Who was George Orwell?

The intellectual demolition of Communism was hardly the work of an individual, but even compared to the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Milovan Djilas, George Orwell was probably its most lethal foe. His “1984” and “Animal Farm” revealed the hideous reality of the beast behind the ideological mask, and it never really recovered from the blow. In the intervening years, Orwell the human being has been transmogrified into Orwell the intellectual icon. In the same way that the reality of Thomas Jefferson the deist has been “modified” to reveal Thomas Jefferson, defender of Christianity, so too has the reality of Orwell the democratic socialist been “modified” to reveal Orwell the defender of capitalism. He was anything but that.

To those interested in seeing the real man through the intellectual fog, I recommend “Homage to Catalonia,” Orwell’s account of his experiences on and off the front in the Spanish Civil War. He was well into his 30’s when he arrived in Spain, and I doubt that his fundamental world view changed much after he left. He was by no means a fanatical ideologue. In fact, he said that the political side of the war bored him. His perception of the events that marked the conflict certainly altered both during and after the conflict. Nevertheless, he stood to the left, not to the right of the Communists in Spain. He saw them as pawns of the Soviet Union, and their policy as subordinated completely to the need to defend the U.S.S.R. As Orwell put it,

The whole process is easy to understand if one remembers that it proceeds from the temporary alliance that Fascism, in certain forms, forces upon the bourgeois and the worker. This alliance, known as the Popular Front, is in essence an alliance of enemies, and it seems probable that it must always end by one partner swallowing the other. The only unexpected feature in the Spanish situation – and outside Spain it has caused an immense amount of misunderstanding – is that among the parties on the Government side the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme Right… In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain. Later, when the Right-wing forces were in full control, the Communists showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders.

And who were the real revolutionary leaders? Orwell happened to arrive at a place and time during the conflict where the revolutionary upsurge following the shock of Franco’s coup d’état had reached its peak. He came to Aragon and Catalonia, where, led by the anarchists and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification or POUM, from its Spanish acronym, the workers were in the saddle, the local economy had been collectivized, and an extreme spirit of equality prevailed. As a democratic socialist, Orwell found this state of affairs highly attractive. As he put it,

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist… However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality… But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the “mystique” of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all… And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.

How could such a man have become the hammer that dealt such a mortal blow to Communism? It’s easy enough to understand for anyone who reads this short book. There were two fairly well defined party lines prevailing in Spain at the time Orwell arrived. The POUM and anarchists insisted that the revolution must continue unabated or the war would be meaningless. However, orthodox Communists, represented in Orwell’s area by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, or PSUC, insisted that it was essential to win the war at all costs. To achieve victory, revolutionary hubris must be sacrificed to political reality. “Reality” included accepting a return to bourgeois control, centralized government, and a militarized army in place of the party militias prevailing at the time. Initially, Orwell preferred this point of view. Later, he came to reject it. As time went on, the dispute became increasingly bitter.

Orwell had come to Spain with a letter of introduction from the British International Labor Party, which was associated with the POUM. As a result, he joined and went to the front with a POUM militia. At first, he was irritated by their “ceaseless carping against the ‘counter-revolutionary’ PSUC,” which struck him as, “priggish and tiresome.” Later, as he put it, “I realized that the POUM were almost blameless compared with their adversaries.”

At the front, Orwell witnessed the heroism of POUM fighters, some of them mere children of 15, in their battle against the fascists. There was no question in his mind about the integrity of their revolutionary ideals. However, when they returned to Barcelona after months of privation in unspeakably primitive conditions, the Communists treated them to anything but a heroes’ welcome. Quite the contrary. In Orwell’s words,

Tentatively at first, then more loudly, they began to assert that the POUM was splitting the Government forces not by bad judgment but by deliberate design. The POUM was declared to be no more than a gang of disguised Fascists, in the pay of Franco and Hitler, who were pressing a pseudo-revolutionary policy as a way of aiding the Fascist cause. The POUM was a “Trotskyist” organization and “Franco’s Fifth Column.” This implied that scores of thousands of working-class people, including eight or ten thousand soldiers who were freezing in the front-line trenches and hundreds of foreigners who had come to Spain to fight against Fascism, often sacrificing their livelihood and their nationality by doing so, were simply traitors in the pay of the enemy… It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from among the blankets, and to think of the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise… One of the dreariest effects of this was has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.

