Friday, February 02, 2007

Penny Press! Autocracy and Ruin in the London Review!

Two items of interest in the latest London Review of Books, one long and one short.

The long one is VERY long, refreshingly so: Perry Anderson uses the murder and funeral of outspoken Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (also written up at length in last week's New Yorker) as a springboard to examine the length and breadth of Putin's Russia on a broad variety of topics.

Anderson is very good and very thorough, and by the end of his survey the reader will feel he has the matter of modern-day Russia well in hand. That alone justifies the price of the issue, since the subject is a formidable tangle.

And of course the central problem is the United States and its seemingly incurable itch to export its own brand of democracy to every country on Earth.
Most of these attempts have been land-and-cash-grabs thinly wallpapered with jingoism, but even the casual reader of history (that's all of you, ya mewling tools) will see that often they've been sincere. The sincere belief that America's ways - and thereby its successes - ought to be emulated by nations that have it less good.

That this is naive doesn't entirely forgive it even in the thinking, and very little forgives it in the attempting. Those who've done any amount of honest travelling in this world (package tours and hotel-to-hotel ratepayers, quietly take a seat in the rear, thanks) know that the single good thing about the otherwise-noxious and loathesome fad of 'multiculturalism' is that it prompts otherwise hidebound, insular, flyover-state people to consider the serious possibility that other nations, other cultures, might have a stand-alone intrinsic worth of their own. A worth sometimes very different from strip-malls and tent-revivals.

There's an obdurate truth at the heart of this problem that ought to make Americans proud, not ashamed: this country was blessed in its birth. In its pre-destiny days, it was blessed with two essential elements of spadework: a biddable multi-millionaire (in the person of John Hancock) and a tireless opinion-changer (in the person of Samuel Adams). And when the destiny days came about from their work, there came a host such as no newborn country has ever had or could ever reasonably hope to have again. John Jay, James Madison, Josiah Quincy, Benjamin Rush, Paul Revere, Caesar Rodney, James Wilson, John Marshall, Daniel Webster ... these names make an impressive roster, and that's BEFORE you get to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and most of all Alexander Hamilton. Even George Washington managed not to get captured and hanged on national TV.

Add to such a pantheon lucky timing (the mother country from which they rebelled was exhausted from nearly a century of continuous warfare) and lucky location (as we've maintained all along here at Stevereads, if the British Empire had been run from Montreal instead of London, we'd all be subjects of the crown today), and you get a very potent formula.

If luck and geography make a thing so, it's hardly destiny. And yet, looking around them and seeing that thing work, Americans consistently try to IMPOSE that thing on other countries, without regard for luck or geography. And the results are almost never good.

Anderson reserves comment on the subject, merely pointing out that when Communism fell apart in Russia in the 1980s, the United States was quick to praise and slow to guide. And he very rightly hints that no guidance would have amounted to much in any case.

Russia has no history of democracy, no racial memory of Magna Carta, no safeguards in place against the ravages of capitalism (a more savage creed by far than socialism or fascism, in its undiluted form). To expect Russia to embrace American-style democracy as soon as the Berlin Wall falls is the epitome of American wishful thinking.

The point of Anderson's long article is that Russia under Putin seems to be drifting back to itself, to its thousand-year-old pattern of a strong, quasi-autocratic centralized government. This is different from the American pattern (increasingly so with every day, thank Gawd), and that rankles Americans - but as Anderson correctly points out, Putin is overwhelmingly more popular with his people than either Bush or Blair is with their own.

Anderson is very good with the big picture:

"The reality is that Russia's rank in the world has been irreversibly transformed. It was a great power continuously for three centuries: longer - this is often forgotten - than any single country in the West. In square miles, it is still the largest state on earth. But it no longer has a major industrial base. Its economy has revived as an export platform for raw materials, with all the risks of over-reliance on volatile world prices familiar in First and Third world countries alike - over-valuation, inflation, import addiction, sudden implosion. Altough it still possesses the only nuclear stockpile anywhere near the American arsenal, its defence industry and armed services are a shadow of the Soviet past. In territory, it has shrunk behind its borders at the end of the 17th century. Its population is smaller than that of Bangladesh. Its gross national income is less than that of Mexico."

