8/31/08

The Forest's Edge

At the Forest’s Edge

In his essay, The Empire of the Ugly, the great Belgian Sinologist and literary essayist Simon Leys recounts the story of how, writing one day in a café, a small incident gave him an insight into the real nature of philistinism.

A radio was playing in the background, a mixture of banal and miscellaneous chatter and equally banal popular music. No one in the café paid any attention to this stream of tepid drivel until suddenly, unexpectedly and inexplicably, the first bars of Mozart’s clarinet quintet were played. “Mozart,” Leys says, “took possession of our little space with a serene authority, transforming the café into an antechamber of Paradise.”

The other people in the café, who until then were chatting, playing cards, or reading the newspaper, were not deaf to the radio after all. The music silenced them, they looked at each other, disconcerted. “Their disarray lasted only a few seconds: to the relief of all, one of them stood up, changed the radio station and re-established the flow of noise that was more familiar and comforting, which everyone could then properly ignore.”

Here is the conclusion that Leys draws:

At that moment, I was struck by an obvious fact that has never left me since: that the real philistines are not those people incapable of recognizing beauty—they recognize it only too well, with a flair as infallible as that of the subtlest aesthete, but only to pounce on it and smother it before it can take root in their universal empire of ugliness.

Thus, philistinism is a positive, and not merely a negative, force: something that Leys was well-placed to recognize, having been almost alone among western Sinologists in pointing out the militant and vicious philistinism of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

As it happens, I once had an experience not dissimilar from his in the café. I was driving to the prison to attend to a prisoner. It was a hot day, and my car window was open. I was playing Chopin, not very loudly, on my car radio. It was an area in which the rap music from passing cars is often apprehended first by pedestrians as a vibration coming up from the ground into their legs. I stopped at some traffic lights, and a man passing approached me and, his face contorted with rage and hatred, shouted at me, “What have you got that shit on for?”

Not very long before that incident, I had visited Liberia in the course of its prolonged and brutal civil war. I found that the rebels had not merely destroyed the authority of an admittedly highly imperfect, corrupt, and unscrupulous government; they had gone on to dismantle every vestige of higher civilization they could find, as if refinement itself were nothing but a mask for injustice and oppression.

Thus the hospitals, in which no medical activity whatsoever now took place, had not merely been damaged in fire-fights between opposing forces, government and rebel, but every piece of equipment, down to the last little trolley, had been systematically dismantled, so that, at considerable effort, the wheels had been sawn from them to ensure that they could never again be used in any capacity. This was done with astonishing thoroughness even in a ghost hospital where, previously, open-heart surgery had been carried out.

The university was likewise destroyed, and the library sacked by people who obviously had not just an indifference to books, but an active hatred of them, a desire for revenge upon them and all that they represented. In the Centennial Hall in Monrovia, the ceremonial building in which the presidents of Liberia were inaugurated, what was probably the country’s one Steinway grand piano had had its legs sawn off, and the stricken piano lay on the ground, surrounded by a ring of human feces. The most alarming thing, to me at any rate, about the whole scene was that two young British journalists whom I sent to have a look at it, who had both been through higher education, could see no significance in it whatsoever. Why, they asked, was I concerned over the fate of a mere piano, an inanimate object, when at least a quarter of a million people had been killed? That there might be some connection between the two did not enter their minds; this convinced me (once again) that savagery was not confined to what Albert Schweitzer called the edge of the primeval forest.

None of the above would, I think, have surprised either Sigmund Freud or José Ortega y Gasset, whose most famous works on the state of the world, Civilization and Its Discontents and The Revolt of the Masses, were published in the same inauspicious year, 1930. Their view that mankind was not moving inexorably towards a condition of complete contentment and satisfaction thanks to technical advance was triumphantly vindicated, if triumph it can be called, in the years following. Both authors were to suffer exile, but this was an infinitesimal part of the suffering which was soon to come.

The two analyses of the existential condition of mankind are different in emphasis. Although Ortega says penetrating things about the psychology of modern man, he regards that psychology as secondary to sociological change. Freud emphasizes the psychological as primary. For him, the peculiar danger of the age, as he sees it, arises merely from man’s mastery of the means to carry out on a larger scale than ever before his habitual aggressions; in essence, there is nothing new in his psychology, at least since the development of civilization itself. By contrast, Ortega thinks a new and radically different kind of man has arisen, whom he calls mass-man.

Freud offers no solution to the existential difficulties that mankind finds itself in, whereas Ortega—who is principally preoccupied by the European situation of his day—offers a cure that seems at least as bad as the disease itself, namely the construction of a pan-European nationality. But one reads the two books not so much for their detailed argument as for their prophetic and minatory atmosphere. One forgets their arguments almost as soon as one puts the books down, but, strangely enough, something much stronger and more durable remains with one.

Freud’s last paragraph begins as follows:

The fateful question for the human race seems to be whether, and to what extent, the development of civilization will manage to overcome the disturbance of communal life caused by the human drive for aggression and self-destruction.

In other words, man is endowed by nature with instinctual desires that have to be controlled in civilized conditions, if those conditions are to continue to obtain, but the control gives rise to frustration, guilt, and anxiety, that is to say to discontent.