Here, then, one finds the source of Orwell’s hatred of Stalinism and orthodox Communism. He rejected them, not because he preferred Capitalism, but because, as a convinced Socialist, he found the Stalinists devious, power-hungry, and essentially counter-revolutionary. In Spain, he was confronted with their betrayal. It was a betrayal, not of Capitalism, but of the workers power. Thanks to them, “the process of collectivization was checked, the workers’ patrols were abolished and the pre-war police forces (for Orwell, the natural enemies of the workers), largely reinforced and very heavily armed, were restored, and… finally, most important of all, the workers’ militias (in which Orwell had fought), based on the trade unions, were gradually broken up and redistributed among the new Popular Army, a ‘non-political’ army on semi-bourgeois lines, with a differential pay rate, a privileged officer-caste, etc. etc.” As a result of Communist activity, Orwell noted that, “A general ‘bourgeoisification,’ a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place… What had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor.”

When Orwell, a man who had suffered and risked his life in defense of that workers’ State, was denounced as a “traitor, fifth columnist, and fascist,” by the very Party that he saw dismantling the revolution before his eyes, that betrayal inspired the intellectual deconstruction of the Stalinist state that occupied much of his remaining life and culminated in “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

The fact that Orwell, like so many of his fellow intellectuals during the era of the Great Depression, was a democratic socialist, and launched his blows at Communism, not from the right, but from the left, is not as surprising as it might seem in retrospect. Many of Communisms most effective foes were similar to him in that respect, at least at some point in their lives.  Often, like Orwell, they had witnessed the contrast between the ideal and the reality firsthand.  See, for example, “The New Class,” by Milovan Djilas, and “Child of the Revolution” by Wolfgang Leonhard.  Another interesting and entertaining if lesser known example of the genre is “Out of the Night,” by Jan Valtin.  Thinkers long before the time of Marx had predicted the eventual demise of the socialist ideal because, unlike conventional religions, which promise paradise in the world to come, it promised paradise on earth, where the disconnect between the reality and the ideal would finally become too obvious to overlook.  Orwell and his peers were the messengers who finally revealed the man behind the curtain.  We owe them much, and their relevance hasn’t ended with the demise of Communism.  Eventually, another messianic ideology will arise to take its place. 

homage-to-catalonia

The “Pravda” of Nicholas I

Today’s lead article on the website of “Pravda” is entitled, “The Modern West, A Culture of Death.” Were a modern day Russian Rip van Winkle to read it after a catnap of 20 years, he would probably conclude it was just another one of his crazy dreams and go back to sleep. Here’s the lead paragraph.

From the early 1800s, the West, in an affront to God, has moved ever more rapidly into a culture of death and destruction, away from the teachings of Christ. At its present state, the most significant thing that the West is bringing to humanity is a culture of totalitarianism and death, one on such a nuanced level as would only be celebrated by the most brutal of Pagans and Lucifirians and would even be an affront to the most blood thirsty of the Islamic radicals.

Great shades of the Black Hundreds! Czar Nicholas I has come back to reclaim his own! The article comes complete with a picture of two “babushkas” seated at a McDonald’s to set the proper ideological tone, and is written in a style commensurate with Pravda’s current “National Enquirer” look. I am anything but an expert on the prevailing political nuances in the Russian media, but, if Pravda is any guide, the country has completed its Marxist somersault, and has now landed with both feet firmly in the past. Consider this remarkable line from a paragraph about the conduct of war by Orthodox soldiers:

Do not confuse this with the actions of the Red Army, in WW2, which was under the control of the Western Marxist import and its subsequent ideology of death.

