The Sovietization Of American Culture
Here is a fantastic, must-read Tablet piece from historian Izabella Tabarovsky, on how what’s happening in America today is a lot like life in the Soviet Union. She begins by talking about how the culture of collective denunciation worked in the USSR. A thought criminal — someone like the novelist Boris Pasternak, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature — would not only be set upon by the state, but would also be torn apart by the mob. Tabarovsky says this is what happened to Bari Weiss at the hands of her New York Times colleagues. More:
All of us who came out of the Soviet system bear scars of the practice of unanimous condemnation, whether we ourselves had been targets or participants in it or not. It is partly why Soviet immigrants are often so averse to any expressions of collectivism: We have seen its ugliest expressions in our own lives and our friends’ and families’ lives. It is impossible to read the chastising remarks of Soviet writers, for whom Pasternak had been a friend and a mentor, without a sense of deep shame. Shame over the perfidy and lack of decency on display. Shame at the misrepresentations and perversions of truth. Shame at the virtue signaling and the closing of rank. Shame over the momentary and, we now know, fleeting triumph of mediocrity over talent.
It is also impossible to read them without the nagging question: How would I have behaved in their shoes? Would I, too, have succumbed to the pressure? Would I, too, have betrayed, condemned, cast a stone? I used to feel grateful that we had left the USSR before Soviet life had put me to that test. How strange and devastating to realize that these moral tests are now before us again in America.
In a collectivist culture, one hoped-for result of group condemnations is control—both over the target of abuse and the broader society. When sufficiently broad levels of society realize that the price of nonconformity is being publicly humiliated, expelled from the community of “people of goodwill” (another Soviet cliché) and cut off from sources of income, the powers that be need to work less hard to enforce the rules.
But while the policy in the USSR was by and large set by the authorities, it would be too simplistic to imagine that those below had no choices, and didn’t often join in these rituals gladly, whether to obtain some real or imagined benefit for themselves, or to salve internal psychic wounds, or to take pleasure in the exercise of cruelty toward a person who had been declared to be a legitimate target of the collective.
In Soviet Russia, regarding Pasternak’s work, literary figures would say publicly that they had not read Pasternak’s work (because to see it would be to be defiled), but they disapproved of it anyway. More:
The mobs that perform the unanimous condemnation rituals of today do not follow orders from above. But that does not diminish their power to exert pressure on those under their influence. Those of us who came out of the collectivist Soviet culture understand these dynamics instinctively. You invoked the “didn’t read, but disapprove” mantra not only to protect yourself from suspicions about your reading choices but also to communicate an eagerness to be part of the kollektiv—no matter what destructive action was next on the kollektiv’s agenda. You preemptively surrendered your personal agency in order to be in unison with the group. And this is understandable in a way: Merging with the crowd feels much better than standing alone.
Read it all. I’m serious. It’s that important. You can see why people like Tabarovsky have been warning for years that this is coming to us. Well, now it’s here in a big way, and it’s going to get much worse. Part of what makes this totalitarianism “soft” is that it is not imposed by a dictatorial government, but emerges from within institutions of liberal democratic society, and from social media. How are you going to cope with it? From my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies:
Defending the right to speak and write freely, even when it costs you something, is the duty of every free person. So says Mária Wittner, a hero of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation. A communist court sentenced Wittner, then only twenty, to death, though this was later commuted to life imprisonment.
“Once I said to one of the guards in prison, ‘You are lying.’ For that alone, I was taken to trial again,” remembers the feisty Wittner. “The state prosecutor said to me, ‘Wittner, why did you accuse the guard of being a liar? Why didn’t you just say, ‘You’re not telling the truth’? I said, ‘It matters that we speak plainly.’”
For her insolence, Wittner was sent back to prison with extra punishments. She had to sleep on a wooden bed with no mattress and was given reduced rations. By the time her sentence was commuted and she was released, Wittner weighed scarcely one hundred pounds. Nevertheless, she insists that a broken body is a price worth paying for a strong and undefiled spirit.
“We live in a world of lies, whether we want it or not. That’s just the case. But you shouldn’t accommodate to it,” she tells me as I sit at her table in suburban Budapest. “You will be surrounded by lies—you don’t have a choice. Don’t assimilate to it. It’s an individual decision for each person. If you want to live in fear, or if you want to live in the freedom of the soul. If your soul is free, then your thoughts are free, and then your words are going to be free.”
Under hard totalitarianism, dissenters like Wittner paid a hard price for their freedom, but the terms of the bargain were clear. Under soft totalitarianism, it is more difficult to see the costs of compromising your conscience, but as Mária Wittner insists, you can’t escape the decisions. You have to live in a world of lies, but it’s your choice as to whether that world lives in you.
Now is a time for choosing. If they don’t come for you today, they will come for you tomorrow. What will you say? What will you do? As Tabarovsky said, today in Russia, the kinds of writers who did not denounce Pasternak are now remembered and beloved. The herd of hacks who did are forgotten.
Let me emphasize: voting for Trump is not going to save anyone from this culture. Vote for Trump if you like, but you really and truly must divest yourself of the illusion that Trump or any Washington politician is going to protect you from this kind of thing. Trump is president now, and Republicans control the Senate, but cancel culture is still getting much worse. I’m not blaming the politicians, necessarily. I wish they had the guts to speak out with passion and conviction against it, but in our system, aside from some general regulatory pressure (e.g., what Sen. Hawley is talking about doing to Google), Congress is not going to dictate internal policies to corporations, universities, media outlets, and the like. There is no law, aside from libel laws, possibly, that is going to protect the Bari Weisses of the world from being cancelled. This is primarily a cultural fight.
We have to fight it, no doubt, and if the State is not on your side, at least it’s better that it not be affirmatively on the side of the enemy. But as longtime readers know, I have been hollering for years that social and religious conservatives have badly misread the situation, and believed that law and politics were where the future was determined. If you read the updates to my post on the ideological pogrom being visited upon the head of Prof. Tomas Hudlicky, you’ll see that a STEM professor says that Hudlicky’s research career is now over, because after the mauling he has received, no source of research funding would grant it to him, for fear of being tarred as racist, sexist, anti-gay, etc. Just like that, this professor, who has become a world leader in an extremely difficult field of chemistry, is cancelled, all because he wrote something in a professional journal that questioned diversity dogmas.
Nobody fired him. Nobody is going to bring charges against him. Prof. Hudlicky will not be sent to the gulag. But his career has come to a swift end because of the culture of collective condemnation. They don’t need a police state to get what they want. It’s all coming into existence under liberal technocratic democracy.
Solzhenitsyn was right: “There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.” It’s here, and more is coming.