Other political stuff

It is sad to see Alexander Solzhenitsyn depart and worth casting an eye once more over this 20th-century writer of incomparably heroic stature.

Solzhenitsyn was both a great Russian novelist ― though no Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Pasternak ― and more than this. Like Avvakum trekking the shores of Lake Baikal, he retained the mission of the prophet-purist and perhaps saw himself as a religious leader. Art and prophecy jostle in Russian literature. In the course of his fully-televised global re-emigration into the ferment of post-communist Russia (from Vermont via Vladivostok), he may have been disappointed to find Boris Yeltsin bobbing like a ping-pong ball on the fountain; but from my brief and indirect contacts with the distraught Mrs Yeltsin, I can only feel thankful that Solzhenitsyn was spared such undignified upheaval and consternation.

Solzhenitsyn, 1976 (NYT)

Given the ability of the KGB to reach out and murder Bulgarian dissidents (Markov) and Russian former agents (Litvinenko) on the streets of London, and contrive the murder even of a pope on the streets of Rome (John Paul II), it had been no fantasy that inspired Solzhenitsyn to create a fortress in Vermont from which he rarely emerged.

So what more was he? A historian and documentarist. A writer with the impudence to think that, as a calf tethered to a stout oak tree, he should at least keep butting away. How could he have known he would one day ultimately succeed, an individual who, more than any other, brought about the collapse (“through its own inner contradictions”) of an evil empire.[1]

It is remarkable to think that in 1951, in his luminously original and prescient The Captive Mind, Čzesław Miłosz should still have seemed to think that Marxist ideologists were immensely cunning, resourceful and intellectually triumphant, perhaps like Vatican theologians (though he does not say this). Yet in fact Marxist ideology was never like this. It was a self-justifying smokescreen behind which thieves and gangsters could go about their accustomed business robbing and killing the innocent.

Bear in mind, indeed, that the finest philosophical minds in Europe had identified the intellectual flaws in both Marxism and Freudianism by, roughly, the end of the First World War.[2] This, though (I digress for a moment), is an example of the wide and ever-widening gap between the elite and the mass of those left behind, many of whom will never catch up. (One has to remember that in the West half, and in the rest of the world perhaps three quarters, of the population has an IQ of 100 or below.) This is the problem I call the Tail of the Comet, symbolised today by the intellectual distance between the Large Hadron Collider and the increasingly headscarfed and monolithic streets of Cairo, Istanbul and Alexandria, formerly culturally diverse cities like Beirut. Perhaps the tragedy of September 11th 2001 best captures this gulf of centuries. It is a hallmark of the uneducated mind that it takes symbols literally.

Lenin, who invented the Gulag, understood perfectly the dis-equation between strength and weakness, a feature of Russian backwardness in Tsarist and Leninist times alike, then as now. Russia is a vast world with nonexistent or crumbling borders across which its forces flutter like chickens. The only border it understands is the Ice Sea.

Intriguingly, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich was not even original when it finally saw the light of day in 1962, in the shortlived Krushchev thaw after the death of Stalin.[3] Even before Solzhenitsyn had been arrested for a commonsensical remark in a letter to a friend seen by censors, Russians who had been unable to pronounce the name of a Pole captured in 1940, Gustav Herling, thought he must be a nephew of Hermann Göering and processed him into the Gulag. He survived two years by a chain of miracles to produce A World Apart in 1951. This remarkable documentary account retains, if possible, still more of the immediate vividness and knife-like moral edge of daily camp life. Ivan Denisovich, after all, has a good day. There is less optimism in Herling and he never returned to this theme.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

There is little fine writing in Solzhenitsyn, though his analytic aim ― for instance in August 1914 and Lenin in Zurich was acute: a historian’s instinct. Most impressive are his networking efforts in relation to fellow zeks (convicts) whose testimony seemed to him to teeter on the verge of extinction. Compensatingly he therefore spared no effort to gather, through meetings and correspondence, every scrap of first-hand witness account he could lay his hands on and incorporate it all in the three mighty volumes of The Gulag Archipelago (I still haven’t read the third). No longer could a trivialising Sartre argue against the eyewitness testimony of the trickle of survivors arriving in post-war Paris, thus seriously compromising his relationship with Camus.[4]

Nothing could have done more to shake the oak tree and root world opinion in a more realistic view of the workers’ socialist paradise. Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev swayed in the upper reaches of the oak tree in thermals long before activated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Martin Turner


[1] If this epithet should be questioned, consider the following: “After reading Rayfield’s book, no one will doubt that the Chekist-dominated USSR was one vast, sadistic frenzy of criminality.” Simon Sebag Montefiore, in review of Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen. Telegraph Online 14-Mar-2004.