One finds it somehow surprising that such a stunning volte face took place in Russia, and not China. There, in spite of the cultural pride expressed in the paradigm of the “Middle Kingdom” surrounded by unenlightened barbarians enshrined in the countries very name, the “Western Marxist import” still prevails. Indeed, the ruling oligarchy depends on it to establish the legitimacy of its rule.

Russia, on the other hand, seems to have completely shaken off alien ideologies and taken a Great Leap Backwards, if Pravda is any guide. The tone of the article would certainly have been familiar to the Marquis de Custine, who traveled through Russia in 1839 in the days of Nicholas I. Indeed, there is much in his description of the country that seems to transcend the ideological changes of later years, and would have sounded as prescient under Stalin as it did under Nicholas. For example,

In Russia, the government rules everything and vitalizes nothing. The inhabitants of this vast Empire, though not calm, are dumb. Death hovers over every head and strikes at random — it is enough to make one doubt divine justice. Mankind there has two coffins: the cradle and the tomb. Mothers must weep for their children at birth as much as at death.

and,

The people and its ruler are in harmony here. The Russians make themselves witnesses, accomplices and victims in these prodigies of willpower and would not repudiate them even to resurrect all the slaves whose lives are forfeited as a result. However, what surprises me is not that one man, nourished on the idolatry of his own person, a man described as all-powerful by sixty million humans (or near-humans) whould undertake such things and carry them through. What does surprise me is that among all the voices testifying to the glory of this single man, not one rises above the chorus to speak for humanity against the miracles of autocracy. You can say of the Russians, both great and small, that they are intoxicated with slavery.

Custine’s account of his travels is well worth the modern reader’s time. One hopes for the sake of Russia’s people that his words will not be as prophetic for her future as they have been for her past.

Even the Psychologists have Noticed Human Nature!

Stendhal
Stendhal
That invaluable bloodhound of the blogosphere, Instapundit, turned up another interesting link this morning. It turned out to be an article on the website of “Psychology Today.” Now it happens that I was actually a subscriber of PT decades ago, but I stopped reading it after concluding that, if I really wanted to learn something about psychology, my time would be much more profitably spent reading Stendhal. My sedate, philosophical eyebrow raised almost a full notch when, in reading the article in question, I found sections such as,

Most journalists take a number of psychology, sociology, political science, and humanities courses during their early years in college. Unfortunately, these courses have long served as ideological training programs—ignoring biological sources of self-serving, corrupt, and criminal behavior for a number of reasons, including lack of scientific training; postmodern, antiscience bias; and well-intentioned, facts-be-damned desire to have their students view the world from an egalitarian perspective.

and,

But, having worked among the Soviets, I know that large groups of very intelligent people can fall into a collective delusion that what they are doing in certain areas is the right thing, when it’s actually not the right thing at all. It’s rather like the Skinnerian viewpoint on psychology. For a full half century, psychologists insisted it wasn’t proper to posit anything going on inside people’s heads. Advances in psychology ground to a halt during that time, but it was impossible to convince mainstream psychologists that there was anything wrong to their approach. After all–everybody was using Skinner’s approach, and everybody couldn’t be wrong.

Thinking it must be an aberration, or, perhaps, an example of the tokenism so often found in the mainstream media today, I took a closer look at the PT website. Eureka! I soon began turning up links like this. Evolutionary psychology at Psychology Today?! Can you say paradigm shift?

Well, it’s nice to see that progress actually happens, even in psychology, although I suspect I’ll still consult Stendhal as my primary source for the time being. Meanwhile, it would be nice if all the geniuses in the field who had their heads up their collective behaviorist rectums back in the 60’s and 70’s would visit Robert Ardrey’s grave, perhaps decorate it with a rose or two, and murmur, “Sorry for all the abuse, old man. You were right, and we were wrong.”

Does God Exist?

Jean Meslier
Jean Meslier
In my opinion, no. I am not certain that I am right, but none of us can be logically certain of anything. As human beings, we must be satisfied with probabilities, not certainties. There are few things that I consider more improbable than the existence of God, or any other supernatural being, for that matter. I shed my belief in God at age 12. Everything I have learned, experienced, and thought since then has confirmed that very fundamental conclusion.

