What's Tony Thinking

The Ukraine/ Zelensky Challenge, Part 2


Ukraine President Zelensky addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress yesterday. Some commentators said, dismissively, “Zelensky shaped his remarks for his American audience.” As if this were some sort of subterfuge on his part. Wait, what public speaker doesn’t frame his remarks with his audience in mind? Answer: a stupid one. I know. I have made that mistake a few times.

Independent journalist Bari Weiss had a piece today at Substack titled, “Things Worth Fighting For.” It is terrific. I urge you to read, or listen, to the whole thing. She makes points similar to my last blog on “The Ukrainian Challenge to the U.S.,” only she says it better. After describing the resolve of Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians, Weiss says that she finds this all not only inspiring, but “unsettling.”

“Listening to such people speak . . . so plainly is deeply moving and inspiring. It is also, if I am honest, unsettling.


Why is witnessing such courage uncomfortable?

It is because I cannot help but notice the gap between them and us. Between the bigness of their vision and their mission and the smallness of ours. Between their moral clarity and our moral confusion. Between their spine and our spinelessness. Between their courage and our epidemic of cowardice. Between their commitment to civilization and our resignation to chaos. 

Bearing witness to Ukraine’s answers forces me to ask some hard questions about us—questions I worry we have forgotten how to ask: How would we act if the guns were to our heads? Would we similarly feel no choice but to fight for our home, for everything we love? Would we have the courage to live by the values we profess if our backs were to the wall? Or the sense of national unity? Or have we gotten so comfortable, so coddled, so removed from the world of flesh and blood, that we have forgotten how to name those values at all.

We are not yet in an actual war. I pray we never are. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t in an ideological one. We are—and have been for a while now. And it is one that we—heirs to the Enlightenment and the American experiment—are losing very badly. 

We are losing because we are unserious.”

“Unserious.” What does that mean? That we have loonies and performance artists in positions of political leadership. That a majority of one of our two political parties claim an election was stolen or rigged, though there is no evidence at all. It means that we are scrutinizing every word someone has said for possible, slips, miscues or “insensitivity,” like Ms. Manners on steroids, armed with a Taser to zap offenders. It means that we are deeply confused about what is essential and what is, at best, important, at worst, trivial.

If we were serious we would be identifying and facing our most important — essential — challenges and figuring how best to address them. But as an unserious people we are more interested in scoring points, for ourselves for being on “the right side,” and against others for being some variety of “deplorable.”

Right now, the heroism of the Ukrainian people and of their President is serving as a kind of wake-up call to the unserious west. Whether that call will survive our collective attention deficit disorder I don’t know.

Weiss quoted a Zelenskyism that I had not heard before but is compelling.

“My favorite Zelensky line of all though—the most profound thing of many profound things in these shocking weeks—came when a reporter asked him how he was doing given the circumstances. Here’s what he said: ‘My life today is wonderful. I believe that I am needed. That’s the most important sense of life, that you are needed, that you are not just an emptiness that breathes and walks and eats something.’” 

I wrote the other day about “The Ukrainian Challenge to the U.S.,” Zelensky’s words get to the heart of that challenge. Too many of us feel we are not “needed,” that we are extraneous. Zelensky added words which came originally from Pope Benedict: “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

Contemporary America offers comfort. We have fits if someone is more comfortable (better off) than we are. But does it offer greatness? Not the greatness of being the “richest,” the “most powerful,” the “most popular,” or “hottest.” But the greatness of a life of fighting for things worth fighting for.


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