McLaren, P. (2022). The war in Ukraine and America. DIO Press.
In The War in Ukraine and America, Peter McLaren makes a case for defending the Ukrainian people in their struggle against a Russian invasion while making connections between the Eastern European conflict and American imperialistic language and tendencies. The book is a collection of thought pieces exploring the complexity of the war and broader global trends towards imperialism and coloniality. Told in two parts, the book is almost cyclical in nature. Part I makes up much of the text. Each chapter in this section serves as an almost a stand-alone essay visiting individual thoughts or issues around the Ukrainian conflict and its international connections and implications.
Part I is told in three sections, with Section 1, ‘The War in Ukraine,’ centring on the conflict and McLaren’s justifications for his support of the Ukrainian freedom fighters. This justification is twofold in that he sees the war as both a physical and ideological threat. The physical danger is that a ‘Russian victory [would] invigorate autocrats and fascist leaders around the world who already criticize democracy as ‘ineffectual and weak’ and inspire a rise in authoritarianism (p. 8). However, McLaren also makes the argument in this section that the war in Ukraine is evidence of underlying global ideological challenges to democracy which may manifest themselves in politics and policy rather than physical conflict and war. For example, he heavily critiques the United States’ pervasive religious conservativism in politics as a pseudo-theocracy, citing the unelected Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade based on religious principles rather than human rights.
Section 2, ‘Steve Bannon,’ shifts attention toward American far-right radicals, particularly Steve Bannon, and makes connections between the propaganda, imperialistic language and fearmongering seen in Russia. Peter McLaren compares some of the ideas presented in Bannon’s podcast, The War Room, which ‘condemn … transgender rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, cancel culture and critical race theory,’ to alarmingly similar notions of Vladimir Putin (p. 268).
Section 3, ‘Moral Choices,’ is the logical end to the global imperialistic trends outlined in ‘The War in Ukraine’ and the nationalistic, fascist, conspiracy-laden language of QAnon and Bannon in ‘Steve Bannon.’ ‘Moral Choices’ shows how these ideological seeds of discontent are responsible for some of America’s trends toward culture wars and violence. McLaren speaks out against a variety of issues such as the education system and its White-washing of history, Judeo-Christian ‘values’ touted as reasons to discriminate against the LGTBQ community, and lack of gun control regulations leading to violence and school shootings. These issues are manifestations of the increasing anti-democratic sentiments, and therefore McLaren also uses this section to make an impassioned argument for Socialist and Social Justice grassroots movements and education.
Part Two, in contrast, explores some of the larger themes of the book in a short collection of creative writing pieces, such as poems and scripts. McLaren’s choice of representing these ideals in this manner as opposed to an article or essay serves as another modality of representing scholarship or ideals. The play, for example, also allows McLaren to be more playful and satirical in his expression of the book’s themes than he would perhaps be in an article or journal piece.
Academics and readers interested in coloniality will find Peter McLaren’s analysis of these global trends towards nationalism and imperialism particularly compelling. Decolonial scholars such as Walter D. Mignolo (2000) make the argument that our society is not postcolonial, as this term implies that colonialism as an era has ended, though people may still feel and see its effects. Coloniality and modernity are two sides of the same coin and inextricably intertwined (Mignolo, 2000). The existing colonial matrix of power is still pervasive and observable in modern culture, as evidenced by the war in Ukraine. Some of the characteristics of this matrix of power include ethno-raciality and xenophobic language, salvation rhetoric with religion as a tool for power, fetishization of nationalism and control of knowledge (Mignolo, 2000; Dussel, 1985; Bailon & De Lissovoy, 2019). In The War in Ukraine and America, Peter McLaren displays tangible examples of these colonial concepts and creates a dialogue between the author and the reader, inviting the reader to engage in a nuanced conversation around the rise in fascist, nationalistic, global imperialism. Threads of Walter D. Mignolo’s (2000) colonial matrix can be seen in the structural racism that exists in the United States and the ‘America first’ nationalistic language, which disenfranchises immigrants and asylum-seeking refugees (p. 109). McLaren reveals the United States’ part in global imperialism and oppression so his American audience may not fall into the temptation to judge solely countries such as Russia.
