Category Archives: culture

Weekend reading: Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The famous Russian dissident writer, championed and dismissed by both the left and right, is dead. His books (including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, and The Gulag Archipelago) brought to harsh light in the West the reality of live under the Soviet system, and helped destroyed the lingering appeal of Communism in liberal intellectual circles. Yet upon emigration he proved to be no fan of the West’s self-centric capitalism either, and so proved forever hard to understand to those who believed the world’s great struggle was over the dichotomy of socialism or the free market.

What follows is a quote-and-link-fest to peruse.

“Spiritual Death … has touched us all”– The Washington Post published this essay in 1974. It’s an appeal to his fellow Russians, an argument that the first step to take in breaking the climate of self-imposed oppression and an unjust zeitgeist is to stop echoing that which isn’t true.

When violence intrudes into peaceful life, its face glows with self-confidence, as if it were carrying a banner and shouting: “I am violence. Run away, make way for me — I will crush you.” But violence quickly grows old. And it has lost confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally — since violence can conceal itself with nothing except lies, and the lies can be maintained only by violence. And violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies — all loyalty lies in that.

And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, we will be obstinate in this smallest of matters: Let them embrace everything, but not with any help from me.

This opens a breach in the imaginary encirclement caused by our inaction. It is the easiest thing to do for us, but the most devastating for the lies. Because when people renounce lies it simply cuts short their existence. Like an infection, they can exist only in a living organism.

We do not exhort ourselves. We have not sufficiently matured to march into the squares and shout the truth out loud or to express aloud what we think. It’s not necessary.

It’s dangerous. But let us refuse to say that which we do not think.

The next is a full-length New York Times obituary. (For a shorter obituary, The Economist does well). The authors observe he expanded on this theme.

He wrote that while an ordinary man was obliged “not to participate in lies,” artists had greater responsibilities. “It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!”

The first time I came across Solzhenitsyn was in a Reader’s Digest reprint of his famous Templeon Address on why Communism ultimately failed: and to the chagrain of some of his Western supporters, with “Men Have Forgotten God” he disregarded politics or economics as the primary root failure of Russia:

It was Dostoevsky, once again, who drew from the French Revolution and its seeming hatred of the Church the lesson that “revolution must necessarily begin with atheism.” That is absolutely true. But the world had never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized, and tenaciously malevolent as that practiced by Marxism. Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot.

In that same address he pulled no punches and went on to contrast the Soviets’ external attack on faith with the West’s inner attack:

The West has yet to experience a Communist invasion; religion here remains free. But the West’s own historical evolution has been such that today it too is experiencing a drying up of religious consciousness. It too has witnessed racking schisms, bloody religious wars, and rancor, to say nothing of the tide of secularism that, from the late Middle Ages onward, has progressively inundated the West. This gradual sapping of strength from within is a threat to faith that is perhaps even more dangerous than any attempt to assault religion violently from without.

Imperceptibly, through decades of gradual erosion, the meaning of life in the West has ceased to be seen as anything more lofty than the “pursuit of happiness, “a goal that has even been solemnly guaranteed by constitutions. The concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed for several centuries; banished from common use, they have been replaced by political or class considerations of short lived value. It has become embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system. Yet it is not considered shameful to make dally concessions to an integral evil. Judging by the continuing landslide of concessions made before the eyes of our very own generation, the West is ineluctably slipping toward the abyss…

…When external rights are completely unrestricted, why should one make an inner effort to restrain oneself from ignoble acts?

Stratfor’s George Friedman tries to pin down what it was that both liberals and free-marketeers failed to understand about Solzhenitsyn’s politics and desires for Russia, and concludes that he may be getting his wish.

Liberals realized that Solzhenitsyn hated Soviet oppression, but that he also despised their obsession with individual rights, such as the right to unlimited free expression. Solzhenitsyn was nothing like anyone had thought, and he went from being the heroic intellectual to a tiresome crank in no time. Solzhenitsyn attacked the idea that the alternative to communism had to be secular, individualist humanism. He had a much different alternative in mind.

Solzhenitsyn saw the basic problem that humanity faced as being rooted in the French Enlightenment and modern science. Both identify the world with nature, and nature with matter. If humans are part of nature, they themselves are material. If humans are material, then what is the realm of God and of spirit? And if there is no room for God and spirituality, then what keeps humans from sinking into bestiality? For Solzhenitsyn, Stalin was impossible without Lenin’s praise of materialism, and Lenin was impossible without the Enlightenment.

