30 April, 2010

The Long Telegram

George Kennan's "Long Telegram" (available here) is probably one of the most famous documents of the Cold War era, an over 5000-word telegram sent to American Secretary of State in 1946 when Kennan, the head of the US mission in Moscow at the time was asked for an explanation for recent (remember, just post-WWII) Soviet behavior. It's a pretty remarkable document, not merely for the way it was sent, but for the effect it had on American policy; it managed to explain the basic ideology of the Soviets so well that it was almost single-handedly responsible for the development of the American "containment" policy with respect to Soviet countries. Essentially, the soviets had to “be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” Kennan was hurriedly called back to Washington after this quite absurdly lengthy but effective telegram (a telegram, mind you!) and made deputy of foreign affairs at the National War College. And his ideas, well those became even more famous via the Truman Doctrine: "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." A logical application of Kennan's call for containment: defend other countries about to fall to soviet power from the aggression of the Stalinist regime that, as Kennan claims, "seek[s] security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it."

One problem of his telegram, at least arguably, however, is the fact that he seems to attribute the aggression of Stalinism not to the principles of Communism, but to the Russian national character:
At bottom of Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within. And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.

Marxist ideology is to some limited extent to blame for the soviet attitude, but only insofar as the soviets took these ideas and twisted them to suit their own purposes and justify their ideas. In other words, the USSR is an evil empire, but only because of its leadership, not because of any intrinsically misplaced ideas about human nature, etc. (if you don't agree that the ideas are misplaced, I'm not intending to prove anything just now, just observing that that's his position).

After establishment of Bolshevist regime, Marxist dogma, rendered even more truculent and intolerant by Lenin's interpretation, became a perfect vehicle for sense of insecurity with which Bolsheviks, even more than previous Russian rulers, were afflicted. In this dogma, with its basic altruism of purpose, they found justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand. In the name of Marxism they sacrificed every single ethical value in their methods and tactics. Today they cannot dispense with it. It is fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability. Without it they would stand before history, at best, as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes. This is why Soviet purposes most always be solemnly clothed in trappings of Marxism, and why no one should underrate importance of dogma in Soviet affairs.

Another interesting thing about Kennan is that after writing this telegram and then the essay "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", he basically spent the entirety of a long (but much less illustrious) political career denying everything he ever said here, going around to university campuses and telling people that "well, yes, that's what I said, but what I meant was..."

Interesting fellow.

29 April, 2010


I don't usually post about music here, of course, but I have to make a mention of a recent band that's been dominating my playlists recently. "Mes Aieux" is a French Canadian band, very overlooked like most French Canadian musicians, but really excellent in their ability to bring together modern soft-rock and traditional French Canadian music genres. Many songs, such as "Notre Dame du Bon Conseil" (Our Lady of Good Counsel) are both breathtakingly beautiful musically and have really gorgeous music videos.

One of my favorites by far, however, is "Dégénérations". Kind of an awesome.

The lyrics:

Ton arrière-arrière-grand-père, il a défriché la terre
Ton arrière-grand-père, il a labouré la terre
Et pis ton grand-père a rentabilisé la terre
Pis ton père, il l’a vendue pour devenir fonctionnaire

Et pis toi, mon p’tit gars, tu l’sais pus c’que tu vas faire
Dans ton p’tit trois et demi bien trop cher, frette en hiver
Il te vient des envies de devenir propriétaire
Et tu rêves la nuit d’avoir ton petit lopin de terre

Ton arrière-arrière-grand-mère, elle a eu quatorze enfants
Ton arrière-grand-mère en a eu quasiment autant
Et pis ta grand-mère en a eu trois c’tait suffisant
Pis ta mère en voulait pas ; toi t’étais un accident

Et pis toi, ma p’tite fille, tu changes de partenaire tout l’temps
Quand tu fais des conneries, tu t’en sauves en avortant
Mais y’a des matins, tu te réveilles en pleurant
Quand tu rêves la nuit d’une grande table entourée d’enfants