The overview Anderson gives will no doubt make some of Stevereads' older readers nostalgic for certain aspects of the Cold War days. This certainly isn't Anderson's intention, though: he wants to give a soup-to-nuts summary of the way things stand now in Russia, and he succeeds admirably.

A trifle less successful - and a helluva lot shorter - is Philip Conners' review of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," also in this issue.

As some of you may recall, we here at Stevereads largely enjoyed "The Road" (and it remains one of the few witching-hour works on which we and The Mama Chan actually agree, so call your stock brokers), and we've been following its reception in all the major outlets.

Connors is fairly praising, although he spends more time assessing McCarthy in general than this book in particular, sometimes amusingly:

"There are briefs against McCarthy. A chilling detachment from the psychology of his characters. A dearth of well imagined women. An obsessive attraction, bordering on glorification, to blood and violence. A reliance on gnomic utterances by cameo prophets. Enough evidence can be marshalled on each of these counts to convict him of the overarching crime of not being Henry James."

We here at Stevereads largely agreed with his review, but only up to a point, as when he writes: "... for sheer dexterity and inventiveness with English prose there is no contemporary American novel that stands beside 'Blood Meridian.'"


Needless to say, we disagree (and consider it fairly cheeky that a limey publication would have to stones to make such a sweeping claim). Oh, we're well aware of how excessively the celebrated Harold Bloom has praised "Blood Meridian," and we like it well enough ourselves. And we suppose Connors might be relying heavily on that 'contemporary' to shield his outrageous claim from people like John Barth or Joseph Heller, both of whom could write rings around McCarthy. But surely the corpse of Carol Shields is still warm enough to merit her being called 'contemporary'? And are not Pete Dexter and Peter Matthiessen still alive and working? For that matter, since we're talking about 'sheer dexterity and inventiveness with English prose' how about Norman Mailer, who proves with "The Castle in the Forest" that he's very much still in the game of dextrous, inventive Enlish prose?

No, when the history books are closed on Cormac McCarthy, we here at Stevereads feel confident he'll be ranked as a great good writer, not a good great writer. And there's surely nothing wrong with that, no matter what poor beleagured Saint Harold might say.


Beepy said...

Okay, once again I'll be the first to wade into these comment waters (and in the process absorb a snoutful of wrath from our host, making the world a little safer for everyone else.)

I have never read a novel by Cormac McCarthy. I have never even thought about reading one. But if I were to (think about it, I mean, not actually do it), which one should I start with. I will not even consider "The Road" because I'm not in the mood for the end of the world. But what would be the second choice, Mr. Reads?

beepy said...

Oh, heck, I'll be second too.

When I was in college, I got all ambitious and took an introductory politics class. I lasted through the first exam, at which time I lost all ambition and went running back to the warm and comforting world of languages. But in those few weeks, the professor managed to change a whole lifetime's pattern of thought, something that "amo, amas, amat" never did. So to you, Mr. Unknown Professor, I raise a glass of Steve's best wine and say a solemn "thank you."

Sam Sacks said...

I've never taken a course in politics and sort of wish I had (although those enormous 101 survey courses are nine times out of ten totally useless), but perhaps just as important regarding Russia would be some sort of IR/foreign diplomacy course. So Russia is trending back toward its autocratic roots, and no amount of peer pressure or incentive-offering or tut-tutting by Americans will stop that. But what should America then do in terms of its relationship to Russia? How many dissidents can be jailed or offed before America has to, on principle, cease normal working relations with the dictator in charge of the killings?

