Review of “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History” by Jill Lepore

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I wonder how many Americans know about the first suicide terrorist attack by airplane after 9/11.

It happened on February 18th, 2010. Fifty-three year old Andrew Stack III flew his single-engine Piper Dakota into an office building housing a local branch of the IRS. In addition to killing himself, Stack killed a civil servant, father of six.

Stack was mad at the IRS over a long drawn-out tax dispute. But he was mad about lots of other things too. In a suicide note he wrote shortly before setting fire to his home and launching his attack, he railed against corporate greed, the government’s bailout of the financial sector, health insurance, and the Catholic Church.

At bottom, though, what angered Stack most was having been defrauded by his own country, as he saw it. Its institutions had indoctinated him with phony beliefs about the interconnectedness of freedom, hard work, and propserity. The founding fathers, he wrote in his suicide note, had fought against taxation without representation, but the country today was throwing that legacy in the trash. President Obama, with his tax-and-spend healthcare plan, was not just leading us to ruin but was  adandoning what it means to be American.

Austin Hess, a young Boston engineer, could relate. At a rally against Obamacare the month after Stack’s suicide attack, Hess protested, “All the government does is take my money and give it to other people.” (We later come to learn the delicious fact that Hess’s paycheck comes from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. As the world’s largest empoyer, the federal government gives as well as it takes.)

Andrew Stack’s strange, sad terrorist attack caught the same reactionary Zeitgeist that gripped Hess and other members of the Tea Party movement then spreading across the country. Less than one month into the Obama administration, a cacophony of conservative voices was buffetting the new president with accusations of socialism, godlessness, and crypto-Islamism, among other things.

Fox News commentators, business leaders, right-wing think tanks, and Christian Fundamentalists all accused Obama of betraying the American Revolution. They gathered in Boston on April 15th, tax day, to protest the new regime of taxation without representation. They could feel the Founding Father returned to life and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them, seething in anger, sensing some kind of alien menace they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, quite define. Well, one Tea Party sign dared to define it: “Spell-Check says that OBAMA is OSAMA,” it read.

In the formative days of the Tea Party, Fox News commentator Glen Beck set up his studio to look like a school room, the better to instruct his viewers on the real meaning of the American Revolution. Unburdened by the slightest sense of irony, Beck said he was fighting the forces of “indoctrination,” the same thing that had gotten under Andrew Stack’s skin before he crashed his plane into the IRS building. Beck implored his viewers to “hold your kids close to you” and teach them about the revolution that George Washington had led–a revolution rooted in “God and the Bible.”

Americans, rich and poor, dumb and smart, high- and low born, are forever invoking the Revolution, the Founding Fathers, and the Spirit of 1776 to  sanctify their political claims about the present. When it comes to having political arguments, “[n]othing trumps the Revolution,” writes Jill Lepore in her wonderful 2012 book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History.

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As is the case with all of Lepore’s books, The Whites of Their Eyes is a wise, humane, intricately argued work of history. There is nothing reductive about it. I risk betraying Lepore’s generous intelligence, then, by beginning on a slightly reductivist note, a list  Lepore forms of things that have been thrown into Boston Harbor as acts of political theater. They have included:

A fake container of crack cocaine

The 2007 federal tax code

Cans of (non-union-produced) beer

Annual HMO reports

No doubt there have been other things flung into Boston Harbor as well. The point Lepore wants to make is that it is reflexive for us Americans to escalate our political protests to heaven, always beseeching our gods, so to speak. The objects thrown into Boston Harbor are meant to symbolize not just wrongs in need of remedy but fundamental betrayals of one or another of our founding principles. From crack to non-union beer, they are the kinds of thing that should cause our Founders to roll over in their graves, we are told.

But here is a paradox: anyone with an axe to grind can play this game. The conflicted political discourse that produced the American Revolution was so capacious and so contentious, it can accommodate almost any post-Enlightenment political idea. Lepore writes:

The remarkable debate about sovereignty and liberty that took place between 1761, when James Otis argued the writs of assistance case [about British laws that basically established police powers in the Colonies], and 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, contains an ocean of ideas. You can fish almost anything out of it.

And fish we do. Almost any set of opposing causes can be found and seized upon in the body of historical writings comrpising the record of the American Revolution. Perhaps the most (in)famous is the matter of religion and theism. Cast your line in the shallowest waters of the revolutionary texts and you find Christian theism plain and simple–rights being endowed by God and all that. Fish a little deeper and you’ll find founders who betray not one whit of genuine theism–even outright rejections of it. Thomas Paine, with whom Glen Beck likes to compare himself, used his dying breath to repudiate Christianity, telling his doctor he had “no wish to believe.” Benjamin Franklin, and expert bookbinder, inserted a lampoon of Biblical-sounding nonsense into his Bible to prank anyoneone who would listen. Faith of our fathers?

History, the making of it and the writing of it, is an argument, Lepore says over and over. Its outcomes and processes were never fixed in the stars and cannot be chiseled into stone tablets. But the problem is, we treat our history, especially of the Revolution, as if it were so fixed. Using history to make political arguments requires creativity, empathy and reason, but our attitude is all too often self-assured idolatry, writes Lepore:

People who ask what the founders would do quite commonly declare that they know, they know, they just know, what the founders would do and, mostly, it comes to this: if only they could see us now, they would be rolling over in their graves. They might even rise from the dead and walk among us. We have failed to obey their sacred texts, holy writ. They suffered for us, and we have forsaken them. Come the Day of Judgment, they will damn us.

This is not an appeal to history, says Lepore. It’s fundmentalism, or what she somtimes terms “anti-history.”

What she means is that history is not simply a transcribing of facts established in the firmament. Any historical approach that posits its subject is a fossil record of this kind is bound to fail; it goes against the spirit of studying and writing history. As Orwell once wrote, good history should “make the past not only intelligible but alive.”

The facts and the character of the American Revolution were never fixed. They were contested from the outset and continued to be contested immediately after independence. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson disagreed entirely on what the revolution was; Adams maintaining it consisted in legal and political actions leading up to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson saying it was the war for independence itself. For Benjamin Franklin, the revolution began with and consisted primarily in a crusade against established religion.

It did not take long for fights over the meaning of the Revolution to escalate into terms we would recognize today. Jefferson praised Shay’s Rebellion in 1787 as a sign of patriotic vigor. Adams said the rebels should be violently suppressed, as the constitution demanded. And the ink was not even dry on the document that was to ground this authority.

More fundamental disagreements soon followed.

When Jefferson was elected as the third president, succeeding Adams, a Boston newspaper declared that Jefferson had ridden “into the temple of liberty on the shoulders of slaves.” This because his win had been made possible by electoral votes created by the three-fifths clause. Had there been any founding fathers in their graves at that early date, surely Americans would have been alerted to their rolling over in them.

And what did Jefferson himself think of the power and meaning of the constitution? Toward the end of his life Jefferson wrote, “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human.”

Jefferson was better positioned than any other framer to recognize how deeply disputation ran through our founding documents, what a human creation it was. A lifelong slaveholder, Jefferson was so profoundly conflicted over slavery that his first draft of the Declaration of Independence included what could be fairly called an argument with himself over slavery. In “a breathless paragraph, his longest and angriest grievance against the king, Jefferson blamed George III for slavery,” Lepore writes, specifically for not abolishing the slave trade with the colonies. Jefferson’s contemporaries disagreed with his anti-slavery passage, some saying it went too far, others not far enough. In the end, the passage was left out as a tactical expedient: the other framers thought it would open the colonists up to charges of hypocrisy, given how thoroughly slavery was embedded in their economy and culture.

