Friday, February 26, 2010

Khodorkovsky, Putin, and the Yukos Afair

The above is an article appearing in the 25 February 2010 issues of the London Review of Books.  It is written by Keith Gessen and entitled “Cell Block Four.”   It is a review of Richard Sakwa’s The Quality of Freedom: Khodorkovsky, Putin and the Yukos Affair. 
It isn’t likely that many of us in the U.S. are going to read the book.  It is priced at 177.31 USD at, if you want to read a “new” copy, and they only have one left.
Is Khodorkovsky guilty of the crimes he has been convicted of?  Gessen and probably Sakwa (if we can believe Gessen) think not.  They think this imprisonment of Khodorkovsky is an example of Putin flexing his muscles in order to punish the only “oligarch” who refused to escape to some other country.  Khodorkovsky, it seems, if we can believe him, and Gessen and Sakwa apparently do, did nothing wrong – or didn’t think he had done anything wrong.  His achievement with Yukos does sound admirable, the creation of an oil company that at one time paid more taxes into the Russian Federation’s coffers than any other enterprise, but the Red Queen said “off with his head,” and with that level of arbitrariness he was sent to prison where he has been for the past six years, and there may be more punishment in store for him after his eight-year sentence is up.
If we could return to the 19th Century, the leaders of any nation would probably have made short work of a Khodorkovsky – well, perhaps not in any nation.  We wouldn’t have imprisoned a “Robber Baron” who did something along the lines of a Khodorkovsky.  We created new laws and gave them all fair warning.  We made them stop – sort of.  We in the U.S. seem always to have known that entrepreneurship is a valuable quality to be encouraged.  We have not sought to punish our entrepreneurs but merely to curb their greed when it becomes too egregious.  But letting loose the reins as much as possible has been good for our nation – at least in the economic sense.  We are as rich as we are, and that richness has trickled down quite substantially, as a result of them. 
Is the Russian Federation going to follow suit?  Is it going to encourage its entrepreneurs?  Well, not the first batch, not the equivalent of America’s 19th century “Robber Barons.”   Under the influence of Heidegger, I can’t help suspecting that Russia’s “place of authentication” is different from America’s.  Here, we value our entrepreneurs.  Over there they seem to value something more restrictive, more authoritarian; which almost certainly won’t play well, competitively, against the Liberal Democracies of the world.  Unless they can loosen up and become more like the Liberal Democracies of the world, a few years from now a successor to Bernard Lewis might write another What Went Wrong?
It is not hopeless, we will be reminded.  After all, they have oil, but that is what Middle-Eastern nations have.  What comes after the oil?  They have no plans for that eventuality, but it is probably not going to be pretty.  Could the Russian Federation do better than Middle-Eastern nations are likely to?  In my opinion they can.  A good first step would be to turn Khodorkovsky loose and let him do what he does best, create wealth.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Totalitarianism and Liberal Democracy

Borrowing from pages 397-8 of Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought 1890-1930  by H. Stuart Hughes, " . . . Lord Russell described the philosophy of logical analysis in its broadest terms as one having 'the quality of science. . . .  It has the advantage as compared with the philosophies of the system-builders, of being able to tackle its problems one at a time, instead of having to invent at one stroke a block theory of the whole universe.'"

While that sort of analysis has its advantages, I would rather focus upon a "block-theory-type" of analysis in regard to the subject.  In very broad terms, three major systems competed for supremacy in the 20th century, Communism, Fascism, and Liberal Democracy.  These systems fought on the field of battle in hot and cold wars and by the end only Liberal Democracy was left standing.  But, while Liberal Democracy may have been the only system at the "block theory" level left standing, it had by no means utterly eliminated sympathy toward the other two systems.  Which needn't surprise us; since so much of what went on during the 20th century involved hatred of "Liberalism" and hatred of "Democracy."  Those hatreds didn't end with the fall of the Soviet Union. 

 "Block theory" level Communism was not interested in "equality."  It was interested in replacing one class with another, the Capitalist class with the Working class.  And even after they achieved political victory they didn't plan for "equality."  They planned that each person would produce according to his ability and receive compensation according to his need.  With blithe ignorance of human nature, a Communist Party created the vast experiment called the Soviet Union and put Marxism-Leninism to the test, and as we know, Human Nature would not be denied.  The result was a Totalitarian System very like the system produced in Nazi Germany. 

Today there are individuals who long for the idealistic days of Communism.  They take their hatred of Liberal Democracy and invest it with correctives to known flaws in Liberal Democratic systems and wish for "progress," for "change," or for a "new revolution." 

There are also individuals who long for the idealistic days of Fascism, although they wouldn't use that term.  If we look at the Russian Federation today, we can see that it is leaning toward something they term "National Sovereignty," which seems very like National Socialism.  The word "socialism" is missing from their title, but socialism was never an actual practice in the Third Reich either.  One difference between National Socialism and Communism was that the latter controlled the means of production and the former, broadly speaking, did not, and now we see that the Russian Federation's "National Sovereignty" does not.

Another major force in the world we find attracted to elements of Communism and National Socialism is Islamism.  We know this because the chief theoretician of Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, admitted it.  But Islamists aren't interested in the "philosophy" of Communism or the "philosophy" of National Socialism (if it can be said to have one) but in the "techniques" for acquiring and maintaining power.   It is easier, perhaps, to follow Hannah Arendt and keep to the simpler term, Totalitarianism, and when we do, we see the real danger in the systems that oppose Liberal Democracy. 

Liberal Democratic systems are dedicated to providing their citizens with as much freedom and liberty as possible; which has the built in problem of trying to determine where one person's "liberty" leaves off and another's begins, e.g., the concern for equality and rights in all Liberal Democracies.

Totalitarian systems (as the USSR and Nazi Germany amply demonstrated) did not want its citizens to have "as much liberty and freedom as possible."  Totalitarian leaders had (and have) an agenda.  For example, the leaders in the USSR wanted to severely limit the freedom of the Kulaks, and Nazi leaders wanted to even more severely to limit the freedom of the Jews.

