Alexander, Caesar, Pompey–how do they compare to Diogenes, Heraclitus, and Socrates? The philosophers saw the things of the world for what they are–that is they saw things in terms of their causes and their matter–and their command centers were autonomous. As for the others, look at the kinds of worries they had and how little freedom they had!
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations: The Annotated Edition. Introduction by Robin Waterfield, Translator and Editor. New York: Basic Books, 2021.
No need for droning. Were one designing a modern “great books” program, one might do worse than start with Meditations for grounding.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, the new right has broken with the old fashioned Burkean small-c conservatism that is suspicious of rapid change in all its forms. Although they hate the phrase, the new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.
If you’re feeling at sea with America’s now dramatically confused, polarized, and shifting political landscape, this book may offer a steady deck and a good look around at how we humans have organized ourselves and where forces may be taking us faster than we know.
This post has been on my mind for at least a month and rather held up by the sorry habit of reading “long form” in bits and pieces. Advancing age, declining energies, the web’s own “Electronic Attention Deficit Disordering”, and the plain fact that I’ve reached about the final less-than-third of life’s journey surrounded by a personal library (of about 2,250 volumes) offering me more choices for reading than may be read or re-read toward the looming end account here for my relaying more of what might be helpful to fellow travelers than I have taken in myself.
However, I have read each of these suggestions in part or whole — and if in part have bookmarked — and have been trying to transition from “Life Online” (how it has turned out thus far) to more of the aesthetic and literary manse beloved ever by romantics and old souls.
Dictatorships have powerful tools in capricious censorship, denunciations, frames (how the despotic present issues as well as rivals for power and targets for crushing), and, ultimately, force by threat and by violence. By comparison, democracies would seem soft with conscience, empathy, and sentiment — and not much else before the armed might of absolute state power. Nonetheless, how much abuse must democratic constituencies take before facing the choice of withering before despotic forces or standing up to them?
Were it not for the desperation, greed, ignorance, and laziness of our own — and perhaps ourselves — we may not have reached this point where the apparent most patriotic and pious of Americans may have put into power the most questionable and selfish representative of America’s reactionary wealthy. Well, we’re sure in it together now and might wish to clarify what it means to be Americans and what it may mean to govern ourselves with more adult comprehension, selfless wisdom, and a much, much greater magnanimous and shared American spirit.
You know the kid: the pint-sized disruptive force of nature. No willful schoolmarm with a calm down is about to keep this little fellow from jumping up on a school desk or three and leading the revolt of a righteous legion of one.
There has been now a long period between the Rule of the Tsars, the Dictatorship of proleteriate’s self-serving nomenklatura, the Cold War Era, the ongoing but passing Region of the Phantoms of the Soviet, and, alas, the dismal mini-epoch of COVID-19 hysteria. Arkady Polishchuk’s reminiscence from the early portion of his now long life — the author was born in 1930 — proves less political than delightfully romantic. With Stalin’s dictatorship an omnipresent and worrisome fact of life, the same proves somewhat ignored by those not directly in its path. Life just proceeds beside it — or acquiesces to it in major part while elsewhere stubbornly evading it and working around it.
What may most charm in this part of Polishchuk’s memoir is Russia eternal, from the rustic home of the 1930s and the Primus stove to the charms — for the youngest of boys — of playing in the attic of a building equipped with radiators —
We didn’t need coal or firewood anymore; alas, I was unable to sit on the radiators of central heating – they were half-hidden under both windowsills. It made it impossible to turn the paunchy radiators into a reconnaissance aircraft, although I drew on them our red five-pointed stars and stuck out there our world-famous red flag.
While the author’s life moves forward, his experience moves backward through time, i.e., to rough wilderness and lives of lumberjacks and milkmaids certain to age and weather in the remote wild winters.
There is too the timeless “realpolitik” of business — how things really get done — known to all frontiers but perhaps Russia’s wild timber lands with both arch observation and bemused appreciation.
When one willful woman in the back of beyond flirts (seriously) with the (unwilling diplomatic) author, she whinnies in the ageless way.
She was an agent of some collective farm from Southern Ukraine, in Russian terms, a pusher (tolkach). Her job was to buy timber for the construction of a new dairy farm and stables, of course, if she told me the truth.
“Are’ye here to get some raw wood?” the head asked.