Throughout the text, McLaren does not disguise his personal philosophies rooted in Marxism and what he refers to as the Catholic social justice movements embedded in Liberation Philosophy (p. 40). McLaren outlines the value of human life and personal liberty in these philosophies in Chapters 1 and 2, which then become the foundation for McLaren’s support for the Ukrainian efforts in the war. However, he does acknowledge that this support is not without caveats. While he believes that democratic countries should offer their full support for the Ukrainian people, that support does not extend to NATO expansion. For example, Chapter 3 makes it clear that NATO expansionist efforts bear little to no distinction between the Russian imperialistic aggression save that they are more subtle and political rather than hyper-militaristic. McLaren’s critique of NATO allows the reader to examine and question global expansionist trends, whether they be through blatant aggression or political prowess. Decolonial scholars will hear echoes of Walter D. Mignolo’s (2000) colonial matrix of power in both the literal aggressive Russian expansion and the neocolonial politics of NATO.
Peter McLaren highlights that the United States is not immune to expansionist ideologies. He provides examples of the neo-Eurasian, propagandist, fascist language used in the East to that of the American government and in the West, citing figures such as Donald Trump, Alex Jones, Steve Bannon and Marjorie Taylor Greene who use media propaganda tactics, such as hateful language against immigrants or protestors, to stoke fear and anger against their political opponents (p. 82). McLaren does not shy from his positions on such political figures and connects ‘Trumpian’ culture with fascism, at the very least in its emerging stages. In Chapters 12 and 13, McLaren highlights the language of Donald Trump and online conspiracy groups such as QAnon, which often encourages violence or cruelty towards immigrants and Black activists, proclaims a nationalist perspective, and marries a political and religious agenda. For example, Peter McLaren heavily criticizes Steven Bannon’s intermingling of Christian identity with Western nationalism. His critique of the far right’s fetishization of religion to pursue political goals furthers the relationship between colonizer mentality and the religious language of salvation. The attempt, he argues, is to create a ‘perfect cult of absolute religion’ (Dussel, 1985, p. 8.) by using religion as a tool that causes their word to be perceived as Truth and the audience to adopt them as God in the worldview. Therefore, their word cannot be questioned because to do so would be challenging God Himself. Undoubtedly the reader can see similar critiques in McLaren’s analysis of American political figures as seen in the cult-like support for Donald Trump regardless of the factual truth of his word.
In conclusion, Peter McLaren uses The War in Ukraine and America to serve as a warning in that ‘Ukraine is handing the West a mirror with which to examine our collective morality’ (p. 83). McLaren exposes the hypocrisy of Russia, the United States and Eurocratic nations and organizations touting democracy but perpetuating fear tactics, nationalism and imperialistic expansionism and challenges the reader to engage in critical reflection and nuanced dialogue surrounding these complex issues. Academics in the Social or Political Science fields may find this book and its global lens helpful for their studies. McLaren choosing to situate the Ukrainian war in its global contexts as well as tie American politics, problems and interests to these larger imperialistic themes makes this book interesting for those approaching with a decolonial lens. Scholars with this area of interest will recognize the critical views on expansionism, religious jargon propelling a certain political agenda, and racially charged language as threads woven from the colonial tapestry. Unwinding this tapestry takes more than the examination of individual threads, but rather, it asks that the viewer step back and see the entire picture globally to deconstruct and analyze the problems with clarity.
Furthermore, decoloniality challenges typical epistemological presentations of knowing and understanding. With Professor McLaren’s choice to present his thoughts as a collection of articles, both analytical and creative, he is engaging in decolonial scholarship and pushing the bounds of how we present knowledge and meaning-making. This style also makes the content accessible as the language is dialogic, making the book and its ideals open for the academic and casual reader alike. For the American audience, it is a convicting piece that calls into question preconceived notions about Russia, America and the West’s part in global expansionism and what it means to fight for freedom, both literally, as in Ukraine, and ideologically, as in the United States. This is ultimately a call to action for the reader to strive for liberty for all people everywhere, and in doing so, to stand in solidarity with Ukraine.