Back in 1982, Harper’s ran a hilarious piece by Alexander Cockburn, “The Tedium Twins,” on the silly obsession with balance that was the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. With pitch-perfect dialogue, Cockburn imagined a segment on the question of slavery.
robert macneil (voice over): Should one man own another?
macneil: Good evening. The problem is as old as man himself. Do property rights extend to the absolute ownership of one man by another? Tonight, the slavery problem. Jim?
lehrer: Robin, advocates of the continuing system of slavery argue that the practice has brought unparalleled benefits to the economy. They fear that new regulations being urged by reformers would undercut America’s economic effectiveness abroad. Reformers, on the other hand, call for legally binding standards and even for a phased reduction in the slave force to something like 75 percent of its present size. Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in Charleston. Charlayne?
hunter-gault: Robin and Jim, I have here in Charleston Mr. Ginn, head of the Cottongrowers Association. Robin?
macneil: Mr. Ginn, what are the arguments for unregulated slavery?
ginn: Robin, our economic data show that attempts at regulation of working hours, slave quarters, and so forth would reduce productivity and indeed would be widely resented by the slaves themselves.
macneil: You mean, the slaves would not like new regulations? They would resent them?
ginn: Exactly. Any curbing of the slave trade would offer the Tsar dangerous political opportunities in western Africa, and menace the strategic slave-ship routes.
lehrer: Thank you, Mr. Ginn. Robin?
macneil: Thank you, Mr. Ginn and Jim. The secretary of the Committee for Regulatory Reform in Slavery is Eric Halfmeasure. Mr. Halfmeasure, give us the other side of the story.
And on it went. Reaching for the ne plus ultra of MacNeil/Lehrerism, Cockburn offered this up as the tagline of the show’s almost comical quest for objectivity: “And now, for another view of Hitler…”
Now comes Ari Shapiro, reporting on NPR about a Ukrainian fascist who slaughtered Jews and other undesirables during World War II. “The question is,” says Shapiro, “whether a person who’s involved in the death of tens of thousands of people can also be a political hero.”
Let’s start with the basics: Stepan Bandera was born in 1909 in what is now western Ukraine. In 1959, the Soviet Union’s KGB poisoned Bandera with cyanide and he died in Munich, West Germany.
Between those two dates, black and white quickly fades to gray.
In western Ukraine, many see him as a freedom fighter who battled domination by the Soviet Union and other European powers before and during World War II. They see themselves as the heirs to Bandera’s struggle.
In eastern Ukraine, Bandera has entirely different connotations. Pro-Russian separatists see him as an ally of Hitler, a fascist who was responsible for killing tens of thousands.
So which was he: Freedom fighter or fascist? Hero or villain?
Bandera’s Order of Ukrainian Nationalists also did some violent things in pursuit of sovereignty. Jews and Polish people were massacred.
“The fight was violent. It was killing, gruesome killings, against all the perceived enemies,” says political scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova of King’s College London. “There were strong powers around that little part of Ukraine, western Ukraine, so it was a really hard fight.”
Many of these details have only come out recently, since the KGB, the CIA and others have declassified records. The question is whether a person who’s involved in the death of tens of thousands of people can also be a political hero.
In 2010, Ukraine’s government officially recognized Bandera as a national hero, a move that was condemned by the European Parliament among others. The next year, a new government annulled that award after a domestic and international outcry.
Meanwhile, Russia’s propaganda machine has worked for the past half-century to portray Bandera as an unvarnished villain.