In 2010 the Tea Party’s sanctimony would sometimes become more than a little bathotic, as when its members insisted on Congressmen and other adults reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge’s author, Francis Bellamy, was a socialist who was once chased from the pulpit for demandng the rich be taxed heavily and their wealth given to the poor. Bellamy wrote the Pledge as part of an ad campaign to promote something his boss’s company invented called the “flag movement.” They wanted to sell flags to every school in America. The Pledge helped their business. It was meant to indoctrinate children.

Lepore urges us to understand there are no political conclusions that can be lifted directly from the founders’ principles or the history of the American Revolution. History is alive, but not in the sense the Tea Party say it is. If we wish to understand anything of the founders’ principles, we have to go back and examine them in the tension from which they arose, and the tension they never escaped. The idea that the wisdom of an ealier generation could resolve poitical contests with sacred revelations was precisely what the founders rejected. And we know this becasue of the disputes they had with one another, and which never stopped. “They believed that to defer without examination to what your forefathers believed,” writes Lepore, “is to become a slave to the tyranny of the past.”

 

 

 

Orwell’s Review of “The Soul of Man under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Crack open the first volume of Prejudices, H.L. Mencken’s career-spanning collection of essays, and what’s the first chapter you see? “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism.”

It’s really good. You can read it here.

About that title. Is it Mencken being self-deprecatingly funny? Yes. Is it Mencken being earnest and passionate? Also yes.

The part of humanity I feel closest to is the part that, like Mencken, gets worked up over words, and I mean worked up to the point of life and death. But Mencken was also lighthearted. He played in a brass band, wrote nonsense poems and drank a lot of beer. He knew all those words, earnest and passionate as they were, might just be leading us in circles.

So here’s a bit of circling around and around–some criticism of criticism of criticism.

In May 1948 George Orwell wrote a review of Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” a beauteous vision of the future in which life’s necessities would be so plentiful as to obviate the need to own things or even to work.  The thing that prompted Orwell to write the review was the essay’s surprising durability. “Although [Wilde’s] prophecies have not been fulfilled,” Orwell wrote, “neither have they have they been made irrelevant by the passage of time.”

And this was saying a lot. Wilde had written the essay in 1891 at the peak of Europe’s Gilded Age. Wilde was no economist, and as Orwell points out, not really a socialist, just an admirer of the cause. The rich, old Edwardian world Wilde lived in would have been unrecognizable to Orwell’s peers in 1948–many of them survivors of the two most destructive wars in world history, the most lethal pandemic since figures had been kept, and the worst economic depression since the dawn of the industrial age. Britain was on food rations in 1948, despite winning the war. If anything in “The Soul of Man under Socialism” still rang true after such extensive trauma, Orwell thought, it deserved another look.

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Actually it might be more accurate to say Wilde’s essay was just starting to ring true in 1948. It had a long latency. When Wilde wrote about socialism taking over the rich world, this prospect was clearly a pipe dream, But, in 1948 Orwell sat up and took notice of the rise of communism in China and much of what would soon be called the Third World: “Socialism,” he wrote, “in the sense of economic collectivism, is conquering the earth at a speed that would hardly have seemed possible sixty years ago.”

The broad, gathering march of communism was what made Wilde’s essay relevant in a general way, but, it was two of Wilde’s particular observations that really grabbed Orwell’s attention. One was that Wilde correctly perceived socialism’s in-born tendency for authoritarianism. Any government given the power to control industry, markets and wages would be tempted to rule over all of society. Wilde admitted this, tangentially.

But he largely dismissed this threat, saying, “I hardly think that any Socialist, nowadays, would seriously propose that an inspector should call every morning at each house to see that each citizen rose up and did manual labor for eight hours.” And of course communist regimes did this kind of thing and much, much worse. Wilde’s error about socialism was basically the same one Americans have been making about democracy for the last 30 years. He assumed the system would work because the elites who implemented it would be rational and benevolent. What Orwell knew was that socialism’s ruling class–any ruling class–would entrench itself as an authoritarian regime once it accrued enough power to dictate to the masses. This is the basic plot line of Animal Farm.

In Oregon today, the state legislature has recently been proving that even a highly developed democratic system can break down if it is not implemented by benevolent elites. Bad faith is not a special problem of socialism. According to reporting by Vox, in Oregon, the members of the Republican party, minorites in both houses of the legislature, have been walking out of their jobs every time a bill they oppose comes to a vote. A rule written long ago on the assumption that lawmakers would be good stewards of democracy requires a 60 percent majority for a quorum in the legislature. The Democratic party holds a big enough majority to pass a law but not big enough to convene a quorum. So each time the legislature comes to the cusp of passing a law that the people of Oregon elected it to pass, the Republicans desert their posts.

There may be less to the much vaunted political culture of democracy than meets the eye. In the triumpahlist mood of the end of the Cold War, we thought of liberal democracy as intrinsically superior to other ideologies. You could just see that collectivism of any kind was bad because, look how corrupt its elites were and what failures of governance it resulted in. Well, it seems that socialists don’t have a lock on bad-faith failures of governance. Democrats too may falter in–or even openly reject– their commitments to reason, decency, and fair play. We too are capable of wrecking a good system.

Another area where Wilde was sort of right but wrong in an interesting way was in his thinking about technology and leisure. He thought machines would relieve humans of drudge work and, hence, the “sordid need to live for others.” Freed of the need to work for wages, humans would seek something like Maslow’s self-actualization. “In effect,” Orwell writes, “the world [would] be populated by artists, each striving after perfection in the way that seems best to him.”

As Orwell points out, Wilde had tunnel vision on this matter. The utopia he envisioned blanketing the whole world was really only conceivable in the most developed economies, such as the one he lived in. Africa and Asia in 1948, Orwell pointed out, were far behind this level of development. A political ideology based on the equality of all humans that left most humans out of its equations would badly miss the mark.

Furthermore, Orwell saw that the minute technical challenges of machine work would have to be tackled before robots could do our jobs for us. Wilde glossed over this problem as trivial. Orwell wrote that machines lacked human “flexibility,” possibly refering to their lack of fine motor skills, or possibly to their inability to think. “In practice, even in the most highly mechanised countries,” Orwell wrote, “an enormous amount of dull and exhausting work has to be done by unwilling human muscles.” And today? I think any Amazon Prime delivery worker would still give Orwell an amen.

So Wilde put too much faith in robots, too soon. But things are changing now. The quixotic presidential campaign of  Andrew Yang hinted in a fascinating way at a step change in the march of the machines. You know that weird idea Yang had of a universal basic income–where we just sit home and draw a check each month? Well it’s coming, and it’s coming because thinking machines really are overtaking our jobs. The artificial intelligence revolution looks set to change the relationship between humans and labor forever.

If a computer can do a better job of, say, balancing a comlex set of business accounts, why pay a roomful of sweaty, fallible humans to do the same job less well? And, if machines can think creatively (which they can, possibly beyond our ability to grasp), they will eventually reach a tipping point where they will exceed the human ability to design algorithms and apply them to real-world problems. Machines will design even better machines. Economically, what this means is that machines will create value.

Let me say that again: machines will create value. This development is unprecedented. For the 20,000 odd years we’ve had civilization, it has been up to humans, and only humans, to add our labor to nature, as John Locke phrased it, and create something of sufficient value that we feel a claim of ownership toward it. Plant and hoe a garden, and its yours. Eat your vegetables or sell them, but by god they are yours to do with as you please. This conception of property is a bedrock assumption of economics.

And, as Yang understands, it’s about to fall out from under us. If machines create the value that drives GDP, we will, to an uncertain but large extent, live off the proceeds and taxes derived from their creations. Just like that, the most improbable of Wilde’s prophecies will effectively come true: we will be freed of the “sordid necessity to live for others.” What then?

