Monday, August 11, 2008

THE PAST IS TOMORROW

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is dead. I wonder how it will play?

His remarks delivered at Harvard in June of 1978 are reprinted on Truthout (http://www.truthout.org/article/a-world-split-apart).

I remember Bill Mauldin’s death: that marvelous cartoonist, the creator of Willy and Joe, the two haggard but humorous infantry grunts who lived in a world of mud, rain, bureaucratic imbecility, incoming shells and foxholes somewhere in World War Two. Mauldin had the ill-fortune – perhaps – to die early in the current Iraq debacle. Once the most popular of WW2 cartoonists, neither the military nor the government wanted to think of him at his death, and his passing was almost un-noticed. War was too glorious and lightning-quick, so why waste time on such a ‘quaint’ cartoonist? The same was apparently felt by the national leadership of the assorted veterans’ organizations, always so quick to lend benefit-of-history to government gambits, for the price of being allowed to dress up in odd bits of uniform and shake the occasional Unitary hand or half-salute whatever emblem looms up into a fading, blurred vision.

Nor did any of the Identities, erstwhile tribunes of the ‘little guy’, take note. After all, Correct usage requires that one does not ‘endure and prevail’ in the midst of sustained hardship, but rather that one complain and see where something can be shaken loose on one’s behalf. And – being WW2-era white guys – there was no real Identity into which Willy and Joe fit. Nor does simply being ‘American’ really hold much traction any longer.

I recall Solzhenitsyn talking at Harvard back there 30 years ago. And being kind of surprised, naïf that I was. I had assumed that the ‘liberals’ of the Hahvahd faculty would embrace him, liberals being strong on liberty, as the similarity of the two terms would suggest.

But no, they were not at all amused. They had, after all, displayed their distaste (not altogether misplaced) for unbridled American capitalism by embracing the ideals of the Marxist-Communist Revolution, conveniently forgetting that a revolution-with-ideals and an ideal-revolution are not quite the same thing. It’s not an infrequent error: you sit around looking at flat maps covering vast swaths of ‘reality’ and figure that success will follow the sweep of your hand; only those who have to operate on the actual ground can see the hills, valleys, ruts, ridges, and assorted treacherous impassables.

So here was Solzhenitsyn, fresh – you should pardon the expression – from the actuality, from the reality, of that Revolution, speaking to a number of the educated elite who were themselves in the midst of their own unacknowledged but very cutting-edge revolutions over here.

“Veritas”, he reminded them, was not easily grasped, nor that grasp easily maintained. One pursued truth through a continuous maze of illusions and chicaneries from outside one, and a fog of irresolution arising from within. There is no ‘easy’ Truth, as there is no ‘easy’ Liberty; both, indeed, are ‘strenuous’ in their demands.

Little did he realize that he was speaking about the failures of a Revolution and the moral failures of its revolutionaries and votaries to those who were themselves in thrall to the excitements of revolution, and the even easier excitements of destruction and deconstruction.

And thus in addition to their ‘professional’ umbrance taken at his denouncing the methodology and psychology of ‘revolution’, they were doubly miffed when he put his finger on the core of the revolutionary gambit: a betrayal or deconstruction of Truth. They themselves were supporting the Blooming of a Million Identities precisely by deconstructing (denying) the concepts that i)there existed any objective truth, ii) that truth existed anywhere except in the construction of ‘stories’ by those in power, and iii) that there existed any truth whose origin was beyond human-ness itself, and most surely iv) that there existed such a concept with an origin so authoritative as to be designated ‘Truth’.

He didn’t so much trace out the darkling path that would capture any would-be votaries: that a ‘revolution’ so conceived and so dedicated could only destroy (‘deconstruct’), but could not create without constructing and then enforcing its own ‘authority’ upon all the citizenry. Instead, he remarked on what I would call the soul-strangling Flatness of a world which could not anchor itself in any principles beyond itself. The revolutionistas were committed – willy or nilly – to placing American society on a high stairway with no banister or railings; anyone using it would have to balance himself, herself, themselves – because there was to be no balancing, steadying, grounding assistance from outside the human self.

This was not what the multi-colored Guards of the revolutions wished to hear. Bad enough that he denounced the fundamental and essential shallowness of their Project; but he then pointed out that when divided against itself, no world or any “Kingdom” upon it can stand. The divisions of the Identities and their respective ‘stories’ and ‘politics’ were precisely the structures that were to shape the brave new world, and the engines that were to fuel its dynamics. Nor were those dynamics much longer to resemble a democratic ‘politics’ in anything but appearance.