Freud’s model of the mind is deeply hydraulic (he grew up in the great age of steam, after all). He tells us, for example, that “any restriction of … outward-directed aggression would be bound to increase the degree of self-destruction.” On this view, then, the attempt to control outward aggression (and the sexual urge, the other great component of what he calls the id) must result in pathology of one kind or another. As one prisoner who had just killed his girlfriend put it to me, “I had to kill her, doctor, or I don’t know what I would’ve done.” Suffered from a mild degree of hypertension, perhaps, which would have been far worse.

On a hydraulic model, of course, it is hardly surprising if a head of steam, that is to say instinct, builds up occasionally, and eventually bursts the machine that contains it asunder. There will be Chinese Cultural Revolutions and Liberian Civil Wars from time to time (and not only in China or Liberia) that wreak havoc on all the material symbols of civilized restraint. The iconoclast, resentful at the restraint he has hitherto been forced by circumstances to show, will look at those symbols and, like Malvolio, say, “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

Freud, having become a climate of opinion (or perhaps I should say, in recognition of his undoubted talents as a publicist, having made himself such), affected western man’s view of mankind for a long time. Anthropologists went searching for the Oedipus complex in the offshore islands of New Guinea. And as a young man I heard many debates about the effects on behavior of representations of violence on television and in film, those who argued that artistic license in this respect was an unmitigated good relying almost wholly on Freud’s hydraulic model. According to this model, one murder more watched on television or in the cinema was one less committed in real life, the amount of murderous aggression in the human breast being constant. The more licentious our symbolic representations, therefore, the more truly virtuous, as against merely repressed, we would become.

But Civilization and Its Discontents is a deeply ambiguous book, as is Freud’s position in intellectual and cultural history. He is usually regarded as a cultural revolutionary, and no doubt objectively speaking (in the Stalinist sense of the word), this is correct. His effect as a matter of historical record was certainly revolutionary, and at least some of what he said could be taken as supportive of a cultural revolution. In Civilization and Its Discontents, for example, he says more than once that civilization, precisely because it imposes such restraints on man’s instinctual appetites, leaves him less happy than he was in a state of nature. It would be only too easy to conclude from this that Freud thought that a return to an instinctual free-for-all was desirable, especially as he says that the purpose and aim of most men in life is happiness.

But Freud was a thorough-going Viennese bourgeois himself; one cannot easily imagine him as an uninhibited pot-smoking nudist hippy. He was far too well-tailored for that nonsense. He had a scientistic outlook typical of a certain Germanophone intellectual of the era that by the end of his life was very old-fashioned, and was certainly not the outlook of a man who thought that anything went—quite the reverse in fact. If he believed that civilization made men unhappy, he did not think that they would willingly give up its comforts and safety for a return to nature. They were therefore stuck with civilization; their revolt against it was a little like Québecois threats to secede from Canada, constantly threatened and always troublesome, but not likely in the long run to destroy everything.

Freud believed that suffering caused by frustration was the condition of civilized existence; it could not be avoided. His view of the human mental economy being a hydraulic one, he thought that if suffering did not come to man in one way, it would come in another. He would have agreed with Doctor Johnson’s great philosophical fable, Rasselas, that no way of life is so satisfactory that it lacks many dissatisfactions. I am human, therefore I am dissatisfied. This conclusion does not come from psychoanalysis—whenever Freud uses the locution “As psychoanalytical investigations have shown …” you can be sure that intellectual sleight of hand is about to follow, for such investigations have not “shown” anything, not in the sense that Pasteur showed that fermentation was an organic process. No, Freud came to his conclusion as a highly cultivated, intelligent, elderly bourgeois reflecting upon life, and his conclusion is a conservative one, at least if it is conservative to believe that there are inherent existential limitations to human life and that political schemes that do not recognize them will almost certainly end in violence and avoidable suffering.

Ortega’s view is in some respects similar, though he draws rather different conclusions. He begins his book with a famous declaration that seems to admit of no appeal:

There is a fact that, for good or evil, is the most important one about public life in Europe of the present day. This fact is the advent of the masses to full social power.

The picture Ortega draws of the mass man is not an attractive or flattering one, but Ortega is not a snob who simply excoriates the appalling habits and tastes of those below him in the social scale. For him, mass man is the man who has no transcendent purpose in life, who lives in an eternal present moment which he wants to make pleasurable in a gross and sensual way, who thinks that ever-increasing consumption is the end of life, who goes from distraction to distraction, who is prey to absurd fashions, who never thinks deeply and who, above all, has a venomous dislike of any other way of living but his own, which he instinctively feels as a reproach. He will not recognize his betters; he is perfectly satisfied to be as he is.

Mass man accepts no fundamental limits on his own life. Any limits that he may encounter are purely technical, to be removed by future advance. He believes that life is and ought to be a kind of existential supermarket, that an infinitude of choices is always before him, in which no choice restricts or ought ever to restrict what is possible in the future. Life for mass man is not a biography, but a series of moments, each unconnected with the next, and all deprived of larger meaning or purpose.

Mass man does not have to be poor or stupid. He can be both highly paid and highly intelligent, in a narrow way, and he can also be very highly educated, or at least trained; indeed, as knowledge accumulates, and as it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to master more than the very smallest portion of human knowledge, so connected thought (of the kind of which mass man is incapable) becomes rarer and rarer. Mankind collectively knows more than ever before, says Ortega, but cultivated men grow fewer.