In the 21st century we have some new Totalitarians who wish to limit the freedom of those who don't accept Islam.   We have seen them at work in several middle-eastern nations, and witnessed their methods in perhaps all Western and Eastern-European nations.

            In regard to modern critics of Liberal Democracy living within Liberal-Democratic nations, they regularly take up problems pertaining to "equality" or "rights."  And while many of these people are comfortable with the details, in the Bertrand Russell sense, they are at sea when it comes to "block theory."  They vaguely speak of "progress" or "change" or "revolution"; when all they have in mind are the specifics of the "inequalities" that they are focused upon. 

Are there any who follow their desires for "change," "progress" or "revolution" to logical conclusions?  Yes, a few do.  Noam Chomsky is an example.  He would abandon Liberal Democracy for his own theory of a better system, Anarcho-Syndicalism.  Here is Chomsky being interviewed in 1976 about "The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism."   Would Chomsky's ideas work?  I don't know, but it isn't likely they will ever be seriously considered, for Liberal Democracy has a resiliency that Karl Marx never envisioned.  His dialectic theory of economic determinism were proved wrong because the Capitalists who controlled the means of production were in turn controlled by governments not interested in usurping the enterprises of their corporations and businesses but merely curbing their greed when it too severely infringed on the rights of workers.  And as this process developed, as workers continued to elect politicians who claimed to have their interests at heart, the workers could be said to have at last bought into to the Capitalistic system.  Their standard of living improved dramatically, so much so that the arguments of Communist agitators appeared absurd to them.  Workers in America could readily expect to achieve the "American dream" which involved a house with a white picket fence, schooling for their children, a decent wage or salary, and prospects for economic improvement. 

Furthermore, there are several areas where the worker, the non-capitalist, and the non-rich would like a bit more than he presently has.  These areas are addressed as "entitlements."  He is opting, mostly in Western Europe so far, to entitle himself to benefits at the expense of the public coffers.  Tax money is being used to pay for shorter work-weeks, longer vacations, better medical benefits, etc.  Liberal Democracies are well equipped in theory to provide these "entitlements."  The only limit seems to be their ability to afford them.  Some nations such as France seem to have over-extended themselves a bit, and here in the U.S. we extended an entitlement to those who couldn't under earlier systems qualify to buy houses.  That entitlement went awry and additional tax money was needed to bail it out.  Banks who loaned money in response to this entitlement needed to be bailed out with tax money.   This is all in keeping with Liberal-Democratic systems which have learned to cater, to a larger and larger extent, to the "worker, non-capitalist, and non-rich."

There are many, and I number myself amongst them, who find the intricate workings of Liberal-Democratic systems a depressing business.   The aforementioned "worker, non-capitalist, and non-rich" might in a sense be termed the "lowest common denominator," or to use Nietzsche's term, "the last man."   He indeed keeps the wheels of our Liberal Democracies turning, but he doesn't produce art or literature or philosophy.  If he has excess time, he spends it watching game shows or sports or sitcoms.  If he has excess money he uses it to buy a bigger car, truck, boat or  house. 

And yet only a little thought enables those of us who think of themselves as a step or two up from "the last man" to realize that this system which is fostering the "last man" also enables the rest of us to do whatever we like with our "excess time," and "excess money."  We might invest some of it in history books and study the two great systems of the last century, Communism and Fascism, which thought they could do better.




Friday, February 19, 2010

RE: A Belgian Tervuren Investigation.

        I received the following blog response from the "Sandi" regarding "A Belgian Tervuren Investigation":

        "Would I sell you a puppy? No. No dog is perfect, and if you have read Padgett you know that all dogs carry multiple genetic problems, they are just not all expressed. If you consider gingival hyperplasia a problem, then it seems to me that you are looking for the perfect dog, and I don't have one to sell you. Minor health problems will often show up throughout a dog's life, just as throughout a human's life. This has to be expected and not a reason to not get a dog. I am a Belgian Tervuren breeder, I list all health information on the dogs I have bred on my website, I require health testing of all of the dogs that I place and I talk to every prospective puppy buyer about epilepsy. Am I unusual? No, many reputable tervuren breeders are doing the same thing."

          MY RESPONSE:  My note ended up saying, "So, knowing what I know (from my investigation) would I buy a Belgian Tervuren – even though in other respects it seems like an excellent choice for my circumstances? No, not unless I learned something from a breeder (assuming I believed her) which countered what I had read. If she told me that she had no Epilepsy in her line, that might cause me to reconsider the Tervuren, but as it is, I could not bring myself to buy a dog knowing it was possible that 30% of all Tervuren pups would develop epilepsy. I'm better off sticking with allergies and Gingival Hyperplasia."

Sandi's comments don't relate very well to my note.  I said in the quoted paragraph I wouldn't buy a Belgian Tervuren unless I had the assurance from some breeder that she had no Epilepsy in her line.  Sandi doesn't provide me those assurances but says she wouldn't sell me a Belgian Tervuren.  Which is a moot thing for her to say inasmuch as I said I wouldn't buy one unless the Tervuren breeder could provide me the assurances I required. 

Also, Sandi doesn't deny my statistic but instead says that she talks "to every prospective puppy buyer about epilepsy."  She then asks the rhetorical question, "am I unusual?"  And answers it "No, many reputable Tervuren breeders are doing the same thing."   Well, yes, if you know 30% of your breed is going to have epilepsy, then you may be staving off the anger of some percentage of the 30% of the owners you sold Tervurens to by warning them of epilepsy.   This is would be sort of like Toyota continuing to sell automobiles with sticky accelerators, but warning buyers up front of the problem.  Only 32 people have been killed, the Toyota salesman would be able to say, "and that is a tiny percentage of the cars we have out there on the road."  That may be true, but why wouldn't I prefer buying another brand – a brand without the sticky accelerator?