One of the recepients of Yang’s “Freedom Dividend,” the $1,000-a-month prototype of universal basic income that Yang passed out during his campaign, said he had bought a guitar with his thousand bucks. I thought it was kind of lame when I heard it, but slowly its meaning began to sink in. Guitar Man was basically an example of Orwell’s interpretation of Wilde: without the need to work for our wages, we are all artists waiting to happen. We will still be as busy as we have been the last 20,000 years creating ourselves, but not in response to the biological imperatives that have driven us thus far and the social structures that have evolved to organize those imperatives.

Thinking about what to do with your Freedom Dividend is vertigo-inducing. This is not just because that money fell from the sky, produced by a being that can feel no claim of ownership and does not know the meaning of the phrase, “by the sweat of one’s brow.” Spending your Freedom Dividend is unsettling  because what you are really doing is choosing what you want to be in a world that is no longer regimented by the conventions of work.

 

Review of “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets” by Svetlana Alexievich

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

At a recent conference of far-right luminaries in Rome, Roberto de Mattei, a conservative Catholic intellectual, opined that a global leftist elite had “banned” good, honest patriots from publishing history books about communism.

The reporter of these words, Anne Applebaum, was better positioned than most of de Mattei’s audience to appreciate how wrong he was. Among the 16 awards Applebaum has won for writing histories of communism, two were National Book Awards and one was a Pulitzer Prize. Cataloging Soviet depredations is basically her career, and she’s still going strong.

But these days, if you choose your audience carefully and you make your claims in a certain tone of voice, it doesn’t really matter if there are great heaps of facts that contradict your position. Heads will be nodded in concerned sympathy, brows furrowed in resolve. But what kind of person, you might still wonder, would make such an easily falsifiable claim as the one de Mattei did about a global elite’s censoring of history?

I’ll come back to that in a moment.

In the meantime, I just finished a beautiful, wide-ranging oral history of late-20th century communism by the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, published in English translation in 2016. It is one of four epoch-spanning oral histories Alexievich has published about communism in eastern Europe.

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And, like Applebaum, Alexievich has won here share of recognition. In 2015 she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, which, I’ve always been told, is a pretty high mark to hit. One wonders what kind of intellectual de Mattei could be since he clearly knows so little about the world of letters. Maybe he didn’t know we have girl historians who write books these days?

If I had to guess, I’d say the handful of Americans who read Alexievich probably start with the 2006 translation of her book Voices From Chernobyl, because it’s pretty clearly going to stroke the Schadenfreude we expect to feel about the USSR’s mendacity, brutishness and incompetence. Well, if that’s what gets you to read Alexievich, fine, but political porn is not what she delivers. She won the Nobel for a good reason. She writes about real people, mostly the things they’ve lost.

What Alexievich delivers in Secondhand Time is a haunting collection of often bleak but deeply human stories about how Soviet people experienced the death and denouement of the system they had built their lives around and thought of as permanent.

The impression that many westerners have of Soviets is that their lives were thoroughly dictated to them: they hated and feared their political masters and  never authentically believed in the ideology the Kremlin forced down their throats. The most important message of Secondhand Time is that many Soviets really did believe what they were taught, even if they knew their teachers were brutes. It turns out that real people found real reasons for believing in communism despite the horrors, large and small, that propped it up–the gulags, the informants, the secret police, the cult of Stalin, the show trials, the bread lines, the work camps, the mass relocations.

Outside the space created by these horrors, many Soviets managed to thrive in their mental and communal lives. They lived for the rewards that austerity tends to inspire in an educated people–ideas, discussions, small freedoms, camaraderie. Books and writers were the focal point this life, which brimmed with a shared sense of struggle. A former Soviet school teacher finds a notebook that belonged to her daughter during the last days of the USSR. An essay in it called “What is Life?” proclaims, “The purpose of life is whatever makes you rise above.” Another former Soviet observes, “Russians don’t want to just live, they want to live for something. They want to participate in some great undertaking.”

Most of Alexievich’s interlocutors show they have undergone a personal transformation that typifies this kind of great-society desire. Many recall the disciplined subordination of their individual interests to a collective goal as a sacred, even exhilarating experience. Remember Don Delillo’s oh-so-90s observation that “the future belongs to crowds”? Well it’s not entirely cynical. Masses can sometimes yearn for justice, not just demagoguery. Alexievich gets to know the crowd joiners and, again, reveals them as real people who were not crazy for believing what they believed.

The Soviet everyman saw himself as a worker, and not just in a factory. He (or in many cases, she, as Alexievich illustrates) saw himself as working hard to build a political system the world had never seen–a state that would guarantee economic justice. Of course we all know how precipitously the revolution collapsed, but we tend to see this event from the top down and the outside in. We are impressed by its structural features, its ethos as it affected the rest of the world. But what Alexievich draws out is that ordinary Soviet people suffered real loss at the failure of communism. Contrary to a western literature on the USSR going back to Isaiah Berlin’s 1949 The Soviet Mind, Soviet people didn’t just have cutout identities thrust on them by a faceless authority. They actively built lives that embodied communism’s guiding values of economic justice. They were proud of the fact that each was entitled to basic goods and services and there was no room for the predatory rich. And, despite the overwhelming corruption of the Soviet system that first undermined and later obliterated those values, the lives of many ordinary Soviets were full of dignity.

Alexievich, if you’re wondering, does not bait her hook and go fishing for stereotypes of such dignity. She casts her net wide and gathers whatever stories come up. Most of the personas are damaged, and a few are repulsive, such as the former gulag guard who “was just following orders” and says he would torture and kill again if another Stalin would arise.

But mostly, the stories are of loss, experienced by people we can relate to. Very few of Alexievich’s interlocutors want the whole Soviet edifice back (although some are nostalgic for empire), but most of them want a return to the time when their ideals meant something and had official backing. One subject recalls how for decades, she and her friends and family had been content to discuss books and debate communism all the time, usually in the kitchen. When those decades came to a sudden close, the ideas behind the discussions simply vanished, she recalls:

With perestroika, everything came crashing down. Capitalism descended. . . .90 rubles became 10 dollars. It wasn’t enough to live on anymore. We stepped out of our kitchens and onto the streets, where we soon discovered that we hadn’t any ideas after all–the whole time, we’d just been talking. . . . We [had been] like houseplants. We made everything up, and as it later turned out, everything we thought we knew was nothing but figments of our imaginations: the West. Capitalism. The Russian people. We lived in a world of mirages.

In his 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty, the philosopher Josiah Royce argues that the key ingredient to a meaningful individual life is the same as the key ingredient to a decent community–loyalty. It’s the thing that enables a dying person to say, “Okay, I can let go. The cause I’ve lived for is still intact. It will absorb the contribution I made during my life and keep going.” If we can die still feeling such loyalty, we can be fundamentally content.

The devastation that so many of Alexievich’s interlocutors evince is caused, I think, by the loss of the only object of loyalty they ever knew. They had worked, suffered and bled for the revolution. And many killed for it. But since the 1990s, they face the prospect of death with their life-sustaining narratives swept away. There is no recognizable future for them to be loyal to, let alone struggle for. One interlocutor told Alexievich, “For us, suffering is a personal struggle, the path to salvation.” Now, though, they’ve been told to stop struggling; there was never any point. They should just feel good and buy stuff instead.

For me, this is where the former Soviet’s pain gets slightly personal. By a series of accidents that shaped my values, and despite my utterly different lived experience, I arrived at a communist-style contempt for the crass life of the stomach and wallet, the very thing that many of Alexievich’s interlocutors scorn. I feel the same contempt for consumerism that the ex-Soviets experienced so dramatically when they were simply told that money would be their new god. Class war was still on, they were told, but the goal was different. It was a now race to the top of the exploiting class.