It is difficult to know how to prove or disprove what Ortega says, and he is certainly not the first to observe that a feeling of limitless satisfaction of appetites is not necessarily an aid to happiness. I suspect that one either reacts to him with a profound sense of recognition and relief that someone has penetrated to an essential and unpleasant truth about the modern age, much more important and significant than the superficial changes in the day-to-day political scene, or one dismisses him as a latter-day Don Quixote, for whom high culture plays the part of Dulcinea del Toboso. Needless to say, I react in the former manner.

ere are just a couple of straws in the wind. A close friend of mine has been teaching Cambridge medical students for more than twenty years, and they are all highly intelligent and capable, but only two of those whom he has taught had ever heard of Chekhov. (He tells them to read him, and they are all immediately enthralled, suggesting a terrible failure on the part of our educational system, and, at a deeper level, of our contemporary culture.)

I have noticed that highly educated public figures all either claim or actually do have the same tastes in distractions—such as, for example, soccer, soap operas, and pop music—as the least educated private citizens. Here, published on the very day that I write this, is the opening of an article published in The Guardian newspaper, more or less the house journal of Great Britain’s intelligentsia, about the way in which musical taste varies in different areas of the country:

If you live in London, you may be labouring under the misapprehension that happy hardcore, the fast-tempoed dance music style famed for its euphoric vocals and sentimental lyrics, died a death in the late 1990s. You may believe that the oeuvre of DJ Sharkey and Hixxy et al.—and even the bestselling happy hardcore compilation series, Bonkers—have now faded into obscurity. You may, as a Londoner, have become preoccupied by the charms of dubstep, or Dizzee Rascal’s grime. And so it may surprise you to know that today, happy hardcore, a little older, a little trancier, remains one of the biggest-selling musical genres in Scotland.

I doubt whether the writer of this article had it specifically in mind to demonstrate the truth of some of the underlying premises of Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses, but I also doubt whether, had she done so, she could have done it better. I doubt whether the assumption that low tastes are the only tastes that there are, that nothing is or ought to strive to be sub specie aeternitatis, and that highly educated man is now mass man, could be more succinctly illustrated than in this article.

Ortega’s brilliant and penetrating observations about modern man are unfortunately marred (in my view) by some bad and even sinister suggestions as to a solution. He correctly points to a lack of transcendent meaning or purpose in the lives of mass man to explain his free-floating, lightweight existence, in which any boundaries are felt as evidence of lèse-ego. (“No? What do you mean, no?” said my patients to me when I refused to prescribe for them what they wanted but did not need.) That is why mass man seeks solace in wilder and wilder distractions and consumption that is pointless except in the sense of keeping the economy ever-expanding.

Freud was an atheist, indeed a militant one. For him, belief in God was an infantile regression, an attempt to recapture that deep sense of security that a benevolently omnipotent father supposedly gives a young child. (It hardy mattered that he himself was perfectly prepared to believe in entities every bit as metaphysical as God, provided he had invented them himself.)

Hostile as he was to religion, he nevertheless recognized it as an answer to Man’s ontological anxieties. But just as he hoped through psychoanalysis to transform neurosis into ordinary unhappiness, so he hoped that, in abandoning religion, Man would appreciate his true position in the universe as a mature being who faces reality. What this acute man seems to have missed is that most people cannot bear much reality: with what consequences he was soon to experience for himself, when he wrote “finis Austriae” as the Nazis took over Vienna.

Because Ortega, like Freud, was an atheist, he could not suggest a religious solution to the problem. Surprisingly, perhaps, he does not offer a cultural solution either (Freud suggests that the sublimation of existential dissatisfactions in intellectual and artistic pursuits is a partial, but only partial, solution, at least for the small proportion of men with intellectual and artistic gifts). Instead, Ortega argues that modern European man needs a transcendent political purpose, a feeling that he is engaged on a project that is bigger than his own life. Nationalism is an attempt to give him one, says Ortega, but since European nations are all now far too small for the energies and technical capacities of man in the modern world, there must be a European union. Only thereby can Europe continue to lead and dominate the world as it should. Indeed, Ortega goes so far as to say that life without European leadership would have no meaning for him.

Ortega tells us that national identities are shifting and variable, more constructed than spontaneously arising, and that therefore a European identity could, and indeed must, be forged. He does not go into the rather difficult matter, which is vulgarly practical, of who is to do the forging. He points to the fact that France and Spain were once as much geographical expressions as Italy was, and that nationhood followed unification, not the other way round. Where, now, is the Duchy of Burgundy, but did not people once feel Burgundian? And, says Ortega, the fact is that states, like economies, are either expanding or contracting: still they cannot keep.

Although Ortega is genuinely disdainful of fascism, seeing it as the apogee of mass man, there seems to me something at least proto-fascist, and possibly more than proto-fascist, in his solution to the existential problem that he has so astutely characterized. He makes power the measure of all things, indeed he makes it the meaning of life. When he says that life is struggle, he does not mean merely that there are always obstacles to worthwhile achievement to be overcome, and that a life without such obstacles would be meaningless, but that domination of the world is the meaning of life, and all else, at least for Europe, is decadence. I don’t find this at all pleasant.

