Monday, September 5, 2011

Elena Bonner and why one becomes a dissident

Billy Blogblather writes,

Interesting comments. I haven't self-identified as Catholic for 40 years, so I have my doubts about those former beliefs freezing me into a rigidity of political thought. I'm sure I'm ultra-liberal because my parents were and I greatly admired and loved them and in many ways have tried to emulate them. But how explain your tergiversation? I would guess that at some point along the way you decided that liberalism was not in your best interest. Well, it's hard to argue that point.

I was surprised and a bit fascinated by the fact that your son is a handyman -- my prejudice, mea culpa. I install and service light commercial and residential AC and heat, repair restaurant kitchen equipment (most of my customers are independent restaurants), I've been doing this work for 35 years. I enjoy this work more than teaching, more than managing restaurants , more than managing a parts company and more than working for a TV station, more than sacking groceries or cashiering or soda jerking or throwing papers -- all of which I've done. I like being my on my own. I totally understand your son's love for handymanning.

Lawrence responds:

I didn’t mean to imply that your rebellion against Catholicism was the only cause of your dissidence. Consider an article in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of The American Interest by Anne Applebaum entitled “Elena Bonner, RIP.” Applebaum writes, “Is there such a thing as a dissident personality? Certainly there are people who seem almost genetically programmed to oppose the ruling order of whichever nation they happen to inhabit. . . Bonner died on June 18, at the age of 88, having spent most of her adult life battling the Russian ruling order of the day. She first fought communism. Then she fought Putinism. In between, she was a loud and passionate critic of both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Some of the time she fought in partnership with her late husband, the nuclear physicist and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. The rest of the time she fought alone.”

Unlike you Billy, she was “a stubborn and lonely child, she had chilly relations with her parents, both ardent communists. She obstinately refused adult supervision and frequently played by herself.”

I recall reading a biographical article by Noam Chomsky in which he wrote, if memory serves me, that he was raised in a Communist milieu and was drawn to it. Perhaps Chomsky is closer to what you describe as your background than Bonner. In my own case I was probably closer to Bonner. I was raised by my grandmother until I was 10. As to my father, think of Barfly. After their divorce my mother became enamored of Christian sects that advocated a literalistic interpretation of prophecy. At age 13 I recall waiting out in the backyard all day one Saturday because Dr. Clem Davies predicted the end of the world and my mother was absolutely convinced he was correct.

I was raised in the mainline Disciples of Christ denomination. My mother stayed in that until after I had gone into the Marine Corps. After that she became attracted to the ideas of Herbert W. Armstrong and the World Wide Church of God. I did study all the things she urged me to read, and rejected them – in writing. My younger brother who attended Ambassador College thought that some of my writings (my mother turned them over to church elders because she couldn’t answer my objections) may have aided the eventual abandonment of the ideas of Armstrong and a move closer to main-stream Christianity.

As far as I know, I didn’t “react” or “rebel” against my parents. That simply wasn’t the context in which I was raised. There ideas, such as they were, weren’t being imposed or even recommended. My father wasn’t available and my mother wasn’t believable. But I did rebel against what I thought were the inadequacies of my education. Getting a library card was a very big deal for me. It allowed me to check the things I was being taught in school.

Back to Bonner: “Bonner did not buckle under pressure but remained defiant, growing from a very difficult child into an extremely difficult adult. This helped her become an ideal dissident. Human rights work is persistent and repetitive, and Bonner could be both. She lobbied, wrote articles, staged protests and generally made herself so obnoxious to the authorities that they arrested her. In prison, she refused to cooperate. Once released, she started up again. . .”

“. . . Elena Bonner overcame personal tragedy to become one of the most effective spokesmen [sic] for the Russian human rights movement. . . .”

Perhaps I share with Billy the fact that neither of us did anything of note with our dissidence. In my case, my early dissidence, rebellion against a lot of what I was being taught in Grammar and High School, sorted itself out when I was able to study these subjects on my own. Instead of “rebelling,” I would “debate.” I would try ideas on” and then argue from that point of view without totally embracing them – as a learning tool. I was never as passionate about them as Bonner was about her ideas. Perhaps I am a semi-misanthrope. If someone wanted to disagree with me, fine. I might argue as long as the argument was going on, but I didn’t need to convince them. At some point after we’d argued everything there was to argue I just wanted to move on to the next subject. I read not only the Stoics, but Plato and thoroughly accepted the idea that abstract concepts were difficult to understand – and that most people took short cuts around them. I resolved never to take such shortcuts – which made me a difficult person in some respects. Some of the people at Douglas, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing would definitely call me difficult, but none of them dreamed of putting me in jail . . . as far as I know.

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