Sandi implies that I am looking for the perfect dog because I consider gingival hyperplasia a problem.  The logic of that comment escapes me.  Gingival hyperplasia is definitely "a problem."  I had to take Ginger to a vet so she could be operated on.  But in the scale of "problems" as I say in my note, "I'm better off sticking with allergies and Gingival Hyperplasia."  That is, better off with those problems than taking a 30% chance of getting a Tervuren with epilepsy.  Epilepsy seems a far more serious "problem" to me than Gingival Hyperplasia and allergies.  Does Sandi think otherwise?  I can't tell.

As to Padgett's describing the "multiple genetic problems" dogs have, I seem to take a different view of those problems than Sandi does.  I don't think that since multiple problems have shown up in virtually all breeds that one breed, health-wise, is as good as another.   I will take note of the genetic diseases Padgett mentions and question a breeder about them; which, in fact is something I did with the breeder I got my Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Ginger and Sage, from.  She didn't take offense.  Some of the diseases were apparently very rare in the RR for she had never heard of them.  In regard to others, she said that while she knew of breeders whose dogs had those genetic diseases, none of hers had them.  This breeder was recommended to me by a person who is extremely knowledgeable about Rhodesian Ridgebacks.  If I opt for a different breed next time, or even a different breeder of Rhodesian Ridgebacks, will I repeat this process?  Absolutely.  

Croce, Kowalski -- speaking out against tyranny

On page 211 of Consciousness and Society, H. Stuart Hughes wrote, “Both natural and social science, Croce maintained, dealt only with data externally perceived.  History, on the contrary, strove for ‘internal’ comprehension.  In this assertion Croce took up the full inheritance of German idealism.  But he pushed the idealist line of thinking to a sharper point by arguing that ‘every true history is contemporary history.’  By this paradoxical assertion – which became the most celebrated of his dicta – Croce was trying to suggest that the essence of historical knowledge consisted in an imaginative grasp of the great problems of the past, first, as the historical actors themselves had understood them, second, as they took on relevance for the historian’s own time.  Actually these two aspects of the problem were combined in the historian’s mind: he could be said to have understood his material only when he had integrated it with his own consciousness, when he had fused it in his own thought and made it ‘vibrate’ in his ‘soul.’

“Thus all true history must be re-lived or re-experienced by the historian: ascertaining ‘facts’ and interpreting or judging them were part of the same process of imaginative re-creation.  In the absence of such a process, Croce argued, history could be no more than ‘chronicle’ – ‘dead history,’ which had been ‘recorded,’ not ‘thought’ by the historical mind.  Croce was severe in judging the work of the chroniclers or ‘philological’ historians, in which category he included most of the specialized historical writers of the nineteenth century. . . .”

COMMENT:  It would be unfair to judge Kowalski’s Tyranny to Freedom, Diary of a former Stalinist     ( ) by standards Croce applies to historians.  Kowalski is not an historian but a scientist who happened to have lived through the Stalinist period.  In his book he “chronicles” some of his experiences.  If there is any criticism I might make against Kowalski’s “diary,” it is to wish that he had done some historical “judging” in the Croce sense, perhaps one final chapter to underline what his title declares.

Present in Kowalski’s book and in any narration of intellectuals living in a nation governed by a tyrannical form of government, is the threat of discovery.  If the intellectual’s true thoughts are discovered then he will be subject to discipline of some sort.  So the typical intellectual keeps quiet.  In Kowalski’s case, he  was also a member of the Communist Party in Poland.  His diary records his disillusionment as party leaders in Moscow and Poland abandoned the ideals that had caused him to join the party.  It was fortunate that he was able to leave Poland before his disenchantment was discovered.

But what of Croce?  He was in a similar situation.  He was an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini and Fascism, but Croce was by that time “senator for life” in the Italian government.  He was so famous and well-established that he was impervious to intimidation or punishment.  He did speak out against Italian Fascism, and eventually he followed through to the logical conclusion.  He became “a liberal.”  Hughes said that the word “democracy” would have stuck in Croce’s throat, but that is where he ended up – favoring Liberal Democracy. 

That is where Kowalski ended up as well; although not being an historian or a philosopher, he is more succinct, and doesn’t stray far from his personal experiences. 

Heidegger was not impervious to punishment.  Had he spoken out he would almost certainly have suffered some form of punishment.  Nor was he inclined to leave Germany.  And then after the Second World War, Heidegger chose to say very little of a critical nature against Germany’s Third Reich.  Many have speculated about Heidegger’s reticence.  Heidegger never embraced Liberal Democracy, nor did he abandon the idea that had German National Socialism progressed as he wanted it to, Germany would have become the spiritual leader of Europe that he hoped for.

It isn’t enough to make negative statements about Fascism or Communism.  We need to follow with the reasons why we admire our Liberal Democracies.  Many do not find these reasons self-evident, but someone like Noam Chomsky can find much to criticize in the American example, because “freedom of speech” is a cornerstone of our form of government.  And this “freedom” permits criticism.  So any enemy such as Chomsky or the Islamists will have a smorgasbord of criticisms to choose from.   We can counter the Islamists by exploring what it is they advocate.  Unlike Chomsky they have been in control of a nation (Afghanistan) and been a major force in many other nations.  We see that they favor aspects of both Fascism and Communism. . . .   Surely, we think, the lessons of history are sufficient to counter a Middle-Eastern foray into forms of government that proved to be European disasters.   But this isn’t so.  Just as Heidegger thought National Socialism might have worked with the right leadership; so do many Leftists think Communism could have worked with better leadership.   So why should the Islamists be deterred by anyone who shows the relationship between the form of government they advocate and the two European disasters of the 20th century?