From Solzhenitsyn’s point of view, Western capitalism and liberalism are in their own way as horrible as Stalinism. Adam Smith saw man as primarily pursuing economic ends. Economic man seeks to maximize his wealth. Solzhenitsyn tried to make the case that this is the most pointless life conceivable. He was not objecting to either property or wealth, but to the idea that the pursuit of wealth is the primary purpose of a human being, and that the purpose of society is to free humans to this end.

Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1978 Harvard commencement address “A world split apart” shows this viewpoint well, laying great fault at the feet of Enlightenment philosophy and its natural successors for the West’s spiritual decline:

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take full advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses…

…This tilt of freedom toward evil has come about gradually, but it evidently stems from a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which man — the master of the world — does not bear any evil within himself, and all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected. Yet strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still remains a great deal of crime; there even is considerably more of it than in the destitute and lawless Soviet society… The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc…

…How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present debility? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing steadily in accordance with its proclaimed social intentions, hand in hand with a dazzling progress in technology. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very foundation of thought in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the pro-claimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.

Finally, The Economist‘s retrospective asks the question of who is filling Solzhenitsyn’s role today in “speaking truth to power” both in Russia, in developing nations, and in the West.

The line between post-modernism and madness…

… is a social construct. Or so it would seem from the story of the lecturer at Dartmouth college who decided to sue her students for harassment when French Literary Theory and how it applies to science didn’t go down too well with them.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Priya Venkatesan taught English at Dartmouth College. She maintains that some of her students were so unreceptive of “French narrative theory” that it amounted to a hostile working environment. She is also readying lawsuits against her superiors, who she says papered over the harassment, as well as a confessional exposé, which she promises will “name names.”

Ms. Venkatesan’s scholarly specialty is “science studies,” which, as she wrote in a journal article last year, “teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth.” She continues: “Scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.”

The journal article in question. I can’t imagine why her science students objected to any of these arguments.

[COI declaration: I tried to read Foucault a few weeks ago. It was a 10 page essay. I got 3 pages in before I gave up.]

Via Gawker and Julian Sanchez.

So Trent Reznor’s feeling generous

NIN logo

It was only a few days that I described how I bought NIN’s latest album Ghosts for US$5 on the strength of Trent Reznor putting the first quarter up for free, and selling it in a high quality DRM-free format. Then he released a single, Discipline, for free. Discipline was alright, but I’ve been loving the instrumental Ghosts. Makes for great programming or reading music (ambient yet interesting, without vocals or annoying bits), and it’s long enough for it to suck you in with its 110 minute length.

I can’t call Ghosts his latest album anymore. The ID3 tag on the Discipline file said to visit NIN.com on May 5. Reznor seems to have been bottling up the creative urges over the years, waiting until he could be released of the shackles of his contracts, because he’s somehow just released another album. Ghosts was only released on March 2. It’s called The Slip, and includes Discipline. And like the single, the album’s free to download. I would offer a first listen review right now, but I’m at Uni at the moment and going to wait until I can download it from somewhere where the bandwidth doesn’t cost so much (a situation I was reminded of the oddity of last week by a new PhD student here from the Netherlands complaining that we have to pay at all. Would Page and Brin have been able to start Google in a CS dept where they were paying 2.5c/MB during the day? But I digress).

There’s a promised CD version coming soon, but the monetization strategy (beyond just generating good will and fan interest) came in another email (downloading from NIN involves handing over your email address. It’s a pretty fair trade):

Nine Inch Nails is touring the US and Canada this summer. Premium tickets for all NIN headline dates will be made available to registered nin.com members in advance of public on sales. Pre sale tickets are personalized with the members legal name printed on the face of the ticket and ID will be required for pickup and entry into the venue on night of show. Pre sale ticket supplies are limited and available on a first come, first serve basis. Our goal is to put the best tickets in the hands of the fans and not in the hands of scalpers and/or brokers. Register at nin.com and check the performance page for additional tour updates.

And then it lists 26 concert dates and venues. It’s similar to the higher quality purchase options that were offered with Ghosts, which went all the way from a $5 download, to a $10 double CD, to a $75 deluxe edition, to a US$300 limited edition collector’s box which probably included a handcrafted figurine of Trent or something. They sold out of all 2500 of those. Clearly Reznor’s realised the value in catering to both the long end of casual listeners and the short end of dedicated fans. He’s now doing what many have predicted will be the best long term new business model for music: give away the music to act as a promotion for the concerts, and be varied in the product range you offer.

Update: Downloaded the album, and it’s great.