Ton arrière-arrière-grand-père a vécu la grosse misère
Ton arrière-grand-père, il ramassait les cennes noires
Et pis ton grand-père – miracle ! – est devenu millionnaire
Ton père en a hérité, il l’a tout mis dans ses RÉERs

Et pis toi, p’tite jeunesse, tu dois ton cul au ministère
Pas moyen d’avoir un prêt dans une institution bancaire
Pour calmer tes envies de hold-uper la caissière
Tu lis des livres qui parlent de simplicité volontaire

Tes arrière-arrière-grands-parents, ils savaient comment fêter
Tes arrière-grands-parents, ça swignait fort dans les veillées
Pis tes grands-parents ont connu l’époque yé-yé
Tes parents, c’tait les discos ; c’est là qu’ils se sont rencontrés

Et pis toi, mon ami, qu’est-ce que tu fais de ta soirée ?
Éteins donc ta tivi ; faut pas rester encabané
Heureusement que dans’ vie certaines choses refusent de changer
Enfile tes plus beaux habits car nous allons ce soir danser…

If you can't read French, the basic idea of this song is "the world had better get back to basics", specifically to a real respect for hard work and the family. I was rather pleased at the explicit reference to abortion as a product of a self-centered, productivity obsessed society.

Here's the music video, also.

16 April, 2010

Romantic Restructuring of the Concept of Faith

So, as most of us know very well, the world was "Turned upside down" over the course of the late 1700s up to the end of the 20th century by more revolutions than the Americans' mild revolt against British consolidation of powers. (If you get the reference to Yorktown, just go with it, if not, see here.) Not least among the cataclysms of the age (at least from the perspective of its contemporaries) was the so-called "crisis of faith" that baffled (particularly protestant) Christendom in the wake of the Scientific revolution.

Looking back on all that now, a sophisticated Catholic of the 20th century--post "Fides et Ratio" and post- the countless other affirmations of the essential compatability of science and faith--may be rather amused by what will strike him or her as a laughable religious naiveté. I mean, really, must one's beliefs actually be shaken to the core by the simple discovery that evolution may have occured, when science so patently would never be able to provide an account of how that evolution began (because we can only work with what we have evidence of in science: please don't bother us with speculations about the beginning of matter because that means reaching back to a prematerial time--if such a thing is even conceivable on scientific terms--for example). I mean, unless your entire faith is based on a fundamentalist literal understanding of the Bible; as "Dei Verbum" reminds Catholics, of course, "fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide". And here's where we see that happening at its finest. People saying: oh, well, the Bible doesn't describe evolution, so if evolution is true, the Bible must be false. Forgetting, of course, that the Bible may be taken as using a mythical genre in certain parts, a historical genre in others, etc, without a whit of its essential truth being taken from it.

I don't want to condemn the age, certainly. Many people did keep their heads, and it's interesting enough that the few scientists of the time who successfully integrated faith and their work were actually Catholic. Catholics having on the whole something of a horror of fundamentalism. Yes, even back then. I'm thinking in particular of Antoine Lavoisier, Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie. (Gotta love your French Catholics, even though American Catholics who have some sort of national guilt at not being quite Puritan enough tend to detest them Just for good measure. Can't like those Papists...)

Anyway, all of that is merely a long-winded explanation of the situation the Romantic authors of the early 1800s found themselves in. Instead of trying to genuinely reintegrate religious faith with the new, post-Enlightenment world, the panicked and threw out the faith aspect along with most of the rest of their generation (again, I'm judging these people in very gross generalities). Northrop Frye, in "A Study of English Romanticism", explains the conundrum of these artists very astutely in terms of the scientific discrediting of the age-old mythical stucture of the cosmos. That is, the symbolic notions of the geo-centric world, the heavenly spheres, the notion of Divine Right in law, etc, were knocked to the ground by Copernicus and his descendents. Notice that I said symbolic. Part of the problem here is people falling into suicidal literalism again. The myth isn't part of the Word of God, but it had explained it for so long that people began to forget that a myth is a metaphor. Never a scientific fact. A way, rather, of making sense of the more universal structures that aren't within science's realm at all.