Critics describe us a nation of dissolute performers, athletes and corrupt politicians, but we have other examples:  people who live productive but quiet lives, people who don’t use their “freedom” to lie about unearned military honors or engage in drug-induced debaucheries.  We have a number of people who write about the good things of our Liberal Democracies, but such writings would be of little worth if it were not for individuals such as Kowlaski who live productive lives and even in retirement continue doing their best, contributing to the well-being of their Liberal Democracies.  Maybe Kowalski couldn’t manage that last chapter I asked for, but his example is worth much more.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kowalski: Diary of a Former Stalinist

Ludwik Kowalski has written another book, Tyranny to Freedom, Diary of a Former Stalinist.  Professor Kowalski’s first love is science but as he indicated in his previous book, Hell on Earth: Brutality and Violence Under the Stalinist Regime, he has had certain experiences, and has a certain testimony regarding what happened to him and his family.  He doesn’t want to see the brutality that was Stalinism softened and excused by modern day apologists.  And while his second book doesn’t deal with Stalinism with that same intensity, the intellectual intimidation he was subjected to was far greater than anything one might encounter in the West.
Tyranny to Freedom has three main threads, Kowalski’s education and developing career, his search for an ideal wife, and his adherence to and later disillusionment with the Communist System.  I wondered, as I read, how I would have handled living as he lived.  I can’t shake loose from my own experiences, my independence and freedom of thought, but these considerations are, of course, invalid.  If I lived in Poland or the USSR during that time, I would almost certainly have behaved more or less like everyone else – perhaps just as Kowalski did. 
Kowalski’s career and his pursuit of a proper wife are part of what make this book a “page turner,” but of more lasting significance is the progress this very-idealistic man made from his whole-hearted belief in the Communist System through the disappointment in its failures and on to seeing that the only logical course open to him as a Polish Jew was to move to the West.  I have read other things from individuals who lived through this period, and I wondered how guarded the recollections and how subdued their diaries.  But in Kowalski’s case he kept his diaries at an aunt’s house in France.  He felt free to express himself openly knowing Communist authorities were never going to have access to them. 
It isn't in his book, but Kowalski’s wife suggested that his diaries be preserved for use as a primary source by historians, but he didn’t think he was important enough for them to provide that sort of interest.  I second his wife’s opinion.  Historians have written books based on the diaries of soldiers who fought in the American Civil war or in the First World War.  So why not diaries of individuals who lived through Stalinism?  Many of us still puzzle over the great Communist experiment in the USSR and Eastern Europe.  How could so many have been caught up in it?  How could individuals raised in that system, as Kowalski was, believe so fervently in it for such a long time?   Could it have achieved viability as a system if the leaders had lived up to its ideals?  Or was it doomed from the start as I believe, and if so, what lessons can we draw about man’s credulity?
I commented recently about themes I saw in British TV, Dr. Who, Torchwood, and in the series Battlestar Galactica, demonstrating that some writers are seriously exploring the question of whether the human race deserves to survive as a species?   Very likely some of those screen writers would answer in the negative.  But here in this book we find an individual who has come through one of the most colossal mistakes mankind has ever perpetrated.  Surely if anyone is entitled to declare that homo sapiens doesn’t deserve to survive it is Kowalski, but that is not what we find.  We find this very optimistic professor valuing the time he spends with his daughter, discovering the religion he was never allowed to embrace as a child, writing some very interesting memoirs, and, one can learn by Googling on his name, engaging in some very controversial and provocative experiments (Cold Fusion).   Life for none of us is going to be free of error, but in this case, maybe the errors were made mostly by the system he was raised in and not so much by this person who did his very best to live honorably.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Historical Metaphors -- Freud, Heidegger, Christianity, etc

On pages 130-131 of Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought – 1890-1930, H. Stuart Hughes writes, “. . . instead of modifying his theory of the Oedipus complex to give it a more acceptable form, he made it ‘worse’ by adding to it a vast anthropological fantasy – the story of the ‘primal horde’ and the banding of the sons together to slay their father and eat of his flesh, first expounded in the Totem and Taboo of 1912 and 1913.  On this excessively speculative foundation, Freud was to build out the whole ramifying structure of his subsequent social theory. 
“Were the primal horde  and the primal crime mere figures of speech or were they historical actualities?  The question brings us to the very center of Freud’s implicit philosophy.  Today most professed Freudians ascribe to the master’s ‘anthropological speculation only . . . symbolic value.’  But such a tepid allegiance would not have satisfied Freud himself.  Down to his very last book he insisted that he had written of a historical event – many times repeated – for which the presumptive evidence was overwhelming.  Nor did it worry him that this claim involved postulating the inheritance of memory traces in a fashion that came dangerously close to Jung’s notion of a ‘collective unconscious.’  Freud had stated his theory, and he stuck by it.  He had fought his way loose from his dependence on clinical and empirical data, and was not prepared to return to his earlier bondage.  So much the worse if his wide-ranging speculations had put him in strange company – not only with Jung but with Spengler and other architects of all-inclusive historical metaphors.”
COMMENT:  I hesitated over the word “metaphors” as applying to Heidegger in the subject title, for Heidegger’s advocacy of returning to one’s tradition, “the place of authenticity” can be seen as a literal thing that one does.  And yet Heidegger provided us with few helpful specifics; so perhaps one can be excused for seeing this quest for authenticity as very like a metaphor.  Speaking from the standpoint of a European nation, there is something primordial, but also inspiring and very like a “golden age” in our heritage, and we cut ourselves loose from it at our peril.  Heidegger might scowl in annoyance if someone asked him for specifics about these “golden ages,” even the German “golden age.” 
I am frequently reminded (as I have been by Hughes) of Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World, A Political History of Religion.  Gauchet, using Max Weber’s concept, believed that the world (Europe actually) had been disenchanted, that is had been largely exorcized of its Christianity.  In its place was a secularism that accomplished all of the temporal goals of Christianity.  And while Gauchet doesn’t exclude a “need” for religion, he doesn’t dwell upon it or think it important.  And yet on our current subject I am reminded of “The Kingdom of God, Heaven, etc.”  If we read what the New Testament tells us about it, we find that we are not given specifics.  We are given metaphor after metaphor.  We are told that the “poor in spirit” will inherit it; that those who are persecuted because of righteousness” will have it”; that it is “like a man who has sowed good seed in the field”; that it is “like a mustard seed which a man took and planted in his field”; that it is “like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour” etc.  Shall we become literalists and insist that these metaphors become “specifics” before we give them credence?  Surely not.  Christians down through the ages have taken comfort in these metaphors.
Elsewhere I argued that the Christian Churches moved in the wrong direction when they distanced themselves from their secular European offspring.  There is an inseparable connection.  But the Churches persist in disowning, rather than attempting to correct while acknowledging, their aberrant offspring.  And their offspring far from honoring their father and mother have responded with typical rebelliousness.  And yet we can see in Freud and Heidegger the debt.  Freud denounced his Judeo-Christian heritage and proposed as we see something more primitive, something implying some sort of Darwinian influence.  Hughes scoffs that there might really have been the Olympian struggles that Freud implies are fact.  Several philosophers have acknowledge that man is not equipped to utterly do without religion and we see this in Freud’s Olympiad.
We also see it in Heidegger.  If one seeks with all his heart the “authentic” place of his heritage, will he not be blessed by finding it?   What is it?  Tell me first what the Kingdom of God is and I will tell you.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Heideggerian authenticity as applied to the U.S.

