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Right-Wing Creeps Claim Bringing Brittney Griner Home Was Woke

Echoing Kremlin talking points.
December 16, 2022
Right-Wing Creeps Claim Bringing Brittney Griner Home Was Woke
US' Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022. - Lawyers for US basketball star Brittney Griner, who is standing trial in Russia on drug charges, said on July 26, 2022 they hoped she would receive a "lenient" sentence. (Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA / POOL / AFP) (Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Since just about everything is potential fodder for culture wars these days, it’s no surprise that the return to the United States of basketball player Brittney Griner, detained in Russia on a drug charge earlier this year, turned into another such skirmish. What is notable, though, is the extent to which American far-right punditry has been almost literally reciting Kremlin propaganda talking points—and putting identity politics over basic solidarity with a fellow American.

Griner, an All-Star player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury team and an Olympic gold medalist, was released last week after nearly ten months of imprisonment in exchange for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bringing American hostages home—and there is little doubt that Griner, arrested days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was being held hostage—is surely a cause for patriotic celebration. But many commentators on the right touted the trade as evidence that the Biden administration was Woke Central: Griner is black and gay (gay-married, even!) and spoke out against the American anthem being played at WNBA games during the summer 2020 racial justice protests. That two other Americans, ex-Marine Paul Whelan and history teacher Mark Fogel, still remain in Russian prisons—the former on spying charges, the latter in a marijuana-possession case very similar to Griner’s—became further evidence of wokeness run amok, or a decision based on “DEI” (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) policies.

But even that was mild fare compared to outright attacks on Griner’s overly “woke” identity and perceived lack of patriotism—such as this rant from Newsmax’s Benny Johnson:

[The Biden administration] traded a nonviolent, pothead, wokester, WNBA, America-hating hippie for one of the most violent men in the world, whose sole mission in life is to murder as many Americans as possible. . . . They knew they had to appeal [to] the left-wing, woke wing of their party. They wouldn’t allow a black woman, lesbian woman, drug addict, America-hating woke, to be kept in prison in Russia. One of ours. Not the Marine. Not the person who served this country. No, no. One of ours. Somebody on the identity-politics spectrum who’s notched every single victory that you could ever hope for inside of the vector of woke politics.

On his “Louder with Crowder” online show, commentator/comedian Stephen Crowder took it up a notch, snarking at “the trade of a tattooed lesbian middling WNBA player, traded for one of the most notorious arms dealers of all time.” (To call Crowder a middling comedian would be much too complimentary.)

Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson suggested that Whelan was being punished for being not only a straight white male but a Donald Trump voter—obviously no match for Griner, who is “not white” and “a lesbian,” plus she “despises the United States.”

And guess which Fox News pundit said this:

I found it very amusing, though not surprising, that Bout was finally traded for Griner, not Whelan. . . . [Whelan] is a hero, a decorated Marine covered in medals. He only has one, no, two, no, three problems. First problem: He’s white. Second problem: He’s a man. Third problem: It seems he’s hetero. This is something that just can’t be forgiven these days. . . . American voters were given a choice: A hero who suffered in the service of his country . . . or a black lesbian hooked on drugs who suffered for a vape with hash.

Oops. That wasn’t a Fox pundit, that was RT (formerly Russia Today) editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, appearing on the freakshow known as Evening with Vladimir Solovyov on Russia’s TV-1.

Here’s the thing: The Biden administration almost certainly didn’t have a choice between Griner and Whelan, who is imprisoned on charges of espionage. The only source for claims to the contrary is an early NBC News report on the swap which said that the Kremlin gave the White House the choice of Griner, Whelan, or no one, and which was soon corrected to: “The Kremlin ultimately gave the White House the choice of Griner or no one after different options were proposed.” Of course, to Carlson and the rest of the right-wing brigades, this could only mean one thing: The first report told the truth but was quickly scrubbed in a cover-up at the behest of the White House. Yet a look at the full sentence in the original report suggests that “either Griner or Whelan” was in fact most likely an error, since it doesn’t fit the context: “But the official said Russia has treated Whelan differently because he is an accused spy, and that the Kremlin gave the White House the choice of either Griner or Whelan—or none.” If Whelan was being treated differently as an accused spy, it doesn’t make sense that he would be offered for a trade on a par with Griner.