Yet, at the same time, and more memorably, Ortega points to the very danger that I see in his solution. He says that today, precisely because so much is possible, the worst is possible: regression, barbarity, decadence. Freedom and possibility necessarily include the freedom and possibility to do evil, which is something of which conservatives are aware but progressives tend to screen out of their minds. Of course, conservatives have, or tend to have, the opposite fault, to be unduly skeptical of the possibilities of doing good. But the existential limitations of human life, as sensitively described by Freud and Ortega, mean that it is far easier to do harm than good, and therefore that the faults of progressives and conservatives, while intellectually mirror images of one another, are not moral mirror images.

This article originally appeared in
The New Criterion, Volume 26, March 2008, on page 16
Copyright © 2008 The New Criterion

8/17/08

Harrison Bergeron

Harrison Bergeron
by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)


THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

“Huh?” said George.

“That dance – it was nice,” said Hazel.

“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good – no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.

Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself she had to ask George what the latest sound had been.

“Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer,” said George.

“I’d think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds,” said Hazel, a little envious. “All the things they think up.”

“Um,” said George.

“Only, if I was Handicapper General, you know what I would do?” said Hazel. Hazel, as a matter of fact, bore a strong resemblance to the Handicapper General, a woman named Diana Moon Glampers. “If I was Diana Moon Glampers,” said Hazel, “I’d have chimes on Sunday – just chimes. Kind of in honor of religion.”

“I could think, if it was just chimes,” said George.

“Well – maybe make ‘em real loud,” said Hazel. “I think I’d make a good Handicapper General.”

“Good as anybody else,” said George.

“Who knows better’n I do what normal is?” said Hazel.

“Right,” said George. He began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that.

“Boy!” said Hazel, “that was a doozy, wasn’t it?”

It was such a doozy that George was white and trembling and tears stood on the rims of his red eyes. Two of the eight ballerinas had collapsed to the studio floor, were holding their temples.

“All of a sudden you look so tired,” said Hazel. “Why don’t you stretch out on the sofa, so’s you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows, honeybunch.” She was referring to the forty-seven pounds of birdshot in canvas bag, which was padlocked around George’s neck. “Go on and rest the bag for a little while,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re not equal to me for a while.”

George weighed the bag with his hands. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “I don’t notice it any more. It’s just a part of me.

“You been so tired lately – kind of wore out,” said Hazel. “If there was just some way we could make a little hole in the bottom of the bag, and just take out a few of them lead balls. Just a few.”

“Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out,” said George. “I don’t call that a bargain.”

“If you could just take a few out when you came home from work,” said Hazel. “I mean – you don’t compete with anybody around here. You just set around.”

“If I tried to get away with it,” said George, “then other people’d get away with it and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”

“I’d hate it,” said Hazel.

“There you are,” said George. “The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?”

If Hazel hadn’t been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn’t have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head.

“Reckon it’d fall all apart,” said Hazel.

“What would?” said George blankly.

“Society,” said Hazel uncertainly. “Wasn’t that what you just said?”

“Who knows?” said George.

The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn’t clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, “Ladies and gentlemen – ”

He finally gave up, handed the bulletin to a ballerina to read.

“That’s all right –” Hazel said of the announcer, “he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.”

“Ladies and gentlemen” said the ballerina, reading the bulletin. She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred-pound men.

And she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use. Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody. “Excuse me – ” she said, and she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive.

“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen,” she said in a grackle squawk, “has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under–handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”

A police photograph of Harrison Bergeron was flashed on the screen – upside down, then sideways, upside down again, then right side up. The picture showed the full length of Harrison against a background calibrated in feet and inches. He was exactly seven feet tall.

The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever worn heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H–G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.

Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.

And to offset his good looks, the H–G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle–tooth random.

“If you see this boy,” said the ballerina, “do not – I repeat, do not – try to reason with him.”

There was the shriek of a door being torn from its hinges.

Screams and barking cries of consternation came from the television set. The photograph of Harrison Bergeron on the screen jumped again and again, as though dancing to the tune of an earthquake.

George Bergeron correctly identified the earthquake, and well he might have – for many was the time his own home had danced to the same crashing tune. “My God –” said George, “that must be Harrison!”

The realization was blasted from his mind instantly by the sound of an automobile collision in his head.

When George could open his eyes again, the photograph of Harrison was gone. A living, breathing Harrison filled the screen.

Clanking, clownish, and huge, Harrison stood in the center of the studio. The knob of the uprooted studio door was still in his hand. Ballerinas, technicians, musicians, and announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die.

“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.

“Even as I stand here –” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”

Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.

Harrison’s scrap–iron handicaps crashed to the floor.

Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall.

He flung away his rubber–ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of thunder.

“I shall now select my Empress!” he said, looking down on the cowering people. “Let the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!”

A moment passed, and then a ballerina arose, swaying like a willow.

Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all, he removed her mask.

She was blindingly beautiful.

“Now” said Harrison, taking her hand, “shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance? Music!” he commanded.

The musicians scrambled back into their chairs, and Harrison stripped them of their handicaps, too. “Play your best,” he told them, “and I’ll make you barons and dukes and earls.”