[2] For a readable account, see: Popper, K.R. Unended Quest: an intellectual autobiography. Glasgow: Collins (Flamingo), 1986. Nothing however was available to prevent Karl Marx from building on the foundations of the crab-like Hegelian dialectic ― Hegel’s deterministic philosophy of history ― after they had already been decisively exploded by Kierkegaard. And Marxist-Leninist and Freudian ideas have progressed blissfully ever since in western academic departments of literature and history.

[3] The subsequent film, starring Tom Courtenay, was banned from public viewing in Finland in 1970.

[4] Sartre actually became a perfectly orthodox Marxist at the end of his life.


While it is delightful to recall this enormous debate of the early sixties, it is chastening to locate it in today’s wider context. It is clear from research into abilities that students doing science A-levels are brighter than those doing humanities, a fact acknowledged by pupils themselves, who are agreed that science A-levels are harder. Humanities essays often succeed by means of invention.


Moreover the humanistic culture that Leavis was defending is everywhere in retreat. All the existential disciplines – those that depend in some important way on subjectivity – religion, literature, art ─ are in the throes of a protracted crisis. Faith is in decline; literacy standards are in ruins; art is still in a tail-spin of modernist nihilism.


Has science triumphed in the dualistic contest? Hardly. The discipline and methodology of the sciences are barely understood in an age of rampant superstition. The popular appetite is for woo-woo.[1] Perhaps it is precisely the modest, provisional spirit of science that makes it so ambivalent a guest in the public square dominated by today’s militant and ungovernable media.


True, lip-service is hourly paid to apparently scientific reports and statistical surveys; and Ben Goldacre receives expressions of support from all quarters. But Goldacre seems to be a lone voice battling against individuals and corporations with a vested interest in bad science and a valid philosophy of science seems far from bedded in at an educational level in the population.


[1] Superstitious hostility to rational and scientific beliefs; uncritical acceptance of philosophies such as those supposedly derived from aboriginal or eastern cultures; proneness to ‘alternative’ or ‘New Age’ ideologies and practices.

Growing up on the fringes of society, there are those whose natural language is that of the North American therapy culture, with its assumptions of disturbance, disquiet and the need for healing, and whose gestures are those of psychiatric therapy. But such language, such gestures are not really sincere: they are trained, they are how people behave in the movies. At bottom they pander to the desire that lurks in every obscure soul to achieve significance through drama.


Such people may seem beyond healing, their problems chronic. Yet how kind life always is, providing little neighbourhoods, eco-systems in the demi monde, whose inhabitants can freely live out their flairs and flaws, their beliefs and fears.


For the most part they are paralysed by the dilemma of whether to concentrate on their problems, and so weigh escape against destruction, or to avoid their problems altogether, and so weigh destruction against escape.


The zeal with which propaganda is issued is surpassed only by the enthusiasm with which those, whose purpose it suits, receive it. Thus was Blake read in the 1960s, where his message, that reason restrains energy, eclipsed in inspiration any interest in his actual work. Like St Sebastian, he was thus butchered by arrows – but those of his own disciples.


A sentimental dabbling with religious philosophies is, in my observation, a hallmark of hardened atheism, anything but innocent, altogether a threat to the vulnerable and evil in its overall effects.


Why, when you’ve got the whole earth at your feet, cling to the inside of a ghetto? (Translation: “heart-tribe”.) And why is there always a prevailing regime of spiritual correctness? (Beliefs, such as We are your true family, You must never betray us, You must never go Straight, are transmitted wordlessly, in the hum of the huddle.)


Woo or woo-woo … an attempt at a definition: A superstitious hostility to rational and scientific thinking; uncritical acceptance of philosophies such as those supposedly derived from aboriginal or eastern cultures; proneness to ‘alternative’ or ‘New Age’ ideologies, practices and wishful thinking, as in attitudes to clothing, food, property, transport, the family, medicines and health-care.


Perhaps one should look on all this as a persistence of the pre-modern mind, a backlash of the conservatism that fears modernity. Otherwise, how explain the widespread popularity of these ideas, the range of the social spectrum of those ‘open’ to them? Some minds are comfortable with indiscipline, with legend, fantasy and make-believe, and will always fear the daily transformation of life by technologies they do not understand. Thus a hundred or so new religions are born each year.[1] And the scholastic mind was always happier trying to determine the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple or the location of the Earthly Paradise.[2]





[1] John Haldane, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion. London: Duckworth, 2003, pp. 12, 13.