What Carlson and the rest of the right-wing commentariat didn’t say: Trump, by his own admission (confirmed by his erstwhile Russia adviser Fiona Hill), had the option of trading Whelan for Bout but wasn’t interested. Trump has claimed that it was because he opposed any swap for Bout, “someone that has killed untold numbers of people with his arms deals.” Whelan’s brother David has said that it was more because the Trump administration wasn’t that interested in wrongful detentions of Americans abroad, period. (By the way, Whelan’s family supports Griner’s release.)

Also not mentioned: Trevor Reed, another former U.S. Marine and onetime Russian prisoner who happens to be white, male, and heterosexual. Despite these three strikes, Reed—detained in Moscow in 2019 on probably bogus charges of assault on two police officers—was freed in late April in a swap for Russian pilot and convicted drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, a highly inconvenient fact for the “woke points” narrative.

One can certainly question the wisdom of the trading Bout, a Kremlin-connected arms smuggler who goes by the colorful nickname “the Merchant of Death.” (If you want to talk about “woke” points, releasing a man who has sown death primarily in Africa should probably be a demerit.) The fact is that he has served nearly 15 years of his 25-year sentence. The fact is also that he is extremely unlikely to pose any present danger: An arms dealer who has been out of the game for that long doesn’t just get back into business, especially when he’s as visible as Bout. For the moment it appears that he’s getting into far-right politics in Russia and may end up in the Duma, where he will have such illustrious colleagues as FSB assassin Andrei Lugovoy.

But that has nothing to do with the ugly attacks on Griner, a medical marijuana user who says she packed the cannabis vapes by mistake when going to Russia to play. One can also criticize Griner’s stance on the national anthem in 2020 without writing her off as an America hater. At the time, Griner told Arizona Central that she felt not playing the anthem was a way to take a stand against police brutality but also stressed that she didn’t mean it “in any disrespect to our country” and that her father was a Vietnam veteran. “I do have pride for my country,” she told the website, adding that she felt playing the anthem was appropriate at the Olympics but not at regular games. Again, one can disagree and criticize, but Griner’s words certainly don’t make her any less of an American. And, for the record, Griner’s agent says that she is “heartbroken” over the fact that Whelan and other Americans remain trapped in Russia and is determined to help win their release.

Whelan, in other words, isn’t playing the identity card. Neither is the Biden administration, which is celebrating her release as an American, not as a black woman or a lesbian. Yes, a few left-wing figures such as American Federation of Teacher president Randi Weingarten made a big deal out of her race, sex, and sexual orientation (“a basketball star, but also a gay, black woman is released,” wrote Weingarten while also calling for Whelan’s freedom). But overall, such talk came almost exclusively from the Trumpian right.

Perhaps the most astute comment on the subject came from expatriate Russian journalist Yulia Latynina, who speculated on her YouTube show Kod dostupa (“Access Code”) on December 10 that the Kremlin rejected a two-for-one trade of both Whelan and Griner at least in part because they hoped releasing Griner but not Whelan would cause dissension in the United States and undermine the Biden administration:

It turns out that they seriously think that this would cause terrible polarization in the U.S. because Griner is black, because she’s an open lesbian, because she protests against racial violence, while Paul Whelan is a white hetero man and it would be possible to blow this up into a big controversy. To my intense shame, I did in fact see a few Republican articles on this subject. But 99 percent of Americans don’t give a shit. It’s more the idea that Ms. Simonyan and some FSB major has of the way America works.

Unfortunately, the right-wing propagandists in the United States who recycled Kremlin talking points in their tirades against Griner have a following substantially larger than one percent of Americans. But the bigger picture is that Latynina is right: This is not how America works. For the overwhelming majority, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan are both Americans. You’d think the “All Lives Matter” gang could grasp that.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.