11 January 2004

I'm an equal-opportunity antitotalitarian: I despise the idea of ruling "classes" and ruling "dynasties," regardless of their politics. Consider, for example, the aftermath of the October 1917 putsch in Russia. The so-called October Revolution really "lasted," at least in terms of establishing clear and unambiguous political control, until 1920 or so. Those in the West who even know about the Russian Civil War at all tend to think of it in terms of "White Russians" against "Red Russians," without considering that both the "Anti-Tsarist" and "Tsarist" factions (hey, why should I be consistent in my spelling and transliteration when the Cyrillic spelling changed over time?) spent more time, energy, and lives on intrafactional infighting than on fighting each other. The "White Russians" were more self-destructive and represented the enemy that many former soldiers already knew; this had as much to do with the eventual "Communist" victory as did any other single factor.

So I dislike the Kennedy family's approach to politics, even via their semiadopted son-in-law the Governator. Although JFK was trying to make a joke with the infamous "telegram" from his father imploring him not to "buy one more vote than necessary," I am not entirely certain how much of a joke it really was. (Remember, I live near Chicago—where a death certificate is merely alternate proof of voter registration.) However more closely their politics agree with mine than their opponents, that's not good enough.

And when I disagree with the politics and policies, I tend to get even more cynical. Although the Perfesser will probably turn up his nose at this, Kevin Phillips's article in today's Los Angeles Times, on the occasion of his new book on the Bush dynasty (there are substantive reasons I keep referring to him as "George III" that go far beyond the convenience of that label for sniping), bears some consideration.

Dynasties in American politics are dangerous. We saw it with the Kennedys, we may well see it with the Clintons and we're certainly seeing it with the Bushes. Between now and the November election, it's crucial that Americans come to understand how four generations of the current president's family have embroiled the United States in the Middle East through CIA connections, arms shipments, rogue banks, inherited war policies and personal financial links.

Kevin Phillips, "The Barreling Bushes" (11 Jan 2004). Phillips is known as much for meticulous research and documentation as for his prose and politics.

Totalitarianism is bad for the arts: there is no room for the arts where there is no room for dissent. Given the sheer size of the population, the increasing popularity of translation, and the absence of need for translation of music (one of the major art-forms of Russian culture), the inability of the Soviet Union to produce home-grown artists in its 75 years is rather startling. Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Zamiatin, and Pasternak were all adults by 1917, and their greatest works are at minimum subversive to the "Communist" regime. Yevtushenko, while younger, is also more famous for his subversive works than anything else; ditto Gorbanevakaya, Mayakovsky—and that's about it for the memorable arts out of two-and-a-half generations of Russia. Most of the other "memorable discourse" has been in essays, histories, and works that would not be remembered except for the political struggles of their authors. The most obvious example is Solzhenitsyn, whose only truly "fictional" contribution One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich pales in comparison to nonfiction like The Gulag Archipelago. All of those Russian poets who travelled the coffee-house circuit were expatriated, usually forcibly, from the Soviet Union; and most of their work is crap anyway.

This is by no means limited to Russia; that is just the most convenient (and accessible) example. Of course, this is not to ignore the totaltarianism suffered prior to the Revolution; it is only to note that totalitarianism under the Tsars was not as intrusive as it was under the "Communists." (As bad as the Okhrana was, it generally left acknowledged composers, painters, and sculptors alone, if only to avoid upsetting their patrons.) The twelve years of Hitler's regime is probably not long enough for a fair comparison; and I am simply not familiar enough with the history of the arts in, say, pre-Pinochet times to compare them to those during and after his rule.

So far, the US has avoided petrification; so far. The marketplace can also be a tyrant, because it actively discourages diversity and actively encourages imitation and risk-avoidance. The danger, though, is that we can become too comfortable in our "superior" market-based censorship mechanisms, and end up like Robert Kilroy-Silk—whatever that may turn out to be.