There was as well, he noted, a loss of “civil courage” in the West. Now I state immediately that “civil courage” can be used as a cover for the most cynical and repulsive chimpery. Against such chimpery The People must be constantly on guard – but that goes with the job of being The People.

Equally relevant is that this loss of “civil courage” results in the abdication of The People from Its task of grounding the government in all its branches; if the government is the great wheel of the ferris-wheel, then The People are the struts on each side that hold it steady. And upon what, then, is The People grounded? In solid earth? Upon rock? Or upon sand, soft and shifting? Of course, for the Revolutions of the Identities, the whole idea was to soften up everything in order to squeeze their hydra-headed agendas and priorities (‘values’ is too dignified a term) into the whole process.

But that required reducing the American Experiment and the workings of American society and democracy to a soapisch agitation over this or that ‘story’ being pushed upon The People, like a bill long-due from some unknown purveyor. The loss of “civil courage” stemmed from The People – youngish and emotional and impatient and insistent – forgetting what the Founders had always before their minds in vivid and alarming clarity: that their Constitutional vision involved a government that was not only constructed like a careful machine, but was also subject to the same dangers as any machine: if you forget the principles upon which it works, then the thing is going to break or stop working, and if it’s big enough, it’s going to crash. Oy. Who knew?

“Courage” and its decline among Us … Solzhenitsyn sensed it 30-plus years ago. How can one be courageous if one doesn’t know what to be courageous about? How can one be courageous if all ‘courage’ is instantly vilified as ‘masculine’, ‘oppressive’, ‘hateful’, ‘shrill’, or even just ‘quaint’? Surely there is a hugely fruitful personal and civic space between the utter lack of courage and the aggressive imposition of one’s own beliefs? But to the revolutionistas one could only be ‘courageous’ in the service of the revolution; against the ‘revolution’ any opposition or even honest doubt was the same: a willful obstruction to be overrun.

And their ‘happiness’ was – Solzhenitsyn inveighed – “morally inferior”. It was what might be called ‘merely of this world’, it was Flat. But of course, if one assumed that there was a God, a Judge or at least a Judging force in place over this human dimension, then there would be no emergency justification for pushing aside all laws in order to ‘get’ presumed evildoers before they ‘escaped’ through death (can one keep a straight face when reading of a 70-year-old nun prosecuted for a sex-offense decades ago?). The Flatness of the revolutionary ethos, here as well as in the USSR, was essential to the revolutionary ‘success’: all would have to look to the revolution here and now, not to some other authority, and certainly not one beyond Space and Time, for justification and for vengeance (not to say ‘for Justice’). The “dependence” of the individual on “state pressure” (once the state has been taken over by the revolution) is hugely intensified.

Even in the ‘70s, there was the deconstructive thrust against – ironically enough – ‘judging’. One could not say – and should not think – that this or that was ‘inferior’, let alone ‘morally inferior’; one should be tolerant of all things. But again: this responsibility of ‘tolerance’ was not universal: it was incumbent upon any individual, yet only in matters designated by the revolutions as in the service of their agendas. In regard to anything against the service of a revolutionary agenda, one did not ‘tolerate’; one judged ... and denounced. Thus too the “dependence” – in this case through fear rather than need – of the individual upon “state pressure” is hugely intensified.

And so in the heyday of the tolerant and nonjudmental and relativistic and sensitive Identities this country has seen an efflorescence of prosecution and incarceration; when the necessary suppressive acts against each of the ‘enemies’ of each Identity are toted up, it becomes immediately clear that Ours is a society in which huge swaths of the citizenry are liable to judgment, if not to Justice. Proportionately, more American citizens are incarcerated than Stalin ever managed to do; in a sense, this country is itself becoming one big prison, as Solzhenitsyn characterized the USSR.

But of course, he would mean it in a far more profound sense: this country has become so Flattened that it is indeed an existential and even ontological prison, the citizenry trapped in an ever-shrinking dimension like adventurers trapped in a room whose ceiling is coming down and preparing to crush them. The votaries of revolution at Hahvahd did not want to hear that.

But as it has become Flattened, American society and its ethos have also become unstable. It’s as if one tries to steady and secure a rowboat in a heavy sea only from aboard, without relying on an anchor or a line securing it to a pier or a larger vessel. It’s dynamically impossible; no rower can manipulate the oars long enough and accurately enough to keep the boat’s balance and its position relative to the crushing waves. Our philosophical and ethical and moral grounding is dissolved by the universal solvent of ‘deconstruction’, and now We are truly ‘at sea’, in a very small boat.