“Live wood? Logs?”
“It’s great,” she said.
“What’s so great?” I said.
“It’s great that you aren’t here for the timber. Are’ye a prosecutor or a policeman?”
“No, I’m a pediatrician.”
“Is that the type who helps pregnant women?”
“Could you help me?”
“Are you pregnant?”
She whinnied like a breeding stallion.
“Do you have a child here?” I asked.
“No, my children are in Moldova.”
“I can’t treat children from a distance.”
“You can treat their mama right here.”
“I have to go,” I said. “A child is waiting for me.”
In Western terms, she could be called an expediter or even a mover and shaker. The law did not back her activity though it was as necessary for the Soviet economy as a lubricant for trucks and trains. These agents traveled across the country to get scarce material and parts for state plants, factories, and farms, whatever the cost. Their main tools were bribes and what could be delicately called barter arrangements. If needed, or if in the interests of authorities or an extortionist, these pushers could easily fall under the penal code. Without them, though, the five-year plans of the USSR would not have been implemented. No doubt, this proprietress of the luxurious black tresses did not know a thing about the very existence of the State Planning Commission. However, this powerful institution have always conceptually known of her existence. The Socialist System worked!
So Polishchuk’s Russia has its magical old world, one where horses gain more traction than trucks in some places and prove themselves more reliable as well, where the farmer may hope to waylay the stranger for hitching to one of his comely daughters, so that she and stranger may be more permanently way laid and put to work in the ways of the countryside. It has too its thieves, the lonesome hood out for mugging and a wallet, the organized gang set to wrangle a truck load of felled timber bound for sale at other than its intended destination, and there’s the permanent fixture of the fixer, bribing, cajoling, dealing where the state’s dogma and ideals fail to motivate the deals that get done.
Still, Stalin’s actions and a modernizing Russia’s accomplishments are always near in memory and in conversation. For Polishchuk’s young adulthood, the war was over but the world remained ragged and scattered, unsettled, and in some parts channeled or herded by the Soviet effort — Stalin’s effort — to move around particles of populations. Speaking with a forester for his story, Polishchuk hears both the boast of industrial advancement and the covering of Stalin’s propensity for broad and compelled mass displacements.
“It’s a revolution,” his voice relaxed, the tension almost evaporated. “You’ll see the most advanced methods of labor brought to life by the “Friendship” brand chainsaw. Difficult to believe that until recently we used axes and two-handed saws.”
“Just like a century ago?” without knowing it, I touched an open wound again.
“You can say so,” now he was nervous anew. “After the war. No-no, the workers weren’t prisoners, they were deportees. The winter in Karelia was harsh. The barracks were built slowly… I was young. Just like you. It was my first job after the Forestry Academy.”
Note: Russia had warred against Finland for Karelia and after annexation had used the depopulated space to sort displaced persons of uncertain or negative political loyalty to the Soviet.
Polishchuk continues with memory:
“Soviet prosecutors have a long history of poor judgment,” I tried to comfort him, but my joke sounded ambiguous.
He returned to his memories, “At first, I took all deported for enemies. They were continually arriving.”
I mumbled some sort of soothing nonsense like, “The whole country did. Patriots are blind.” After that, I asked a wrong question again, “Who were they?”
He ruffled his hair, “Russians, Poles, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Volga Germans, and Chechens,” he stared at me almost in a panic, “The families with small children…” he looked in the window, his voice faltered, “Have you ever seen a concert pianist chopping down a pine with an ax?”
“We all remember what we want to forget,” I said.
What the author may have wanted to forget himself may be present in his first book, Dancing on Thin Ice: Travails of a Russian Dissenter (DoppelHouse Press, 2018), a book that begins with the nastiest of prison stories. As I Was Burying Comrade Stalin — perhaps by living adventurously and critically on top of the dictator’s memory — presents more the underlying character of Russia in its more comfortable and natural cultural habits.
(Disclosure: Arkady Polishchuk and this editor have been friends on Facebook for quite a few years now).
Charles Lane: . . . . that brings us to the present day and present President whose name, by the way it’s Donald Trump, does not appear in your book. Now that can’t be an accident.
