It’s Memorial Day in the USA and I just had the extreme pleasure of being on the sidewalk waving and clapping at our annual neighborhood Memorial Day Parade with close friends of ours and their neighbors and everyone’s pet dogs. Fire trucks from the surrounding six suburbs, Police cars as well, local politicians, marching bands, boy scouts, martial arts clubs, tumbling clubs, grade schools… you know the drill. It was fabulous.
Turns out, that’s one of life’s most generous and rarest pleasures.
It struck me, watching the happy parade in our suburb that borders Chicago as an urban war of its own rages just inside the city limits and in other neighborhoods around ours, how Peace and Prosperity are always achieved. They are not the baseline from which matters deviate. Rather, they are the heights to which we as individuals and we as communities and we as societies may aspire. And it struck me right between the eyes this mistaken assumption (that Peace on Earth is a baseline state) is a root cause for many of our societal troubles. The baseline state is actually chaos and misery; that’s what everything descends into, if we’re not careful.
Yes, that is it! The wild-eyed folks on the side of the guns bloviate that arming ourselves to the teeth (“harden the grade schools!”) is going to somehow make us safer and more prosperous (they’ve never been in Afghanistan, obviously, where John Q Public owns an AK and frequently a rocket propelled grenade launcher), and the wild-eyed folks on the side of the oppressed and disenfranchised bloviate that it’s wrong to arrest or prosecute crime when it happens because the person was obviously oppressed and disenfranchised (which fact only makes the other side angrier and more convinced about the need for personal weaponry), and they’re all feeding off this grand assumption that the peace and prosperity which we do have, that this Memorial Day Parade in front of us, happens and continues to happen no matter how much they alter and degrade the system that produced it. Wrong. This peace and prosperity can be broken quite easily. And they’re both breaking it, each in their own ways.
I’ve no idea how to counter such notions other than to encourage everyone to look not to me –who am I, I am nobody– but to History for lessons. Let us learn the right lessons from those who’ve experimented with all of this before us. But what are the right lessons? Here are my thoughts:
I recently took a fascinating and extraordinarily disturbing trip through modern history in the version of a couple of biographies (listed below), a history on the Soviets’ daily lives (The Whisperers) and then capped it off with a three hour podcast on the unspeakably evil horrors of the post WWII Soviet state (Martyrmade podcast: episode 19 the Anti-humans –if you dive into anything I’m suggesting to dive into in this article, dive into this podcast episode).
Why did I go down this path? I needed to better understand the history we Westerners collectively lived through one generation ago (how quickly we forget), and, I suppose I needed to better understand the design and construction of the US government –particularly were the framers of our Constitution expressly intent on creating a nation where dictators in whatever form could not emerge or if they did, could not remain for long? Was avoiding a dictatorship the sine qua non for the framers of our Constitution? (I believe the answer to that is “yes.”)
The reason for this focus on that period of Western history should be obvious right now: Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and an assortment of lesser dictators all focused on disrupting the primacy of the Western-led world order. It’s relatively peaceful here in the USA, for now, but agents are afoot….
My learning excursion began with Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (22 April 1870 – 21 January 1924), who is better known by one of his pseudonyms, “Lenin,” founder of the Russian Communist Party (the Bolsheviks), inspirer and leader of the Bolshevik Revolution (1917), and the architect, builder, and first head (1917–24) of the Soviet State. It lead me from there to Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili otherwise known as “Josef Stalin” one of the most notorious killers in the history of the world.
Why them? Because as I mentioned I was wondering about our politics these days: the left-right polarization, the lack of a middle ground, the hysterics, the fascination with the sound of one’s own voice and of staking out one’s theoretical stance combined with the complete lack of interest in listening to anybody else’s… and I wanted to learn about the history of such polarized arguments. What are those who have learned the hardest, bitterest, brutalest of lessons, what are they –from the tomb– trying to tell us now?
As JFK put it so well, “Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought [Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11 1962].” Or as my Mom used to tell me, “Two ears, one mouth;” in other words, listen first. We’re not listening.
Lenin was the perfect example of someone with an extreme political opinion (his happened to be on the Left; the Nazi’s next door would form an equal and opposite position on the Right) who absolutized the worldview of his chosen sect of society (“The worker,” although some say he’d hardly ever met one) and he doggedly used that new ideology as a lever, exploiting all to catapult himself into power, establish his agenda, and when that agenda failed (it was an untenable concept all along), he altered his ideas to set in place a reign of terror to at least maintain the power; he forced the ideology into functioning in reality and who paid the price for that? You guessed it: the worker! The very individual he had professed to support.
