Bunin, Nazhivin, and Ideological Demonization

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ivan Bunin was a Russian man of letters who experienced the Russian revolution firsthand, and published his impressions in the book, “Cursed Days.” As the title would imply, he didn’t like what he saw. For example, he objected to a phenomenon we would, nowadays, refer to as ideological demonization. He describes it very accurately in connection with ad hominem attacks on one Nazhivin, a poet villified by the Bolsheviks and their hangers on in the midst of the Russian Civil War:

“Because of his book, though, Nazhivin is beginning to be persecuted in a malicious, coarse, and most obscene type of way.
“Why?
“For the simple reason that he dared to say things that violated the credo of the left.
“It would seem that one could simply say to Nazhivin: ‘In our view you have made a mistake because of this or that.’
“One could express himself even more strongly and say, ‘It is not good that you have said this or that.’ – if the person really deserves such a remark.
“But when reviewers begin mocking this outstanding Russian person and writer, when they start slandering him with all kinds of cliches, as leftists are often wont to do, …I …hardly the newest person in this literature…decisively protest their actions and hope that my views will be shared by many of my colleague writers.
“I repeat: One may or may not agree with Nazhivin. One may argue with him, refute him… but to rebuke him in an indecent way, to rush off in a frenzy and seek to silence a great Russian individual and writer – such actions are not ‘liberal,’ nor should they be tolerated or allowed.”

Sound familiar? It should. Ninety years later, the sort of ideological demonization Bunin refers to has not disappeared. Far from it! One can spend days hopping from blog to blog, website to website, “news” channel to “news” channel, and never encounter a serious argument against this or that political point of view that doesn’t amount to a melange of ad hominem attacks, snarky remarks, and name calling, accompanied by the striking of virtuous poses from the “moral high ground.”

This phenomenon has long been a trademark of the ideological left in the US, but is now increasingly affecting the right, so that mutual villification has become the rule. One rarely finds cool, detached, objective arguments on any ideologically loaded topic. Instead, one hears a recitation of the reasons ones opponent is a villain, accompanied by much moralistic preening. The truth suffers. How refreshing it would be to find, if only once in a great while, an attack on an opponent’s arguments rather than his or her character. What a pleasant surprise it would be to find some ideologically loaded topic discussed on its merits, without the implication that anyone holding an opposing point of view must not only be wrong, but necessarily suffer from some kind of a moral deficit as well.

The shallowness necessarily associated with this form of “debate” eventually becomes oppressive. One reflects that none of these furious zealots would be remotely capable of explaining, based on first principles, why one action is good and another evil, and recalls a remark once uttered by Nietzsche: “Virtuous indignation is a crutch for the intellectually crippled.”

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