Column: Russia’s crackdown on liberty sounds all too familiar to Americans

Vladimir Putin appears on multiple TV screens
President Vladimir Putin has tried to restrict free speech, abortion and gay rights.
(Alexander Zemlianichenko / Associated Press)

The news makes for a sickening split screen.

We see the ravages of Russia’s war on Ukraine, where it’s as if the black-and-white scenes of carnage and fleeing refugees in World War II Europe — scenes consigned to history books, we thought — have been updated in horrific, real-time color. Vladimir Putin’s heinous war has united the Ukrainian people.

Then there’s the coverage of the figurative war here in America, a culture war waged by Republicans against women, minority groups, LGBTQ people, educators, public health officials and just about anyone not of a right-wing mindset. This needless conflict divides us, for Republicans’ political gain.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Such domestic battles are a luxury of peace and prosperity. I’m reminded of conservatives’ culture wars amid the good times at the turn of the century, before 9/11 made a mockery of the invented threats and brought Americans together against a real one. For a time.

The juxtaposition with the real war in Ukraine isn’t all that’s maddening about the political wars of choice in state capitals.

It’s also that the culture warriors claim to be fighting for freedom. Yet “freedom” to these mostly white, male conservatives often comes at the expense of others who don’t look or think like them.


Former federal judge J. Michael Luttig, a pillar in conservative legal circles, is appalled and speaking out against actions by Republicans to bolster Trump.

Feb. 18, 2022

Even as Ukrainians suffer bombings of hospitals, a maternity center, apartments and schools, our bloodless war proceeds on its several fronts: Against women’s constitutional right to abortion before a fetus’ viability. Against teachers’ rights to speak freely about race and gender. Against transgender youth and their parents. Against public health officials dealing with a once-a-century pandemic that’s killed nearly a million Americans.

On abortion rights, Republican-led states aren’t even waiting for the conservative U.S. Supreme Court to turn back the clock a half-century. They’re rushing either to ban abortions at 15 weeks’ gestation, significantly before a fetus is viable (the latest bill just went to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign), or to go further and copy Texas’ plainly unconstitutional law that ended nearly all abortions in that state, home to 7 million women of reproductive age.

Texas devilishly wrote its law to avert federal court review, dangling cash bounties to spur citizens to sue anyone who even unknowingly helps a woman who’s more than six weeks pregnant get an abortion. Under the legal threat, clinics ceased most services.

Step One is to let the party’s obstructionists take the reins.

Feb. 4, 2022

Predictably, Texans are traveling elsewhere. At least 5,500 women sought help in six neighboring states in just the first three months after the law took effect in September. Now comes a Republican lawmaker in Missouri, inspired by Texas’ law, who’s concocted a way to stop women in her state from going to Illinois or Kansas to exercise their reproductive rights: Attack women’s freedom to travel, too!


The bill, the brainchild of state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, is now before the Missouri House. It would invite anyone to sue a person who helps a Missourian get an abortion out of state, whether that’s a hotline operator making appointments or a doctor providing the service. It’s another patently unconstitutional gambit, but one that could have a chilling effect if clinics in the neighboring states want to avoid legal battles.

Texas Republicans, meanwhile, continued their pioneering ways in the culture war by opening a new offensive, against transgender kids and their families.

Gov. Greg Abbott, acting late last month on a nonbinding legal opinion from Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton, directed state officials to investigate parents for abuse if they help a child medically transition to the gender with which the youth identifies. The Texans sprung this plan just as the Journal of the American Medical Assn. reported that gender-affirming medical care made teenagers 60% less likely to suffer depression and 73% less likely to be suicidal.

By this week, Texas had opened investigations of at least five families. What a blatant invasion of personal liberty from the state that unironically advertises “Don’t mess with Texas.” As if transgender kids and their parents don’t deal with enough stigma, bullying and even the threat of violence.

Yet copy-cat Idaho aims to one-up Texas: Its state House voted Tuesday to make it a felony for a doctor to help transgender children. A record 147 bills against transgender people were introduced in 34 states last year, according to the pro-LGBTQ Human Rights Campaign, including successful measures to bar transgender girls from women’s sports.

LGBTQ issues more broadly are the target — along with racial justice and history – of a raft of so-called “parental rights” bills to restrict what teachers can say or assign in classrooms from pre-K through college.


This week Florida’s legislature sent its “Don’t Say Gay” bill to DeSantis, as well as a separate measure limiting what teachers and employers can say about race and diversity. Georgia’s Republican lawmakers are moving to ban the teaching of what they vaguely call “divisive concepts” about race.

PEN America, which keeps a monthly roundup, says there’s “no recent parallel” to the number of book bans and “educational gag orders.” The organization laments “a willingness, and even eagerness, to bring the weight and power of government to bear on controlling classroom speech.”

In Russia, Putin is cracking down further on speech, too, just as he’s moved against gay rights and abortion. If Republicans in this country truly stood for freedom, their domestic agenda wouldn’t have so much in common with his.