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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review of "Empire of the Czar – A Journey through Eternal Russia" by Marquis de Custine

This review was first published on Amazon May 11, 2014

In the used book-sale bin in the library of ________, (here I  follow Custine's custom of blanking out proper names of towns and people, to throw off the Czar's Imperial censors) a town skirting the southern environs of the North Western City of _______, the main metropolis of Oregon, (which at the time Custine was writing was still claimed by Russia), this author found a hardbound edition of the here reviewed work, published by Doubleday, a reproduction of the original Longman edition of 1843,  for only two dollars!  What a find! With a foreword by Daniel Boorstin and an introduction by George Kennan, this classic is  now in my meager library, and I feel like a very lucky thief .

In any event, this town library, which recently removed its copy of this author's only published novel from its shelves, (and from the library records!) obviously an act of spite by one of its employees, undoubtedly a neighbor who has taken a dislike to the author for reasons unknown (perhaps I failed to compliment her new porch furniture fulsomely enough!) – in any event – the author is revenged by getting such a book from the same library for only two dollars!  The foreword and introduction alone are worth the price as they lay out the historical importance of Custin's work.

The above paragraphs are a poor attempt to mimic Custin's ornate, self-absorbed, egotistical,  over-the-top style, which breathlessly falls on whatever comes to his mind and follows it like a pack of hounds chasing five different foxes. Custin repeats himself, contradicts himself, embarrasses himself, is constantly generalizing from the scantiest evidence, stays within his own set of limited interests, brushing aside things to which a better observer (like de Tocqueville, his almost exact counterpart writing about “Democracy in America” at almost the exact same time) would have devoted many pages. And yet – he produced an amazing masterpiece of historical observation, one which lays out much of what explains the history of the following century.

 Custine is 'The Marquis de Custine'.  He is the grandson of a famous and successful general, the son of a fatally brave man.  His mother was  a woman who would survive the fall from membership in the highest level of French aristocracy to public debasement and pauper-hood, suffering her husband's and father-in-law's heads falling at Robespierre's  guillotine during the Terror, herself barely escaping the same fate.  She lived on to raise her son and revive a salon that was the envy of Paris during Napoleon’s reign.

Custine's story, if he had never written 'Empire...' would still be important.  He was a close friend of Balzac, his mother was the model for Madame de Staël most famous novel, Delphine (His mother's real name).  He was Tallyrand's principal aide at The Congress of Vienna.  He lost his wife and infant son in childbirth leaving him desolate. Later, after nearly being beaten to death by a group of sailors, he was denounced as 'The most notorious homosexual in Paris”.  All this before he wrote his masterpiece.

The age in which he lived was especially fruitful for French writers. With Napoleon defeated, and French continental imperial ambitions closed for good, the inflamed French intellectuals sought answers.  Stendal, perhaps the the greatest unknown writer of all time, wrote wonderful historical novels, and, along with Balzac, invented realism.  The fall of Napoleon taught them something of perspective, (a view point Americans have never, even up to now, obtained.)  France had reached for the Golden Ring and had been kicked to the curb at Waterloo. They began to think – if not France, then who?  The two, embryonic, primitive powers – the United States and Russia – were grossly under-studied and two dispossessed French aristocrats set out to travel to and find out what was going on in the two undeveloped giants.

De Tocqueville we know about – Democracy in America is taught in most high school surveys of American history (at least it used to be). It is a classic study of national manners,  the first (and perhaps as often happens with the first – the finest) sociology text.

Custine went East.  His observations, not nearly as systematic and well sourced, are more artful and dependent on genius rather than method.  The setting is Russia in the late 1830s. His observations are stunning n their perceptiveness and foreshadowing of what modern readers know will come to Russia.  You can open the book at random as often as you like and you will be amazed at what he writes. There is no plot so this is a perfectly acceptable way to read it.

