Anne Applebaum reports on how old smears are still used to support illiberal ideas and authoritarian government:
Halfway through an otherwise coherent conversation with a Georgian lawyer here — the topics included judges, the court system, the police — I was startled by a comment he made about his country’s former government, led by then-president Mikheil Saakashvili. “They were LGBT,” he said, conspiratorially.
What did that mean, I asked, surprised. Were they for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights? For gay marriage? Were they actually gay? He couldn’t really define it, though the conversation meandered in that direction for a few more minutes, also touching on the subject of the former president’s alleged marital infidelity, his promotion of female politicians, his lack of respect for the church.
Afterward, I worked it out. The lawyer meant to say that Saakashvili — who drove his country hard in the direction of Europe, pulled Georgia as close to NATO as possible and used rough tactics to fight the post-Soviet mafia that dominated his country — was “too Western.” Not conservative enough. Not traditional enough. Too much of a modernizer, a reformer, a European. In the past, such a critic might have called Saakashvili a “rootless cosmopolitan.” But today the insulting code word for that sort of person in the former Soviet space — regardless of what he or she thinks about homosexuals — is LGBT.
None of this is new, as Applebaum notes. We’ve seen it recently in Venezuela. In 2012, as soon as Henrique Capriles won a primary to become the candidate of the democratic opposition against Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, the Wall Street Journal reported that he
was vilified in a campaign in Venezuela’s state-run media, which insinuated he was, among other things, a homosexual and a Zionist agent.
Homosexual and Jewish, I thought. When they attack him for being rich, they’ll have the trifecta of populist prejudices.
And sure enough, they did. Chavez himself declared:
The bourgeoisie have their candidate – the candidate of the anti-fatherland, of capitalism, of the Yankees. We are going to thrash that bourgeoisie.
Chavez, of course, also threw in “the candidate of the Yankees,” that is, the Americans. German democrats used to say that “anti-semitism is the socialism of fools.” Now in many countries we could say that anti-Americanism is the new anti-semitism. They’re often found in tandem.
All of these epithets – homosexual, Jewish, bourgeoisie, and more recently, “American” – have been staples of illiberal rhetoric for centuries. Liberals – advocates of democracy, free speech, religious freedom, and market freedoms – have been tarred as “cosmopolitan” and somehow alien to the people, the Volk, the faithful, the fatherland, the heartland.
Authoritarians such as Putin and Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro also like to denounce their opponents as “fascists,” even though they themselves fit most of the textbook definition of fascism – nationalism, anti-liberalism, a charismatic leader as the embodiment of the nation, and an economy controlled indirectly by the state, typically through nominally private owners.
Liberals should denounce these sorts of vile and illiberal attacks, whether they stem from the American far right or far left, Vladimir Putin, the ruling party in Malaysia, or the Venezuelan socialists.