Where are our dreams?

FROM SEQUENCE 2012
July 2012

Five notes stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union

1.         In June 2012 my son and I spent ten days in Moscow and visiting Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate about one hundred miles to the south. On the last night of our trip, Ludmila, the woman with whom we were staying, made dinner, and, as usual, Jonah, my son, slipped away after eating to go in our room and listen to his iTunes and communicate with his friends in the West via Google+. In the kitchen, Ludmila and I talked in Russian while she washed the dishes. I had just read an article about a piece of Russian history that never ceases to be discussed: the killing of the Tsar and his family by the Bolsheviks. Ludmila commented that this had been horrible, and I agreed. However, I said, if I had been one of the Bolsheviks I would have done the same thing. The existence of the Tsar and his family was a flame keeping alive the hopes of reactionaries and members of the upper classes more generally, and thereby fanning the flames of the civil war then raging. And it was hardly as if the Tsar’s forces and those of his predecessors had not killed many of their opponents, to say nothing of the millions of Russian killed in the First World War—killed while trying to defend, being forced to defend, the Tsar’s kingdom. Ludmila then said that the fact was that человечество—humanity—was horrible and that it was hard not to think that the world would be a better, more peaceful place without the human race.

2.         I had first visited Moscow in 1969, and in the aftermath of perestroika, my son, his mother and I had gone many times to St. Petersburg, lived there for months at a time. But it had been seven years since we’d been back, nine years since we’d been in Moscow. And, as people had warned me in advance, the Moscow region was now extraordinarily similar to the United States we knew: awash in automobiles, cellphones, consumerism. A prevalence of washing machines and perhaps dietary changes (less pork) had taken away the particular smell I associated with Russia. The elaborate, annoying, bureaucratic, absurd visa procedures remained, but now the US government had adopted similar procedures. Among the differences I was left to remark on were the summer dresses of young middle-class Moscow women, which dresses seemed, in their simple way, to render their wearers more attractive than the not-all-that-different clothing of similar young women in Western Europe and New York. If any evidence remained of the famous Russian soul, it was in Tolstoy’s tomb, a grass-covered rectangular mound about six feet long at the edge of the woods.

A feeling to 2012 Moscow caused me to recall Camus’ description of Oran, Algeria, at the beginning of La Peste (The Plague).

Of course nothing is more natural these days than to see people working from day until night and then choosing to lose—playing games or in a cafe, chatting—the rest of their waking hours. But there are cities and countries where people have, from time to time, an intimation that there might be something else [to existence]. . . . Oran, by contrast, seems a city without intimations; in other words, it is a completely modern city.

3.         Ludmila’s comment about человечество was the most original, traditionally Russian and un-modern moment of my son and my ten days in Moscow, and it might be said that it was largely because of my appreciation of such comments, of the alternative perspective they continued to offer me, that I had spent years of my life trying to learn Russian and braving the visa bureaucracy so that I might spend time in the country. Among the differences I had been introduced to along the way—and first in a trip to Stalingrad when I was 14 years old—was the perspective of a people who over many centuries had been invaded by any number of avaricious, pitiless hordes (Napoleon’s army, two waves of the German army and Western capitalism being only the latest of them). Enslaved, tortured, worked to death by their own leaders as well, Russians feel viscerally the lack of geographical and institutional or cultural barriers to protect them from future disaster.

It was in this context that I interpreted Ludmila’s comment. In the United States we take new cars and electronic devices and the attractiveness of young women, and of young men, as positive signs, as signs of economic and physical health, and thus of health tout court. But for Ludmila this was not enough. In such superficial acquisitions and appearances there was nothing on which one might pin hopes for a future notably different from the past. By contrast, the Soviet communists, for all their shortcomings, had championed a humanitarian ideal: of putting community before self-interest, of sharing rather than exploiting. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

In intellectual circles a distinction is made between “negative rights” (a.k.a., civil and political rights, things like freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from slavery, the right to a fair trial, laws enshrining and protecting private property) and “positive rights” (a.k.a., economic, social and cultural rights, things like freedom from hunger and cold; government-supplied education, health care, pensions, police protection, maternity leave). From this perspective, one of the major intended or unintended consequences of the West’s winning the Cold War is that it has come to be accepted worldwide that negative rights are fundamental to a healthy, sustainable state, and that positive rights are a luxury which rich states might or might not choose to provide to the working class (in which may be found, along with many others, house cleaners, waiters, store clerks, teachers and professors, accountants, doctors and lawyers).

4.         One might decide that an alternative, the Soviet approach, was not given a sufficient test. One might decide that this approach was discredited and dismissed not so much on account of its shortcomings as by external enemies or on account of the financing on which the experiment depended: the value in global, capitalist markets of Russia’s vast natural resources. Or one might decide that the Soviet experiment had proved a failure. But in either case, what after the collapse of the Soviet Union is left? SUVs, washing machines, iTunes, pretty summer dresses? Do we retain any intimations that—in addition to our products and our periodic political, financial and enviromental castastrophes—there might be something else?