Custine's book is in large part the source for George Kennan's policy of post-war 'Containment'.   Kennan, who worked in the American Embassy in Moscow through much of the second world war and its aftermath, saw Russia for what it was.  Russia under Stalin, as horrible as that was, was not that different than the Russia under Nicholas I in the previous century. Russian Communism was not the dark, conspiratorial plot to undermine American purity of Essence, but merely Russia as Russia always was, imperialistic and paranoid. The secret police, the lack of an informed middle class, the extensive 'gulag' like prison system, the xenophobic paranoia and the overweening self regard Russian have for their own country, combined with a deep self doubt about same, all are on display in Custine's travelogue.  But Custine also shows the inward attitude toward life that Russians have and their adoration of poetry and literature, and how that would lead to the greatest blooming of literary output ever known in the years that follow.

 He describes seeing a man beat to death for a trifle with no more regard paid to it by the Russians he is travelling with than if an insect were swatted.   Custine was horribly prejudiced and has little positive to say about Russia. He wrote “their only primitive facility is the aptitude to reproduce the inventions of foreigners.” or “In Russia the government interferes with everything and vivifies nothing .. death hovers over  all heads and strikes capriciously when it pleases.” or   “The Russian mother ought to weep more at the birth than at the deaths of their children.”  He writes of the construction of St Petersburg by the supposedly enlightened Peter the Great and of the hundreds of thousand peasant lives that were callously sacrificed in its building.

He writes, “The Russian Government is an absolute monarchy moderated by assassination.”  “Are you ignorant of what is now passing on the Volga...whole populations are being transported.”   He explains why Russian writers are so inspired - “The only poets really unhappy are those condemned to languish under a system of publicity.  When all the world may say what they please, the poet must hold his peace.  Poetry is a mystery which servers to express more than words: it can not subsist among a people who have lost the modesty of thought.  Vision, allegory apologue are the truth of poetry.  In a country where publicity pervades everything, this truth is destroyed by reality, which is always course and repulsive...”  Boy is that ever true.

He describes the entire country as a 'Potemkin village' – "Interesting exterior architecture devoid of internal conveniences.” He says it is an “unhappy land where every stranger appears as a savior in the eyes of the herd of oppressed beings.”

 The book is a constant unending source of pithy observations and full of over the top generalizations mixed together with no observable organizing principle other than the sequence of his journey.  At 600 plus pages this will begin to tire the reader.  But I don't think it will deter the reader because if you have an interest in the subject you can't wait to read what is next.  In pacing, it is almost like a non-stop Joan Rivers monologue, when she is at her best.

Custine knows he is all over the map.  He says, “that he is fearlessly following the truth  and that if the experience of the day has falsified the conclusions of the previous day, I don't fear to show it.”  Of course that is life, because nothing follows a pattern forever.

As to his predictions – well here is Custine predicting the future political events
“If ever they should succeed in creating a REAL revolution among the Russian people, massacre would be performed with the regularity that marks the evolutions of a regiment.  Villages would change into barracks and organized murder would stalk forth armed from the cottages, form in line, and advance in order.  In short the Russians would prepare for pillage from Smolensk to Irkutsk as they march in parade in Petersburg.”

His language is rich, he does not scrimp or hide what he  saw nor does he disguise what that made him feel.  It is a powerful piece of literature and required reading for any foreigner  who wishes to say he understands Russia.  I'll let Daniel Boorstin have the last word on why this is an important book.  “He somehow sensed features of Russian life and institutions that reached back for millennia before his time and would extend forward for more than a century.... we are constantly amazed that the breadth of his insight could so far exceed the scope of his observations.  And we are tantalized by the thought that though some of his facts may be inaccurate, or exaggerated or maliciously distorted, still many of his conclusions survive at the distance of time.”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Drunk with Father

