Stalin’s ghostly influence today

I recently finished reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s magisterial biography of Josef Stalin: About 1,700 pages so far, with another 400 or so in small-type notes. Brilliant stuff, but a lot to absorb and consider. A bit of a slog if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with the history – there are many events, places and people to keep track of.

Volume one ran from Stalin’s birth to 1928, the year of the first Soviet show trials and when Stalin had fully established himself as undisputed leader. The second volume in the trilogy picks up there with the “wreckers” trial, runs through the decade of show trials, the purges, the decimation of the army leadership, the solidification of the police state, and ends on the day after the Germans invaded: June 22, 1941.

There is still more than a decade of material to cover, through the Great Patriotic War, the post-war reconstruction and the beginning of the Cold War, until Stalin’s death in 1953. I eagerly await the final volume in the trilogy. (NB: if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch the movie, The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy but very close to the actual historical events. Available on DVD and Netflix).

While I have previously read several biographies of Stalin and related books on Soviet history, none can match Kotkin for the sheer volume of information, the astounding depth and breadth of his narrative. It’s not simply about the man, the collapse of tsarist Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union under Communism: it’s about the world at the time, what was happening, and how other nations responded to the events and the personalities.

Kotkin’s work weaves together many strands of contemporary history and politics, and provides considerable insight into the workings of the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalin’s developing and hardening ideology. It’s brilliant stuff, and I eagerly look forward to his third and concluding volume.

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Goodbye, Information Age

Fake news“Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now,” is the headline of an article by Italian philosopher and professor Gloria Origgi, published recently on Aeon Magazine’s website.

She writes:

…the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

I no longer need to open a computer, go online and type my questions into Google if I want to know something: I can simply ask it. “Hey Google, what’s the population of China?” or “Hey Google, who’s the mayor of Midland, Ontario?” or “Hey Google, how many lines are in Hamlet?” Google will answer with all the data. If I ask, “Hey Google, what are the headlines this morning?” it will play a recent CBC newscast.

Google Home can, however, only give me a summary, a snippet, a teaser. Should I want to delve deeper or into than one question, I still need to go online and search. And that leads me into the information swamp that is the internet. How do i sort it all out?

The way we access information has changed as radically as the amount available to us. Just look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018: “Nomophobia” which means “a fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it”.

Describing a typical day in his life, Dan Nixon writes of how we isolate ourselves with out phones, imagining they are instead connecting us:

…the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing.

What could there be that is so engaging on the phone that the writer cannot use the time to, say, think? Read? Observe? Communicate with his fellow travellers? Eleven studies found that “…participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” The phone serves as a personal barrier to interaction instead of facilitating it. It’s a feedback loop: making it seem we are “doing something” by giving us a sensory response, while making it seem that simply thinking is “doing nothing.”

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca, Letter II to Lucilius, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics: Letters from a Stoic, 2004.

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How capitalism has failed us

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin… our homes are covered with mortgages, labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists… The fruits of toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for the few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes … tramps and millionaires.*

The failure of capitalismYou might be forgiven for thinking that was something that came from the mouth of a modern Democrat lamenting on the decay of America and the rise of the rich under Donald Trump and his Republican minions. But you’d be wrong: it’s actually from the late 19th century. It was the preamble to the platform of the People’s Party, back before American politics was dominated by just two parties. Between 1870 and 1900, there were at least nine or ten political parties running for office in the USA, some of which merged or morphed into others in that period.

It’s not so much the number of parties that identified the era, but that America had a much more diverse political culture with a much wider range or platforms and perspectives from which to choose. And there was a lot more leftist, activist sentiment than today.

At least some of the issues and problems faced by the nation in the late 19th century were the same as they are today. The great and increasing disparity between the working classes and the rich was causing enormous social and political upset, just like today. People took to the streets to protest about it. Violently and often. Our Labour Day holiday is the result of workers’ protests. May Day celebrates the protests for an eight-hour workday. Our child labour laws came from similar protests.