Why fundamental? Because our conclusions about the nature of good and evil, the reasons for and purpose of our existence, and the logical basis for our goals in life must depend on whether we believe in God or not.

We often see discussions about whether belief in God has been useful to society or not, whether it has lead to destructive behavior or not, whether it has been responsible for one historical disaster or another or not, or whether it is necessary to motivate people to act morally or not. All these are moot points. The question we must answer is not whether belief in God is useful, but whether belief in God is true.

For most people, religious beliefs are not based on logical thought. So much is obvious if we look at the differences between different countries. The population of one might be mainly Moslem, and of another mainly Christian. The disparities do not depend on the ability of one group of citizens to reason more accurately than the other. Rather, they reflect prevailing customs and traditions. Based on this evidence, we must conclude that the majority of people, whether they think more or less about the matter, end up adopting the beliefs of the society or group to which they happen to belong. This behavior is hardly surprising, given what we know about the nature of human beings. However, given the consequences, it is probably not something we should wish to emulate.

For example, most Christians believe, at least nominally, in the Trinity. According to the Koran, those who believe in the Trinity will burn in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years, and more. In fact, they will burn in hell forever. I take a less drastic view of the matter. I don’t think that either Christians or Moslems will burn in hell forever because they disagree with me. I simply believe that it is better to base ones actions, goals, and the way in which one relates to others on that which is true rather than on that which is false.

Why do I reject belief in the supernatural? There are a great many reasons. I found some of them on my own, but most of them are not original. In the beginning I may have thought they were, but since then I’ve found many others who’ve thought the same thoughts, had the same ideas, and come to the same conclusions. These include Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris, who’ve all recently published books rejecting religious belief. However, of the many I’ve found whose ideas reflected my own, the greatest thinker of them all was a simple French priest named Jean Meslier. When he died in 1729, he left three copies of his Testament, in which he set forth what I consider the most thorough and the most profound rejection of religious belief ever written. Voltaire admired Meslier and did much to circulate and preserve his work, but commented that he wrote “in the style of a carriage horse.” His condescension was ill-considered. I am grateful to Voltaire. He probably did more to liberate mankind from the shackles of political and religious obscurantism than anyone before or since. However, I consider Meslier the more powerful of the two thinkers. Voltaire was a deist, and somehow found in Meslier’s work a confirmation of his own beliefs. In fact, Meslier demolished deism as thoroughly as the rest of religious belief. Somehow, Voltaire missed the point.

Meslier’s style may have been unpolished, but his case against religion was clear, concise, and thorough. His work includes virtually every argument that has ever occurred to me, and many more. I have read many apologies for religion, but none, in my opinion, that could even begin to stand up against Meslier’s logic. One feels a sense of awe when one recalls he wrote more than 100 years before the publication of “The Origin of Species.” One can occasionally find English versions of his work published under the rather affected title, “Superstition in All Ages.” I will have more to say about Meslier in future. In the meantime, do yourself a favor: read his book and think about it. Here are a few excerpts:

“What is God? What is spirit? They are causes of which we have no idea. Sages! Study nature and her laws; and when you can from them unravel the action of natural causes. Do not go in search of supernatural causes, which, very far from enlightening your ideas, will but entangle them more and more and make it impossible for you to understand yourselves.”

“Nature, you say, is totally inexplicable without a God; that is to say, in order to explain what you understand so little, you need a cause which you do not understand at all. You pretend to make clear that which is obscure, by magnifying its obscurity. You think you have untied a knot by multiplying knots.”

“I would admit without question that the human machine appears to me surprising; but since man exists in nature, I do not believe it right to say that his formation is beyond the forces of nature. I will add, that I could conceive far less of the formation of the human machine, when to explain it to me they tell me that a pure spirit, who has neither eyes, nor feet, nor hands, nor head, nor lungs, nor mouth, nor breath, has made man by taking a little dust and blowing upon it.”