  By 9 am the rays of the glaring sun bounced like a thousand Tinker-bells off the crusty snow, shooting light around Ed's bedroom in a suburban colonial that stood alone on a little rise that overlooked a white pristine field that in warmer weather was otherwise clumpy with piled leaves and half up-rooted shrubs. Ed felt a hand shaking his shoulder and slowly woke in the hard, short bed of his childhood.
  “Come on, get up, the day's half over!” Ed's father stood over him, next to the antique wooden bed, wearing an unzipped winter jacket, and a look of unenthusiastic impatience. Something wasn't right.
  “All right – give me a minute...”, Ed said. “What's going on..?”
  “Come on, get up. Let's go to the Post Office.”
  “They're not delivering the mail today – roads are too icy. Let's go get the mail. Come on – I'll be downstairs.”
  Christmas time in the suburbs. Home from college – December 1970. Ed had a low draft number (53) and a low 2.0 GPA for his first college semester that was only saved by a 'B' in Speech & Communications. Vietnam loomed and hard classes were coming. Ed was needlessly worried about real sergeants getting him up even earlier, because he didn't yet know that his spring semester grades would be saved by Richard Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent disturbances on Ed's campus that would turn all of his classes into 'pass' with no professors willing to 'no-pass' students in the midst of their vociferous and property defiling protests that sometimes included denouncing tools of the Capitalists war-mongers employed by the University. In the coming spring, Ed would be too busy getting high and occupying the University’s administration building to finish any of his assignments, much less be able to pass any finals which thankfully would be waived.
  But this morning he had other concerns. Post Office? He lay in bed and heard his little sisters, newly introduced to puberty, slamming doors and yelling at each other for violating some time duration allowed to be in the bathroom. He smelled bacon.
  He sat up on the side of the bed. The night before he had maneuvered his family station wagon home through a blizzard, navigating the narrow, winding North Jersey roads, back from the bar that served 18 year-olds in Suffern NY. He had driven home drunk, stoned and horny, once bouncing off a snow drift right back into the middle of the road, after having convinced a former high school classmate who went to an expensive woman's college to get high with him in his car outside the bar, but but she couldn't or wouldn't …
  “Dad! Mom! Laura won't get out of the bathroom!”
  Ed got up slowly and put on his pants.
  “Laura! Let's your sister use the bathroom before she floods the floor! Hey Ed – what's keeping you?”, his father yelled from downstairs.
  “Shit,” Ed said softly aloud. He grabbed a sweatshirt and a pair of socks and went out of his room.
  “Get the fuck out Laura, I need to piss,” he pushed his littlest sister out of the way and banged on the bathroom door.
  “Don't use that fucking language in front of your sisters. Use the one down stairs,” his father yelled.
As he turned his littlest sister pushed him with a sneer. He didn't look at her as he walked down the stairs. He went into the family room and sat down to put on his socks and shoes. His father came in and stood watching him. He looked at his father and saw he was smiling slightly. Something was up, and Ed didn't think it was good.
  His shoes on, he walked toward the kitchen.
  “Get your jacket,” his father said. Ed looked at him with narrowed eyes and grabbed his jacket off a chair where he had thrown it the night before and continued toward the kitchen.
  The counter was covered with the fixings of a huge breakfast. Buttered toast, scrambled eggs, lots of bacon, grits, jam, honey, a small bowl of melted butter, waffles warming in the oven that his mother was pulling out as he walked in. “Sit down Ed, let me get you a plate.”
  “No – we'll be right back – we got to go Dottie -”
  “But...” both his mother and Ed said 'but' together and then looked at each other. Ed looked in the sink and saw his father's plate, crusty with bacon fat and jam sitting on top of soaking pans.
  “Well let me -” Ed reached for a sweet roll but was blocked by his father.
  “Bill! Let him sit down and ...”
  “Dottie he can eat when we get back – I heard that the stores might be shut down later today...its going to snow again they are saying – put your coat on – lets go...”
  Ed looked at the still hot food laying on the counter and knew it would not be near as worth eating when they got back. He looked at his mother who shrugged – she tried one more time – “Bill let him sit down...”
  “Come on Ed – lets go!”
  Ed grabbed a piece of bacon and headed out the back door to his father car.