One of the areas that got Heidegger into trouble later on was that he urged individuals to seek authenticity, not just as individuals – as Germans.  There was, according to Heidegger an authenticity unique to Germans.  If they sought it and found it then they could be the spiritual leaders of Europe.  They would of course need an ubermensch to lead them, but they could then lead the rest of Europe into a new “spiritual” age.  That sounded to many, later on, like the Nazi affection for a Wagnerian sort of barbarianism.   But Heideggerians produced good evidence that this wasn’t what Heidegger meant.  While he didn’t get into specifics he lapsed into a desire for poetry at this point.  Only Holderlin or a poet like him could tell them about this authenticity.

What I found attractive in this is that one need not look for absolutes.  One needn’t insist that there is a given set of values that all people everywhere ought to treasure.  One needn’t seek categorical imperatives that apply to everyone.  We can seek what is best about our particular “tradition,” that is, whatever it is that is “authentic” in our tradition and try to live up to that. 

He did set about trying to make his university live up to this ideal, but that didn’t turn out well.  And of course his attempts at influencing the Nazi Party didn’t turn out well either.  He didn’t oppose specifics.  He just didn’t seem very good at them.

It is only when we try to universalize this authenticity that the idea seems to fall apart.  It works best within a single ethnicity or nation.  What is the French authenticity or the Russian?  There will be differences of opinion, but there will also be some agreement and the French will see that there “authenticity” is different than the Russian’s but they won’t worry about it – at least they ought not worry.  Their concern should be to seek authenticity for France, and they will find it, whatever it is, some place in the French traditions.

Part of what I have been doing is “trying this idea on.”  Granted it seems to fit a U.S. conservative viewpoint better than it does a “liberal” one, if we define Liberal as “Progressive.”  A Progressive, it seems to me, isn’t going to be spending as much time searching his traditions for authenticity as a Conservative is. 

The searching after authenticity may at first seem an awkward fit with the Wilsonian idea that Liberal Democracy should be exported (something we Americans can’t help doing with or without Neoconservatism).   Of course if this (the exportation of Liberal Democracy) is authentic for us, perhaps we can take the view that we are leading the world into a new “Economic paradise” (not quite a “spiritual” one but the Germans couldn’t manage “spiritual” either).  But it isn’t egalitarian in the sense of valuing every nation’s authenticity as much as our own.  We don’t value the Islamist “authenticity” as much as our own.  This isn’t to say they don’t have one.  Perhaps, we would like to think their real authenticity is back before they took a fancy to Sayyid Qutb.  But as it is, we seem to be in direct conflict with it – as much, perhaps, as the Communist authenticity was in conflict with Heidegger’s authenticity. 

This Heideggerian idea of authenticity can keep us from agonizing about a single philosophy or set of ideas that must work equally well for them as it does for us.  We can feel comfortable focusing upon our own authenticity and not worry about theirs – at least not in the sense of trying to reconcile ours to theirs.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On the matter of Russian guilt

On pages 148-9 of The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera in an essay (written, I suspect, in 1986) entitled “Sixty-three Words” discusses the word “Soviet.” 
“Soviet.  An adjective I do not use.  Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: ‘four words, four lies’ (Cornelius Castoriadis).  The Soviet people: a verbal screen behind which all the Russified nations of that Empire are meant to be forgotten.  The term ‘Soviet’ suits not only the aggressive nationalism of Communist Greater Russia but also the national nostalgia of the dissidents.  It allows them to believe that through a feat of magic, Russia (the real Russia) has been removed from the so-called Soviet State and somehow survives as an intact, immaculate essence, free of all blame.  The German conscience: traumatized, incriminated by the Nazi era; Thomas Mann: pitiless arraignment of the Germanic spirit.  The ripest moment of Polish culture: Gombrowicz joyously excoriating ‘Polishness.’  Unthinkable for the Russians to excoriate ‘Russianness,’ that immaculate essence.  Not a Mann, not a Gombrowicz among them.”
COMMENT:  Kundera was born in Brno and had no reason to love the Soviet Union, but I wonder if what he says here isn’t still true.  He wrote before the fall of the Soviet Union, but afterwards, has there been any excoriation of ‘Russianness’?   I haven’t run across it if there has been.  Instead I have heard praise of the 100% pure ethnic Russian who is smarter, tougher, more resolute, and more competent than any other ethnicity or nation.  Also, their women are much prettier. 
I’ve seen some criticism of Moscow and its handling of internal affairs, but not so much of its handling of international affairs.  Putin and Medvedev seem to be fulfilling the desire on the part of a majority of Russians to have its leaders stand up to the West and assert their conception of themselves as a superpower. 
I recently pointed out themes in British, American and Canadian TV that question whether the human race deserves to survive.  Perhaps those writers have been influenced by the self-criticism that is so pervasive in the West, especially in the English speaking nations.  We have had our Mann’s and Gombrowicz’s in abundance, and perhaps they have been so influential that the rest of us look about us and ask, ‘if we are this bad, surely the planet would be better off if we turned it over to some more useful and benign species.’  Meanwhile Russians, though they may be struggling economically, and not willing to face the fact that except for their nuclear arsenal they resemble a third-world nation, haven’t lost confidence in Mother Russia and their Russianness. 
Oh there is plenty of criticism in the Russian Federation, but much of it comes from the non-Russian parts of the federation, and does it not seem to the Russian that it is alien and not really Russian?  Surely that sort of criticism provides the 100% ethnically pure Russians with no reason to think less of themselves, and certainly no cause to find anything to feel guilty about.  As to anything that happened during the Cold War, well that was the doing of that Georgian Stalin and his henchmen and does not reflect upon the immaculately pure Russian.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Kundera, Heidegger, values -- an elaboration