Many of Alexievich’s interlocutors were appalled at the economic injustices that cascaded all around them in the 1990s even as promises continued to be made that everything would be fine. One observed that the Russians in transition “were sure [in the 1990s] that a new future awaited them. Now [in the 2000s] it’s a different story. Today’s students have truly seen and felt capitalism: the inequality, the poverty, the shameless wealth. They’ve witnessed the lives of their parents, who never got anything out of the plundering of our country.”

Homo sovieticus is dead and gone. He cannot and should not be brought back. But gain and again, Alexievich’s interlocutors seem to mourn certain parts of their lived communist experience that were undeniably decent and good. A kitchen talk about political novels is an objectively better thing–for the individual and society–than a coked-up ride on an oligarch’s yacht. There’s no denying that, unless you are a supreme asshole. Alexievich’s ex-Soviets rebel at the idea that the default option to communism is surrender to an even lower, more crass form of life. This presentation of “the problem” is both stupid and harmful. You can be a collectivist without going Stalinist.

Many of the subjects in Secondhand Time still feel loyal to those kitchen discussions and the underlying idea that people have a higher purpose than exploiting other humans and consuming as much as they possibly can. I do too. Yachts are for jackasses and ignoramuses. Give me the kitchen and a good book any day.

(You can also read reviews of Secondhand Time in the NYT or the Independent. As always, I wrote mine first to keep my thoughts fresh.)

 

Active Measures

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

We can often be forgiven our sins of omission. We let small duties slip, under-perform just slightly on challenges to our integrity. If the harm done is not too great, and we buck up and pledge to do better, fine. We can’t be expected to attend to every little thing all the time.

Take Hi C Fruit Punch. I was raised in a time when adults believed it was good for kids, because, read the label, it has vitamin C. Back then, there were no science-based warnings like this one that say, for the love of god, DO NOT give this diabetes bomb to innocent children. It was a sin of omission.

But not anymore. Now we know. In just a few few minutes you can inform yourself, using reliable sources, about what Hi C is–a dyed mixture of water and corn syrup containing more sugar than Coke. And, so informed, you need never again be implicated in the peculiar form of child abuse for which this product was designed.

This past week I was reminded that, in some cases we are not merely guilty of passive, Hi-C-in-the-1970s-style ignorance, but we sometimes take active measures to achieve the levels of stupidity our corporate masters desire of us.

If you don’t believe in the Devil, you can go ahead and believe in this, which is far worse: we humans will actively harm our intellects to keep from knowing things that threaten to constrain our other appetites.

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For example, it is no secret that lobby groups have for decades suppressed any kind of scientific research into gun violence. The CDC wants to do this analysis, since gun violence is a leading cause of death, but it can’t get the funding. For anyone with eyes to see, this is clearly because the gun industry does not want to have a Hi C moment. Almost everyone who looks at the available data knows, for example that, if you of keep guns in the house to defend against “home invasion,” you are much more likely to end up killing or wounding yourself, your spouse, or someone else in your family than an intruder. To put the point slightly technically, gun possession in the home makes self-harm a more likely outcome than successful home defense.

But here’s the rub. The point cannot be put more than slightly technically, because the necessary science has been prevented. (Orwell wrote with bitter disdain about the “prevention of literature” in an authoritarian political culture. He would have loved the idea that the authorities could also prevent science. Not.)

Suppose for a second that you are a rational actor seeking to make an informed decision about whether to keep guns in your home. (I’m not sure there are rational actors, since the work of Tversky and Kahnemann, but the concept is at least a useful fiction. It makes a certain kind of liberal politics on which our laws are based possible, so let’s go with it.)

What you want is a sound cost-benefit analysis, a comparison of the most likely risks and rewards presented in your dilemma. The perceived rewards in this case are generated inside your head. They are derived from horrific, or possibly heroic scenarios of you confronting psychopathic home invaders bent on harming you and your family. Movies and TV help supply these images. But drawing on one’s cinematic intuitions of home invasion as a data source does not really give us a running start at making a rational choice. However, we have to start somewhere. Let’s table this side of the analysis and take a look at the other side.

The data on the other side, about the potential costs of keeping guns in the house, comes from . . . nowhere. That’s because, as I noted, it has been forbidden to do the required research. Since the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which drastically cut funding for gun violence research, no major studies have been done on the potential linkage between gun ownership and various kinds of self-harm. And the spirit of that law has been vigorously reinforced over the decades by the energetic lobbying of the NRA. Anytime some crusading university or think tank starts thinking about trying to reinvigorate gun violence research, the NRA meets with the senator(s) who are capable of shutting it down. And shut down it is. It’s money well spent, if your objective is never to know anything substantive about linkages between guns and gun death.

The last, probably only rigorous study of the risks and rewards of keeping guns in the home was done in 1993. It said if you kept a gun at home you tripled the chances that someone would be shot there, and that someone was rarely an intruder. Specifically: “The researchers found that a majority of victims, 76.7 percent, were killed by a spouse, family member or someone they knew, and that in 85 percent of cases there was no forced entry into the home.”

Research, if it is to be effective, must be done and re-done. Its results must be challenged, validated, put into new contexts. Much has changed since 1993. Or has it? When it comes to gun deaths, we really don’t know. Many gun advocates with even a rudimentary understanding of statistics are probably looking at that figure from 1993 that says keeping a gun at home triples the risk and saying to themselves, “Well, okay, that’s a change in risk, but what’s the absolute risk level? If it’s small enough, I might still make a rational choice to keep a gun in my home. That tripling figure might not be decisive for me if it means the risk factor goes up from .01 percent to .03. Going from one percent to three, though?–that might be a different story.

But we’re on course to never know the real figures. Active measures are being taken to prevent the pertinent knowledge. Ambient levels of ignorance among the public are not good enough for the NRA, so they are funding active resistance to scientific research.

Here is the nub of the problem: corporations and their lobbyists (and therefore our government) are doing whatever it takes to deprive us of the science necessary to ground a rational choice. No matter which side of the debate our instincts lie on, it is impossible for us to discover enough to upgrade our emotive instincts to reasoned arguments. We’re allowed to know about the effects of Hi C on blood sugar (thank goodness), but the effects of guns on the home and family are officially off limits.

You know that bumper sticker, Guns don’t kill people. People kill people? The NRA pays our government millions of dollars to make sure scientists never turn that quip into a testable hypothesis. It works because it remains a bumper sticker. Ignoring the potential link between guns and gun violence is a (forgivable) sin of omission but only as long as the relevant scientific knowledge is never generated.

This topic came up last week because the latest federal budget included a provision that said a teensy weensy bit of research might happen sometime. As weak as the clause is, it should be child’s play for the lobbyists to kill it.

So stopping science before it starts is one way to promote mass ignorance. Another one is to take a hammer and wreck scientific results after they have been produced.

An article in the Atlantic Monthly last week brought this kind of active measure into the light. Basically, this is what has happened. A federal agency tightly under the control of the current regime (yes, it is a regime), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), got ahold of research produced by the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) that had been used to underwrite emissions restrictions put in place by the former administration.

The EPA had rolled out this research in the usual way, by publishing a detailed explanation of the science behind it and a transparent record of how it got incorporated into policy recommendations. This is the kind of boring, thankless job that civil servants do each day for the citizens and leaders of the country. It gets done not for glory or money, but because individual experts are committed to public service and professional standards.

This kind of boring, deliberate process, by the way, is necessary in a republic because it allows citizens and lawmakers to judge for themselves whether the laws and rules that regulate our lives comport with reason and reality. It’s the kind of thing you would read with interest if you suspect big government ever tends to get too big. This kind of transparency is one thing that makes the difference between a law and a decree. When a government just says whatever it wants, without accountability or reason, that’s a decree.

And the NHTSA did such a shoddy job of showing its work on its latest emissions study that its conclusion looked an awful lot like a decree.