  His father was gabbier than usual and unusual for him, wasn't saying much as he said it. Ed had heard most of it before. He was telling a sea story about him and his second assistant Engineer – His father was a chief Engineer on a merchant ship and his best friend worked for him and they had spent most of the late sixties in the Far East, India mostly, but sometimes taking ammo to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. This time he was telling a story about Al, his second assistant, finding the woman who he had been sending money to in Madras working in the same whorehouse where he had met her. Al was devastated but before the evening was over he had forgiven her and as far as his father knew he was still sending money to her.
  Ed had met Al and had thought he was a cool guy, but after listening to his father he altered his opinion somewhat, although he wasn't sure his father was telling the truth. He seemed to remember the story had been different the first time he heard it, but he couldn't remember how. He actually was not unhappy to be talking to his father in the cold, sober light of that winter morning because the last time they had said more than two words was last week about two days after he had arrived home from college. It had started in the afternoon, watching a minor bowl game on TV, drinking and talking, then continued into the evening, just the two of them finally, his mother warning them as she went up to bed, “Don't drink too much...”
  Ed was 19 and taller than his father and probably heavier too – he had quit his college cross country team in October and hadn't worked out at all since. His Dad had a little gut for the first time that Ed ever remembered, a product of his 'easy' job on the ship. That evening was the first time his father had ever seemed old to Jim, as they went drink for drink, killing one, then two bottles of scotch, then part of a third before Johnny Carson came on. It was then his Dad got – a way he had never seen him, talking of his love for his mother, his love for Ed and the girls, his unworthiness to have any of it, the house, a family, a job with respect, none of it he deserved or at least that is what he said, through tears and sobs. Ed tried to comfort him and reassure him, but this was something deeper than he had ever experienced and he didn't have enough of whatever he needed to pull his father back. He couldn't stand properly and Ed had helped him up and steadied him as they climbed the stairs and he knocked on his mother's door and let him into the master bedroom and Ed – also drunk but strangely clear headed perhaps because he hadn't mixed pot with the booze as he normally did, went into his own childhood room and read until he fell asleep.
  They got to the Post Office but it was closed. Ed remembered that it normally opened at noon on a Saturday – he only now realized it was Saturday.
  “Oh damn,” his father mildly said. Ed looked at him. “Its closed.”
  “Yeah – its Saturday. It opens at noon I think.”
  “Well while we're down here – lets stop off at the AB&G.”
  “You mean in Allendale?”
  “Yeah – its the closest bar.” Ed was pretty sure that was true – and anyway he was sure his father would have figured that logistical detail out long ago.
  Ed's father continued his story about Al, laughing at his adventures, which were really Dad's adventures, because they cruised the ports of South Asia together, like Conrad's Lord Jim, as depicted by Abbott and Costello, or Bob and Bing, looking for fun away from the usual sailor hangouts, often ending up meeting other western Expats getting invited to parties at embassies, fucking the wives of diplomats in cloakrooms, filling up on free booze and whores ovaries, before returning to the ship, happy to be carefree sailors, but its not a life for you Ed, his father said, still, if you want to go after college – after you finish your degree, maybe we can ship together, I know some people who owe me favors, he said, I can get you on – but you have to get through school first...
  The AB&G was just opening when they got there. Ed wasn't 21 yet, which was the NJ drinking age, but they both sat at the bar and picked up the menu. Ed was thinking food.
“What are you drinking?” Ed knew the barkeep and knew he knew him. Ed had gone to high school in Allendale and had made his mark and was known, so he knew the question contained a healthy share of amnesia about just how recently Ed had been in high school.
  “I'll have a beer.”
  “A beer?” His father made a face like he had just stepped in dog shit. “How can you drink beer this early? I'll have a scotch on the rocks.” He looked at Ed.
  “Same,” said Ed. He looked at his father and knew what was coming.
  Ed counted to seven and after that he had no memory. He remembered coming into the kitchen and hearing his mother yelling and threatening his father, who was too drunk to pay attention, even though he had managed to drive back. It was about noon.
  Ed and his father would drink together again, but never like that. It was never mentioned again and it marked the end of something and the beginning of something else.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On James Madison and Federalist Paper #46