The music began. It was normal at first – cheap, silly, false. But Harrison snatched two musicians from their chairs, waved them like batons as he sang the music as he wanted it played. He slammed them back into their chairs.

The music began again and was much improved.

Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while – listened gravely, as though synchronizing their heartbeats with it.

They shifted their weights to their toes.

Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers.

And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!

Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.

They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun.

They leaped like deer on the moon.

The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it. It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling.

They kissed it.

And then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.

It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.

Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on.

It was then that the Bergerons’ television tube burned out.

Hazel turned to comment about the blackout to George.

But George had gone out into the kitchen for a can of beer.

George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And then he sat down again. “You been crying?” he said to Hazel.

“Yup,” she said,

“What about?” he said.

“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”

“What was it?” he said.

“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.

“Forget sad things,” said George.

“I always do,” said Hazel.

“That’s my girl,” said George. He winced. There was the sound of a riveting gun in his head.

“Gee – I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.

“You can say that again,” said George.

“Gee –” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”

8/16/08

The Whole Nine Yards

It's not important how many people I've killed. What's important is how I get along with the people who are still alive.

-Jimmy the Tulip

8/15/08

Bipartisanship

“In America, we have a two-party system," a Republican congressional staffer is supposed to have told a visiting group of Russian legislators some years ago.

"There is the stupid party. And there is the evil party. I am proud to be a member of the stupid party."

He added: "Periodically, the two parties get together and do something that is both stupid and evil. This is called—bipartisanship."


That Which Remains

“They were filled with the fearlessness of those who have lost everything, the fearlessness which is not easy to come by but which endures”

- Aleksander Solzhenitsyn


“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand? After all, you knew ahead of time that those bluecaps were out at night for no good purpose. And you could be sure ahead of time that you’d be cracking the skull of a cutthroat. Or what about the Black Maria sitting out there on the street with one lonely chauffeur – what if it had been driven off or its tires spiked. The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt!”

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Gulag Archipelago

8/10/08

4 Principles of Radicalism

Taken from The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk:

1) The perfectibility of man and the illimitable progress of society: meliorism. Radicals believe that education, positive legislation, and alteration of environment can produce men like gods; they deny that humanity has a natural proclivity toward violence and sin.

2) Contempt for tradition. Reason, impulse, and materialistic determinism are severally preferred as guides to social welfare, trustier than the wisdom of our ancestors. Formal religion is rejected and a variety of anti-Christian systems are offered as substitutes.

3) Political levelling. Order and privilege are condemned; total democracy, as direct as practicable, is the professed radical idea. Allied with this spirit, generally, is a dislike of old parliamentary arrangements and an eagerness for centralization and consolidation.

4)Economic levelling. The ancient rights of property, especially property in land, are suspect to almost all radicals; and collectivistic reformers hack at the institution of private property root and branch.

6 Principles of Conservatism

Taken from The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk:

1) Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge calls the Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs. "Every Tory is a realist," says Keith Feiling: "he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom. We do wrong to deny it, when we are told that we do not trust human reason: we do not and we may not. Human reason set up a cross on Calvary, human reason set up the cup of hemlock, human reason was canonised in Nortre Dame." Politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above human nature.

2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. This is why Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) and R.J. White describe conservatism as "enjoyment." It is this buoyant view of life which Walter Bagehot called "the proper source of an animated Conservatism."

3) Conviction that civilized society requires order and classes. The only true equality is moral equality; all other attempts at levelling lead to despair, if enforced by positive legislation. Society longs for leadership, and if a people destroy natural distinctions among men, presently Buonaparte fills the vacuum.

4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress. Separate property from private possession, and liberty is erased.

5) Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters and calculators." Man must a control upon his will and his appetite, for conservatives know man to be governed more by emotion than reason. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man's anarchic impulse.

6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress. Society must alter, for slow change is the means of its conservation, like the human body's perpetual renewal; but Providence is the proper instrument for change, and the test of a statesman is his cognizance of the real tendency of Providential social forces.

8/9/08

Old Men

The Senate is a body of old men charged with high duties and misdemeanors.

- Ambrose Bierce

The State lies in all the tongues of good and evil, and whatever it says is lies, and whatever it has, it has stolen, everything it is, is false, it bites with stolen teeth, and it bites often, it is false down to its bowels.

- Friedrich Nietzsche, 1896

8/5/08

Le Pen VS. Sarkozy

Your Europe is a drifting vessel, windswept and beaten by the waves. It's the only region in the world that deliberately dismantled its political and moral structures. Without borders, gradually invaded by a mass immigration which is just beginning, economically ruined by free-market fanaticism, socially impoverished, weakened demographically, lacking spirit and defensive strength. It will become at best, an American protectorate. At worst, it wall fall under the slavery of dhimmitude. It is long overdue to give up on the deadly illusion of federalism and to build a Europe of nations, united in real alliances - more modest maybe, but more effective.

8/4/08

Requiescat In Pace Brother Solzhenitsyn

Requiescat in pace Brother Solzhenitsyn...

The text and the audio of the June 8, 1978 Havard Address

I am sincerely happy to be here with you on the occasion of the 327th commencement of this old and illustrious university. My congratulations and best wishes to all of today’s graduates.