This is an age-old question, and it has to be one of the reasons this country is always trying to mold the world in its image--how can you be a country based on equal and inalienable rights and still have cheerful, amicable relations with tyrants and despots, or even relatively enlightened monarchs? There's an upsetting dissonance there that no one can resolve.

Kissinger's policy (I admit I'm out of my element with this) was to deal with anyone, so long as it was good for the US; and Kissinger will be reviled for all human history for being a man in cahoots with the likes of Pinochet and others.

But on the other hand, you can't just go forcibly removing dictators, as has been so grimly illustrated for four years now. And you can't put sanctions on everyone...

Steve says that other countries have their own intrinsically worthwhile way of being, and I completely agree, but at what point do the less worthwhile parts of that way violate so many of America's own founding principles that America has to refuse to have anything to do with that country any longer (an issue made all the more confusing with the existence of the UN)? Is child labor a breaking point? Slavery or apartheid? persecution of religious groups? Murder of protestors a la Tiananmen Square? Or is there no line and we should only, officially, speaking as a nation, worry about human rights within our own borders?

steve said...

I can't believe I'm typing these words, but: Kissinger was right.

He'll only be reviled throughout human history because he was Kissinger, not because his brand of diplomacy was wrong.

The United States can't impose its own morality on other nations. Hell, it can't impose its own morality on itself. Being schoolmarm to the rest of the world - often to nations who've been around a lot longer than the US - is both patronizing and futile ("hey there! Love your oil pipeline, but you gotta do better on those work camps!").

Obviously, you can't turn a blind eye to Holocausts. Obviously, you're judged by the company you keep. But still, Kissinger was right: deal with everybody, hold your nose when you need to, and reserve economic sanctions for the very worst cases.

The startling thing about America in the 90s was the unprecedented extent to which that strategy would have WORKED. In the history of the world, there's never been a concentration of military, economic, and political power as great as is found in the United States - so the startling thing is, this country COULD sanction everybody, if it wanted to.

Of course, none of this is likely to happen in this country any time soon, because the United States is currently in the grip of one of its periodic waves of religious fundamentalism, and as we can all tell from reading the morning papers, religious fundamentalism EXISTS to impose its beliefs on others, alas.

Hippolyta said...

So, couldn't we successfully argue that we are becoming one of those fundamentalist, freedom-limiting dictatorships that our founding fathers and religious paramour would bitch-slap into next tuesday?

Greg said...

The problem with Kissinger's "realist" foreign policy (and that of most before and after) is not only their tendency to support repressive governments because of the so-called "national interest," but the frequency with which they overthrow governments they don't like (I would remind Steve that Kissinger supported this war).

The US has not often attempted to impose it's own system of morality on another nation (the end of WWII being a justifiable exceptioin), but has been willing to go to extremes to impose it's economic system on other nations (Chile is one example). I'm certainly not advocating socialism here, but if we can agree that imposing our value system on someone else is wrong, then it follows that imposing our economic system would be as well.

Furthermore, if we accept the rationalist framework, with it's coups and propped-up dictatorships, then we have to be ready for that ubiquitous abstraction: blowback. This is not so much a concern in countries like Vietnam, who've politely forgiven us for killing 3 million of their people, but in countries where religion becomes the context in which disagreement (or fanatical hatred) is expressed, for lack of any democratic outlet.

Far be it from me to venerate Noam Chomsky, but I think the maxim "first, do no harm" is a good place to start if we want any substantial change. That ought to be the starting point from which we decide to deviate.


PS. Now that I've commented on your blog, Steve, I trust there will be no more silly accusations of "lurking" and such.

steve said...

Lurky speaks!

Greg said...

Damn you!

Kevin Caron said...

Lurky's not so bad, as nicknames go...

greg said...

I suppose it's better than Reichmarshall.

Sam Sacks said...

What I've learned from this brief but wise comment board is that the ideal foreign policy platform is a Kissinger/Chomsky hybrid! If they mated...

steve said...

First person who can Photoshop me that mating wins a free book!