Monday, April 20, 2009

Barbed Wire

This morning, sitting in a cone of light on the bus as it plowed through the darkness to work, I finished reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (or at least the first third of it) as translated by Thomas P. Whitney. It’s definitely something I’ll follow up with by reading something a bit lighter.

Gulags. Work camps, prisons and worse scattered across the Soviet Union, where millions went to work, many to die. I won’t belittle their plight with my own pithy thoughts, as I have none. In the face of what Solzhenitsyn details, what can we say? Not even “never again,” because that is a lie. What is Guantanamo Bay, but a Gulag the government tells us is necessary, one filled with criminals. Or potential criminals. Or Very Bad Men. Does our government lie with the proclivity that Solzhenitsyn recounts in his? Probably not. We don’t see things like this:

Here is one vignette from those years as it actually occurred. A district party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them? The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium,. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter . . . Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

(And what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to stop?)

Not that’s what Darwin’s natural selection is. And that’s also how to grind people down with stupidity.

I make no commentary on our current political climate, or the climate of the past eight years. But this kind of mentality – without the arrests – applies to America today. No one on the left or the right can be found to be the first to stop applauding, lest he or she be accused of “abandoning” the extreme thought of either the Republican or Democratic parties. It’s this kind of dogma that is causing the Republican crisis today, the same dogma that caused Democratic crises in the past.

Also the same is that no matter what party is in charge, adherents to that party overwhelm all others with smug. Since we are Right, you must be Wrong, and since you are Wrong, you can’t possibly have anything to do or say or think that is Right. And maybe that’s too extreme. Maybe that’s just my warped thinking, or the biases of the extremes showing up in the media, on the Internet (both of which skew to the left in the loud sectors). Or is this all part of an innate desire to believe that what one believes is correct and that investigating other things that we do not believe but that others say are correct is too time-consuming and cumbersome an experience, so we neglect to learn? I think many that do learn are among the many who “sag in the middle,” as I do politically.

Solzhenitsyn anticipates this impasse:

So let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.

If ony it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

Socrates taught us: Know thyself!

Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.

Therein lies the true challenge, the true test of politics, of the soul: Will we be executioners of thought, of protest, of conversation, of debate, of politics or religion or anything else, merely because we can and because we’re right? Or will we pause, stricken dumb, and consider what it is like for the executees? Mercy is always mine. Justice I leave to the one expert we know will get it right.

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