For decades, the EPA and NHTSA had coordinated closely on their work on tailpipe emissions, and their conclusions and policy recommendations were more or less issued jointly. But in 2018 the NHTSA took the most recent joint report on emissions and, without the EPA’s knowledge, re-jiggered its most important assumptions and re-did much of its math. The conclusion they came up with–and I am not making this up; if you don’t trust the Atlantic you can read the scientific paper on which its story is based–the conclusion they came up with was that increasing the weight and carbon emissions of American cars would save American lives.

This conclusion came out, unsurprisingly, without the long, tedious explanation that is required to accompany a change in federal rules. In the 7th grade, this is what you get a D for–writing a thesis sentence without any supporting evidence. It turned out, though, that there was something behind the study that was supposed to look like evidence, . . . kind of.

I had no idea what a turducken was before I read this article, but hats off to its author for describing the NHTSA’s reasoning behind this conclusion as a turducken of errors.

So instead of just coming out and making the baseless claim that we’d all be better off in bigger cars that emit more greenhouse gases, some apparatchiks in the NHTSA used a crayon–who knows, maybe it was a sharpie–to falsify the science behind a painstaking analysis to the contrary. The peer-reviewed science paper that rebuts NHTSA’s work says it “cited incorrect data and made calculation errors, on top of bungling the basics of supply and demand.”

I use the term apparatchik with due consideration. When Soviet regime loyalists needed to pull the wool over the people’s eyes, which was pretty much all the time, they would go back and change the written record to do so. They would simply make events or people disappear from books and newspapers. Or, insert new persons and events. And as Orwell illustrated in 1984, changing the documentary record with sufficient force and assiduousness is as good as changing the underlying reality.

Give an editor enough power, and s/he literally controls the truth. The NHTSA is trying to exercise this kind of power. It is trying to take a rule based in science and replace it with a decree based in the regime’s say-so.

The active suppression of facts–about guns, cars, what have you–flies in the face of what it means to be American. We are not supposed to be scared of information, or of the intellectual disciplines that test information and put it in theoretical context. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “[L]et facts be submitted to a candid world,” and the world can evaluate them. The current regime, which has already outraged so many other American values, thinks we are unworthy of knowing facts, prefers that we put our faith in memes and bumper stickers instead. This active maiming of our own intellectual faculties is what makes decrees possible.

Our country was created for the bold exercise of intellectual courage. It’s part of our national purpose. Alexander Hamilton wrote about this in Federalist No. 1, the very first essay that made a case for what our country would be for. First and foremost, he said, the United States would be an experiment:

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Sins of omission happen by the hundreds. Have I read every rule explanation that deals with, say, implementing the Clean Water Act? Nope. I’ve let my intellectual responsibilities slide. But I have a certain amount of justified faith that the pertinent explanations are available and have been designed by reflection and choice. I have been able, so far, to get by on a certain amount of trust that my government makes laws, not decrees.

But the government’s active measures to induce intellectual sloth and cowardice compromise this trust. Greater vigilance is called for. When we let a government cancel science and shout down reason, we make way for a life ruled by accident and force.

 

 

 

Review of “From Russia with Blood”

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

When Russian oligarch Mikhail Lesin ended up bludgeoned to death in his Washington D.C. hotel room in November 2015, the circumstances seemed suspicious.

Lesin was the founder of the English-language TV news channel Russia Today, and before that he had been Russia’s Minister of Mass Communications, twice, under Vladimir Putin. The job he had done for Putin was to eliminate the independent news media and replace it with talking heads that would silence the opposition and kowtow to the Kremlin. He was known as the bulldozer.

So, today, when Putin and other senior Russian officials appear on TV to smirk about the untimely deaths of the Kremlin’s political opponents–as they have done dozens of times–it is mostly Lesin they have to thank for enabling them.

And if you’ve never checked out Lesin’s brainchild, RT, you should. Its production values are just north of Fox News’s and its objectivity just south. Well, maybe. It depends on the day. RT’s mission, which it carries out well, is to make you feel like a sophisticated news consumer for believing there is no such thing as journalistic integrity. There are only messages out there, no truth. So take your pick.

But back to Lesin in that hotel room. The funny thing was, he was scheduled to meet with investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice the day his body was discovered. Despite years of being a loyal propaganda master to Putin, he had fallen out of the Kremlin’s favor since 2012, by drinking too much and squirreling away a suspicious amount of money in his new second home in Los Angeles, where he’d moved in 2011. Ostensibly he had needed the place in LA to establish RT’s beachhead in the U.S., but by 2012, he was starting to look settled there. Too settled. He owned two mansions in Beverly hills, his son was a Hollywood producer, and his $40 million yacht was docked nearby.

All that money came from somewhere, of course, and it probably wasn’t clean. That’s where the DoJ came in. By 2014 the feds knew Lesin was running scared from Putin’s assassins, and Washington was probably eager to make a deal. It would use an investigation of Lesin’s money laundering to strike a quid-pro-quo, offering to go soft on the oligarch’s financial crimes if he would cough up intelligence about Putin and the Kremlin’s inner workings.

Which is basically one of the best ways that exist to end up bludgeoned to death in your D.C. hotel room.

But funny enough, that’s not how the D.C. cops saw it. When the coroner determined Lesin had died of repeated applications of blunt-force trauma to the head,  the police concluded Lesin had done it to himself, by getting falling-down drunk and, well, falling down. Many times, and very hard. They didn’t know what to make of an unidentified person seen on CCTV going to Lesin’s room that night, so they dismissed the footage. Lesin had just had a really weird, bad night that ended in a bizarre tragedy. On the night before he was to meet with the DoJ. Is it too much to believe? Well, there is no truth out there, only messages. Take your pick.

From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin’s Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin’s Secret War on the West by BuzzFeed journalist Heidi Blake, is a painstakingly researched, ferociously reported story of the Kremlin’s increasingly bold killing of opponents abroad and at home.

Lesin’s death, while luridly fascinating, is only a side show to the string of 14 suspicious killings of Kremlin opponents that have occurred in the United Kingdom since 2006. That was the year two Russians poisoned the defector and former Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive element polonium. Polonium is so radioactive that the two assassins who spread it on Litvinenko’s teacup left a trail of it all over London and inside the commercial airliner they used to escape back to Russia. The cleanup cost several million pounds. A doctor determined the assassins had used 26 times the lethal amount of polonium to kill Litvinenko. The substance could be, and ultimately was, traced to a unique source in Russia.

This meant two things. One, the Kremlin intended Litvinenko’s murder to be an emphatic warning, a deliberate atrocity carried out with Soviet giganticism. Twenty-six times the lethal amount of poison is like shooting someone 100 times with a pistol.

But it wasn’t a shooting, which would have caused a scene and possibly an arrest. So, two, Putin wanted just enough plausible deniability to brush off Britain’s criminal accusations but no more. Like any mob boss, he wanted the victim’s family and supporters to know who had ordered the hit. No sooner had Putin denied the killing with typical icy deflection than a loyal deputy in the Duma said of Litvinenko, “The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am sure his terrible death will be a warning to all the traitors that in Russia the treason is not to be forgiven.

We didn’t do it, but if we did, the rat deserved it.

And it didn’t stop there. The alleged assassins, safe back home, were trotted out and interviewed on Russian news channels, establishing their innocence and complete befuddlement at being caught up in such wild international accusations. It is likely that many ordinary Russians watching the two men knew what the world’s intelligence services knew: that those men were really Russian agents and they really had killed Litvinenko. But ordinary Russians liked it that Putin could stick it in the world’s eye by bulldozing the truth and killing traitors wherever he found them.