Progress and the unreasonable man

George Bernard Shaw, despite some naive political and social beliefs, was unarguably gifted with not a small amount of wit and insight. In his Maxims for Revolutionaries we see both, in a list from which collective cultural memory has absorbed more than a few sayings. Some of them were tongue in cheek, others not much more than mere pith. But one of them that seems particularly suited for the said revolutionaries in his title was

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Witty, and it’s more than a pithy contraposition because it concludes with an undeniable element of truth. To improve the conditions of things, or just to stop a decline in them, it’s usually by definition necessary to challenge a mainstream perception of normality. And to say that the status quo is unreasonable, well that in itself is unreasonable.

It’s not hard to come up with examples of people who fit the model of the “unreasonable man”. They’re the sort you often say or heard said of “I don’t agree with them [on this/on much/at all], but you have to admit that they’re at least consistent.” What examples you can think of will depend on your own observations and principles. For me two contemporary ones that instantly come to mind are campaigner Richard Stallman, and US Congressmen Ron Paul. Stallman is a left-wing activist, atheist, programmer extraordinaire, and unfatiguable advocate for Free software (the capital “F” is used as a means of distinguishing “Free as in Freedom” from “Free as in beer”) and the need for copyright and patent reform. Ron Paul is a right-wing, small government, constitutional libertarian. I agree and disagree with both of them on multiple issues (hopefully on the right ones), but one of the things I do admire them both for is their consistency. They know their principles, and they are consistent to a fault in applying them. And it’s cost them both.

Stallman is considered by many even in the wider Open Source movement (distinct from Stallman’s Free Software movement for ideological reasons I won’t go into) to be too much of a radical zealot, an uncompromising man who may have been useful once, but has since been overtaken by the more pragmatic approach of Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux), who admits to liking Microsoft Powerpoint and for several years used a closed-source tool called BitKeepr to manage development of Linux (a decision that erstwhile pragmatic, later turned into a problem that justified the concerns of people like Stallman).

Paul has forever been stuck on the periphery of US politics. A candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, he became noted for the massive grassroots and internet-coordinated campaign that grew up to support him. It was powered by voters formerly driven to apathy by normal political platitudes and compromise, who had found much to admire in Paul’s consistency and blunt honesty. Part of his consistency (and it is remarkable, you can compare video and writings from him 20 years ago and now without finding a hint of a flip-flop). His principles are simple to apply to his work: he holds that the US Constitution and the associated philosophies of the Founding Fathers is worth pursuing as a way to run the US. So he actually votes against things on the basis that he regards them as unconstitutional. Which is why he has often been the only nay-voter in the Republican party on many issues. And that’s cost him. Despite the undeniably large grassroots campaign (they independently organised enough money to fund a blimp advertising him), his years of refusing to play political ball resulted in him essentially being cut out of the whole campaign trail, and treated by party-friendly media as an oddity worthy of a few minutes of airtime per hour given to those with the official party blessings.

I’m not referring to irrational zealots. I mean those people who have a deep understanding and thought out their principles, who know what it is they believe and have thought through the gritty details of how that then applies to their lives.

It can be depressing seeing how men like these can be dismissed sometimes solely on the basis that they are so uncompromising on their principles, or when they refuse to bend them for a greater political correctness. Certainly, I found it rather sad watching Giuliani (or was it Romney? It’s certainly possible for me to be conflating more than one of the many such incidents in the TV debates) blatantly snigger at Paul during a debate when he dared to suggest that the 9/11 attacks may have been caused by US activity in the Middle East, that things may be slightly more complicated than “they hate us for our freedoms”.

Which is why it’s refreshing to consider that there are examples of unreasonable men and women who got their way, and actually did improve things for many people in a real way.

From history I think of abolitionists William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson; the maverick priest Martin Luther who stood up to a corrupt church hierarchy and sparked the Reformation; of Martin Luther King; of Kate Sheppard who led the campaign for womens’ suffrage in New Zealand (subsequently being the first country in the world to grant it, and thus influencing similar campaigns to follow elsewhere). They all shared a common set of principles in Christianity, which is interesting if you consider that the theology of orthodox Christianity is all about reshaping the believer into Christ’s image. You see, I think Shaw has it slightly wrong, or he’s at least missing a step. The unreasonable men and women who make things for the better happen? They don’t just bend the world to the shape of themselves. They first bend themselves to the shape of something better than themselves. How else can you improve the world when you’re part of it already?

If you find you have to be inconsistent in applying your principles in order to be doing “the best thing”, then you need to find some new ones, because your current ones are broken. To otherwise keep entertaining them is dishonest. And if you’re not sure that you have any principles, then how can you hope to be unreasonable for the right reasons?