Say it loud - I'm elitist and proud

Friday, September 06, 2002

TAKI WROTE this more-than-usually-nasty 'High Life' column in the Spectator two weeks ago. My response was this letter, in the print version of the Speccie (not online) of 31 August:

Were the soldiers who surrendered to the Japanese 'cowards'? Perhaps Taki (High Life, 24 August) would like to come to Australia next April 25 (Anzac Day) and tell that to the former members of the 8th Division.

In his praise of kamikaze pilots, Taki tells us 'the difference between Western and Japanese philosophy is that the former tells a person how to live, whereas the latter tells them how to die.'

Well, a fat lot of good it did them. Long before the kamikaze pilots, Japanese soldiers in New Guinea were killing themselves out of shame if they didn't succeed in their objective, often by throwing themselves at Australian guns. Fighting to the last man is one thing, but, unlike the kamikazes, their deaths had no military purpose. And if they were captured, Japanese soldiers often proved surprisingly talkative.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

CLASH OF THE TITANS - HITCHENS VS AMIS. In his latest book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Martin Amis investigates Stalin's terror, and deals with the question of why everyone knows about the Nazi Holocaust, but no-one knows about Stalin. In explaining why, he blames none other than his best friend , Christopher Hitchens, who has responded in The Atlantic Monthly:

In the fall of 1999 Amis attended a meeting in London where I spoke from the platform. The hall was one of those venues (Cooper Union, in New York, might be an analogy) where the rafters had once echoed with the rhetoric of the left. I made an allusion to past evenings with old comrades, and the audience responded with what Amis at first generously terms "affectionate laughter." But then he gives way to the self-righteousness and superficiality that let him down.

Here is Amis's 'self-righteousness and superficiality':
Why is it? Why is it? If Christopher had referred to his many evenings with many "an old blackshirt," the audience would have ... Well, with such an affiliation in his past, Christopher would not be Christopher-or anyone else of the slightest distinction whatsoever. Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub? One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous laughter? And what kind of laughter is it? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million.

This isn't right:
Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen. Nobody knows of Vorkuta and Solovetski.

Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerdzhinsky.

Everybody knows of the six million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the six million of the Terror-Famine.

Hitchens responds:
But we have grown up reading Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Berger, Eugenia Ginzburg, Lev Kopelev, Roy Medvedev, and many other firsthand chroniclers of the nightmare. Names like Vorkuta and Kolyma are not as familiar to most people as Treblinka or Birkenau, but the word "gulag" (one of the many hateful acronyms of the system) does duty for the whole, and is known to everybody. Amis appears to deny this when he says that a general recognition of the toll of Stalinist slavery and murder "hasn't happened," and that "in the general consciousness the Russian dead sleep on." He should have hesitated longer before taking the whole weight of responsibility for this memory, and our memory, on his shoulders...

He tells me that this fairly unimportant evening was what kick-started his book, and in an open letter to me on the preceding pages he contemptuously, even proudly, asserts his refusal even to glance at Isaac Deutscher's biographical trilogy on Leon Trotsky. Well, I have my own, large differences with Deutscher. But nobody who read his Prophet Outcast, which was published more than three decades ago, could possibly be uninstructed about Vorkuta or Yezhov. In other words, having demanded to know "Why is it?" in such an insistent tone, he doesn't stay to answer his own question, instead replacing it with a vaguely peevish and "shocked, shocked" version of "How long has this been going on?" The answer there is, longer than he thinks.

'...the crucial questions about the gulag were being asked by left oppositionists, from Boris Souvarine to Victor Serge to C.L.R. James, in real time and at great peril. Those courageous and prescient heretics have been somewhat written out of history (they expected far worse than that, and often received it), but I can't bring myself to write as if they never existed, or to forgive anyone who slights them. If they seem too Marxist in tendency, one might also mention the more heterodox work of John Dewey, Sidney Hook, David Rousset, or Max Shachtman in exposing "Koba's" hideous visage. The "Nobody" at the beginning of Amis's sentences above is an insult, pure and simple, and an insult to history, too.

