Unsettling truths

Read this report on the untruth of Russia-based news coverage claiming Odesa’s Jewish community is making plans for a mass evacuation. Then let us think about the rather postmodern unsettling of truth in Ukraine today.

The Truth is Out There

It isn’t that the truth of a statement has become irrelevant, as strawman critiques claim as the basic postulate of postmodernism. Nor is it that words are simply reality–as though, because the world is known primarily through language, speaking a change immediately makes it so. Instead, the relationship between truth, statement, and time is complex. And as Putinism demonstrates, that relationship turns out to be manipulable.

The truth-making strategies being used in Ukraine appear to work on the principle that statements asserting the existence of a particular situation can be used in order to create that situation in fact. In this case, the Russian media-government apparatus has consistently stated that Ukraine has been taken over by fascist thugs, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites. And indeed, the rate of Jewish emigration from Ukraine has doubled this year, suggesting that many in the Ukrainian Jewish community do in fact feel concerned.

Perhaps these truth-assertions are only effective when they are are lobbed into a context of widespread uncertainty, such that alternate (and threatening) realities come to seem possible. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would have responded if Russian officials had started ranting about Ukraine being ruled by anti-Semites apropos of nothing, before a government had been toppled and the country’s power structure was up for grabs.

Yet truth-assertions don’t take effect merely because people believe them. Rather, the response–emigration, fear–may occur because people come to feel they live in the kind of situation in which such things could become true, or simply in the kind of situation in which a powerful aggressor can make untrue claims without fear of repercussion.

(One could posit a comparison here to the rise in prosecutorial power in the US justice system, where defendants are often advised to admit guilt to lesser charges–regardless of their actual innocence or guilt–simply to avoid the expense and strain of a trial, which they might lose anyway.)

In this way, an assertion that Ukraine is now hostile to Jews becomes a reality of Jews who feel themselves under threat. An assertion of enmity between Ukrainians and Russians becomes a reality of violence between two groups whose economies, histories, and even family ties have long been closely intertwined. Just give it some time and the right conditions, and you can make anything true.

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