Feb 26 2014

Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger.
I think Abraham Lincoln and US Grant made that observation obsolete 150 years ago. I would say it is more obsolete today
But - that aside - should the militia be regulated, but personal armaments not be? Should any citizen have a constitutional right to own any weapon he/she can afford? Does local government have no legal remedy to keep dangerous arms out of its jurisdictions? Is that the true intent of those 'founders' who we know disagreed with each other as much as they agreed? Because it doesn't make sense to me that the awkwardly worded second amendment was intended to sanction every home and hearth to be a potential armory. If that was their intent then it was based on a misunderstanding of the functional military capabilities of privately owned weapons.
Many people revere the Federalist's papers. They serve as a model for civilized political debate - it was a lively set of conversations among an unusually bright and well intended group of men as they tried to build a government. But they were no more authoritative than any editorial you read today.
If you put yourself into the 1790s, Madison's supposition makes some sense particularly in North America. A group of men marching with muskets could possibly stand up to regular army - although I would estimate that by Austerlitz, about 20 years after the Constitution's ratification, Napoleon had shown that fact to no longer be true. Military professionals quickly learned the lessons required to enable a modern force to roll over well armed but poorly lead citizens with advanced planning and tight precision. The late 18th century was the last time one man (like Jefferson or Hume or Liebnitz or Franklin) could know most of what was known - science, mathematics, philosophy, economics, history etc. (If you knew Adam Smith you knew Economics, Newton you knew math and physics, Gibbon late Roman history, etc). These authorities were soon to be annotated and revised to make total mastery of all knowledge impossible for any individual - bureaucracies were now required.
General staffs the world over applied the new knowledge that exploded in the 19th century to the task of killing large numbers of people efficiently and controlling those that remain.
Specialization destroyed Madison's theory of citizen soldier as a real threat to perceived tyranny.

Progressives Should Oppose the Chavistas

Feb 28 2014
I fell in love with Venezuela when I read 'Green Mansions' as a kid and my visit for business in 2012 reinforced that love. The people I met were generous, open, uncluttered by phoniness and extremely desirous to get opportunity to succeed.

It is a beautiful country. From the valley floor in Caracas you can take a tram to the top of the highest mountain that over looks the city, and from the tram you can hear the monkeys in the trees just below chattering. Its jungles to the south, near Brazil, hold the Yanomamo, maybe, (in the 1960s) the last true primitive people. The Caracas valley sits in the perfect balance between the briskness of the mountains and the warmth of the equator. The city was founded in 1567. 

In the election of October 2012, about 49% of the people voted for the opposition candidate, (plus or minus – the totals were disputed) Henrique Capriles Radonski, a center-left progressive economist former mayor of a suburb of Caracas. He vowed to pursue market friendly economic policies combined with income re-distribution. He is committed to the fair play that is required for democracy and that differentiates him from the Chavistas.

The best rebuttal to the protesters against the Chavistas and those like me who support those protesters is that Radonski lost the election, therefore the results should be respected. However – when human rights are severely violated, property is seized without legal authority, or by authority that is so rigged as to make it illegitimate in the eyes of reason, then it is not unreasonable to take to the streets and demand reform. 

Maduro is committed to 'a road' (as in 'the Socialist Road') not a plan. As a former bus driver I suppose that is natural for him. The policies of the Chavistas are more slogans than practical proposals to solve the countries problems. Rodonski would have had access to the kind of left-center administrative talent that could actually make a positive economic difference to Venezuela's impoverished  communities – which are to be clear incredibly poor and primitive. The slums built on muddy hills overlooking Caracas go on seemingly forever, with no services, physical or otherwise. 

I don't think anyone who calls themselves a 'progressive' should support the Chavistas. This isn't the 1930s. Politics is not as black and white as it used to seem to be. American (or rather U.S.) indifference is now more of a threat to countries like Venezuela than U.S. imperialism.

 The Chavistas have many similarities to Mussolini's Fascists, in that they use intimidation and thug tactics to remain in power. By not controlling the civil violence (not pursuing justice against murderers) they keep every one else an extreme state of personal stress. There were over 24,000 homicides in Venezuela (pop 30 million) last year. In the U.S. (pop 300 million) there were about 18,000 murders. That level of violence is almost the equivalent to a state of siege. The police are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chavistas, as are the courts. 