Harvard’s motto is “Veritas.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of bitter truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.

Three years ago in the United States I said certain things that were rejected and appeared unacceptable. Today, however, many people agree with what I then said. . . .

The split in today’s world is perceptible even to a hasty glance. Any of our contemporaries readily identifies two world powers, each of them already capable of utterly destroying the other. However, the understanding of the split too often is limited to this political conception: the illusion according to which danger may be abolished through successful diplomatic negotiations or by achieving a balance of armed forces. The truth is that the split is both more profound and more alienating, that the rifts are more numerous than one can see at first glance. These deep manifold splits bear the danger of equally manifold disaster for all of us, in accordance with the ancient truth that a kingdom—in this case, our Earth—divided against itself cannot stand.

Contemporary Worlds

There is the concept of the Third World: Thus, we already have three worlds. Undoubtedly, however, the number is even greater; we are just too far away to see. Every ancient and deeply rooted self-contained culture, especially if it is spread over a wide part of the earth’s surface, constitutes a self-contained world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking. As a minimum, we must include in this category China, India, the Muslim world, and Africa, if indeed we accept the approximation of viewing the latter two as uniform. For one thousand years Russia belonged to such a category, although Western thinking systematically committed the mistake of denying its special character and therefore never understood it, just as today the West does not understand Russia in Communist captivity. And while it may be that in past years Japan has increasingly become, in effect, a Far West, drawing ever closer to Western ways (I am no judge here), Israel, I think, should not be reckoned as part of the West, if only because of the decisive circumstance that its state system is fundamentally linked to religion.

How short a time ago, relatively, the small world of modern Europe was easily seizing colonies all over the globe, not only without anticipating any real resistance, but usually with contempt for any possible values in the conquered peoples’ approach to life. It all seemed an overwhelming success, with no geographic limits. Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power. And all of a sudden the twentieth century brought the clear realization of this society’s fragility. We now see that the conquests proved to be short-lived and precarious (and this, in turn, points to defects in the Western view of the world which led to these conquests). Relations with the former colonial world now have switched to the opposite extreme and the Western world often exhibits an excess of obsequiousness, but it is difficult yet to estimate the size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns, will be sufficient for the West to clear this account.

Convergence

But the persisting blindness of superiority continues to hold the belief that all the vast regions of our planet should develop and mature to the level of contemporary Western systems, the best in theory and the most attractive in practice; that all those other worlds are but temporarily prevented (by wicked leaders or by severe crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension) from pursuing Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in that direction. But in fact such a conception is a fruit of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, a result of mistakenly measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development bears little resemblance to all this.

The anguish of a divided world gave birth to the theory of convergence between the leading Western countries and the Soviet Union. It is a soothing theory which overlooks the fact that these worlds are not at all evolving toward each other and that neither one can be transformed into the other without violence. Besides, convergence inevitably means acceptance of the other side’s defects, too, and this can hardly suit anyone.

If I were today addressing an audience in my country, in my examination of the overall pattern of the world’s rifts I would have concentrated on the calamities of the East. But since my forced exile in the West has now lasted four years and since my audience is a Western one, I think it may be of greater interest to concentrate on certain aspects of the contemporary West, such as I see them.

A Decline in Courage

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There remain many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts of boldness and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or with doomed currents which clearly cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?

Well-Being

When the modern Western states were being formed, it was proclaimed as a principle that governments are meant to serve man and that man lives in order to be free and pursue happiness. (See, for example, the American Declaration of Independence.) Now at last during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state. Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the debased sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. (In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: The constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to this end imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to carefully conceal such feelings. This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development.) The individual’s independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of the people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, preparing them for and summoning them toward physical bloom, happiness, the possession of material goods, money, and leisure, toward an almost unlimited freedom in the choice of pleasures. So who should now renounce all this, why and for the sake of what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of the common good and particularly in the nebulous case when the security of one’s nation must be defended in an as yet distant land?

Even biology tells us that a high degree of habitual well-being is not advantageous to a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to take off its pernicious mask.

Legalistic Life

Western society has chosen for itself the organization best suited to its purposes and one I might call legalistic. The limits of human rights and rightness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting, and manipulating law (though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert). Every conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk: This would simply sound absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: Everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames. (An oil company is legally blameless when it buys up an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: After all, people are free not to purchase it.)

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is also less than worthy of man. A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to bear up to the trials of this threatening century with nothing but the supports of a legalistic structure.

The Direction of Freedom

Today’s Western society has revealed the inequality between the freedom for good deeds and the freedom for evil deeds. A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; thousands of hasty (and irresponsible) critics cling to him at all times; he is constantly rebuffed by parliament and the press. He has to prove that his every step is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Indeed, an outstanding, truly great person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind does not get any chance to assert himself; dozens of traps will be set for him from the beginning. Thus mediocrity triumphs under the guise of democratic restraints.

It is feasible and easy everywhere to undermine administrative power and it has in fact been drastically weakened in all Western countries. The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.