“According to the notions of modern theology, it appears evident that God has created the majority of men with the view only of punishing them eternally. Would it not have been more in conformity with kindness, with reason, with equity, to create but stones or plants, and not sentient beings, than to create men whose conduct in this world would cause them eternal chastisements in another? A God so perfidious and wicked as to create a single man and leave him exposed to the perils of damnation, cannot be regarded as a perfect being, but as a monster of nonsense, injustice, malice and atrocity.”

“But if the choicest work of Divinity is imperfect, by what are we to judge of the Divine perfections? Can a work with which the author himself is so little satisfied, cause us to admire his skill?”

“Does it depend upon man to accept or not to accept the opinions of his parents and of his teachers? If I were born of idolatrous or Mohammedan parents, would it have depended upon me to become a Christian? However, grave Doctors of Divinity assure us that a just God will damn without mercy all those to whom He has not given the grace to know the religion of the Christians.”

“In calling mortals into life, what a cruel and dangerous game does the Divinity force them to play! Thrust into the world without their wish, provided with a temperament of which they are not the masters, animated by passions and desires inherent in their nature, exposed to snares which they have not the skill to avoid, led away by events which they could neither foresee nor prevent, the unfortunate beings are obliged to follow a career which conducts them to horrible tortures.”

“Their (the animals) peaceable ignorance, is it not more advantageous than these extravagant meditations and these futile investigations which render you miserable, and for which you are driven to murdering beings of your own noble kind?”

I am in awe when I read things like this. It boggles the mind to think that “my” reasons, and many more, for rejecting religion were all written down by this genius who lived more than 280 years ago. I will discuss some of those not touched on above in future posts.

What is the consequence of my conclusions regarding religion? Everything else I write here; my ideas concerning good and evil, human nature, the purpose of life or lack thereof, everything. Religious beliefs or the lack thereof matter. There are consequences for getting it right and consequences for getting it wrong, and they are very weighty consequences as far as our lives are concerned. For that reason, we must be particularly zealous in guarding freedom of speech concerning matters of religion. We simply cannot afford to suppress the critical discussion of religious belief because we are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, or “insulting” their beliefs. There can be few better proofs that an idea is false than its proponents’ fear of criticism. The truth should not be afraid of confronting falsehood.

Alexander Herzen: My Past & Thoughts

Alexander Herzen
Alexander Herzen
If you haven’t read Alexander Herzen’s “My Past & Thoughts,” I recommend it to your attention. Nobleman, journalist, and anarchist, Herzen’s book is full of interesting historical anecdotes. He must have met nearly every significant 19th century radical of one stripe or another, and a lot of other very interesting characters besides. Some examples:

Garibaldi

“I myself made Garibaldi‘s acquaintance in 1854, when he sailed from South America as the captain of a ship and lay in the West India Dock; I went to see him accompanied by one of his comrades in the Roman war and by Orsini. Garibaldi, in a thick, light-coloured overcoat, with a bright scarf round his neck and a cap on his head, seemed to me more a genuine sailor than the glorious leader of the Roman militia, statuettes of whom in fantastic costume were being sold all over the world. The good-natured simplicity of his manner, the absence of all affectation, the cordiality with which he received one, all disposed one in his favour.”

Buchanan

(Buchanan, then ambassador in London, hosted a party for a Who’s Who of European radicals at the behest of President Pierce, who, according to Herzen, was “playing all sorts of schoolboy pranks” on the old governments of Europe at the time.)

“The sly old man Buchanan, who was then already dreaming, in spite of his seventy years, of the presidency, and therefore was constantly talking of the happiness of retirement, of the idyllic life and of his own infirmity, made up to us as he had made up to (Alexey) Orlov and Benckendorf at the Winter Palace when he was ambassador at the time of Nicholas. Kossuth and Mazzini he knew already; to the others he paid compliments specially selected for each, much more reminiscent of an experienced diplomatist than of the austere citizen of a democratic republic.”

