Published March 2, 2022
Politics is a stage on which the worst of human nature is often on display. But now and then, here and there, it reflects the best of human nature. And what is happening right now in Ukraine—a nation being mauled by a brutal regime yet still willing to stand and to fight—is proof that honor and courage matter. They can stir hearts in powerful ways, shaking them out of complacency and even cynicism.
I was reminded of this while watching, of all things, a 10-minute monologue about Ukraine delivered by the comedian Stephen Colbert on Monday night. He showed inspiring clips of ordinary Ukrainians and their intrepid president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and spoke about the heartbreak and the heroism on display.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a humanitarian crisis,” Colbert said, “but also it is a triumph of humanity, because despite all of Russia’s military prowess, the ordinary people of Ukraine will not back down or bow down, and the war in Ukraine isn’t working out the way Russia intended.”
The crowd erupted in cheers even before Colbert finished his sentence. The same thing happened when a picture of Zelensky appeared: The audience burst into a thunderous ovation. A video of Zelenksy saying “Glory to our allies, glory to Ukraine” was also met with rapturous applause. Colbert was moved by what he had seen; so was America, and so was much of the world.
Last Wednesday evening, I received an email from someone I know who is intimately familiar with the world of right-wing radio; he was asking if we could chat, because he was flummoxed by Republicans who were not just failing to defend Ukraine but actually praising Vladimir Putin.
This individual, who requested not to be named in order to speak candidly, told me that many of the people who listen to talk radio weren’t inclined to defend Ukraine; it wasn’t in America’s national interest, and there was no real attachment to a nation in Eastern Europe that very few knew anything about. This attitude was reflected in what J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy and a Republican running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, recently told Steve Bannon: “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” The isolationist impulses of Donald Trump clearly have had an effect.
But earlier this week, this person emailed me again to say that attitudes on the right were shifting rapidly in favor of Ukraine, to the point that some were now calling for American military action to defend it. Vance noticed the shift and reversed course, calling Russia’s invasion “unquestionably a tragedy” and decrying the slaughter of innocents.
The powerful reaction shared by both Colbert’s liberal-leaning audience and listeners of right-wing radio wasn’t driven by carefully constructed arguments for pursuing engagement over isolationism, nor by the realization that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was also an attack on the rules-based international order. Instead, what drove support for Ukraine were the human virtues being displayed in a terrible human drama. It was seeing ordinary people—including the young and the elderly—act in extraordinary ways to defend the country they love, against overwhelming odds. It was seeing people do the right thing at the risk of death when nearly every instinct within them must have been screaming: Do what you have to do to survive, even if survival, though not dishonorable, is less honorable.
“For it is only the love of honor that never grows old,” Pericles said after the first battles of the Peloponnesian War, “and honor it is, not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.”
Whatever fate awaits them—and right now the Russians are laying siege to cities that are home to millions—the people and the president of Ukraine have shown that love of honor never grows old, even to a world that is sometimes indifferent, weary, and cynical.
“Today you, Ukrainians, are a symbol of invincibility,” Zelensky told his people today. “A symbol that people in any country can become the best people on Earth at any moment.”
God bless them.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.
Peter Wehner is a former senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.