On the other hand, destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence, for example against the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. This is all considered to be part of freedom and to be counterbalanced, in theory, by the young people’s right not to look and not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

And what shall we say about the dark realms of overt criminality? Legal limits (especially in the United States) are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also some misuse of such freedom. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency—all with the support of thousands of defenders in the society. When a government earnestly undertakes to root out terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights. There are quite a number of such cases.

This tilt of freedom toward evil has come about gradually, but it evidently stems from a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which man—the master of this world—does not bear any evil within himself, and all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected. Yet strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still remains a great deal of crime; there even is considerably more of it than in the destitute and lawless Soviet society. (There is a multitude of prisoners in our camps who are termed criminals, but most of them never committed any crime; they merely tried to defend themselves against a lawless state by resorting to means outside the legal framework.)

The Direction of the Press

The press, too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word “press” to include all the media.) But what use does it make of it?

Here again, the overriding concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no true moral responsibility for distortion or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist or a newspaper have to the readership or to history? If they have misled public opinion by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, even if they have contributed to mistakes on a state level, do we know of any case of open regret voiced by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No; this would damage sales. A nation may be the worse for such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. It is most likely that he will start writing the exact opposite to his previous statements with renewed aplomb.

Because instant and credible information is required, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be refuted; they settle into the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, and are then left hanging? The press can act the role of public opinion or miseducate it. Thus we may see terrorists heroized, or secret matters pertaining to the nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion into the privacy of well-known people according to the slogan “Everyone is entitled to know everything.” (But this is a false slogan of a false era; far greater in value is the forfeited right of people not to know, not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life has no need for this excessive and burdening flow of information.)

Hastiness and superficiality—these are the psychic diseases of the twentieth century and more than anywhere else this is manifested in the press. In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press; it is contrary to its nature. The press merely picks out sensational formulas.

Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, exceeding that of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Yet one would like to ask: According to what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has voted Western journalists into their positions of power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?

There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the totalitarian East with its rigorously unified press: One discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole (the spirit of the time), generally accepted patterns of judgment, and maybe common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Unrestrained freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly transmit in a forceful and emphatic way those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and that general trend.

A Fashion in Thinking

Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden, have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad. There is no open violence, as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to accommodate mass standards frequently prevents the most independent-minded persons from contributing to public life and gives rise to dangerous herd instincts that block successful development. In America, I have received letters from highly intelligent persons—maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but the country cannot hear him because the media will not provide him with a forum. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to a blindness which is perilous in our dynamic era. An example is the self-deluding interpretation of the state of affairs in the contemporary world that functions as a sort of a petrified armor around people’s minds, to such a degree that human voices from seventeen countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will be broken only by the inexorable crowbar of events.

I have mentioned a few traits of Western life which surprise and shock a new arrival to this world. The purpose and scope of this speech will not allow me to continue such a survey, in particular to look into the impact of these characteristics on important aspects of a nation’s life, such as elementary education, advanced education in the humanities, and art.

Socialism

It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world the way to successful economic development, even though in past years it has been sharply offset by chaotic inflation. However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of no longer being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. And this causes many to sway toward socialism, which is a false and dangerous current.

I hope that no one present will suspect me of expressing my partial criticism of the Western system in order to suggest socialism as an alternative. No; with the experience of a country where socialism has been realized, I shall certainly not speak for such an alternative. The mathematician Igor Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliantly argued book entitled Socialism; this is a penetrating historical analysis demonstrating that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death. Shafarevich’s book was published in France almost two years ago and so far no one has been found to refute it. It will shortly be published in English in the US.

Not a Model

But should I be asked, instead, whether I would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country, I would frankly have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through deep suffering, people in our country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just enumerated are extremely saddening.

A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human personality in the West while in the East it has become firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. The complex and deadly crush of life has produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being. Therefore, if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant points. Of course, a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to stay on such a soulless and smooth plane of legalism, as is the case in yours. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced as by a calling card by the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.

All this is visible to numerous observers from all the worlds of our planet. The Western way of life is less and less likely to become the leading model.

There are telltale symptoms by which history gives warning to a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, a decline of the arts or a lack of great statesmen. Indeed, sometimes the warnings are quite explicit and concrete. The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.

But the fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive. You can feel their pressure, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?

Short-Sightedness

Very well known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: “We cannot apply moral criteria to politics.” Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute evil in the world. Only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well-planned world strategy. There are no other criteria. Practical or occasional considerations of any kind will inevitably be swept away by strategy. After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the scale and the meaning of events.

In spite of the abundance of information, or maybe partly because of it, the West has great difficulty in finding its bearings amid contemporary events. There have been naïve predictions by some American experts who believed that Angola would become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam or that the impudent Cuban expeditions in Africa would best be stopped by special US courtesy to Cuba. Kennan’s advice to his own country—to begin unilateral disarmament—belongs to the same category. If you only knew how the youngest of the officials in Moscow’s Old Square roar with laughter at your political wizards! As to Fidel Castro, he openly scorns the United States, boldly sending his troops to distant adventures from his country right next to yours.

However, the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that the way should be left open for national, or Communist, self-determination in Vietnam (or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity). But in fact, members of the US antiwar movement became accomplices in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in the genocide and the suffering today imposed on thirty million people there. Do these convinced pacifists now hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American intelligentsia lost its nerve and as a consequence the danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your short-sighted politician who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. Small Vietnam had been a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if the full might of America suffered a full-fledged defeat at the hands of a small Communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?