George Will: The names of Charlemagne and Audrey Hepburn and Duke Ellington don’t appear in the book either [Lane: That’s true] because this is a book about ideas and the current president is not part of that discussion. He has nothing to do with conservatism. He really to his credit has never pretended to be a conservative. He’s an entrepreneur in politics and he’s maximizing whatever he wants to maximize. This is a book about important arguments, and he’s not part of that.
At a high school basketball game in Indiana in March, white students chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” at Latina students. Everyone knew what that meant: It was a new way to be racist.
But the alt-right’s appeal remains marginal because the huge majority of young Americans like multiculturalism. They aren’t paranoid or hateful about other races. Those ideas are ridiculous to them. The alt-right’s small gains in popularity will not be enough to win Trump the election. This is not Germany in the 1930s. All that’s changed is that one of Alex’s fans — one of those grumpy looking middle-aged men sitting in David Icke’s audience — is now the Republican nominee.
But if some disaster unfolds — if Hillary’s health declines further, or she grows ever more off-puttingly secretive — and Trump gets elected, he could bring Alex and the others with him. The idea of Donald Trump and Alex Jones and Roger Stone and Stephen Bannon having power over us — that is terrifying.
For the record, BackChannels supports as broad a spectrum of political speech as possible bounded by criminal law associated with conspiracy and incitement.
While Facebook Civilization as Zuckerberg may shape it has no monopoly on speech conveyed via the web, it’s notable that Alex Jones and Louis Farrakhan made the same grade.
In the gonzo escapade that produced dish for The Elephant In the Room, Ronson manages to get in some quality time with Alex Jones and Roger Stone in Jones’ production trailer. The “in” with the talk show host had been crashing Bohemian Grove years earlier with him.
Agent provocateur as Roger Stone refers to himself? Moral crusader for the west as befits Steve Bannon’s “populism” in the surrounds of the books collected and gardens cultivated by Italian monks? Or clowns found out and moved off the Oval Office’s carpet?
Trump stole the election and the aforementioned demons were unable to remain attached to his glory: so why read Ronson’s book?
Take it in for background — $1.99 for the Kindle — for delight in language, and for the prescient glimpse of a campaign x personality yesteryear that really does seem just like yesterday.
Having quoted from the end of the book, here’s the sound of the beginning:
The TV’s at the EQUINOX were showing a Donald Trump rally. Hillary Clinton might have been holding her own rally somewhere but, if so, it wasn’t on any of these screens. In fact, a few weeks ago MSNBC, Fox News and CNN had ignored a Hillary Clinton speech entirely, choosing instead to broadcast a live feed of the empty podium from which Donald Trump would soon speak. His empty podium: that’s how insatiable our appetite was to hear Donald Trump say staggering things in the spring of 2016, back when it was new and strange.
I plugged in my headphones and heard someone in the crowd shout out to Trump: “Are you going back on the Alex Jones show?”
“Alex Jones? Trump said. “He was a nice guy! You like him?”
“It was a GREAT interview!” the man called back.
“Oh good,” Donald Trump said. “Alex Jones. Nice guy.”
I was so jolted by this exchange I almost fell off my elliptical. Donald Trump knows Alex Jones?
I AM BASICALLY ALEX JONES’S Simon Cowell. I star-spotted him in the late-1990s . . . .
The issue: the symmetrical treatment of history such that Israelis and Palestinians should teach both “The Holocaust” and “The Nakba”.
Israelis and Palestinians would do well to research and teach history in the direction of nonpartisan and well substantiated truth.
The idea that “history is written by the victors” should be today an artifact of the medieval world, i.e., the world of “absolute power” and thuggish personalities.
In the modern world — and should it wish to be a good one — scholarly integrity should matter most of all (and Muhammad himself is reputed to have said, “One scholar is worth more against the devil than one thousands worshippers”).
The barbarism known to history — medieval rape and rapine, ethnic cleansing, genocide — need not be known to the future, but as much becomes the province of those alive today. If Muslim Fulani gangs and war parties wish to continue their program of razing Christian farming villages — and kidnapping, raping, and slaughtering the residents — that is really up to them, there being no sufficient power (yet) to stop them where they roam, plan, and execute foul deeds.
Integrity, rightness, and righteousness should have qualities that transcend small interests. As often as we may find that not true, we may hope that one day as much will be true.
At the unusual session, General Shchelokov was said to have told the Jews that he had heard of the alleged beatings on a newscast by the British Broadcasting Corporation. He insisted that he was not in charge of security at the reception office.