But who knows about the Gulag, other than the word itself? I'd read some of Solzhenitsyn, but I'd never heard of Yezhov until I read Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. If they were questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Adolf Hitler would be a $500 question, while Stalin would be up around $32,000 or more. Yezhov would be $500,000.

Hollywood has dealt with the Nazi Holocaust, but Stalin's terror remains largely untouched. It was in the background of Dr Zhivago, and rather more prominent in Enemy at the Gates, but both of these were primarily about Russia at war. The Gulag has no Schindler's List.
Amis says he doesn't wish that World War II had gone the other way, which is good of him (though there were many Ukrainians and Russians who took their anti-Stalinism to the extent of enlistment on the Nazi side). However, it would be nice to know if he wishes that the Russian civil war, and the wars of intervention, had gone the other way. There are some reasons to think that had that been the case, the common word for fascism would have been a Russian one, not an Italian one. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was brought to the West by the White emigration; even Boris Pasternak, in Doctor Zhivago, wrote with a shudder about life in the White-dominated regions. Major General William Graves, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force during the 1918 invasion of Siberia (an event thoroughly airbrushed from all American textbooks), wrote in his memoirs about the pervasive, lethal anti-Semitism that dominated the Russian right wing and added, "I doubt if history will show any country in the world during the last fifty years where murder could be committed so safely, and with less danger of punishment, than in Siberia during the reign of Admiral Kolchak." Thus "the collapse in the value of human life," as Amis describes the situation in post-revolutionary Russia, had begun some time before, perhaps in the marshes of Tannenberg, and was to make itself felt in other post-World War I societies as well.

Let's engage in some Niall Ferguson-style virtual history: what if Aleksandr Kerensky - leader of the Provisional Government which actually overthrew the Czar - had had Lenin arrested and shot on arrival at the Finland Station in St Petersburg in 1917? Russian involvement in World War I would have continued, with hundreds of thousands more Russian lives being lost. But once the Germans had surrendered, Kerensky would have had the chance to build a stable government - though he would still have had a civil war on his hands, and, undoubtedly, a lot of blood on them as well.

The lack of a Bolshevik government in Russia would have meant there was no example to hearten Communists in the rest of the world, or to serve as a bogeyman to rouse Fascists - indeed, would Fascism even have existed if not for Bolshevism? No Lenin, no Stalin. No Stalin, no Hitler. No Hitler, no World War II. No World War II, no Nazi Holocaust and, possibly, no nuclear weapons.

This outcome would certainly have been better for the rest of world, and it's hard to see how it could have been worse for Russia. As the old man, about to be stoned to death in Monty Python's Life of Brian, cried: 'Worse? How could it be worse?!'

Hitchens concludes with a spray at everyone who's anti-communist:
Writing toward the very end of his life, a life that had included surprising Stalin himself by a refusal to confess, and the authorship of a novel—The Case of Comrade Tulayev—that somewhat anticipated Darkness at Noon, Victor Serge could still speak a bit defensively about the bankruptcy of socialism in the "midnight of the century" represented by the Hitler-Stalin pact. But he added,
Have you forgotten the other bankruptcies? What was Christianity doing in the various catastrophes of society? What became of Liberalism? What has Conservatism produced, in either its enlightened or its reactionary form? ... If we are indeed honestly to weigh out the bankruptcies of ideology, we shall have a long task ahead of us.

Well, the Western countries (home to all of the strains of ideology Serge mentions) helped to defeat Fascism, stood firm against Soviet Communism, and have made themselves into the kind of countries everyone wants to emigrate to. Hitchens himself migrated from one Western country to another, undoubtedly the most 'Western' of all.

But after all the above, I nevertheless agree with his conclusion:

Be very choosy about what kind of anti-communist you are.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

EVEN WHEN I'm on semi-hiatus, bizarre Google searches continue to find me:

'cpl jones they don't like it up 'em'
'naked weathergirl'