Have we learned nothing since Freedom Fries?
It's time to take a lesson from the past and avoid making the same mistakes when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.
Good morning, readers. I hope you all had pleasant weekends.
Today, I want to talk about Freedom Fries — or rather, the Freedom Fries-ification of the current response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But first, a quick primer on “Freedom Fries”: On February 14, 2003, French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin delivered a speech to the United Nations Security Council opposing the United States’ push to invade Iraq over supposed weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi connections to al-Qaeda (both rationales proved to be false). Unhappy with France’s hesitancy, some Americans pushed back in small ways here and there. One North Carolina restaurant owner decided to change the name of his menu’s french fries to “Freedom Fries.” The following month, Republican lawmakers Walter Jones and Bob Ney pushed to do the same in the House of Representatives’ cafeterias (also renaming “french toast” to “freedom toast.”)
This type of jingoistic “with us or against us” attitude was everywhere throughout the early 2000s. Anything less than a full-throated support of whatever war Washington wanted to wage was treated like a a declaration of war against the U.S. in itself. In fact, the official U.S. response to France’s war reluctance was for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to threaten retaliation against the French.
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The war in Iraq proved to be a catastrophic mistake that made the world less safe as a result of America’s bumbling arrogance. The “Freedom Fries” ordeal is an embarrassing relic of that time.
Or at least it should be an embarrassing relic of that time.
After Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of last month, people around the world rushed to show solidarity with the Ukrainians. For most people, that amounted to something like posting a Ukrainian flag to their social media profiles or donating to worthwhile causes. That is all great. Absolutely. But then on the flip side of that, there were people who seemed less about showing solidarity with Ukraine and more about expressing anger at Russia.1
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) called for having Russian students in the U.S. expelled from schools and (possibly even) having them deported.
Fox News @FoxNewsEric Swalwell floats kicking Russians out of US universities in retaliation to Putin invading Ukraine https://t.co/q5YLizP8DP
Some restaurant and bar owners in recent weeks have dumped out (what they misguidedly believe to be) Russian-made vodka (Neither Stoli nor Smirnoff are Russian; Stoli is from Latvia and Smirnoff is made in the U.S.) and renamed drinks like the Moscow Mule (renamed things like “Kyiv Mule” or “Snake Island Mule”) and White Russian (renamed “White Ukrainian,” which is actually already a drink).
I hate to say it, but this is Freedom Fries all over again. And Freedom Fries was actually just an update on World War I backlash against all things German.
Rowland, the North Carolina restaurant owner who started the “Freedom Fries” movement, even admitted as much, explaining to Fox News in 2003 that it was a conversation with a customer about the World War I movement to rename things like sauerkraut “Liberty Cabbage.”
“Since the French are backing down, French fries and French everything needs to be banned,” he said at the time.
German Measles were briefly referred to as “Liberty measles,” as well.
Another such example came in the early 1950s, when, responding to anti-communist sentiment, the Cincinnati Reds renamed themselves the Cincinnati Redlegs. From a 2015 ESPN article on the change:
In what became known as "McCarthyism," the government created various committees and hearings to root out Communists, usually with scant evidence. It wasn't too dissimilar from the infamous Salem Witch Trials -- and not too dissimilar from a lot of the fear-mongering we see from politicians today. Thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists. In Hollywood, a suspected Communist blacklist prevented some entertainment professionals from getting work. The fear -- and for a few years, McCarthy's popularity -- continued to grow.
It was in this context that the Cincinnati Reds officially changed their name to Redlegs in April 1953 because they didn't want to be associated with the Red Scare. It’s not that anybody actually thought slugger Ted Kluszewski was a Communist; those were just the times. An Associated Press article from April 9, 1953, reports that Cincinnati general manager Gabe Paul preferred that the team be called the Redlegs, although the article admitted it would be difficult for fans and writers to change their habits. Still, from 1953 to 1959, the team was officially known as the Redlegs.