[2] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prester_John

There is currently much public ambivalence about privacy and surveillance. People on the street typically tell interviewers, either that they have nothing to hide and welcome protection from criminals, or that, like David Davis, they fear the encroachment of the Big Brother Society. Often both emotions lurk in the same breast.


This situation needs to be understood in its long historical context, beginning with Matthew Arnold standing on Dover Beach listening to the “melancholy long withdrawing roar” of institutional Anglicanism. Though the majority today seem to harbour religious attitudes, there is little in the way of affiliation or commitment. Accordingly, we inhabit a public space of secular consumerism, a world from which meaning continues to drain.


The most important corollary of this is what I have called elsewhere the great lie of outwardness. The outside world, dominated by the irresistible currents of popular culture (football, the X-Factor, Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy, pop music, Big Brother series 9), has not only captured schools and our children, but is routinely invited into our living rooms, where our household gods have been replaced on their altar by the enormous, digital television screen.


Everywhere privacy is in retreat. This is not just a matter of surveillance. It is the precondition for surveillance. While individuals are accorded every privilege as consumers, they experiences an interminable identity crisis, commonly defining themselves with the coarse categories favoured by the Left (black, female, gay, disabled, this or that ‘class’).


Such abstraction is the characteristic weakness of the modern mind. It is an excuse for imprecision: abstract ideas are not used precisely. ‘Inclusive terms’ – e.g. partner – are more general, abstract and vague. The modern mind is enfeebled by abstraction, infatuated by categories. The categorical approach to people is like handwriting in which everything is written in capitals. This sort of thing is the small change of contemporary intellectual ferment — if ferment is not putting it too strongly.


With real culture under threat, in the universities the humanities are in retreat, defending themselves against the inexorable advance of science and technology by resorting to “theory” — typically psychoanalysis, Marxism or some debased form of anthropology. In the arts, especially the visual and plastic arts, there is paralysis over the sheer definition of what counts as art (everything). Religion similarly is fazed by the dark vacuum populated and popularised by the new machinery.


This, then, is the context in which, even in a democracy, galloping technology is placing in the hands of governments daunting powers of control over individual lives. One does not have to have anything to hide — and who does not? — to feel that the space formerly accorded to privacy and individuality is under extreme threat.


Fortunately, governments are highly incompetent, allergic to computers, prone to losing all this individual data and unimaginative. But this state of affairs could change overnight in ways which are alarming to consider.


Governments are good only at extracting taxation. They are bad at owning and running things. (Almost anything works better in the private sector.) Awareness of privacy as an issue comes at a most delicate moment in our political evolution, when both ends of the spectrum seem unable to grapple with the underlying issue: whether or not, in a democracy, the gradual increase of state control is reversible. This is what makes taxation such a symbolic issue for the twenty-first century.


It is difficult to have confidence in public debate, given the level of information about, for instance, DNA. Even in the House of Commons this seems to be treated as something akin to a fingerprint, rather than a comprehensive account of an individual’s ancestry and, potentially, his or her entire psychological and physical profile, rather than merely “identity”.


The case against surveillance, then, draws on some spirited form of resistance to technological totalitarianism. This is not to deny the value to us all of many of the newer measures of fighting crime and securing court convictions. But beyond the precious gains in rape cases, there lies an empty plateau of “freedom” in which we are hemmed in by hostile spiritual forces unwittingly unleashed by naive governments. Already, political correctness has enormously extended the grip of conformism. The homogenisation of society seems too high a price to pay for marginal gains in security.

Growing older, I find I think about matters harder and harder to formulate, let alone resolve; when I expressed myself with eloquent fluency, nobody listened – why should anyone listen now when I am hesitant and diffident?


Two questions, unrelated as far as I know:


  1. Why is politics so disreputable?
  2. What is the meaning of irony?


Politics attracts all sorts and conditions, few inclined to contemplation or scholarship, most mediocre. Politics is a highly beneficial profession to provide modest employment for those without special talents. It keeps them out of trouble and as a side-effect creates a harmless spectator sport.


Someone said, “I have known eleven prime ministers and seven of them were adulterers.”