You can not expect people to not respond politically.  The protesters are demonstrating vociferously against that 'state of siege' and against other actions that seriously depress the whole of Venezuela's economy. I think all Progressives should realize that “Fascist Redistribution” is more Fascist than it is socialist. But I know labels such as 'fascist' are misappropriated all the time. At this stage of history all words are loaded and have been used for too long, by too many to not be easy to misuse. But if it acts like a duck etc. I have no problems with 'Double Think' on that issue.

Post Mandela Expectations

(From a facebook post discussing Nelson Mandela - Dec 9 2013) 
When asked what were the long term affects of the French Revolution, Chinese Communist Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly answered, “It's too soon to tell.” I can only hope that is true for South Africa – that it finds a way to be a healthy, safe, multiracial society. My father was a merchant seaman and he would return from trips around the Cape of Good Hope back to New Jersey in the 1960s with tales of the wonders of Durbin SA. He described the prosperous farms, the beautiful beaches, the nightlife, the hardworking, fun-loving, intelligent people who had built a paradise for themselves, but he would add, parenthetically, “It is going to end badly”. 

It is interesting that Gandhi got his political start in SA and it is not that hard to imagine that if things had been a little different, he might have been the “Father' of SA instead of Mandela. India would have been different then too, maybe .. In any event, it is too bad it took so long for SA to make the adjustments that so clearly needed to be made. And conversely – it is a good thing SA made the changes when did instead of trying to hang on. I think both those statements are true to a degree.

While I don't believe anything is inevitable or per-ordained, (although oddly the predominate Afrikaner religion was Calvinist wasn't it?) there is a streak of it in all of us I think. Lincoln at his Second Inaugural Address said, “ Yet, if God wills that it (the Civil War) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."” When reading the great Russian novelists of the 19th century and one sees a society that was at once advanced and thoughtful beyond what was occurring in Europe (on one level) and yet supported at its lowest level by the most severe and oppressive cruelty – and then in the 20th century to see it all sweep away like a wealthy beach community in a hurricane – well – one understands the unfeeling 'inevitability' history, and the serious nature of the facebook postings here.

I think that what is being expressed by people all over the world in remembering Mandala is that the transfer of power, the change that had to occur, could have been much worse and Mandela through giving up 27 years of his life and coming out, regardless of his politics, as not a bitter man, that this example is the only one that holds out any hope.

How many Pied-Noirs are left in Algeria? Clearly Afrikaner roots are deeper in SA than were the French in North Africa. And even though things have changed for the worse in SA in some ways, we all got a glance at SA society through the tragedy of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp. The dependence on guns to maintain a privileged life is part of the culture. And clearly some privilege still exists, even if it is very precarious. Of course, to say “privileged” in SA is for Westerners to mean “normal”. The affect on the white population by the changes since the end of apartheid are perhaps worse psychologically than economic. But I am straying into areas I have no right to be in – I am only trying to understand it from a distance. 

Russia and China both went from extreme disparities of wealth and class in the 20th century. In Russia, Dostoevsky saw it coming very clearly in his literature. The disaster when it came was genocidal at least in a class sense. I think what we are seeing in these facebook postings is an attempt to change opinion in the West about SA, in a way that is similar to what occurred here 30-35 years ago when the boycott of SA over apartheid began. It is correct  to make those attempts to educate us about the reality and the declining quality of life that white South African's face, and the dangerous state of affairs there. The most important thing now is to make people understand the situation as it is seen through everyone’s eyes. People, I believe at their core, are good. If they know the truth and can see things from another perspective they will act in the right way. It might take a long time though. In the end nothing is fair but perhaps there is fairness in that too. In spite of all the horror that has occurred I do believe we have no other choice but to believe in prospect of a good ending. Now that Mandela is gone, perhaps we can deal with it more honestly. 

I think we (people who are not from SA) have to support all people's right to live free of intimation regardless of who they are or who their parents were. But ultimately the only thing that means anything is what happens in SA itself. I hope SA can find its own way of dealing with this that doesn't repeat so much of the horror of the last 100 years. 

To make one more small point germane to the society that I do live in and have more authority to speak to – SA is a warning that extremes in inequality have a way of biting back – and it is better to manage them sooner than later. It is easier to change tax rates and health care delivery than it is manage a rebellion.