Robert Owen

Owen‘s manner was very simple; but with him, as with Garibaldi, there shone through his kindliness a strength and a consciousness of the possession of authority. In his affability there was a feeling of his own excellence; it was the result perhaps of continual dealings with wretched associates; on the whole, he bore more reesemblance toa runined aristocrat, to the younger son of a great family, than to a plebeian and a socialist.”

Bakunin

(Herzen had discouraged one of his revolutionary projects.)

Bakunin waved his hand in despair and went off to Ogarev’s (a friend of Herzen) room. I looked mornfully after him. I saw that he was in the middle of his revolutionary debauch, and that there would be no bringing him to reason now. With his seven-league boots he was striding over seas and mountains, over years and generations… He already saw the red flag of “Land and Freedom” waving on the Urals and the Volga, in the Ukraine and the Caucausus, possibly on the Winter Palace and the Peter-Paul fortress, and was in haste to smooth away all difficulties somehow, to conceal contradictions, not to fill up the gullies but to fling a skeleton bridge across them.”

It’s a good thing all these old nineteenth century idealists and revolutionaries never lived to see what would become of their dreams in the twentieth. To them it would have seemed a tragedy, in spite of spectacular technological advances. In many ways, it was.

Trotsky as Cassandra: The End of the Marxist Dream

Trotsky was the best and brightest, and probably also the most readable, of the old Bolsheviks. He was also the Cassandra of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Here’s what he had to say about the historical fate of Communism in “In Defense of Marxism,” a collection of his letters and articles published shortly after he was murdered by Stalin in 1940.

“If, however, it is conceded that the present war (WWII) will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signalizing the eclipse of civilisation.”

“Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale.”

“If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous this perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.”

Too bad Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, et.al., didn’t listen to him. It would have saved us all a lot of grief.

Milovan Djilas, one of the great political thinkers of the 20th century, wrote a postscript for Trotsky in his seminal work on Communism, “The New Class.” An excerpt:

djilas

the-new-class

“The movement of the new class toward power comes as a result of the efforts of the proletariat and the poor. These are the masses upon which the party or the new class must lean and with which its interests are most closely allied. This is true until the new class finally establishes its power and authority. Over and above this, the new class is interested in the proletariat and the poor only to the extent necessary for developing production and for maintaining in subjugation the most aggressive and rebellious social forces.”

Those who would elevate the likes of Chavez and Zelaya to the rank of great heroes of democracy should take note and think again.

Trotsky and Djilas are both well worth reading. Djilas, in particular, is one of the most brilliant and under-appreciated thinkers of the last hundred years. See, for example, in addition to “The New Class,” works such as “Land Without Justice” and “Wartime.” You can find them on eBay, Amazon, Barnesandnoble, etc.

cassandra

Whatever Happened to Sully?

Andrew Sullivan
Andrew Sullivan
Once upon a time, Andrew Sullivan was a creative, independent voice in the wilderness. I used to read and appreciate him a lot. He was articulate, and didn’t fit in any ideological boxes. He had the invaluable trait of calling out and answering the most important arguments of his opponents instead of following the prevailing fashion of ignoring them and sticking to a list of talking points. He was editor of The New Republic for a while, and that became it’s style, too. It was a great read.

It seems to me he’s changed a lot, and not for the better. It could be he’s just changed away from my point of view, but I don’t think so. I’m on “his side” when it comes to the torture issue, and several others. The problem isn’t with his point of view. The problem is that the spark of intellect, of originality, just isn’t there anymore.

His slide downhill seemed to start with the Iraq war. As he said later, he supported it “like a teenaged girl supporting the Jonas brothers.” Once we were in the war, he became one of the more strident and hysterical defeatists. As a Vietnam veteran, perhaps I took it too personally that he seemed to be doing his level best to demoralize the troops and the country in a war he did so much to promote, but, regardless, as history has shown, his defeatist attitude was as irrational as his earlier warmongering.

