The story that I am about to recount, dear reader, is sad, vulgar, maddening, and deeply of our moment. By which I mean, the current cultural moment in which packs of morons, some of whom are well-meaning, and many of whom are purely performative actors, spend their days hunting for imaginary Nazis, while leaving the rest of us, especially if we happen to be Jewish, knee-deep in shit.
What follows is the story of David Volodzko, a young liberal journalist of Jewish and Slavic descent who was recently fired from his job at The Seattle Times after being accused of “defending Hitler.” Which would indeed be a strange thing for David to do, since his grandparents directly suffered under Nazi rule in Ukraine, and since David was new in his job. What he didn’t understand is that hunting for Nazis online is a kind of sport that people engage in not because they care about history, or about helping actual Jews, but in order to demonstrate their virtue, which is a passion so great that no actual idea of justice or truth can possibly stand in its way.
This dispiriting but all too contemporary tale began while I was sitting in a Parisian cafe in the Marais on a balmy summer evening. I had just ordered several dozen oysters for my wife and a visiting Ukrainian Israeli friend when I got a call from Volodzko, a journalist whose work I was familiar with. Volodzko, who comes out of the Eastern European Ukrainian and Belarusian diasporas, as I do, wanted a quote about the fate of Lenin statues in Ukraine and Russia. I was happy to help him out, having written extensively about Eastern European statue politics, and especially about the “Leninfall”—that is, the wave of dismantling and toppling of thousands of the remaining statues of the communist leader that followed the 2014 Maidan revolution.
For his part, Volodzko had recently been hired to join the editorial board of The Seattle Times as well as to pen a column for the newspaper. The first column of his tenure would concern an infamous statue of Vladimir Lenin that remains standing in Seattle. The statue is situated on private property. As a product of lands that Lenin helped ravage through war and famine, the newly minted columnist wanted to figure out what the democratic and liberal response should be to the canonization of a deeply undemocratic and violent political thinker.
In the time before the waiter could finishing shucking the oysters and pouring the chardonnay, I proffered Volodzko some quick thoughts about what it means to dismantle or topple statues. I explained my own position as a social proceduralist on the issue. Once a statue goes up, I suggested, it has some basic rights in the public sphere. If it is to be taken down, the process of doing so should be a transparent, democratic, and fair one that is led by the local authorities and includes input from numerous stakeholders. It is my opinion that throwing down statues by force just radicalizes the people who support it, while alienating opponents. That is the liberal position, with which Volodzko agreed wholeheartedly.
Volodzko included my thoughts and quoted me at the conclusion of his first and last Seattle Times column, which turned out to be a thoughtful, measured, moderate, immaculately liberal article ruminating on how a society should treat controversial statues. It also raised the question of why we as a liberal society accept (and ironically smirk at) statues of a totalitarian mass murderer like Lenin. After all, the author argued, we would be rightly horrified by the idea of a statue of a figure such as Hitler being unveiled in the middle of a major American city.
The column garnered a lively and thoughtful response from the Seattle community, though it was laced throughout with the historical sensibility of an American of Eastern European descent who understood what Lenin and his friends had done to our region. This being Seattle, though, a number of unironic defenders of the Lenin statue—both among sneering hipsters and among unreconstructed old time leftists—did complain. “What I did not understand was that the editorial board of the newspaper was seen in some quarters as being conservative,” Volodzko informed me. “To a degree the leftist and liberal community saw my first column come out, and probably assumed that I was also a conservative, since my first column critiques a socialist hero. After that they took up arms.”
After publishing the article Volodzko engaged in a Twitter argument about the legacy of Lenin, in which he made a number of clumsy comparisons of the relative evilness of Hitler and Lenin. It was clear that he saw both men as monsters. As the argument devolved, and became ever more convoluted, he tweeted that “Hitler only targeted people he personally believed were harmful to society.” A totally wrong argument—but one that within the context of his multiple tweets was clearly a sloppy thought, written in haste. The mangled comparison would cost him his job.
Volodzko quickly deleted his tweets and issued an apology (it can be found here): “In a series of tweets, to make clear how I feel about Hitler, I noted my own family was shattered by Nazis, my grandfather was a Nazi killer. I was raised to see this as more valorous than any military medal, and he was put in a concentration camp where he almost died.” He would later reiterate those same thoughts to me. The apology would turn out to be of limited use in a vengeful world where careers are destroyed by a single keystroke.
“My record on Nazism and white supremacy and Hitler are crystal clear. I have written about white supremacy and Nazism before—and I categorically reject them,” Volodzko told me. “My argument on Twitter was ill-advised and certainly not the right place to have a nuanced discussion like that. But I have spent my life writing about these matters.”
Immediately before being sacked, he was informed that this was far from the first time that an enraged online mob had come after a Seattle Times journalist—and the head of the board who was also his editor repeatedly emphasized that they would support him, according to Volodzko. However, the decision to keep him on staff—and to stand behind him despite his questionable judgment—was to be rescinded several hours later. Volodzko was summarily fired rather than disciplined or given a chance to defend or explain himself. He informed me that he had been confused by the stated reason for the firing, which was ostensibly related to his “poor judgment and continuing to engage on Twitter after he had been told to disengage.” The editor from The Seattle Times was contacted by Tablet and declined to comment on the record in regard “to internal personal matters.”