And, of course, let’s not forget the horrifying and embarrassing period in history that was Japanese-American internment during World War II.
It is possible to believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unacceptable without demonizing all Russians. We’ve heard this story before, and we know it doesn’t end well.
Take, for instance, anti-Muslim sentiment in post-9/11 America. Fears springing from the actions of an infinitesimal minority of Muslims in the U.S. were projected onto American Muslims (as well as people mistaken for being Muslim, which was the case in a lot of the post-9/11 anti-Sikh attacks) through no fault of their own.
This is something I wrote a bit about in my recent post about right-wing media’s invented “Adele is transphobic” narrative, where words and actions of a few get used to smear entire populations of people, deprive them of equality under the law, and subject them to unfair attacks. This is something that marginalized groups are constantly dealing with.
Even pointing out that these sorts of attacks are unfair is often treated as its own sort of attack. For example, take Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)’s March 2019 speech at the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) about anti-Muslim rhetoric and discrimination:
The truth is you can go to school and be a good student. You can listen to your dad and mom and become a doctor. You can have that beautiful wedding that makes mom and dad happy. You can buy that beautiful house. But none of that stuff matters if you one day show up to the hospital and your wife, or maybe yourself, is having a baby, and you can’t have the access that you need because someone doesn’t recognize you as fully human.
It doesn’t matter how good you were if you can’t have your prayer mat and take your 15-minute break to go pray in a country that was founded on religious liberty. It doesn’t matter how good you are if you one day find yourself in a school where other religions are talked about, but when Islam is mentioned, we are only talking about terrorists. And if you say something, you are sent to the principal’s office. So to me, I say, raise hell; make people uncomfortable.
Because here’s the truth -- here’s the truth: Far too long, we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange, that I am going to try to make myself look pleasant. You have to say, “This person is looking at me strange. I am not comfortable with it. I am going to go talk to them and ask them why.” Because that is a right you have.
There’s nothing that should have been considered objectionable in Omar’s words. She was right to be frustrated that broad segments of society have treated Muslims with unjust levels of suspicion, and it is unfair that “when Islam is mentioned, we are only talking about terrorists,” reducing adherents to the religion as little more than potential attackers.
But her speech, which included the line “Far too long, we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country to should tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties,” set off a round of fury in right-wing media.2
And just over the past couple of years, there’s been a marked increase in anti-Asian attacks over misplaced anger with the novel coronavirus.
So when I hear about places like Washington’s Russia House restaurant being vandalized and see stories about rising anti-Russian sentiment targeting ordinary people in Europe, I worry. These people are not the Russian government. They aren’t responsible for Putin’s invasion. Targeting them does nothing to help bring peace to Ukraine.
Let’s be clear about something.
I am in no way trying to equate goofy little gestures like renaming french fries “Freedom Fries” with hate crimes. What I am saying is that things often go from the silly and inconsequential (if a bar wants to rename Moscow Mules, that’s their prerogative and is generally harmless) to misdirected fury so fast that we lose track of what we’re angry about and where that anger should be channeled.
If you’re angry about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, then be angry at Putin. Be angry at the Russian government. Be angry at the Russian military. But who are you helping by being angry at your next-door neighbor or the shop owner down the street? To do that is only to feed a long pattern of misplaced rage, and by now, we all really should know better.
This is fine if you’re actually doing things that target the people responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. Putin, his government, his military, etc. Problems emerge when you start thinking of Russians, generally, as some sort of enemy. Americans as much as anybody should know that our elected leaders do not actually speak for us.
The right-wing argument was, essentially, that because she said “some people did something,” she must have been either downplaying our outright endorsing the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Never mind that she had just said the word “terrorists” in the paragraph prior and has never once said or done anything to give the impression that she believed 9/11 was anything other than a horrible attack. The only mistake she made was in saying that CAIR was formed after 9/11. It was actually formed prior to 9/11, but the anti-Muslim sentiment that arose led to a sharp increase in members following the attacks.