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Cancel Culture Against Russians Is the New McCarthyism

A new McCarthyism is stalking America: the “canceling,” or threatened cancellation, of Russian performers, musicians, artists and athletes.

The Metropolitan Opera of New York has announced it will no longer stage performers who have supported Russian President Vladimir Putin. Carnegie Hall has done the same, and the Royal Opera House in London is canceling a planned Bolshoi Ballet residency. I expect more institutions to follow suit. Russia’s contemporary art scene, already financially struggling, fears ostracism from museums and collectors, mostly because of Putin’s recent actions.

McCarthyism is almost universally considered a blot on American history. It peaked in the 1950s, when various Americans were accused of being communist sympathizers and then canceled from public life, whether by the government or by Hollywood. The McCarthyites made many false accusations, created an atmosphere of fear, stifled free speech, damaged America’s reputation and distracted the nation from more important questions.

Now America risks a rerun of this history — but with Russia rather than the Soviet Union as the target.  

It is simply not possible to draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation. What about performers who may have favored Putin in the more benign times of 2003 and now are skeptical, but have family members still living in Russia? Do they have to speak out?

Another question: Who exactly counts as Russian? Ethnic Russians? Russian citizens? Former citizens? Ethnic Russians born in Ukraine? If you were an ethnic minority born under the Soviet Union, your former Soviet passport may have explicitly stated that you were not Russian.

And what about citizens of Belarus, which according to some reports is planning to send troops into Ukraine? Might they be subject to such strictures as well? How about citizens of China, which abstained from the United Nations vote condemning Russia’s invasion? Which wars are performers from Rwanda or Democratic Republic of the Congo required to repudiate?

When exactly is this ban supposed to end? According to the Met’s general manager, when “the invasion and killing has been stopped, order has been restored, and restitutions have been made.” Maybe that is just rhetoric. But even if Putin falls tomorrow, don’t expect much restitution from what may be a bankrupt nation.

Washington Capitals hockey star Alex Ovechkin openly campaigned for Putin’s re-election in 2017, but now is sheepishly and hesitantly critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Is that a genuine change of heart — or is he afraid to lose lucrative endorsement income? As for the conductor Valery Gergiev, he now has to speak out again Putin’s war or he will be fired from his post at the Munich Philharmonic.

By way of self-disclosure: I am strongly anti-Putin and have favored a vigorous Western response to the conflict. I also have a wife and daughter who were born in the former Soviet Union. Should they be required to speak out politically if they want particular jobs or contracts?

And one final question: Is there any clear evidence that boycotting Russian performers outside of Russia is going to help Ukraine?

During the Cold War, American athletes proudly competed against the best of the Soviet Union, in the Olympics and elsewhere. These competitions were widely known to be formal propaganda vehicles for the Soviet empire, and everyone realized that many of the athletes supported the regime. But America didn’t try to cancel them — instead, it proudly competed against them, hoping to show the superiority of American values.

The U.S. also welcomed Soviet musicians and other performers, hoping they would see and learn from the American way of life. The problem, at the time, was that not enough Soviet stars were allowed to come.

You might think that Putin’s Russia is worse than the Soviet state. But the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia, fomented civil wars, terrorized much of the world and, let it not be forgotten, killed and imprisoned millions of Ukrainians. 

If anything, the McCarthyism of the 1950s is a bit more explicable than the cancel culture of the present. At least it was trying to address what was then considered a great threat. That said, McCarthyism is not a practice America should want to revive. Witch hunts, by their very nature, do not bring out the best in people, Americans very much included.

Related at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Putin Can Safely Ignore Russian Critics of His War — For Now: Leonid Bershidsky

• There’s Trouble Brewing on Putin’s Home Front: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Vladimir Putin Has No Time for Your Reality: Andreas Kluth

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

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