Things haven’t gone uphill in the meantime. Lately, his posts have begun to dwell more and more on the various moral shortcomings of the people with whom he disagrees. In other words, he sounds like everyone else. The most notable example is his recent bout of Palin Derangement Syndrome. One wonders what it is about Palin that sets him off so. Is he really afraid the rest of the media will ignore her faults? Why this fanatical crusade to expose her every deviation from the Sullivan standard of moral rectitude? From a purely practical point of view, it doesn’t hurt Palin, and just supplies ammunition to the people on the right who loathe him.

Reading Sullivan now is like reading the last novels of Sinclair Lewis for someone who loves “Babbitt” and “Main Street.” Perhaps there’s some connection between his physical and intellectual health. Hard to say.

Well, apparently his readership is up, so who am I to complain? After all, he is, at least, still smarter than the editors of the Washington Post.

The Night of the Long Knives

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s bloody suppression of Ernst Roehm and his stormtroopers. There are many accounts on the web written long after the demise of the Third Reich, but it’s a lot harder to find contemporary reports in newspapers and magazines. Today, almost four decades after a man with vision laid the foundations of Project Gutenberg, a massive and ever-growing library of books is at our fingertips online. Perhaps the day will come when the newstands of bygone eras will be as accessible as the libraries are now. I hope so. Contemporary news accounts are often far from accurate, but they have the great virtue of being free of the “filtering” so often found in the ideological narratives that pass for “history” these days. One gains a great sense of perspective by occasionally escaping the political correctnesses and narratives of ones own time and immersing ones self in the political correctnesses and narratives of days gone by.

The Great Library of Alexandria has Gone Missing!!

Pompey's Pillar and the ruins of the Serapeum
Pompey's Pillar and the ruins of the Serapeum
Just as I was about to indulge myself in a self-congratulatory smirk for pointing out certain anomalies in the gaudy tales of the Great Iranian Coup now current on the web, I find that, while I was landing a sunfish, other bloggers have been reeling in muskies. To wit, Dave Schuler over at The Glittering Eye has just pulled off a controlled demolition of no less an edifice than the Great Library of Alexandria itself! Quoting the Eye:

“My take: Alexandria was undoubtedly a center of learning and scholarship and, consequently, had a lot of books. Over time Alexandria’s influence, learning, and scholarship all declined. Was there a Great Library? I don’t believe that the evidence supports the idea.”

Now, it happens that the worthy proprietor of “The Glittering Eye” is rather a more credible source than, say, the current author of the Wikipedia article on Mossadegh. When such a one claims that the Great Library is a mere mirage, it is most unlikely that clicking up a few links on Google will prove the opposite. I realize this will come as no small disappointment to those for whom the destruction of the Library has long served as a spendid historical club, for there are accounts to suit every taste. Depending on the particular object of ones disapprobation, one can bludgeon the Christians, Moslems, pagans, or even great Caesar himself, for there are versions of the story to suit all these occasions, and more.

I can find nothing that directly contradicts the Eye’s conjecture. However, by way of throwing in my two cents worth, I will draw attention to a very interesting chapter on the subject in “The Arab Conquest of Egypt,” by Alfred Butler, which includes a great number of links to source material on the subject. From the account therein, it appears that the claim of Moslem culpability in the destruction of the Library can be dismissed with little ado. However, Butler does not let the Christians off so easily. He agrees that the existence of a Great Library cannot be proved, or at least not after the time of Julius Caesar. However, basing his conclusions on passages from Aphthonius, Eunapius and Rufinus, among others, he claims that the Serapeum, which was destroyed by the Christians in 391, apparently in accord with an edict of the emperor Theodosius, housed a very extensive library. If this was the Great Library (a very big “if”, and one that Butler by no means proves), he concludes,

“The argument now stands as follows: the Library is proved to have been stored in rooms which, like the shrines of the old Egyptian gods, formed part and parcel of the temple building. The temple building is proved to have been utterly demolished and destroyed (by the Christians in 391). Therefore the Libary suffered the same destruction.”

So much for the one pebble I could find to further muddy the historical waters. As Obama said to President Zelaya, “I hope that helps.”