It might be thought that the key notion here is of power corrupting, and it is true that visibility turns some heads and confuses others. One cannot calculate all the giddy distortions of distance. But, more important, the attention of many eyes erodes integrity – it is harder to be oneself in a crowd. Consequently people attack and defend, take initiatives and watch their backs, as they stumble through the dark forest of events uncertain of their direction. Almost no-one behaves like Gandhi – with any sort of vision of spiritual leadership.


In the draining of the private sphere into the public, integrity becomes a treasured but increasingly unthinkable attribute.


Irony is difficult. Dictionary definitions are fine, but the word is increasingly used to mean a dimension of intellectual sophistication, and this is what I want to keep track of. For instance, Ferdinand Mount spoke of his stint as adviser at Number 10 as a holiday from irony. Scruton says “Beware of a religion without irony”:


Whenever I consider this matter I am struck by a singular fact about the Christian religion, a fact noticed by Kierkegaard and Hegel but rarely commented upon today, which is that it is informed by a spirit of irony. Irony means accepting “the other,” as someone other than you. It was irony that led Christ to declare that his “kingdom is not of this world,” not to be achieved through politics. Such irony is a long way from the humourless incantations of the Koran. Yet it is from a posture of irony that every real negotiation, every offer of peace, every acceptance of the other, begins.[1]


Here William Blake suggests himself, in a famously gnomic quote:


We are led to believe a lie

When we see with, and not through the eye

Which was born in a night to perish in a night,

When the soul slept in beams of light.[2]


The second line of this has been subjected to may interpretations, but it seems to me useful as a reminder of metacognition or awareness of our take upon things. We are aware of the frame round the picture, the construction that is placed. Though this locates us at one remove, it makes possible alternative constructions, perhaps a giddying infinite relativism, but the genesis nonetheless of reflection. Need sincerity die with the literal?


Glad as I am of Scruton’s belated interest in Christianity, I don’t see that irony is limited to awareness of the other as real, which makes it the equivalent of respect, or even to zestful Kierkegaardian or Hegelian paradox. Irony must always remain more general than this, the subtle understanding agreed between us that as individuals we are free to see things differently and even that we are free to differ from ourselves. Irony is complexity.


Perhaps Scruton is right to implicate the religious origin of all this, the epistemology struck from individual self-awareness.

[1] Wall Street Journal, 20 August 2006.

[2] Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence.’

The BBC’s is concentrating its political education efforts on a channel called C-Beebies for the under-fives. People from an extraordinary variety of racial backgrounds find themselves congregated in a Scottish seaside village. Here there is no crime, which leaves the village policeman free to collect eggs in his hat. And nobody works, which means that there are protracted conversations with members of the numerous social services – people who deliver post and milk, tidy the doctor’s surgery or drive the school bus. Non-white faces gloriously exceed the stingy arithmetic of mere representation, in spite of the depletions caused by so many being away in town reading and reporting the news. When a gentleman’s bicycle breaks down, he stands admiringly by while a female bus driver pops up, adroit with screwdriver and spanner, and fixes it. Though breathtaking adventures break out every so often, we all learn to be happy together, to share our troubles and help each other across life’s little pitfalls, one happy multicultural community.

Two sisters, middle-aged women, were murdered by the ex-husband of one of them. The police were called, apparently by the killer, but took over an hour to arrive. In due course, after an inquiry, a public apology was offered and reported on the BBC early evening news.


Essential aspects of the case, however, were confused by the syntax used, both by the chief police officer and the television reporter:


I regret very much the distress that the additional delay caused.


Peter Neyroud, Chief Constable, Thames Valley Police.


Despite the delay the two women here may not have been saved.


Margaret Gilmour, BBC Six O’clock News, 6th October 2004.


The first statement is acceptable as it stands; however it looks as if the qualifying additional should apply to the distress, rather than the delay. The delay added to the distress of the murders. Otherwise the distress of the murders is lost sight of and some degree of delay is condoned.


The second statement, through the use of despite, implies that the delay was helpful and conducive to saving the two women. What is probably meant is that the two women may not have been saveable even had there been no delay.


In both cases the point is being muddied and the viewer makes an intuitive but fallible leap from what is said to what is meant. We are used to doing this because people – responsible politicians – frequently do not say what they mean; a taxi-driver commented to me once about a government minister, who repeated, as many do, “I want to make it absolutely clear …”, “That means he hasn’t a bloody clue!”


Though the two individuals here are explicitly committed to making a clear admission and a clear description of culpability, thereby supplying an accurate final narrative of events, old habits die hard.


Dissembling and carelessness with language are close cousins.