But today, we don’t seem to have much of an organized protest movement to challenge the control of the government by the rich. Alvaro Sanchez, writing on the Common Dreams website, noted,

Tell people their gas taxes are going up and they will riot, literally. Tell people that 62 individuals hold the same amount of wealth as the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population and we don’t blink an eye.

An Oxfam report on wealth inequality is headlined, “Richest 1 percent bagged 82 percent of wealth created last year – poorest half of humanity got nothing.” The Oxfam website notes:

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International said: “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system. The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited to ensure a steady supply of cheap goods, and swell the profits of corporations and billionaire investors.”

Many of the economic and social conditions today are frighteningly similar to those in the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914), the time of the industrial revolution and the monopoly capitalists.

Yes, there was Occupy Wall Street, a short-lived protest movement that launched in 2011; it gave us some hope that people were not going to tolerate the wealth inequalities and pro-rich tax policies of Western governments, but it faded away after barely a year of action. Fickle media attention moved on.

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Why are American evangelical Christians so cruel?

What does that sign say? Thank you Lord for Jesus President Trump... makes no sense...The article in Forbes’ Magazine, March 11, didn’t ask that question I used in my headline. Instead, the headline simply stated the piece would explain, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” (The author later republished this on his own site under the less pointed title, “Why the Religious Right is so cruel.”)

In America, where theocracy is a more powerful political force than free speech and where its president has publicly threatened to muzzle journalists and uncomplimentary media like other tinpot dictators do, such a piece was apparently unwelcome. Forbes removed it – but not in time to prevent it from being read and cached and shared. Forbes’ excuse for the removal was that, “We also have a policy of not talking about social issues like abortion at Forbes Opinion — only economic policy and politics.” Weak, methinks.

No doubt the writer – Chris Ladd – hit a nerve in his increasingly theocratic, decreasingly tolerant nation when he wrote:.

Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call “evangelical Christianity,” is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy. The calloused insensitivity of modern white evangelicals was shaped by the economic and cultural priorities that forged their theology over centuries.

This isn’t really news or even new. Back in August, 2017, John Gehring wrote a piece for the Religious News Service (RNS) titled, “What is wrong with white Christians?” Gehring wrote:

Too many white Christians sacrifice the gospel’s radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed with comfortable, self-serving ideologies. Prosperity gospel preachers affirm the cult of consumerism and individualism. Evangelicals rally behind political leaders who make a holy trinity out of tax cuts for the wealthy, attacks on social safety nets and anti-government propaganda.

Given the number of fervent, uber-right “court evangelicals” in Trump’s White House (like evangelist anti-education Betty Devos, the evangelist anti-environment Scott Pruitt and evangelist anti-Muslim Mike Pompeo) appointed by Trump to positions of authority, it’s little wonder this sort of critical commentary isn’t welcome in his USA. Just look at his thin-skinned evangelical VP Mike Pence, who had a hissy fit when an interviewer jokingly suggested that he didn’t hear the voice of his imaginary friend Jesus, and was instead, “mentally ill.”

Pence ranted and frothed loudly, and probably put a lot of pressure on her network for her to apologize to all Christians, as if he alone was the representative of the 2.2 billion Christians, and that a poke at him was an insult to all of them.*

Well, here’s the truth: Jesus doesn’t speak to Pence. Or to anyone, Christian or not. Jesus is dead. Dead people don’t talk, whether they died yesterday or two millennia ago. Those voices in your head are you. But don’t try to tell that to American evangelicals like Pence. Yes, hearing voices in your head IS called mental illness. Just because Pence calls the voices Jesus and David Berkowitz said it was his dog Harvey speaking to him doesn’t mean that they’re not the same form of madness.