From Russia

From Russia with Blood tells an infuriating story of how the Kremlin has been bulldozing the truth and flexing its mob muscle since Putin rose to power in 2000. From the most recent outrage on international law, the brazen poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal in March 2018 in the UK, all the way back to Putin’s recruitment of Mikhail Lesin in 2000 to eliminate the free press in Russia, all the people now dead who were linked in any way to Litvinenko shared a trait that makes them potentially very dangerous. They were all knowledgeable of a credible criminal theory that implicates Putin in acts of state terrorism dating back to the beginning of his career as a national politician.

The causal news consumer in the West can be forgiven for believing the standard line on Putin–that he is a little authoritarian around the edges but not fundamentally different from any strong national leader. In the early 2000s our own leaders, George W. Bush and Tony Blair foremost, worked hard to cultivate this image of Putin. It was part of bringing Russia into the liberal world order after the chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

What the Western leaders didn’t know–or, what they refused to believe–was that Putin had likely orchestrated the bloody national emergencies in the heart of Russia that had helped propel him to power, starting with a string of apartment building bombings in late 1999. Although the bombings, which killed more than 300 people, were blamed on Chechen separatists (launching a bloody but highly convenient war), Litvinenko methodically uncovered evidence (about the FSB, the very agency in which he worked) that directly implicated Putin.

By the time Litvinenko defected to the UK in 2001, he had all the evidentiary material he needed to establish Putin’s guilt, which he wrote down in a book, with the shockingly frank title Blowing Up Russia. (You think meeting with the American DoJ to talk about Putin is a good way to get yourself whacked?) It built on an earlier book by Litvinenko, with the less explosive title The Gang from Lubyanka, advancing the eye-popping accusation that Putin’s rise to power had been a criminal enterprise from the beginning because he was in so thick with the mafia.

From Russia with Blood is a clear-eyed, highly readable account of what happened to every Russian (and many foreign associates) who knew of, promoted, or were even looking into the evidence behind Litvinenko’s theories. By the time you put the book down, you cannot fail but take seriously Blake’s thesis that Putin has long gotten away with murder and intends to do so again. It is the foundation of his power. From Russia with Blood is a glaring, violent morality tale of what happens when a vindictive strongman accrues unaccountable power.

 

 

 

Russians

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Gore Vidal once declined to take an interviewer’s bait suggesting that he might be hiding a warmer layer beneath his icy, patrician surface. Vidal said if you cracked his frozen surface you would find only cold water beneath it. Not the slightest hint of the warmth the interviewer was going for.

Vidal had a very cold eye for American politics.

Among his more memorable observations, two always stand out in my mind.

There is only one party in America, he said on more than one occassion, and it has two right wings–the party of property. This was to remind Americans that by the 1950s, a whole range of decisions we had been trained to label as “left wing” was, in fact, the stuff of plain old governance, which, for most of our history, ran toward the center-right. This included the provision of schools, hospitals, and the rest of the public infrastructure on which a modern economy depends. Many American adults used to know, for example, that you could not have a road without paying for it and the way to pay for it was agreeing to pay a tax.

Which leads to Vidal’s other standout observation.

He also decried the info-tainment revolution in political discourse, not because it was shabby, but because it forever changed the subject of political debate. Politics, Vidal was wont to say, used to be an adult conversation about who gets what from the state, how they get it, and what they wish to to do with it. This dry sort of talk has been replaced by celebrity trash mongering.

The serious conversation about money still goes on, of course, but its architects have learned they can hold it in private if they just fling to Us the People enough mentions of guns, abortion, and scandal.

Vidal was never what you would call coy in his opinion of the body politic, but by the end of his career he stopped even being polite. “Your lack of education is the joke of the world,” he told Americans in one of his last interviews, in 2009. “And it’s not a very nice joke,” he added, in the spirit of helping, I suppose.

So, looking back at a proposal Vidal had made in a 1992 essay about forming an economic union with Russia, it is easy to read the cynical politics between the lines of what appears to be an all-business deal. What Vidal wrote was:

Although we don’t have much money left to give [Russia], a lively president and a few corporate magnates with no more than average IQs could start making deals to develop Russian oil and other resources. This would generate the money for the Russians to buy our consumer goods, which, in turn, would make us prosperous again.

So far so good. (I find Vidal, the storied leftist, gets far too little credit for his mastery of Realpolitik. He once said with a straight face that the only reason America should go to war, other than self defense, is if it needs the loot.)

But then Vidal tacks on this observation, originally made by an even colder eye, on why an economic union with Russia would be a good fit:

H.L. Mencken noted many years ago that the “Russians were like the Americans. They, too, were naturally religious and confiding; they, too, were below the civilized average in intelligence; and they, too, believed in democracy, and were trying to give it a trial.”

One gets the disquieting sense that Vidal is not making his recommendation in good faith. He seems already to have relegated the American people to the status of a joke. If we are intent on being nothing more than crass, profligate consumers with a very large military, we should go all in, he seems to suggest, and find our natural friends, with whom to make common cause. He is at pains to say these friends would not be the up and coming Japanese or Chinese, who would have no use for us. Drifting downward, and on the wrong side of history, we would be left with the Russians.

Elsewhere (I can’t find the source at the moment), Vidal comes completely clean and says the real reason America should ally itself with Russia is a combination of culture and geopolitics: we are both fighting rearguard actions to defend the industrialized supremacy of a shrinking population of white people in the global North. Of course Vidal did not believe in this cause per se. He abhorred bigotry and all other kinds of narrow-mindedness. What he meant was, we belonged with the Russians, and we should have the courage to say so. When Americans decry Russians as blockheaded, thuggish, parochial and cruel, we should at least have the honesty to admit it is our own image we see in the mirror they are holding up to us.

If we are going to be so monumentally stupid as to turn the 21st century into an age of racial war against Asia and Africa and the whole global South, we should square up and recognize who our closest allies in the fight would be–the Russians. Let the doughfaced pugilists of the moneygrubbing world unite!

Understand, please, I am only commending Vidal’s thoughts on this topic as an intellectual exercise. It is instructive to analyze everything that is “wrong” with Vidal’s position. (I also suspect Vidal of some deep Socratic irony here, so let’s run with that.)

I was reminded last month–more than once–of how grossly Vidal underestimates the Russian national character. Or, to adapt the words of the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, how distatsefully close Vidal comes to “us[ing] the word ‘Russians’ to mean goons.” We have equated Russianness with Putinism.

When in 1992 Vidal said, in effect, oh, go ahead America, make common cause with Russia, he was imagining an alliance formed between our lowest common denominators. Deplorables, if you will. (One can see this script being flipped to great ironic effect, by the way. It is all too easy to imagine a Russian Gore Vidal chiding the desperate poor in his country that if they could only buy as many guns as their American comrades, they could accelerate to a mad, Hunter S. Thompson rush what has been depressing, Gogolian slog toward suicidal nihilism. Live free or die? America’s armed peasants show you can have it both ways!)

In actuality, most of the 3 million people who identify as Russian Americans came here seeking shelter from authoritarianism. This authoritarianism was born, furthermore, of the very elements of “Russianness” that Vidal in 1992 wished us to recognize as our own, the potential basis of an alliance with Russia–militarism, materialism, nationalism, and a religious Weltanschauung that was–Mencken war right–below the civilized average in its intelligence.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Russian American are among the most eleoquent defenders of America’s unique brand of political freedom. Also unsurprisingly, they are acutely sensitive to the biggest threats to it.

In a passionate but clear-eyed essay in the New York Review of Books, Russian-American dissident Gary Kasparov warns that the rise of Trumpism, which was consolidated by the U.S. Senate’s refusal last week to hear witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, bears too many similarites to the slow-motion coup of Vladimir Putin to ignore. Trump has exploited plain-as-day loopholes in our laws, Kasparov says, left there by our assumption that the president would always be a minimally decent person with a rudimentary commitment to public service. There are lines in the sand, drawn by custom and tradition.