A critical piece of the story, however, was the fact that David Volodzko’s father is himself of Jewish descent. Though the journalist himself took pains to downplay this fact and was very precise in my conversations with him to underline that his ancestry is not germane to the matter, it does seem germane to the bad-faith accusations being leveled against him by social media mobs. He confirmed to me that he had once spent nine months living in Israel learning about his patrimony. His lineage would only be made public by the paper’s Irish-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning star reporter Dominic Gates. “David is a Jew,” Gates wrote. “Some of his family were murdered by the Nazis. The suggestion that he was ‘defending Hitler’ is plainly false. He’s guilty of a clumsy comparison, sloppily expressed. The mob misrepresented what he wrote and now have his blood. He didn’t deserve this.” That tweeted statement from Gates has since been scrubbed from the internet. None of the other journalists on staff spoke out openly about the incident.
Volodzko is also discreetly but openly, as he says, “a member of the LBTQ community,” and describes himself as bisexual. Politically he orients himself as something between a liberal and a social democrat. None of which—obviously—was of the least bit of interest to a vengeful and vindictive mob of trolls, commissar types, and social media enforcers searching for a thrill in taking their next scalp. “Some advice for all of our readers who plan to engage polite society,” chortled a writer for Big Lead. “Rule No. 1: Never defend Hitler or attempt to minimize his level of evil.”
This story only continues to get worse, especially if you are Jewish. Several days into the scandal the Anti-Defamation League, brave online Nazi-hunters that they are, contacted Volodzko in order to figure out of if Volodzko really was a Hitlerite. They quickly came to the conclusion that the accusations were baseless. The ADL staff member who interviewed the journalist informed me that he had found the journalist to be a sympathetic character. However, the ADL declined to make a public statement of its findings at the time of the scandal, even as they told him the story was a “horror,” thus leaving Volodzko out to dry. When Volodzko asked for the findings to be made public, if only to clear his name, the ADL said that it preferred not to be in the business of making judgments about who was or was not an antisemite—which is of course exactly what they were very publicly seen as doing.
The associate regional director of the ADL issued a statement in response to Tablet’s inquiry:
When we spoke, Mr. Volodzko shared that his intention was not to minimize the Holocaust or defend Hitler. Unfortunately, regardless of intention, when influential members of media and political life describe Hitler as “less evil” than other genocidal tyrants the impact on our Jewish community and our public, the discourse is harmful and inexcusable. In the US we cannot take understanding of the Holocaust for granted. 60% of young people in the US do not know that 6 million Jews were systemically targeted and murdered. This is one of the reasons that we are seeing the highest levels of antisemitism and hateful acts in modern US history. After our conversation, we were grateful that Mr. Volodzko apologized for the impact of his words and expressed a genuine desire to learn and fight antisemitism in all its forms.
What distinguishes this idiotic story from the others of this genre that we have all gotten used to over the last few years is that it contains a neatly packaged manifestation of most every facet of the psychosis of our ever-cruder culture wars. The misusage of memory politics. Frenzied social media mobs destroying lives for pleasure. Fake laptop warriors celebrating their fake wars on nonexistent Nazis. The total lack of social norms regarding the way that Americans discuss and use or misuse history. The pathos of those who violate in some minor way the puritanism of those who wish to destroy sinners without any chance of reprieve. The manifest cowardice of the scribbling classes. The lack of backbone from institutional elites and gatekeepers who refuse to stand up for institutional values or their own staff. The illiteracy and stupidity of what passes for debate. Every element is present in this parable of the insipid and sad moment that we are now living through.
As an immigrant to America myself, I also found it deeply suggestive that the only person who would come forward to defend their obviously maligned colleague was the foreign-born Irish guy. That was before he was most likely pressured to take the statement down.
In many ways this is a typical story of the unseriousness of the kind of politics that begins and concludes with accusations of “you said ‘Hitler’!” With the American press degenerating into frenzied arguments about whether America is fascist (no), or whether one major political party is fascist (no), the elite social media discourse about fascism has become intolerably deranged. That derangement has seeped into other parts of the discourse downstream. I say this as an Eastern European immigrant who writes about the Holocaust and history continually.
That Lenin was indeed a mass murderer and a fanatic cult leader is something that Americans and Western Europeans—of most every political stripe—used to take for granted. Now that we have lost the consensus of the post-Cold War ’90s in regard to both communism and Nazism, the social and psychological processes that led to men such as Lenin and Hitler doing what they did are becoming historically opaque. The result, so far, has merely been ironic and grotesque incidents where perfectly decent and liberal Ukrainian Jewish diaspora journalists writing about Lenin can be destroyed by Leninist mobs for making inept comparisons to Hitler. Unfortunately, if history is any fair guide, we will soon see worse.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.