No, Kundera doesn’t specify which values he is referring to, but bear in mind that he was mightily influenced by Heidegger.  His “loss of values” could well be considered a rough equivalent to Heidegger’s “loss of being.”   The “loss of being” was a subject Kundera dwelt upon in some of his novels, e.g., “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”             

Note that Heidegger doesn’t specify what is being lost when he refers to “loss of dasein.”   Only when one attempts to put a name to this loss, to specify what is lost  by example, does it become easy to abandon the idea of the loss and focus on the details of what is lost.  Perhaps that is part of why Heidegger avoided specifics.   And yet the people who applied Heidegger couldn’t avoid specifics.  Inevitably, and ironically, they come across as inferior philosophers. 

What I focused upon I  would call the loss of values in the West -- primarily in the U.S.   But picking up the mantle of the Leftist, I could rephrase what has been going on and describe it as “progress.”  I could say nothing is being lost when we abandon whatever it was the founding fathers had in mind in their constitution and bill of rights.  We should not desire to stay frozen in that 200-years-ago time.  We should rejoice that we have “progressed” beyond it.  The Leftists and I might even agree on what has “changed.”  Then the Leftist could call these changes “progress” and I could call them “loss of being,” or “loss of value.”

Someplace else I assumed that Kundera didn’t emphasize authenticity, but I later thought about what I had written and thought I must be wrong.  How could that be possible?  He was heavily into Heidegger and if he could write novels that assumed a loss of being, then how could he not be aware of the need to seek authenticity?  Or maybe he thought the seeking of authenticity was not possible in this modern world.  Heidegger after all must have been disillusioned to some extent about that possibility after the war.  Heidegger doesn’t specify what this seeking after authenticity involves.  But surely it includes the reification of values.  Is this assertion disqualified unless I can enumerate those values?  I don’t think so.  Heidegger advocated a return to tradition, a harking back to an earlier time when things (values?) were more pristine and more widely embraced.  If he could do that for Germany (even though the Germans ignored him and embraced something else), why can’t I hark back to an earlier time in the U.S. and suggest that it would be good to seek that earlier tradition (at least its values)? 

Now, in regard to the elimination of slavery and the advancement of women, probably most of us would argue that these changes were embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  We declared that all men were created equal and then we denied some of them equality.  This value was right, but the laws guaranteeing that value (as well as our thinking on this matter) was flawed.  While we can applaud ourselves for eventually learning to live up to this value: “all men are created equal,” we have as I argue launched off into a variety of experiments that embody a decline of being (values).  We might agree, for example, that certain behavior is evil, undesirable, anti-social, etc. And yet we experiment in education by refusing to teach our children to avoid evil, antisocial acts, undesirable behavior, etc.  Throughout the West we are producing teenagers who are predatory sociopaths. 

Now lest we get off onto an “all, ”many,” some” debate I merely wish to draw attention to the teaching experiments that go on and on.  The “little red school house” embodied a good deal of “authenticity” in my view, and the social experiments embody a “loss of being.” 

And we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the fellows claiming military honor without deserving it, for did we not graduate these fellows with academic honors of some sort from our modern (not little red) grammar, intermediate, and high schools?  Perhaps we didn’t teach them to be screwed up.  But surely we didn’t teach them not to be.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Disintigration of values, British TV, Heidegger