Nashi big
The pro-Putin group Nashi (“Ours”) wants to make Russia great again [image: RFE/RL]
Well, Kasparov knows better than most what little power custom and tradtition have when systematically challenged. Here, he describes how frail a legal barrier custom and tradition can be when it comes under bold frontal assault:

After three years of his increasingly disgraceful behavior, Trump’s critics still seem to believe there are lines he will not cross in order to protect himself and his power. This is a common mistake, and a natural one. A disregard for anything but oneself is a type of evil superpower in politics (and business). It allows such people to constantly surprise their rivals by doing what others find unthinkable. Every time I hear someone say, “But Trump would never do x,” I recall all the times we were told by tut-tutting Western pundits that surely Putin would never jail his opposition, would never return to the presidency, would never invade Ukraine, etc. He would and he did.

Institutions, we once thought, would always stand up to an autocrat. We were as wrong about that as Putin’s Russians were wrong about Putin. Starting with political parties, our institutioins are failing to do their jobs, as Kasparov warns:

Leading the way to political perdition is the American Republican Party. The party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan is now slavishly loyal to a corrupt reality-TV host whose only demonstrable allegiances are to his own image and Vladimir Putin. GOP legislators of the past pushed back against Richard Nixon, against Gerald Ford, and even against Reagan and George W. Bush. That someone of the high crimes and low character of Donald Trump now commands complete Republican fealty says more about the state of the GOP, and perhaps the country, than about Trump—and it says nothing good.

Worse, the GOP sees Trump not as an embarrassment to endure but as a working model to perpetuate. What Trump believes matters not at all; it only matters that he won and holds power. Worst of all, Trumpism looks set to outlast Trump himself—with whichever equally unqualified family member tries to succeed him in the finest autocratic tradition. Trump’s victory in the 2016 election validated his personal bombastic political style. There is still time to relegate it as a terrible mistake, a tragic fluke of tiny electoral college margins, an unpopular opponent, foreign intervention, and media gullibility. But Trump’s reelection in 2020 would validate his political methods and have a long-lasting impact on America and the world.

Russian-American journalist Anastasia Edel describes with great eloquence how fluidly American attitudes toward Russians have shifted since her family fled the USSR for the US in the 1970s:

To be a first-generation Russian-American in the age of Donald Trump is a somewhat nutty experience. As “Russians,” the identity into which we were born, we are now associated less with Dostoevsky and Pasternak, and more with election interference, troll farms, and other subversions of democracy. Yet as “Americans,” our hard-earned new identity, we are the citizens of the very democracy that the “Russians” are believed to have sabotaged. The set-up seems almost purposely literary. In the age of Trump, we are America’s Trojan horse, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov in one person. If the Russians didn’t exist, it would have been a good idea to invent us.

And again, it is the Russians’ exposure to the varieties of the totalitarian experience in the old country that shapes their consciousness as liberal democrats in America. They’ve seen the goons, gulags and other forms of state repression arrive on the scene before, and they know authoritarianism sometimes creeps before it runs. Edel writes:

In February 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and a perestroika-era symbol of Russia’s democratic rebirth, was gunned down not far from the Kremlin. That March, the then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told the Daily Mail about “an award and a beautiful letter” he had received from Vladimir Putin. Over the course of the year, he praised Putin’s “leadership,” called him “brilliant,” and said he would “get along” with him. For Russian-Americans like myself, this was the time when Russia “came home.” No surprise that early warnings against Trump’s authoritarianism came from “the Russians”—public figures like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Garry Kasparov, and Masha Gessen. “Holy autocrats,” “Father Tsars,” and “Fathers of All Nations” have ruled our land for centuries, so we can spot the type even when he comes in the guise of “Make America Great Again.” We agonized when our American friends told us Trump could not win. Our memories of totalitarianism were too fresh to discount gut feeling in favor of opinion polls.

Elections are not equivalent with democracy. They can lead to that broad, sunlit upland, but they can also lead into a wilderness. It takes a full range of robust institutions and a motivated, informed public to keep a democratic republic.

We passed a grim milestone this week, in which our own institutions did not just falter in checking the president’s aspirations for monarchical power, but they actively supported and succored them. Any Russian Americans watching could have easily seen shades of the Politburo in the Capitol rotunda.

Back to Gore Vidal’s sour question, then: Are we Russia?

Edel thinks it’s a comparison worth considering. She writes:

Perhaps the real bottom line, as Nina Khrushcheva says, is that Americans are much more like Russians than they care to admit. Both live in large, multinational countries. Both are not averse to messianic ideas and a belief in their unique path. The other side’s faults are magnified in the mirror that we hold up to each other. The blacker the colors with which we paint our adversary, the brighter we appear by comparison. To believe that Russia is the reason for, rather than amplifier of, the disturbing tendencies in American society is tempting, because if Russia goes away, so will those tendencies. The danger is that we may be taking our desires for reality.

We should listen to “our” Russians. Most of them came here because they recognized their country for what it was and decided they could not be fully themselves there. They would need a new home, and America held out, as it always had, the world’s best guarantees that they could come and pursue happiness unmolested by state repression. They may not have a monopoly on truth, but they know what it looks like when the liberal order gives way to the illiberalism of a strongman. They know it doesn’t have to come to this, to Putinism. That’s why they are here. We should listen to our Russians.

 

Militarism and National Pride

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

What kinds of things should Americans be proud of?

Only since the late 1940s have we been proud of military might as a token of national strength. In a way, being a military superpower wasn’t something we asked for. World War Two started in far away places, and we joined the fighting only when our hand was forced by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (And, less noticed, because FDR increasingly came to see the war as a global, existential conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism, from which we could not in good conscience absent ourselves.)

So we had to build a war-winning machine, which we did. The scale of the task was larger than in times past, but we prepared for war in 1941 the way we always had–on the fly. These days it’s difficult, if not impossible, to recall a time when our country was not on a permanent war footing.

We didn’t used to consider war a normal part of life. Before the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, we had had a Department of War, not Defense, and we only had that intermittently, when necessary.

To put that in perspective, our country existed for 171 years without a permanent department to organize the provision of national defense. We also lacked a standing army for most of that time. But when World War Two ended, not with a clear and decisive victory for liberal democracy but with a lingering, persistent threat of conflict with the USSR, it became necessary to form permanent institutions of defense.

This was, in my estimation, a national tragedy. Our hand may have been forced, but in any case the country turned a corner and became something it had never been before, a national security state.

With the passage of the National Security Act, the resulting colossus of a defense- and intelligence bureaucracy imbricated itself with a massive network of defense industries and educational institutions. The whole thing became precisely what Dwight Eisenhower warned could overtake our national purpose–a military industrial complex.

And of course, Ike had no idea what a corporate lobbyist was, or he would have referred to them as part of the MIC too. This suave and canny battalion of retired generals grow rich promoting the business of defense–and in doing so they keep the permanent war economy humming.

Today the U.S. national security state is unstoppable. This is primarily because it is politically unquestionable. In 1981 Ronald Reagan immunized the national military budget against meaningful review, saying in a speech that defense was “not a line item expense.” He meant that defense was a fixed cost, to be paid out before the leftovers–which make up the discretionary budget–are divvied up.

You can see the legacy of this doctrine today in the way the defense budget is set aside. Although politicians give lip service to the idea that we gauge our future military to specific threats we anticipate, this argument is mocked by the way the budget is really drawn up.

As Jessica Mathews wrote in the New York Review of Books in July 2019, “For several decades, we have maintained an extraordinarily high level of defense spending with the support of both political parties and virtually all of the public. The annual debate about the next year’s military spending, underway now on Capitol Hill, no longer probes where real cuts might be made (as opposed to cuts in previously planned growth) but only asks how big the increase should be.”

