A Soviet Cassandra for Our Time

Looking back on his experience as an inmate in the Nazi camps, the narrator of Imre Kertész's Fateless recalls hearing a teacher say, "We learn for life, not school."  In that case, he reflects, "I ought to have been learning all along exclusively about Auschwitz."  Today we have no excuse for such neglect.  Who has not heard of the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao?

But it seems the American elite was not taught (or did not care to learn) how such men were able to bring formerly free peoples under the yoke of totalitarianism in the first place.  What else but deplorable ignorance could explain the widespread capitulation of political leaders at every level to violent mobs animated, as Daniel Mahoney observes, by revolutionary nihilism?  Or the way institutions across the board, including political parties, universities, the media, entertainment, and professional sports, have rushed to support Black Lives Matter, an ideological movement rooted in what Matt Taibbi has described as the Hitlerian race theory of modern identity politics?  Or the hundreds of millions of dollars American corporations immediately donated to BLM and related causes after the death of George Floyd?

No one has spoken more forcefully about the social and psychological conditions that generate and sustain ideological tyranny than Nadezhda Mandelstam, the wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in Stalin's Gulag.  "The threat to the human race comes not from its communal morality," Mandelstam observes, "but from the extravagant innovations of its more volatile elements."  Her books Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned describe a terrible political sickness that must be nipped the bud or not at all — one whose symptoms become more visible in American life with each passing day.

In the formative years of the Soviet Union, Mandelstam writes, publishers began to judge manuscripts exclusively based on their ideological content.  Writers whose views were insufficiently "progressive" were blackballed.  In the academic world, "the broom" of ideological purification "swept mercilessly."  Social sciences (and even natural sciences like genetics) were replaced by "pseudoscience."  Some subjects were completely off limits, and the governing elite believed that entire groups of people had no right to opinions on certain matters.  Wherever real thought still existed, it began to take on "protective coloring." 

Daily life deteriorated rapidly, as "not only God, but ideas, love, pity and compassion were hastily thrown overboard."  Personal fate was determined not by the content of one's character, but by one's class membership or ethnicity.  Accusations became so common that "to write" came simply to mean "to denounce."  People were degraded from "one of us" to "not one of us" with "lightning speed," and with "a chorus of jeers for the victim."  Language was debased by ideological slogans and official jargon, and the meaning of "the most crucial words" was "eroded by misuse."  Institutions that "had grown up over the centuries" were destroyed; the past was erased; and the voice of memory, "the one feature that distinguishes us as human beings," was silenced.  People were afflicted by a "progressive loss of a sense of reality" that proceeded especially rapidly among "those who ... called on us to fight prejudice."  And "men" — individuals willing to stand up for conscience, freedom, and dignity — "ceased to exist."

All of this is depressingly familiar.  "Any era," Mandelstam writes, "should be judged by the degree to which it is possible to exercise the basic human right of professing one's faith and speaking one's mind."  By that standard, we are doing poorly.  Education at all levels has largely given way to indoctrination.  ("What do the people need to be indoctrinated for?" Mandelstam asks.  "What satanic arrogance you need to impose your own views like this!")  Professors and students who publicly challenge doctrines of social justice are targeted for dismissal or expulsion.  Publishers steer clear of manuscripts that violate progressive orthodoxy and are quick to withdraw or retract books and articles condemned by censorious mobs.

Whites who opine on matters of minority life are excoriated.  Ill defined words like "racist," "white supremacist," "sexist," and "colonialist" are gleefully employed to silence criticism, destroy reputations, purge institutions, and discredit the past, while simultaneously protecting their users from meaningful contact with reality.  It is hard to find spheres of American life that have not been stamped by the intolerant doctrines of a rapidly evolving progressivism, or people with the courage to oppose this ideological aggression and its grotesque deformations of politics and culture.  Most of those who should know better have bowed their heads in silence before this illiberal onslaught.

"Our era is witness to the dissolution of any deep-rooted sense of community," Mandelstam writes, "and to the creation instead of mechanical agglomerations based on arbitrarily chosen features of little significance."  This accurately characterizes the social constructions of "intersectional" identity politics that have hypnotized our self-described "thought-leaders."  Mandelstam envisions a future in which we "stop talking with each other and communicate only by emitting call signs or bloodcurdling war cries," or by "caterwauling ... like fans at a football game."  "Younger people in the West," she writes, "have no faith in anything and are blind to what has happened elsewhere."  Their "blindness, indifference, and idiotic egoism," she predicts, will lead to "armed bands ready to obey any command their leaders give them: to shoot at windows, people, the human soul itself, to crush the thinking human skull in a Chinese helmet of stone, to break the wrists of pianists."  This is a prophecy we can no longer afford to ignore.

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