Our fellow citizens [in Oran] work long hours, but always to get more money. Business is what interests them above all; making money is what they believe they were made to do. Of course they also enjoy simple pleasures—coupling up, going to the movies, bathing in the Mediterranean. But, judiciously, they reserve such pleasures for Saturday evenings and Sundays, trying, the rest of the week, to earn a lot of money.

Washing dishes in the kitchen of her fourth floor apartment in one of Moscow’s kilometers upon kilometers of housing projects, Ludmila said that now everyone—человечество—is just waiting for the next catastrophe. World war, government upheaval, environmental disaster. New York under water as a result of global warming—that was one of the possibilities she mentioned. And if we have lost our faith in humanity, she said (or I understood her as saying), if we have lost the hope that human beings might be able to work together for their own mutual benefit, and aspire to something larger than a car, something more nourishing than the latest gadgets and fashions—then what faith, what hope do we have? And how, this was her question, can people live without hope?

5.         I have long had in mind to write something about LBJ’s great “Great Society” speech, given at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on May 22, 1964. I take this speech, like the Civil Rights Movement, the space race and some of our more humane occupational safety and health regulations, to be a product of the existence of the Soviet Union, of the pressure that competition with the Soviet Union put on the United States and its citizens to strive to reach higher goals. “The purpose of protecting the life of our nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a nation,” LBJ said.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization. . . . The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

Tears might come to one’s eyes. LBJ’s next half century is now almost over. And where are our dreams?



Categories: American culture, The Real World

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Bill,

    The “Iron Curtain” – both my daughter Juliet, who (as a student of Russian at Middlebury went to work in Moscow in 1989) and I have experiences there. In 1976 I was chosen for a Hochschule Ferien Kurse (summer vacation study program) in Germanistik (German language and linguistic studies) at the Humboldt Universitat in East Berlin (add to that my total of five years teaching in Bahrain and the UAE and you can be sure I have a sizeable CIA file!). I missed “Op-Sail” in NYC on July 4th, 1976 but the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth) group students presented me and the two American fellows in the program with red roses. When I returned to New York, friends and family were amazed that I was not completely critical of the DDR. I tried to explain that, as someone from this most commercial city in history (from the Dutch to Gordon Gecko), I actually found the lack of advertising refreshing! I would walk down the street and see a shop with the word “Metzger” (butcher) on the sign. Simple, no precious “Kansas City Grain-fed Aged Steaks, Family-owned since 1923.” Frankfurt (West) full of glass-windowed banks/Erfurt (East) full of the half-timbered architecture from my high school German textbooks, history.

    Oran=New York – “Right –to-work” states in the USA. Now here we have a prime example of doublespeak! Will Wisconsin infiltrate this bluest of blue states? Just as the Russians believe they have no borders to protect them from disaster, we baby boomers have experienced the disaster of the Great Society devolving into the “personal responsibility” society (just now reading “(Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents” by Nan Mooney). People who choose vocations rather than jobs in finance are dwindling, and who can blame these millennials with their $80,000 student loan debts?

    Scene: cocktail party; hedge fund CIO meets teacher, “What do you do?”

    “I’m a teacher.”

    “Oh, our country really needs good teachers. Thank you.” (CIO walks away thinking, “She seems intelligent but why would anyone be so stupid as to go into teaching? No way that networking with her will gain me anything. Move on!”).

    Communism/Opiate of the Masses – Ludmilla’s question, “Can people live without hope?” I think that depends on our definition of “live.” Can a human animal breathe, eat, move, sleep and exploit others of her species without hope? Perhaps, (as long as s/he has their iPhone). Can a person thrive as a self-actualized, participating member of a sharing community in the United States of 2012? TBD. When Ronald Reagan was sworn into the office of President of the USA in January 1980, he ushered in the “greed is good” ethos that has virally infected our national identity. My own response, in the 80’s, was to go back to school and get a graduate degree (duh, in education!) and find a faith community that is to this day socially open and diverse, liturgically aesthetic, traditional and awesomely beautiful, as well as intellectually inquisitive with an abiding reliance on logic and human reason. Therefore, I can live in hope in New York City, 2012.

    “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.” ― George Orwell

    Thanks for an opportunity to stretch my mental muscles in a totally different forum!

