By: Nancy RommelmannPublished: March 18, 2022

An Open Letter to U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn

Or, WTF evidence is there of 'wokeness' in the Ukrainian people?
Olga Semydyanova, killed fighting the Russians in Ukraine

Dear U.S. Representative Madison Cawthorn -

Forgive me for being late in responding to your assertion, ina video released on March 10, that the Ukrainian government “has been pushing woke ideologies." I was in Ukraine on March 10 and did not hear of your remarks until my return.

Since I do not know if you have been to Ukraine, I thought I would take the opportunity to tell you what I saw on the ground and amongst the people there, from the moment I set foot on Ukrainian soil and in fact, even before, starting with a man I met on the train from Krakow to the Polish border town of Przemysl. Vitaly is from Odessa, but for the past twelve years has worked on offshore oil rigs and in other heavy-equipment industries in Western Europe. He was traveling back home because with the start of the war, three families had moved into the house he built in Odessa. But the men, he told me, had all gone to fight; he needed to check on the women and children and, soon thereafter, to become part of a fighting force protecting his city.

Vitaly struck me as traditionally masculine - definitely not a quality prized in woke culture. In fact all the men I met heading back to fight for Ukraine, from Barcelona and Corsica and Rotterdam and Brooklyn, had a similar physical self-assurance; were people you would want to be around were the shit to go down, not least because they were also talkative and funny. Vitaly indeed stayed in good humor as we rode the transport train - the one that had just dropped several hundred Ukrainian refugees on the Polish side of the border - and though it was after one on the morning when we got to Lviv, he did not leave my side until we located the stranger sent to meet me, a man Vitaly grasped by the wrist and said, in words I could not understand but whose meaning was clear, "I have gotten her this far, you will take her from here, yes?"

Which strikes me as the opposite of woke behavior, with its demands for safe spaces, the ease with which people prize being afraid. I did not see this culture of fear in Ukraine, quite the opposite, the men, women, and children were steadfast and self-organizing, and open-handed with people who, owing to war, had drifted into their orbit. Dire conditions can instill such cooperation. But I think the people of Ukraine, forced to live under different authoritarian regimes throughout the twentieth century, have a collective muscle memory that allows them to especially quickly snap-to and work together, with the good humor and generosity cited above. If these are indicators of woke ideology, I'll take more of it please.

But perhaps you and I have different understandings of what "woke ideologies" are. I associate them with an insistence that words are violence, with the fetishization of victimhood, with the theory that some immutable characteristics are deserving of special treatment and others, of punishment. If these are what concern you, let me assure you these are not pet issues for people busy saving their own lives and the lives of their countrymen.

Or perhaps your own ideology has you sensing "woke" where others do not, perhaps among the young men I saw standing all night in 20-degree weather manning barricades in order to keep out possible saboteurs. Or in Oksana, who texted me, as the air raid sirens blared, a parable about the war. Or her 12-year-old daughter, who spends her days not in school but making camouflage netting for soldiers. Or Alla, whose mother's house was struck by a missile, whose neighbor's son was killed on the sidewalk, whose hometown of Kharkiv now looked, she said, "like Stalingrad." Or maybe you meanOlga Semydyanova, a mother of six children who was killed this week while fighting the Russians. I don't think you can mean the female Ukrainian soldiers that call themselves the "Valkyries of Kiev," women who look like they'll eat your face off, but maybe you do mean them. Maybe you don't overmuch care if the facts fit the theory, a rejection of woke-ism previously having been so utilitarian, the Swiss Army Knife of accusations, in any case, if these are the people you sensed pushing "woke ideologies," then you do not know what you are talking about.

I imagine it must be unappealing, as a U.S. representative, to look as though you're giving an inch, to consider saying, I was wrong about Ukrainian civilians; that instead of putting them on a reliable enemies list, we might help those being slaughtered in their sleep. Of course, you do not have to! There are undoubtedly people whose beliefs, maybe your constituents among them, who will look at what Ukrainians are enduring these past three weeks, more than 1000 missiles launched and untold thousands killed, and be okay with it, be okay with thinking it's their own damn fault, a fault that coincidentally matches your worldview, a view that in practice translates to, well, sure, people watching their children get blown up is tough, but those are the breaks when the values I assume you hold are different from the values I hold.

Representative Cawthorn, I can appreciate that you're not in an easy position, that the party that reveres Donald Trump must cleave to what appear to be the positions of the former president. I might think it foolish, or a fearful tell, to let anyone decide my position for me. Also, that there is something near unspeakably cruel about using someone's real war to fight the culture wars. But then, I am not a politician, I am a journalist who considers it my duty to let the people living the story tell the story, to reject overlaying corrupt if comforting narratives, to not pontificate, in ten-second videos, on matters of life and death.

Respectfully yours -

Nancy Rommelmann

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