Regardless of all the work that scientists, intelligence analysts and other experts put into understanding future threats against which to calibrate our military capabilities, the Pentagon spending graph simply describes an unthinking upward arrow. It represents a percentage of national wealth fixed by dogma, not intelligence, imagination or empirical information.

The uncritical conviction with which we accept this arrangement is relatively new. Americans viewed President Lincoln’s first-ever levying of an income tax as an emergency measure necessary to win the Civil War, and they were eager to turn it off as soon as the war was won.

There was no permanent income tax until the 16th amendment to the constitution was ratified in 1913. Today the tax spigot runs night and today into the Defense Department, at full blast. I’m not sure how many Americans understand how much political choice has been taken away from them by the normalization of unquestioned defense expenditures and the national security state that perpetuates them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no hippie peacenik. I served in the military. So did my dad. So does my sister. We have all fought in foreign wars. I believe in having a strong enough military to provide for a national defense. I even acknowledge that some costly overseas military commitments that were once characterized as unwelcome “foreign entanglements” have evolved into constructive alliances and real friendships. Our abiding military alliance with Germany, for example, is the world’s best guarantee that vibrant, powerful, ingenious countries will not be tempted once again into the darkness of militarized fascism.

The necessity of having a national security state is what the political scientist John Mearsheimer calls the “tragedy of great power politics.” The logic of security competition dictates that the safest place in a dangerous world is at the top of the military power order. So, if you live in a big, powerful country, you are always gunning for that goal. Second place is not good enough.

In line with this logic but without anyone voting for it, our number one national priority became military supremacy sometime between 1945 and 1947. Then, it was fixed as law. And whatever onerous job Americans take on, we take pride in doing it well. We became great military-industrialists.

I’d like to take a few minutes to think about the unseen, neglected costs of this development. What kinds of great accomplishments we had taken pride in in the past, before we became militarists?And what kinds of great accomplishments ought we to take pride in going forward? The shadow cast by our overwhelming military power obscures many other things we used to be good at and consider vital to our national character–things worthy of national pride.

Pride and patriotism have gone out of fashion with much of my tribe of progressives and communitarians. Pretty much the whole left started going silent on national pride since Vietnam, and the theme hasn’t picked up much since then. This is a mistake.

In his 1998 book Achieving Our Country, the philosopher Richard Rorty argues that national pride is essential to good politics whether of the left or right. He writes:

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely. Emotional involvement with one’s country–feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history–is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation probably will not occur unless pride outweighs shame.

Whatever causes we may have for pessimism at particular moments in history, our longer-term national faith in progress requires that we override them. “Democracy,” wrote William James, “is a kind of religion, and we are bound not to admit its failure.”

We have a deep need to believe in our country and to find reasons to be proud of it. Ideally, there should be some consensus about what these reasons are, but the pursuit of this consensus must be guided by moral seriousness. As the Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes in the introduction to her 2019 book This America: The Case for the Nation:

Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars, or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will. The endurance of nationalism proves there’s never any shortage of fiends and frauds willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to pour out the contents of old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls to violence. When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.

Liberalism, the cause on which our country was founded, is at risk of dying? That sounds dire. But, Lepore continues, more hopefully:

Liberalism is still in there. The trick is getting it out. There’s only one way to do that. It requires grabbing and holding onto a very good idea: that all people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guaranteed by a nation of laws. This requires making the case for the nation.

Notice what she said there at the end. We must make the case for the nation. Not the laws; those will be determined by the question, What is the nation for?

this america

There are three reasons, I believe, to look beyond our country’s military strength for the sources of inspiration capable of renewing our sense of national pride and making the case for the nation.

The first is that, even if military might can be seen as an intrinsically noble national characteristic, it is one that has been forced upon us by the logic of state-level security competition. As such, it is more a reflexive adaptation to global circumstances than an informed, creative choice about what our nation is for. When I think of the struggles and accomplishments that underwrite my self-respect, I think first of the things I freely chose, such as studying hard or having children, over adaptations forced on me by circumstances. Make no mistake, one’s responses to unbidden challenges are certainly a mark of character, but surely it the the things we must first imagine before pursuing them that lie closer to the glowing core of  who we are.

Second, military might is a value-neutral characteristic, neither good nor bad in itself. Abraham Lincoln built a military juggernaut between 1861 and 1865 to defend the cause of liberal democracy. But then, Josef Stalin did the same from 1941 to 1945, in the service of monstrous authoritarianism.

My point is, any country with a certain amount of resources and organizational capacity can become militarily powerful without affecting their internal character. Don’t we want to focus first on the character we are seeking to defend?

Third, and this is relatively new, militarism at the national level has trickled down to the individual level, poisoning communal life by turning every public space you enter into a potential armed standoff. The same tragic circumstances our government is forced to confront in the international arena we have voluntarily re-created in our home lives. Stand Your Ground and Guns Everywhere laws mean the citizen is now legally obliged to regard normal life as armed conflict. And it touches us at our most tender points. In public schools across the country, the normalization of mass shooter drills and the corresponding provision of armed guards make up “rational” solutions to a problem that no decent, morally literate people would ever choose. But choose it we have.

Was this what our country was created for? To promote such a robust common defense that its by-products of military chauvinism and runaway gun culture dominate our social and cultural existence?

Thomas Jefferson, our greatest rhetorical defender of freedom, thought not. In the 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, Jonathan Metzl surveys the yawning gap between where Jefferson saw our nation going and where we have actually come:

“[T]he care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good governance,” [Jefferson wrote]. A politics that spreads guns, blocks health care and defunds schools seems to have forgotten Jefferson’s basic principle. Behind these agendas are core assumptions that the happiness of a select few persons takes precedence over the care of a great many others.

All of the things that make me proud of America have something to do with care. I love Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of the National Park system. It was a grandiose but deeply humane way of caring for our natural endowment. I love Ellis Island, and the idea that our land can take in broken, desperate lives and give them a new chance. I love the creation of frontier- and Freedman schools in the 19th century. They show we cared about children, and the mind. I love Walt Whitman. He wrote a poem that said all Americans are creating and re-creating ourselves all the time. We care so much about our destinies we are always working on them, perpetually busy, as Bob Dylan would put it, being born.

In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty wrote this about art and politics and pride:

Nations rely on artists and intellectuals to create images of, and to tell stories about, the national past. Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.

And, to adapt Jill Lepore’s observation above, you can get those symbols from conscientious students of our history, or you can get them from reactionary jackboots.

In closing, here are the symbols of American greatness that get my vote. They are the wellspring of the stories I would want to have told about us. They may not describe us in our totality, but they say something vitally important about who we are at our best.

We have safe public spaces with a robust built environment that helps the most people go the most places and do useful, desirable things. There are few if any lethal weapons in my America but lots of sidewalks, bike paths, libraries and ice cream shops. The poor and infirm go into these space and are not walled off from the rich and healthy, or useful destinations. The elderly are not made to live shut-in lives after they stop driving. Cars take second place to people. That would make me proud.

Healthcare is good and accessible to all. We abandond the sadistic fantasy that says helthcare is a scarce commodity and the poor and middle class people must compete with the rich to get it. Healthcare is a human right, and we have the laws to protect it as such. Most of the world’s developed countries understand it is wrong to price people out of widely available healthcare resources.

We have great public schools, and teachers are paid on a scale commensurate with the job they do. Educating the next generation is the most important task there is in a republic. It is the sine qua non of having a great country. At a rough guess, I would say pay all public school teachers twice what they are getting now. I would be proud of that.

I could go on, but i think you get the flavor. For much of our nation’s life, we’ve been busy pioneering, creating, envisioning, becoming something bigger. As we create new reasons to be proud of our nation, I think it is worth looking back on what made us bold and inventive in the past. And then looking forward, to imagine a new republic, in which we re-order our priorities in creative, life-affirming ways.