    Pat

  2. Bill,

    The “Iron Curtain” – both my daughter Juliet, who (as a student of Russian at Middlebury went to work in Moscow in 1989) and I have experiences there. In 1976 I was chosen for a Hochschule Ferien Kurse (summer vacation study program) in Germanistik (German language and linguistic studies) at the Humboldt Universitat in East Berlin (add to that my total of five years teaching in Bahrain and the UAE and you can be sure I have a sizeable CIA file!). I missed “Op-Sail” in NYC on July 4th, 1976 but the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth) group students presented me and the two American fellows in the program with red roses. When I returned to New York, friends and family were amazed that I was not completely critical of the DDR. I tried to explain that, as someone from this most commercial city in history (from the Dutch to Gordon Gecko), I actually found the lack of advertising refreshing! I would walk down the street and see a shop with the word “Metzger” (butcher) on the sign. Simple, no precious “Kansas City Grain-fed Aged Steaks, Family-owned since 1923.” Frankfurt (West) full of glass-windowed banks/Erfurt (East) full of the half-timbered architecture from my high school German textbooks, history.

    Oran=New York – “Right –to-work” states in the USA. Now here we have a prime example of doublespeak! Will Wisconsin infiltrate this bluest of blue states? Just as the Russians believe they have no borders to protect them from disaster, we baby boomers have experienced the disaster of the Great Society devolving into the “personal responsibility” society (just now reading “(Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents” by Nan Mooney). People who choose vocations rather than jobs in finance are dwindling, and who can blame these millennials with their $80,000 student loan debts?

    Scene: cocktail party; hedge fund CIO meets teacher, “What do you do?”

    “I’m a teacher.”

    “Oh, our country really needs good teachers. Thank you.” (CIO walks away thinking, “She seems intelligent but why would anyone be so stupid as to go into teaching? No way that networking with her will gain me anything. Move on!”).

    Communism/Opiate of the Masses – Ludmilla’s question, “Can people live without hope?” I think that depends on our definition of “live.” Can a human animal breathe, eat, move, sleep and exploit others of her species without hope? Perhaps, (as long as s/he has their iPhone). Can a person thrive as a self-actualized, participating member of a sharing community in the United States of 2012? TBD. When Ronald Reagan was sworn into the office of President of the USA in January 1980, he ushered in the “greed is good” ethos that has virally infected our national identity. My own response, in the 80’s, was to go back to school and get a graduate degree (duh, in education!) and find a faith community that is to this day socially open and diverse, liturgically aesthetic, traditional and awesomely beautiful, as well as intellectually inquisitive with an abiding reliance on logic and human reason. Therefore, I can live in hope in New York City, 2012.

    “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.” ― George Orwell

    Thanks for an opportunity to stretch my mental muscles in a totally different forum!

    Pat

    • Thanks Pat for all these comments, and from a teacher’s perspective. Certainly one could find many Russians these days who would bemoan the dismantling of public education and public youth recreation programs of Soviet times. The two countries have long been running on parallel tracks! Best, Wm.

  3. This is lovely and touching. I’ll have to think more and process it before responding further. But wanted to comment that it’s a provocative piece.

    • Dear Marie, Thank you for your comment, and I can see from a too quick look at your “Puff of Absurdity” (blog) that you and I are hoeing similar fields (or similar beans, perhaps Thoreau could say). I will look forward to reading your work more closely. And allow me in this regard to make a “meta comment”: about blogging. Perhaps a younger person (my son?) can just read a blog, scrolling on a screen, directly and have much the same experience as he, or she, would reading something printed, but I cannot. I need to print out (or at least convert to some non-blog-like electronic format, a Word file, a Kindle file) in order to read, or read well. And then, too, there is the comment Kelly Dean Jolley was making on his blog today: about how two dimensional we are in our blog personas. But all this is also to say that I appreciate some of the initial steps that the blogosphere encourages. Best, Wm.

  4. Very moving and thought-provoking piece. Thank you Bill. Very sad also to think of where we are now and how much harder things will be for our children.
    I wonder what LBJ would say now.
    Lama

    • Thank you for your kind words Lama. It has seemed central to my experience as an American “Baby Boomer” that I was born into an idealistic (and truly prosperous) time and thus have had to live with decline — decline in employment opportunities, decline in ideals (decline, too, in time for families, and for what we might call just plain “silly” behavior, for giving time to activities that have no real point, that ignore markets and mortality and responsibility. (And all this is to say nothing of the pleasure of being a child of a sexual revolution still in its infancy, and not yet overwhelmed by the media.) Which is all somehow to say that I would like to hope for my son, and for your children, that while they will inherit the wreck that our generation and our predecessors will be leaving them, . . . Could much of the decline be over? Will they come to know the satisfactions and hope of rebuilding and of feeling that things are getting better? (I suspect, I’m afraid, that this is wishful thinking on my part.)

      This commenting on commenting reminds me of another thing I have wanted to write about, about La peste: how it may be read as being, ultimately, a book about companionship, and about the companionship one finds in work above all, and about how in moments of rich companionship time is suspended and one lives a kind of temporary immorality (immune to the never-ending plagues). An essay for another moment. With thanks again for your comment, Wm.

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