical warrior for that country. Being an outsider allows you to have a certain measure of detachment. Use it.
— Ask yourself if your arguments are based on facts or emotions. Do you apply the same scrutiny or skepticism to your own side’s claims? If not, why not?
— Keep in mind that to you, this conflict or dispute may be as simple as arguing on the internet, but there are people who have to deal with real life consequences you will never experience. You’re behavior is likely to help spread hostility and misunderstanding rather than foster dialog that will bring ordinary people together even if their governments are locked in conflict.
If you realize you are a cheerleader and you are unable to apply any of the tips listed above, there is yet another, rather drastic solution. Never go on the internet again. Please. Eastern Europe will be better off for it.
Jim Kovpak is the founder of Russia Without BS.