For Whom “The Bell” Tolls

One of the greats of Russian literature isn’t a novelist, poet or playwright, but rather was a publicist, editor and political philosopher. Alexander Herzen was the illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman who nonetheless received a first-class education and, upon his father’s death, used his sizable fortune to declare war on tsarism and autocracy.  He would have to do this in exile, and founded a publishing house in London, publishing such periodicals as Polyarnaya Zvezda (The Polar Star) and Kolokol (The Bell).  The latter of these became highly influential, even being read by the tsar and his inner circle.   

Why is Herzen still relevant today?  He is regarded as one of the (many) fathers of socialist thought but he rejected substituting one monist, doctrinaire theory with another.   While certainly no apologist for the established order, he rejected overarching utopian visions and radical attempts to remake society.  He surely would have rejected Vladimir Lenin’s aphorism, “In order to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.”  

While not comparing myself to Herzen (OK, I will), I followed a similar intellectual path. Growing up in the 1960’s and radicalized by the Vietnam war and civil rights movement, I found revolutionaries like Stokely Carmichael, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh incredibly romantic.  I even fell in with a socialist group while still in high school.   However, after rubbing shoulders with some actual living Marxists I found their world view stifling, authoritarian and devoid of independent thought.  I see parallels of these doomed efforts to remake the world in our own time, such as the hubris and messianistic utopianism of attempting to remake the Middle East by force of arms.  This is not to be resigned to accept the world as it is, but to move forward with clear eyes as to what can be accomplished without causing more harm than good.   

Herzen was rescued from obscurity by the Russian-born British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who popularized the aphorism “from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made” to illustrate his and Herzen’s pluralistic view of history.  In other words, as my mother would say to my great frustration, “you can’t change human nature.”  The British historian E. H. Carr wrote a great book about Herzen and his circle called “The Romantic Exiles,” which focused more on their personal lives, which were intertwined and messy.   More recently, the great playwright Tom Stoppard, himself of Czech descent, wrote a cycle of plays centering around Herzen called “The Coast of Utopia,” which capture the intellectual ferment of the era, and Herzen’s battles with such luminaries like Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin.  These three plays, “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage” even had a run on Broadway.  Herzen’s major work is his autobiographical “My Life and Thoughts.”  A humane, independent thinker such as Herzen, who threw his all against the reactionary forces of his day, should never be forgotten.  

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Alexander Herzen (1812 – 1870)
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The Hedgehog and the Fox

The Hedgehog and the Fox

One of my favorite public intellectuals (if you can have a favorite) has been the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, whose family barely escaped the Russian Revolution, and emigrated to England.  Berlin took to his new home and language like a duck to water and eventually became an Oxford don.   He wrote a famous essay called “The Hedgehog and the Fox” in which he divides philosophers into two types, “hedgehogs” (who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea) and “foxes” (who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea).  For example, Karl Marx would be a hedgehog and Shakespeare would be a fox.  Berlin uses this dichotomy to discuss Tolstoy’s view of history, and places him astride the two camps.  This could make an interesting parlor game.  Is your favorite thinker a hedgehog, or a fox?  What are you?   

If you’re interested, check out Berlin’s “Russian Thinkers” in which his famous essay appears.  

BLAST FROM THE PAST

“For you in America, it’s a big drama, but for us, it’s just funny. Your Clinton is a young, healthy, good-looking man! Where’s the misfortune? Look at our half-dead Yeltsin… If we found out Boris Nikolaevich was sleeping with a young girl, we would declare a national holiday.”

“…for Raisa, the elderly pensioner with whom I was living, she only turned on the news when it was about the Lewinsky scandal. “I don’t watch our news — it’s so dark. It leaves you feeling bad.” “Monica Lewinsky leaves me feeling bad, too,” I said. Raisa shrugged. “For you in America, it’s a big drama, but for us, it’s just funny. Your Clinton is a young, healthy, good-looking man! Where’s the misfortune? Look at our half-dead Yeltsin… If we found out Boris Nikolaevich was sleeping with a young girl, we would declare a national holiday.”

— from “The Possessed (Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them)” by Elif Batuman (Farrar Strauss & Giroux 2010) p. 95.

CHARLES FRIED, FMR. U.S. SOLICITOR GENERAL, quoted on ABC's "This Week" (concerning the lawsuits against the health care bill): "Anybody who proposes something like this is either ignorant — I mean, deeply ignorant — or just grandstanding in a preposterous way. It is simply a political ploy and a pathetic one at that."

THE OWNERSHIP SOCIETY

I lit out of work early to do some skiing at Tahoe, and I was stuck behind a beemer at a red light. It had a vanity plate “WHY RNT.” I thought runt, rant, WTF? Then I saw it had a license plate frame from a local Realtor ® and I realized it was WHY RENT? (duh). By the way, if your job title or professional designation has a registered trademark, that should be a red flag right there. But I digress.
“The Ownership Society” was a political catchphrase for deregulation – if banks are “free” to lend more “freely,” then everyone can own a home. The problem is, as we have seen over the past few years, buying is not for everyone (unless you’re “buying” at a foreclosure sale). The tax code and “keeping up with the Joneses” notwithstanding, there is no shame in renting. People were duped into thinking that getting a big house they couldn’t afford was a status symbol. They didn’t own anything except for bare legal title. They were house poor, chained to their jobs for 30 years, and all of their money went to their mortgage, some of which could have gone for retirement, educating their kids, or improving their quality of life. Some of those same people are living under bridges now.
Real estate agents and brokers, and yes, realtors® (my least favorite breed of parasites) fed off the constant churning of loans and refinancings to make a commission. When you see such a real estate “professional” in a BMW with a license plate that says “why rent,” think about where his or her true loyalty lies and how they paid for that vehicle.