Pence has often described himself as a “Christian, conservative, Republican, in that order,” clearly putting his personal loyalty to the state and its people lower than that for his imaginary voices-in-his-head friend.
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Fire and Fury reviewed

Trump and BannonDysfunctional. Childish. Self-centred. Narcissistic. Ideologically myopic. Illiterate. Cranky. Capricious. Arrogant. Scheming. Petty. Ill-educated. No, I’m not writing about our local council (although, yes, all those words apply equally to The Block). These are some of the words that came to mind as I read Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Dysfunctional popped into my mind most often as Wolff described the lurching, staggering, fumbling and bumbling of Trump’s staff and family advisers after their unexpected – and for some unwanted – victory. (I know: curiously coincidental how that description also echoes our own council’s meandering, aimless and destructive governance, but let’s not talk about The Block right now…). Not that it’s surprising: the amount of political experience among the core group and family that stuck together through Trump’s campaign combined was less than an hour’s worth.

It’s like reading about a train wreck described in excruciatingly minute detail: the trajectory of every rivet and bolt as it shakes loose from the engine and flies off into space is chronicled, measured and examined. Or perhaps it’s better described as reading about the antics of an entire kindergarten class where cranky children fed on high-sugar treats are not given sufficient nap time.

And despite my initial expectations, the book is less about Trump than about his minions and the limpets who cling to him. While it’s not flattering about the Ignorati-in-Chief, it scorches the hangers-on. There’s a point made that American democracy could survive Trump and manage well enough if the White House had a competent, experienced, educated and literate staff of professionals to mitigate his inabilities. But with its cast of amateurs and grasping opportunists it hasn’t a chance.

I had already read much of what Wolff described online and in newspapers and magazines (such noteworthy publications as the Washington Post, New York Times, Maclean’s, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and others which Trump labels ‘fake news’ because they fail to tug their collective forelocks and genuflect to his self-described “very stable” genius). The madcap antics, the sordid affairs, the flailing and failing of Trump’s staff are already as well documented as the president’s own erratic bumbling governance and noxious tweets. But I’ve not had it all served in a single dish before, nor had I been aware of the backgrounds of many of the players. That’s the strength and delight – and fright – of this book.

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The dystopian present

Dystopia
If there is one good thing to come out of the election of Donald Trump, it has been the renewed interest in a certain genre of literature. Sales of dystopian novels have skyrocketed on Amazon, in particular what might be called “The Big Three” of dystopian tales: George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

From each of these novels, allegorical threads can be woven into some narrative aspect as a metaphor for the Trump administration: 1984’s newspeak, media manipulation and paranoid Big Brother; Brave New World’s elites-vs-savages mentality, exiled intellectuals and its psychological manipulation; Handmaid’s Tale misogyny and control of women’s reproductive rights.

But only in Bernard Wolfe’s 1952 dystopian novel, Limbo 90, did I find a metaphor for Trump’s followers (it was also published in the USA titled simply Limbo).

Wolfe’s novel is set in what was for him a dimly foreseeable future: 1990, after the atomic-bomb destruction of WWIII. An American, he was writing during the early years of the Cold War and blossoming Red Scare: the pinnacle of the McCarthy witch hunts. In his imagined future, Wolfe pictured the Soviet and Western Blocs still surviving, at least ideologically, but changed by the war.

What has changed most is society: after the latest conflict that devastated so much of the world, the populace grew so weary of war that pacifist politics came to be the norm. But pacifists became radicalized. Words alone didn’t count (although there are plenty of anti-war slogans around): you needed to prove your resistance to war. And the only way to do it was to have a limb voluntarily amputated. Or two, three, four… to become a Vol-amp.

For some, the lost limbs were replaced by prosthetics, worn with pride to show off their dedication to the pacifist principles. The more radical eschewed the pros entirely and simply lumped in baskets, limbless, passive, and immobile: the Immobs. Amputees of both sorts are now in the majority of males. (Women don’t follow suit because in Wolfe’s time, women were not allowed into active military service, and people of colour are pretty much reduced to servitude.).

Trump’s followers didn’t amputate their limbs, of course, but they did amputate a part of themselves. Or rather parts. They amputated their reason, their intellect, their empathy, their logic, their critical thinking and skepticism. They voluntarily stopped thinking and became intellectual Immobs, no less passive than those in Wolfe’s tale. You can see the metaphor here.

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