“I would never permit beating,” Mr. Shcharansky quoted the minister as having said. “If it were my affair, I would arrest the organizers.”
Four of the Jews were missing tonight. They were Boris Chernobylsky, a radio engineer; Arkady Polishchuk, a former editor of the magazine Asia and Africa Today; Viktor Yelistratov and Mikhail Kremen, both also radio engineers. It was not known whether they had been arrested.
The missing “refuseniks” plus one — Arkady Polishchuk notes in his account of that distant day that he had not applied for a visa but was with a crew that had — knew where they were, and the one doing the remembering through his memoir was in that place called pain.
A doctor in the Sklifosofsky Institute said that I had two cracked ribs and recommended to wind a towel around my trunk. He refused to give me an x-ray film or a written reference. An exhausted night nurse of this principal trauma center muttered, “If we give a reference to every hoodlum beaten in a street fight the country would soon run out of ink and paper.”
They certainly had shortages of x-ray films and painkillers.
Having been Jewish but not at the time a refusenik, Polishchuk would similarly take up the cause of Pentacostal Christians persecuted by the Soviet Union for their possession of faith. With empathy and wry humor, he conveys what it’s like for the criminalized pious:
“The local KGB should pray for you every day,” I said. “Without you, they would’ve stagnated here, without an increase in rank and salary.”
After this lively exchange of views on the role of light and darkness in the spiritual life of mankind, we all crossed the kitchen garden planted with heavenly potatoes, passed by green onions and fragrant dill, and, through a narrow opening in the fence, began making our way to the house of Vera Shchukin. One by one or in pairs, we used the most roundabout paths between houses. The village was asleep. Almost all windows were now unlit.
I wiped sweat from my forehead and whispered to Goretoi, “Muggy.”
He said nothing. I couldn’t stop talking. “For how long have you been aware that this gathering is prohibited by articles 142 and 227 of the Criminal Code?”
“For as long as I’ve believed in my Savior,” he whispered.
Near the time of this writing, Polishchuk’s telling of the plight of Pentecostal Christians may take on an eerie resonance as Capo, Colonel, President, Emperor Vladimir Putin’s government goes after the community of Jehova’s Witnesses in today’s Russia:
“It began about 10 o’clock in the evening and didn’t wind up until 4 a.m.,” Tatyana Petrova said of the raid. “I didn’t see how it started because I was in the kitchen, but I heard my husband go to the door. I heard a woman introduce herself as someone from the electric company. She said she needed to read the meter. My husband opened the door and then a whole crowd of people pushed into the apartment.”
Children giggled and jostled each other in the ribs. The men were pushed up against the walls. Two old women sat close to the invisible gap between the door and its frame, in hope of catching a breath of fresh air. On stools sat an old man, white as chalk, and two pregnant women. One of them, with a hand-copied New Testament, offered me her chair, but I shook my head and clung to the wall. When nearly forty persons had squeezed into the house, the deacon turned on the light, and ducked outside to check if it escaped to the street.
Life’s a long enough journey for most, but in the Soviet Union, the unutterable sadness of situations posed against the boasted heroic strength of the state must have made it seem so much longer. “Alik”, when referred to with affection, sent to write about a community for the blind discovers instead of a refuge for those so afflicted a familiar metaphor and dismal reality: “. . . a leper colony. There was nothing I could write about them. I was frantically looking for a way to say at least half-truths about their everyday concerns instead of reporting on the contribution of the blind to our common cause of building socialism.”
In the wings always and frequently spotlighted: spooks . . . KGB — as colleagues (around whom to be cautious) on publications; as agents sent to disconnect his home phone before the refusenik Natan Sharansky could relay a statement by Andrei Sakharov to a listener in Canada; as minders, followers, and thugs.
The games played in Putin’s courts today seem no different then they were then. Polishchuk covered one of the trials of Dr. Mikhail Stern whose latest crime had been to give his son “a written permission” required in support of the application of the same to emigrate. The whole becomes an absurd nightmare of examinations of minute evidence to none.
While the phantoms of the Soviet live on in the spiritual descendants of the KGB, perhaps the haunting swirls on in the earlier victims of their omnipresent bureaucracy, observation, manipulation, sabotage, entrapment and framing, capricious “justice”, and punishment.