He was Godless and Communism is Godless, and why that is important hearkens back to the original issue I brought up of Peace on Earth: unless you put love and human values in the center of your ideology (notice I didn’t say “religion,” as those suffering under the Iranian Republican Guard Corps can likely attest), you will get a society that doesn’t care about individuals. And that’s exactly what the Communists got, and it’s what they still have. The lack of concern showed then in the way they murdered and destroyed tens and hundreds of millions of their own not to mention others; and it shows now, in the way the Tibetans have been wiped off the map and in the way the Uyghurs are being wiped off the map, and in the way civil rights in Hong Kong are wiped away…
After Lenin came Stalin, who many historians say was worse. Stalin needed Lenin, of course, to get the thing started. But he took off from there. Read this biography! Read “The Whisperers!!” Books / histories like these are essential to understanding where we’ve been, to understanding why we celebrate Memorial Day in the USA today! We MUST learn and understand what has gone on in the past, if the present is to make any sense at all.
I wonder about our current turmoil within the USA. No one is overtly attacking us at present but we are certainly attacking ourselves. Where did these insane times originate? How did the USA become as ungovernable as Beirut? Was it the gerrymandering throughout every state’s electoral map? The 100+ Cable news stations that have to make up “news” even when there isn’t any? Internet search-engine bubbles? Social Media’s machinery amplifying the impact of fringe idiots? Economic disparities more drastic than pre-revolutionary France? The loss of focus on Humanities in American high school and collegiate education?
It’s moments like these I wish I had been a History major.
Back to Lenin: the context of Lenin’s rise was the lingering reign of the Tzarist Russian monarchy (the Romanovs and Tzar Nicholas II), and the faltering of that entire system of governance. The wealth gap in Russia at the time was astounding, the secret police (the Okhrana) highly intrusive and dangerous, the middle class was more or less nonexistent and categorically blocked from progress, anyway. Further context is Lenin’s father being laid off of work, and his brother being hung for being a revolutionary against the Tzar. The Industrial Revolution was raging through Europe, and Russia was behind them already, and getting further behind every day.
Lenin was a brilliant mind but he was a kook, an exiled wing-nut, a whack-job. We’ve seen it a thousand times how you can have a smart mind that is clever and effective but its fundamental assumptions are wrong, and therefore everything that the mind produces is wrong. And I’ll allege here, as I did a few paragraphs up, that what was wrong was Lenin ascribed no unique value to the individual and absolutized the state’s priorities alone. The Menshaviks were far more reasonable than the Bolsheviks, but somehow [read: ruthlessness] the Bolsheviks won out. Once again, how did an entire country fall for his bizarre ideology? And more to the point… will we in the USA fall prey to a similar kind of idiot, some day?
I tried to begin by looking at the beginning. Peter the Great in the 1600’s and Catherine the Great in the 1700’s… they tried to modernize Russia to be more like Europe. During the second half of the 19th century, a faction of so-called “Slavophiles” emerged in intellectual circles. These “Slavophiles” were convinced that Peter the Great made a mistake in trying to modernize / Westernize the country, and that Russia’s “salvation” lay in the rejection of Western ideas. The Slavophiles apparently believed that while the West polluted itself with science, atheism, materialism, and wealth, they should return to a simple peasant-based society centered on the Orthodox faith.
I went through the entirety of Napoleon’s attack of Russia a century earlier, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” prior to that. Fascinating book, by the way; I highly, highly, highly recommend it.
I tried to see what happened in the century between Napoleon’s invasion and the Bolshevik revolution. Best as I can tell, while Europe had its Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, and had the Enlightenment as a social development Russia reinforced the Middle ages in its Serfdom rule and became farther, and farther, and farther behind its neighbors to the West.
Ultimately the strain was too great and the Communist cataclysm was the result.
I wish for a solemn and meaningful Memorial Day for everyone, and please remember that the peace and prosperity we enjoy at the moment is no accident: it is the result of generations, centuries, even of countrymen and individuals working together –imperfectly, yes; very imperfectly working together– and sacrificing and holding a particular ideal above all others. And remember that whenever tempted to tinker too much with the formula and cultural norms that have gotten us this far, to think about it some more and try to put the great ideas we have at the moment into historical context and see if anyone has tried them before, and see where that got them, then. Maybe your great idea needs to be implemented in order for us to move forward? But maybe with respect to your great idea the experiment has already been run (in Soviet Russia, or Iran, or Afghanistan…) and it’s worth a second look before widespread implementation?
Lastly, although above I’m primarily focused upon our fight against post WW-II Totalitarianism and the meaning behind all those who gave their lives opposing Communism whether in Korea, Viet Nam, or elsewhere, let us not fail to honor all those who have given the last full measure in the war against Terrorism whether Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or elsewhere. None of these conflicts have been unalloyed or perfect or beyond criticism but that’s not my point: today is the day to honor those who have given their lives in the intent to make a better peace for the rest of us. Today’s Memorial Day Parade is their gift to us, and what joy we feel in and through it, is for them.