David Brooks: The week that awoke the world

Ukrainians have shown us how the right kind of patriotism is ennobling.

(Lynsey Addario for The New York Times) Ukrainians make Molotov cocktails in preparation to fight against Russian forces in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 2, 2022. "The events in Ukraine have been a moral atrocity and a political tragedy, but for people around the world, a cultural revelation," writes The New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Over the last several years, that famous poem has been quoted countless times: “The centre cannot hold,” William Butler Yeats wrote, before adding, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” People cited it so often because it was true.

But it was not so true this past week. The events in Ukraine have been a moral atrocity and a political tragedy, but for people around the world, a cultural revelation. It’s not that people around the world believe new things, but many of us have been reminded what we believe, and we believe them with more fervor, with more conviction. This has been a convicting week.

The Ukrainians have been our instructors and inspirers. They’ve been the ordinary men and women in the Times video lining up to get weapons to defend their homeland. They’ve been the lady telling a Russian invader to put sunflower seeds in his pocket. They’ve been the thousands of Ukrainians who had been living comfortably abroad who surged back into the country to risk death to defend their people and way of life.

We owe them such a debt. They have reminded us not only what it looks like to believe in democracy, the liberal order and national honor but also to act bravely on behalf of these things.

They’ve reminded us that you can believe things with greater and lesser intensity, faintly, with words, or deeply and fervently, with a conviction in your bones. They’ve reminded us how much the events of the past few years have conspired to weaken our faith in ourselves. They’ve reminded us how the setbacks and humiliations (Donald Trump, Afghanistan, racial injustice, political dysfunction) have caused us to doubt and be passive about the gospel of democracy. But despite all our failings the gospel is still glowingly true.

This has been a week of restored faith. In what exactly? Well, in the first place, in leadership. We’ve seen so many leadership failures of late, but over the past week Volodymyr Zelenskyy emerged as the everyman leader — the guy in the T-shirt, the Jewish comedian, the guy who didn’t flee but knew what to say: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

It wasn’t only Zelenskyy. Joe Biden masterly and humbly helped organize a global coalition. Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany understood the moment. So did Emmanuel Macron of France and Fumio Kishida of Japan. Across governments, businesses and the arts, we were well led this week.

There’s been restored faith in true patriotism. Over the past few years, we’ve seen so much sour ethnonationalism from the right, an angry and xenophobic form of patriotism. From the left we’ve seen a disdain of patriotism, from people who vaguely support abstract national ideals while showing limited gratitude toward one’s own inheritance; people who rightly focus on national crimes but while slighting national achievements. Some elites, meanwhile, have drifted into a soulless globalism, an effort to rise above nations into an ethereal multilateral stratosphere.

But the Ukrainians have shown us how the right kind of patriotism is ennobling, a source of meaning and a reason to risk life. They’ve shown us that the love of a particular place, their own land and people, warts and all, can be part and parcel of a love for universal ideals, like democracy, liberalism and freedom.

There’s been a restored faith in the West, in liberalism, in our community of nations. There has been so much division of late, within and between nations. But now I wake up in the morning, pick up my phone and am cheered that Sweden is providing military aid to Ukraine, and I’m awed by what the German people now support. The fact is that many democratic nations reacted to the atrocity with the same sense of resolve.

The same is true at home. Of course, there are bitter partisans who use the moment to attack the left for being weak or to accuse the right of being pro-Putin. There are always going to be people who are happy to be factually inaccurate if it will make them socially divisive. But at this point almost every member of Congress is united about our general cause.

That’s because we have learned to revile that which people for centuries took for granted — that big countries would gobble up small countries, that the powerful would do what they could and that the weak would suffer what they must. This week, perhaps, we’ve come to value more highly our modern liberal ethic.

There’s been a mood of democratic pessimism, as authoritarianism has spread and strutted. Academics of left and right have criticized liberalism. This week we have a clearer view of the alternative. It looks like Vladimir Putin.

The creed of liberalism is getting a second wind. There’s a school of academic realists who imagine that foreign affairs is all about cold national interest, conducted by chess master strategists. But this week we saw that foreign affairs, like life, is a moral enterprise, and moral rightness is a source of social power and fighting morale.

Things will likely get even more brutal for the Ukrainians. But the moral flame they fueled this week may, in the end, still burn strong.

(Nam Y. Huh | AP photo) New York Times columnist David Brooks at the University of Chicago, Jan. 19, 2012.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.