I have said on another occasion that in the twentieth-century Western democracy has not won any major war by itself; each time it shielded itself with an ally possessing a powerful land army, whose philosophy it did not question. In World War II against Hitler, instead of winning the conflict with its own forces, which would certainly have been sufficient, Western democracy raised up another enemy, one that would prove worse and more powerful, since Hitler had neither the resources nor the people, nor the ideas with broad appeal, nor such a large number of supporters in the West—a fifth column—as the Soviet Union possessed. Some Western voices already have spoken of the need of a protective screen against hostile forces in the next world conflict; in this case, the shield would be China. But I would not wish such an outcome to any country in the world. First of all, it is again a doomed alliance with evil; it would grant the United States a respite, but when at a later date China with its billion people would turn around armed with American weapons, America itself would fall victim to a Cambodia-style genocide.

Loss of Will

And yet, no weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons even become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, in this case, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal. Thus at the shameful Belgrade conference, free Western diplomats in their weakness surrendered the line of defense for which enslaved members of the Helsinki Watch Groups are sacrificing their lives.

Western thinking has become conservative: The world situation must stay as it is at any cost; there must be no changes. This debilitating dream of a status quo is the symptom of a society that has ceased to develop. But one must be blind in order not to see that the oceans no longer belong to the West, while the land under its domination keeps shrinking. The two so-called world wars (they were by far not on a world scale, not yet) constituted the internal self-destruction of the small progressive West which has thus prepared its own end. The next war (which does not have to be an atomic one; I do not believe it will be) may well bury Western civilization forever.

In the face of such a danger, with such historical values in your past, with such a high level of attained freedom and, apparently, of devotion to it, how is it possible to lose to such an extent the will to defend oneself?

Humanism and Its Consequences

How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present debility? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing steadily in accordance with its proclaimed social intentions, hand in hand with a dazzling progress in technology. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very foundation of thought in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.

The turn introduced by the Renaissance was probably inevitable historically: The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, having become an intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. But then we recoiled from the spirit and embraced all that is material, excessively and incommensurately. The humanistic way of thinking, which had proclaimed itself our guide, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man, nor did it see any task higher than the attainment of happiness on earth. It started modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend of worshiping man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any higher meaning. Thus gaps were left open for evil, and its drafts blow freely today. Mere freedom per se does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and even adds a number of new ones.

And yet in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding one thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were eroded everywhere in the West; a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming ever more materialistic. The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistic selfishness of the Western approach to the world has reached its peak and the world has found itself in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the celebrated technological achievements of progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the twentieth century’s moral poverty, which no one could have imagined even as late as the nineteenth century.

An Unexpected Kinship

As humanism in its development was becoming more and more materialistic, it also increasingly allowed its concepts to be used first by socialism and then by communism. So that Karl Marx was able to say, in 1844, that “communism is naturalized humanism.”

This statement has proved to be not entirely unreasonable. One does see the same stones in the foundations of an eroded humanism and of any type of socialism: boundless materialism; freedom from religion and religious responsibility (which under Communist regimes attains the stage of antireligious dictatorship); concentration on social structures with an allegedly scientific approach. (This last is typical of both the Age of Enlightenment and of Marxism.) It is no accident that all of communism’s rhetorical vows revolve around Man (with a capital M) and his earthly happiness. At first glance it seems an ugly parallel: common traits in the thinking and way of life of today’s West and today’s East? But such is the logic of materialistic development.

The interrelationship is such, moreover, that the current of materialism which is farthest to the left, and is hence the most consistent, always proves to be stronger, more attractive, and victorious. Humanism which has lost its Christian heritage cannot prevail in this competition. Thus during the past centuries and especially in recent decades, as the process became more acute, the alignment of forces was as follows: Liberalism was inevitably pushed aside by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could not stand up to communism. The Communist regime in the East could endure and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who (feeling the kinship!) refused to see communism’s crimes, and when they no longer could do so, they tried to justify these crimes. The problem persists: In our Eastern countries, communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat; it is zero and less than zero. And yet Western intellectuals still look at it with considerable interest and empathy, and this is precisely what makes it so immensely difficult for the West to withstand the East.

Before the Turn

I am not examining the case of a disaster brought on by a world war and the changes which it would produce in society. But as long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we must lead an everyday life. Yet there is a disaster which is already very much with us. I am referring to the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.

It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. It is trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West. This is the essence of the crisis: The split in the world is less terrifying than the similarity of the disease afflicting its main sections.

If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then their carefree consumption. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to reappraise the scale of the usual human values; its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the president’s performance should be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or to the availability of gasoline. Only by the voluntary nurturing in ourselves of freely accepted and serene self-restraint can mankind rise above the world stream of materialism.

Today it would be retrogressive to hold on to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Such social dogmatism leaves us helpless before the trials of our times.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, life will have to change in order not to perish on its own. We cannot avoid reassessing the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life?

If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era.

This ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but—upward.

8/3/08

9-5

Peter Gibbons: So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life.

Dr. Swanson
: What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?

Peter Gibbons
: Yeah.

Dr. Swanson
: Wow, that's messed up.