Someone equated values with a “stage of cultural-intellectual development.”  There was also the implication that change, any change, is good. I am not an intellectual Leftist or Anarchist; so I would like to hear is which values we should give up?  In my previous note I observed that military honor may be on its way out.  Lawyers are arguing that the First Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to lie about military honors.  Someone who has never been in the service can claim to have been awarded the Medal of Honor and that’s okay because the First Amendment guarantees this fellows right to say anything he likes. 
Faithfulness in marriage has pretty much seen its day, as a value.  In fact Marriage itself, that imposition of virtue and open-ended commitments, may be on its way out.
Laws against murder have been severely weakened.  You can’t join the EU, for example, if you as a nation put your murderers to death.   Not that most of our states would ever want to join the EU, but many have given up Capital Punishment and those states that retain it, except for Texas, are very slow to put their murderers to death.
Self-Defense is under severe attack as a value.  Many people in the U.S. who defended themselves against rapists, murderers or robbers (one doesn’t know precisely which because they were killed by home owners before they got to do whatever it was they intended) have been sent to prison because their “self-defense” was deemed improper in some way.   Also, Esch-type organizations exist to take the means of self-defense out of the hands of the common citizen.
Self-defense in the larger sense is also under attack.  Many people don’t believe a nation should ever defend itself against attack.  These people aren’t in a majority in any nation as far as I know, but they are very vocal.  Defending one’s nation might involve killing someone and it is better to cease to exist as a nation than do that.
And beyond that, some are now asking the question, “do we deserve to survive as a species”; which turns self-defense on its head.  These people are at the farthest extreme from taking it as a “given” that everyone has the right to exist.  They want evidence that our species, homo sapiens, deserves it.  They imply that we do not.  The British and Canadians may be a bit ahead of us in this – if one can judge by the recent TV Series Battlestar Galactica (I don’t know precisely who is responsible for this, but there was a predominance of British and Canadian actors in it), Doctor Who, and Torchwood.  
Here in the U.S. we have the series “24” in which the hero, bends and breaks all sorts of laws in order to defend the U.S. which is assumed (by the series’ writers), to be worth saving.   We also have a popular series, Dexter, in which a Serial Killer has been conditioned such that he only kills murderers.  I can’t imagine Dexter being picked up in Britain.
In Torchwood the question was frequently raised, is the human race worth saving?  In the last episodes, a series called “The Children of Men” a superior race demands that the world give up one tenth of all its children or the world will be destroyed.  The children are to be used as a source of “pleasure” in the sense of a drug.  Jack Harkness told them he would fight them and not one child would be given to them.  At stake as far as he knew was the life of everyone on earth.  The aliens said very well and sent a poisonous gas into the building where they were.  The side-kick of the bisexual Jack Harkness was killed and Jack mourned aloud that he would renounced his challenge if he could; which in effect would have meant the willing sacrifice (on Jack's part) of one-tenth of all the children if Ianto would be saved.  Later on the last day, as the children are being collected he sacrifices his own grandson in order to.  One life sacrificed for the salvation of millions of children is considered by Jack worth it on Day Five.  But on Day Four he would change his mind if he could.  He would have let the children be taken rather than lose Ianto.
I am not that far into Dr. Who yet, but already the matter of the destruction of the human race is well to the fore.  A group of aliens want to destroy the earth, turn it into radioactive slag and sell it to other aliens who have a use for such slag.  Their contempt for the human race is clear.  And the Human Race, at least that portion of it in White Hall seems largely deserving of destruction.  It is the alien Dr. Who that saves the human race. 
Questions pertaining to the survival of the human race might at first seem distant from the disintegration of values, but if all the values which in the past were admired because they encouraged purity, courage, self-sacrifice, humility, love, loyalty and the like have been discredited and largely abandoned, then the question gains legitimacy:  Is the human race without these values worth saving?   Without them we might with the writers of Battlestar Galactica and Torchwood decide in the negative.
Is all change, even change that destroys our values good?   Surely not.  And it is not too late to return in some sense to our traditions and find the authentication that Heidegger recommended.  We humans have always had it in us to be as evil as the British TV series portray us.  The Bible is replete with descriptions of evil-human-nature.  Recall also Diogenes who believed humans should be virtuous and spent his time exposing corruption in society, and Dante who had levels in hell for the corrupt individuals he knew of.  But recall also that societies dealt with these evil-inclinations through education.  It has long been understood that children who are educated to be virtuous will be more inclined to be virtuous than those who are not. 
But those interested in “change” have abandoned the teaching of virtue and have incorporated a variety of experimental ideas into our education system.  Diogenes could have told them that the result would be fewer virtuous people, and Dante could have told them that they would be filling the levels of hell to abundance with the outcome of their experiments. 
I would recommend to those judges responsible for deciding whether the “right to lie” trumps the value of military honor that they consider what our founding fathers would have thought about this matter.  They fought a revolutionary war for independence and a better way of life.  They thought we in our fledgling states would with the right set of laws be able to adhere more closely to traditional values than the British who wanted to retain us as colonies.   They created a constitution and a Bill of Rights but is there any evidence that they wanted the “right to lie” amongst those rights?  Is there any evidence that they wanted to begin disintegrating the values and rights they considered their inheritance?  I don’t think so.
Heidegger seems to me quite clear about traditional values.  We nations, we ethnicities, have traditional values and if we are to seek authenticity, then we will not neglect returning to them, and then like Diogenes not be afraid to reveal our virtue in action. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Milan Kundera and the decline of values

On page 49-50 of The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera writes, “The world is [in] the process of the disintegration of values (values handed down from the Middle Ages), a process that stretches over the four centuries of the Modern Era and is their very essence.
“What are man’s possibilities in the face of this process?”
Before getting into those possibilities, consider an article published by Dan Elliot of the Associated Press: .  He entitles it “Federal law barring lies about medals is tested.”   In 2006 a “Stolen Valor Act” toughened a law that forbids anyone to wear a military medal that was not earned.” 
“Attorneys in Colorado and California are challenging the law on behalf of two men charged . . .”  As I understand it, these men (or their lawyers) are saying they shouldn’t be forced to do the 400 hours of community service and pay a fine of $5,000” because the First Amendment protects their right to lie.  There are screwed-up people everywhere – screwed up in all sorts of ways – and unscrupulous lawyers willing to defend them, but notice in this case that should these lawyers and their deranged clients win, a “value” will be weakened.  We see the “process of the disintegration of values” at work.  Interestingly enough, the defendants complicit in the disintegration of this particular value valued it enough to falsely claim that they possessed it.
Kundera refers to three novels by Hermann Broch: Pasenow, or Romanticism; Esch, or Anarchy; Huguenau, or Realism.  Kundera says that Broch finds three possibilities [in the face of the process of the disintegration of values]:
“The Pasenow Possibility.”  This possibility is to hang onto the values regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.  One gathers that Broch, and probably Kundera, don’t value this possibility as much as Pasenow does.  “Pasenow’s story culminates on his wedding night.  His wife, Elisabeth, does not love him.  He sees nothing ahead but a future of lovelessness.  He lies down beside her without undressing.  That ‘twisted his uniform a little, the coat skirts fell open and revealed the front of his black trousers, but as soon as Joachim noticed, he hastily set things right again and covered the place.  He had drawn up his legs, and so as not to touch the coverlet with his glossy boots, he strained to keep his feet on the chair beside the bed.”
“The Esch Possibility.”  Esch accepts the idea that the traditional values have disintegrated, but surely some new values must be possible and so he searches for some value to believe in passionately. Esch is ready to denounce Nentwig to the police, but upon meeting Nentwig he can’t recall what his complaint was; so instead he denounces Bertrand because he is homosexual. 
“The Huguenau Possibility.”  Huguenau is utterly without values.  “The absence of moral imperatives is his freedom, his deliverance.  There is a deep significance in the fact that it is he who – without the faintest sense of guilt – murders Esch.”
Where shall we put the Attorneys who want their clients to be able to lie about their military honors?   If they are sincere about believing the First Amendment guarantees the rights of their clients to lie about their military honors, perhaps they are in the Esch Possibility.   But if they are just in it to make a buck, they have embraced the Huguenau possibility.
And what of their clients, the defendants who claimed honor they didn’t deserve?  They don’t seem to fit any category.  They are liars to be pitied or ignored.  But their lawyers are participating in the process of disintegration and using them as tools.
Kundera adds two other possibilities to Broch’s three: Kafka’s K who is so devoted to the system that he maintains solidarity with the decision to execute him.  And Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Schweik who gets by by being (or pretending to be) a good-natured fool.
Throughout the four centuries Kundera refers to, the Christian option has maintained its collection of values.  Let us call it a tradition.  Kundera would snort in disgust at that, but I would hasten to point out to him that he accepted the experimental system called Marxism at one time, Marx who called religion the opiate of the masses.  Marxism has largely collapsed, disintegrated to use Kundera’s term.  If Marxism and other experiments collapse, will that not leave the tradition more or less in tact?  Kundera values Heidegger’s parts of Heidegger’s philosophy, but apparently not the part that values authenticity.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bolano's The Skating Rink