But he also went deeper: he put his finger on that most touchy of subjects: mediocrity’s relationship to American democracy. If there is to be a total ‘equality’, cutting across all spheres of life, thus an equality of outcome as well as of opportunity, of talent as well as of achievement, then the entire dynamic will be to skew toward the least common denominator. And thus away from any striving toward some excellence in an area of one’s individual life, or of the societal life.

And thus any freedom ‘won’ by any individual group will necessarily be ‘governed’ by a much-diminished capacity for judgment or any ethic of excellence in self-development or societal development.

And thus, given that there is a dark potential in individual human beings to not-develop themselves, concomitant to their willingness as citizens to be ‘governed’ by a ‘leader’, then Solzhenitsyn saw that “freedom” would “tilt in the direction of evil”. Yes, it all started with “a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent in human nature; [and that] the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected”. In pulling all of its citizens’ endeavors to itself, the revolutionary state pulls the ceiling down, even if it appears to push the walls out so as to ‘expand’ the life of its (now-captive) citizens.

You can judge for yourself whether he was prescient.

Certainly, the “hastiness and superficiality” that he sees are “the psychic disease of the 20th century”, as are the “in-depth analysis of a problem that is anathema to the press” and “the sensational formulas” that have replaced analysis. And this awful synergy is comprised of the primitive and unthinking emotionality that is essential to the propaganda state and to the manipulations of professional Advocacy; it is also thus comprised as a result of the ‘non-rationality’ of the enlightened feminist mind and the unthinking impatience and still-unripened mental processes of ‘youth’.

And so “there is a dangerous tendency to form a herd”. And as if that weren’t bad enough, such herd-ing can only lead to “shutting off successful development”. Individually or societally he doesn’t specify, but I’d say that it’s both, and that the formation of such a negative feedback loop, of such a dark symmetry, can only increase the rate and angle of decline.

And yet to protect themselves, individuals and groups will construct a sort of “petrified armor” around their minds, shutting out any awareness of the actual operating dynamics and the consequences of the ideas and movements they have embraced.

And such “armor” will only be pierced by “the pitiless crowbar of events”. As medieval folk knew, a blow sufficient to shatter armor will most likely proceed to break some bones inside that armor. Maybe a lot of bones. Nor can We permit Ourselves the almost clinically-significant denial of such as Douglas Feith (the noted Georgetown perfesser): having prophesied that Our troops would be greeted with flowers, and watching the actual films of Iraqi crowds precisely not-throwing flowers, he instantly simpered that they were intimidated by the presence of armed former Baathists on the streets, but were “thinking flowers in their heads”, an assertion that surpasses even the theory of ‘recovered memory’ in its demonstration of malicious fatuousness.

Solzhenitsyn's was a clear eye and a strong voice. We did not listen to him then. And now We are where We are.

They say that Obama is not hugely ahead of McCain, and that this seems a bit odd. And that it will be all about Obama as a person. No. It’s not odd because the Dems know, as do the Repugs, that there is still a vast and deep reservoir of concern among voters as to the wisdom and integrity of the Dems and their 40 years of the Revolutions of the Identities, and their pols’ decades of trying to cushion themselves from the consequences of the vastly deleterious ‘revolutions’ embraced by the Party after ’68. America’s civilization and its economy, its very ethos as a Constitutional republic, were quietly perverted in the Dems’ quest to somehow keep a lid on things that they themselves had induced.

How can Obama – or any individual – really change the course of all these decades’ worth of revolutionary deconstruction and destruction? They figured that the ‘destruction’ would automatically ‘create’ replacements for what it consumed, but such was not the case. Even a five-year old could have told them that.

So now, after a horrific 8 Republican years in which the economy, currency, military competence, international diplomatic stature, and reputation of this country – to say nothing of its moral integrity and maturity – have all been dragged in the mud of aggressive war and greed-and-lie-fueled enrichment … even now the Dems still cannot rely on a clear, let alone easy, victory in the election.

Drunk and at the helm, their Party will not accept that sobriety might increase their performance. They will remain drunk and at the helm, and hope that somehow the Republicans will screw up even more, and that somehow folks will agree to forget all that has happened, and agree to indulge in the lunatic fantasy that any one human being in the Oval Office will be able to improve Our situation sufficiently at least to avoid disaster.

As if Kerensky was going to be able to keep Lenin at bay. Solzhenitsyn would have known that.

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