Saturday, April 08, 2006

More Generational Forgetting?

A ruling intelligentsia, whether in Europe, Asia or Africa, treats the masses as raw material to be experimented on, processed, and wasted at will.
--Eric Hoffer

Enlightened people seldom or never possess a sense of responsibility.
-- George Orwell

It was as if an intellectual Iron Curtain of highly sophisticated mendacity had been erected in anticipation of the fall of the actual Iron Curtain in order to forestall any prospect of a moral reckoning. With the idea of truth reduced to the status of a mere social constuct--and thus dismissable as a malign instrument of power-- history itself had been rendered absurd. Our culture was no longer in command of the moral intelligence that was needed to measure the scale of human suffering and loss that had been incurred as a consequence of eighty years of totalitarian terror. We can only hope that the price to be paid for such a self-willed ignorance and complacency will not be as high in this century as it was in the last.
-- Hilton Kramer, Twilight of the Intellectuals

Lauren Langman has a review of Russell Jacoby's Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age over at Logos Journal. I haven't read the book, and thus don't know how accurate the review is, but a number of bits there prompt these reactions below:

Jacoby argues that the classical texts of Huxley and Orwell were not simple anti-Utopian treatises as taught in most American high schools and colleges. Rather, these authors attempted to point out certain inherent dangers in modern societies. [...] Orwell feared the potentials of total domination by the State, but Orwell was a life-long socialist who was concerned that his work was used to discredit socialism.

Orwell was famously described by someone as the conservatives' favorite socialist, and the socialists' favorite conservative. So it isn't hard to marshal blocks of his writing to underscore either emphasis. But Animal Farm and 1984 were solidly based on the human disaster then existing in the Soviet Union. The allegorical content they had was just that--allegorical, though this is lost on people who wonder if 1984 is "finally" coming true, whenever the latest American election doesn't go their way.

Jacoby is reported to reject the conflation of communism and fascism, and the conflation of both with idealism. On the first score, a definition of terms is in order. My favorite in recent times is this:

The Communists gathered up all the corporate heads and took them out to be shot; the fascists gathered up all the corporate heads and took them out to lunch -- where they were told to obey orders or be shot.

"Fascist" has long since become the Left's all-purpose epithet of choice, with even less meaningful content than "racist", blasted about like birdshot, simply denoting the person, association of persons, or idea that you the reader are meant to disapprove of. So if Jacoby has come up with a sensible distinction, then all to the good.

As for decoupling the monstrosities of communism and fascism from idealism, it'd be interesting to read how he does it. It seems obvious to me that idealism was the fuel for communism and fascism, as it is for most any -ism. Further in the review he's reported as wanting to revive idealism as a free-floating...well, a free-floating ideal, not shackled to any socio-political program, and not susceptible to being hijacked by tyrants.

Utopian thought yearns for the future, but will not chart the shape the future society will take. Yet at the same time, that vision must be shaped by legacies of the past and realities of the present; containing pain, frustrations and hope.

Mmhmm. And I want a pony for my birthday.

Sure, "without vision the people perish." So let's spend some effort to come up with--or, wonder of wonders, rediscover--the best vision, one that doesn't come with oceans of misery to be of-coursed aside.

Moreover, unlike dreams, Utopias are shared and offer promises of actual realization. But such Utopias are not likely to be perfect, rather they are times and places that wisely accommodate the imperfections of people and their societies.

Sounds quite a lot like plain ol' America to me, if we leave it at that. But no. All this seeming coyness is finally revealed to be no more than another call for the revival of the conventional Left, under some new garb or other:

The present age of cynicism and withdrawal from the society is not conducive to Utopian thought. What is left of the left is highly fragmented. The narcissism of “petty political differences” often precludes a united stance so as to weaken all. Similarly, the demoralized academic left has had to weather a number of storms beginning with the marginalization of leftists from the disciplinary mainstreams. The fall of the USSR was alleged to discredit Marx and Utopianism.

Quite convincingly so, to some. Actually the existence of the Soviet Socialist State was the most discrediting thing about those ideologies, for the rest of us.

This has led many academics to question the legitimacy of the academic left. Moreover, the late and not very great postmodern fad rejected any kind of grand narratives as totalizing, which in turn left little space for Utopian imaginaries of a just world and good life. Finally, while progressive academics may support social movements, most such movements seek limited reforms rather than the “better world [that] is possible” as proclaimed by the WSF. Still, such movements proclaim goals of freedom, equality, democracy, justice and plenty that do remind us of the realities of the present and the possibilities of that better future.

And here we encounter the hard cyst of willful ignorance, willful forgetting. How high must the butcher's bill climb before we can finally put "paid" to this dream of achieving cosmic justice through political means? What will it take for the ghastly lesson to stick for a single generation, let alone longer? Must we stand on guard against the totalitarian temptation, in Jean-Francois Revel's phrase, forever?

I don't think the Left has an honest way back from the wilderness without a thorough-going self-accounting of its part in the political horrors of the prior century; something like what Eugene Genovese did years ago. Simply declaring the slate to be clear, re-labeling their program as utopianism, and trying to salvage that label won't do it.

1 comment:

  1. This post makes me think: I am in my 30s, and really the last generation to really understand pretty well what the Cold War was all about. I hope some younger readers have a grasp of this amazing time period.


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