Yet with that model "discredited," the Romantics weren't willing to let go of the belief that something must be more important than 1+1=2 or the law of gravitation. They reclaim the notion of faith, but now limit it strictly to being "poetic" faith, in which the subject-object distinction created between man and nature by both the Christian affirmation of man's divine telos and the rationalist "clockwork universe" model is collaped back into a neo-pagan reidentification of the workings of man's mind with nature itself. Nature mirrors man's mental workings because she is not merely a mediator, a symbol of divine truth (as the Christian worldview would have it), but is in fact the source of the sublime that works on his intellect. Access to the transcendent is thus achieved directly through communion with nature, and the "original sin" myth of Christianity (don't worry that I'm a heretic: I mean "myth" in the sense of universal explanatory structure that may very well be true) is replaced with the "loss of original identity" myth. (I'm drawing on Frye for this bit.) That is to say, man's fallen state is not characterized by propensity to sin, but by a self-consciousness that destroys man's innocent state of communion with the source of sublimity by bringing him to an awareness of the subject-object relation with nature.

Essentially, as Frye observes, the Romantics take the Christian myth, and redefine it so as to have a "faith" that is compatible with the new order, but which still combats pure rationalism. But I am at a loss as to see how this should help them much at all. What are they doing on the most basic level? Well, they take divine transcendence out of the picture and replace it with Nature. Thus the sublime is now at one remove from us instead of at two (even here, you'd have to be pretty heretical in your Christianity in the first place to believe that we only have symbolic access to God such that he would be two removes from us to begin with. After all, Catholics believe that we don't just see Him and talk directly to Him; we eat Him. But that's another story, since we're in protestant, often fashionably liberal, England here). This is patently unhelpful though, since there's still that first leap of faith to get over: why should nature be the source of transcendence any more than God? They respond to the alleged lack of rationality in Christianity by denying that reason has anything at all to do with access to the transcendent. It's all in the "imagination", or the "poetic genius," as Blake likes to call it. Really, that if anything weakens the structural backing of faith. Why in the world should it be a relief to us to say: oh, well, it's not supposed to make rational sense, you're just supposed to get a feeling of sublimity from Nature? This requires as much--in fact, a lot more--blind faith than Christianity at its best does. We'd prefer to say: "Well, here are a ton of fairly compelling reasons why you should believe that this is real. Yes, we can't ultimately prove them, because they have their sources in what cannot be empirically measured, but you know, your scientific empericalism takes a bit of faith (please see David Hume) too, so what are we concerned about there?

Basically, all of this is to say that the Romantics seem to think that Pantheism is the answer to the crisis of faith. If you have problems with religious faith, I can't see that you're going to solve those effectively with pantheism, however. The biggest argument in favor of their approach, in fact, is simply that they get away from the language of religious faith that was then in such disfavor. So they rather got themselves to be taken more seriously than some raving preacher might. (Can you imagine Blake* as a cleric of the Church of England?)

Nonetheless, once you look past the veneer of "we're different from the religious people because we want faith to be individual and sourced in Nature", the Romantics really do have a very weak foundation for their "religion of poetry". At least, if they want it to be a serious contender against the forces of rationalism. So one can see without much difficulty why it collapsed so soon into the darkness of the Victorian poetic crisis of faith. That particular crisis I will be writing a paper on shortly, so more might be posted on it later.

*Of course, Blake in particular (he seems to be the only one to consider the relationship of religious faith and poetic faith very explicitly) does have some very legitimate gripes against the conventionalization of faith via the general political correctness of adopting certain tenets of Anglicanism in 19th century England. His complaints about "right being wrong" and wrong being right are fairly justified. If only he had realized that the Catholics would heartily agree with most of his complaints, he might not have misidentified this conventionalization as a problem intrinsic in Christianity.