Roberto Bolano’s The Skating Rink was written in 1993 but wasn’t translated into English until 2009. 

There was a murder in this novel, but it would be a mistake to think of The Skating Rink as a murder mystery.  A skating rink has surreptitiously been built on the premises of a deserted mansion, the Palacio Benvingut, in the town of “Z.”  Z is a dismal place with little in it that could be described as beautiful – until Nuria, an ice-skater who has through no fault of her own run afoul of the Ice-Skating bureaucracy.  She is marooned in Z, the omega, seemingly, of Spain. 

But Enric Rosquelles comes to her rescue.  He is short and fat and the casual reader may think it is because he is that he doesn’t seek a romantic relationship with Nuria, but Nuria, and the Skating Rink are Z’s striving toward something beautiful – and Rosquelles is Z’s agent.  The rink, though located in a Kafka-like Castle is beautiful in the midst of the never-to-be-completed stadium.  Rosquelles works with Nuria, becomes her trainer, and strives to enable her to make the Spain’s Olympic team. 

Second in importance after Rosquelles is Remo Moran, a self-made successful businessman.  In addition to a chain of jewelry stores and a restaurant, he owns a Camp Ground.  He too has an interest in Nuria, but his interest is physical.  Though Moran writes novels and ought to be more interested in beauty, he isn’t.  He and Nuria become lovers.  Eventually Rosquelles finds out, but the discovery doesn’t deter him from his dream of maintaining the skating rink in order to prepare Nuria to make the Olympic team.

Moran’s Camp Ground has ongoing significance.  We see it through the eyes of Gaspar Heredia, whom Moran hired to be one of the camp-ground guards.  He falls in love with Caridad who says little but follows the authoritative middle-aged opera singer, Carman, about.   Carmen is given coins as she walks about Z singing arias.  She and Caridad sometimes go to the Palacio Benvingut where they learn of the Skating Rink, something Rosquelles hoped to keep secret until Nuria made the team.  Carmen attempts to blackmail Rosquelles, and is almost immediately murdered – on the ice in the middle of the Skating Rink.

This happens late in the novel and anyone who has spent time reading detective fiction may be excused for thinking this a murder mystery, but it isn’t.  Rosquelles is arrested and Nuria loses her chance to make the team and while Rosquelles is initially accused of the murder he is not prosecuted.  We learn in the last few pages that it was “the Rookie,” one of the bums who hangs out in the camp ground, who killed Carmen, and he doesn’t even know why.  Moran hears the Rookie’s confession, but it isn’t clear that he intends to turn him in. 

We can see the probably-insane Rookie as a force of Z as Z strives toward beauty.  Had the Rookie been cleverer he would have killed Carmen elsewhere, but doing it in the center of the skating rink made a primitive statement.  Surely we see this and aren’t distracted just because the authorities arrest Rosquelles.  The dream is ended.  Nuria suffers loss of her chance to make the Olympic team, but also another loss.  She is offered the opportunity given in the West to any celebrity, to make money doing interviews but also to make money posing nude for a magazine, and she accepts.  Z’s skating rink and skating star collapse at the same time.

Rosquelles is sent to prison for the embezzlement of public funds.  Rosquelles is not presented as a corrupt man.  The skating rink would have paid for itself in seven years if Z’s bureaucracy could see it.  All they saw was that he had become overcome by an ill-defined passion when he used public funds to build the skating rink.  He didn’t steal for reasons of greed which might have told in his favor.  While in prison he makes friends with the warden and together they write a book on Prison reform.  After that, and probably because of that, Rosquelles is released.  He has lost weight, is now trim and tanned and no one in Z recognizes him. 

The novel ends with Rosquelles asking “Was I tempted to visit the Palacio Benvingut?   Well, the simplest answer would be no, or yes.  To tell the truth, I did drive out that way, but that’s all.  There’s a curve in the highway on the way to Y, from which you can see the cove and the palace.  When I got there I braked, turned around and drove back to Z.  What good would it have done me, going there?  I would only have been adding to the sum of pain.  Besides, in winter it’s a sad place.  The stones I remembered as blue were grey.  The paths I remembered as bathed in light were strewn with shadows.  So I braked, made a U-turn and drove back to Z.  I avoided looking in the rearview mirror until I was a safe distance away.  What’s gone is gone, that’s what I say, you have to keep looking ahead . . .”

I’m tempted to see Rosquelles prison experience as cathartic.  He  was willing to sacrifice himself for the Nuria and the Skating Rink.  By the time he gets out of prison Nuria has dwindled to a center-fold and the Palcio Benfingut, despite its ice rink, has once again been abandoned.  Though slimmed-down and better looking, he won’t try to find Nuria.  All that is behind him.  “What’s gone is gone.”  Remo Moran wonders if it isn’t time for him to move away from Z.  The camp-guard Heredia and his girl friend Caridad now have enough money  to leave Z and go to Mexico.  But what of Rosquelles who has “to keep looking ahead”?  Don’t worry about him, Bolano would probably tell us.  He is extremely talented and is sure to find something to do – but it won’t be another quest for beauty.