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Extremist politics

It could be worse…

This is about quite a dark subject: the Soviet gulags. I don’t recommend reading this essay if you suffer from clinical depression. If you’re just somewhat got down by global politics, I do recommend you read this, to realize that things can be a lot worse, and to appreciate what we have going for us. 

A week ago, staying at my grandparents’ house in Wales, I picked up The Gulag Archipelago¸ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He reached out a cold, bony hand, and wouldn’t let go. His account of the gulags – the slave-labour camps run by the Soviet Union – was so awful, and exerted such a ghoulish fascination on me, that I had to read more, so I read his first book, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and followed up with Anne Applebaum’s historical account, Gulag: A History.

Now I feel like someone who slowed down to ogle a car-crash, and now can’t get the sickening images out of their head.

The first thing that struck me was what a very good writer Solzhenitsyn is. The first section of the Gulag Archipelago is an extraordinary piece of writing, a sustained feat of irony, scorn and moral indignation, like a brilliant summing up by a prosecution attorney.

Both Nazism and Soviet communism combined savage cruelty with industrial bureaucracy, and Solzhenitsyn turns this bureaucratic tactic against the enemy, building up a dossier of crimes, ticking off the enormities one by one, as when he calmly lists the 31 methods of interrogation used by the KGB, from sleeplessness to ‘the box’. Or when he lists the waves of prisoners who swept through the ‘meat-grinder’, from the Mensheviks and Socialists in the first years of the Revolution, to the White Russians in the civil war, the kulaks in the forced collectivisation of the agricultural sector, to the engineers or doctors or Poles or whoever in the paranoid purges of the 1930s.

And then the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of German, Japanese, Polish and Soviet POWs in World War II (yes, any Soviet soldier captured by Germans who then escaped or was released was promptly imprisoned by the KGB on suspicion of spying. Over 200,000 were sent to the Gulags. This after the USSR refused to provide any support to Soviet POWs in German camps, so they starved like animals).

On and on the list goes, waves and waves of forgotten millions, which he tries to record and remember.

He guides one through the various awful stages of your incarceration, like the stages of the cross. There is the first moment of arrest, when you are plucked out of your normal life and plunged into hell, for decades (most prisoners tended to get a ten or 25-year sentence, no matter what their crime) or for ever.

He’s a spiritual writer, and he describes the moment of arrest as sort of a dark spiritual experience:

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another.

We have been happily borne – or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way – down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings. We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us.

The arrested person thinks there must be a mistake. ‘Me? What for?’

It is the crushing of a universe in which there is a moral law, in which things happen for a reason, in which the good are rewarded and the bad punished.

You could be arrested because a neighbour denounced you. Because of your nationality or ethnicity. Because you were late for work. Because you told a joke. Because you happened to be in the wrong place. Or simply because the Gulag organs have to fulfil an official quota of new bodies, to fire up the forge of the Soviet economic miracle. So off you go. That’s the end of your old life, your relationships, your plans, your values and identity. You’re now Prisoner 1762, struggling to survive in the most awful conditions. That is your life from now on. And this could happen to anyone, at any time! A door in the wall opens, and you’re in hell.

What surprises me is the Soviet obsession with confession. There were awful, cosmic battles of wills that took place in the basement of the Lubyanka (the KGB’s headquarters), most of which we will never hear of. The KGB grabbed a young American who worked at the US Embassy, for example, thinking he was a spy. Someone called his name on the street, he turned round, and that was it, imprisonment, interrogation, a decade in the gulag. During the interrogation they denied him sleep for a month. For a month. He still refused to lie. Others were locked up in tiny boxes for days or weeks, or beaten up repeatedly, or raped, or hung upside down, or forced to hear their loved ones tortured. All for the ‘confession’, and for names of other ‘conspirators’.

Why bother? Why this pretence of being a country governed by the rule of law? They needed slaves, so just ship them off, no need to torture them. Perhaps the KGB needed to justify its bloated bureaucracy with confessions. Perhaps they really believed their country was filled with hundreds of thousands of spies. Perhaps they needed to break the prisoners’ spirit. Perhaps they enjoyed it.

Then, once you’ve confessed, or not, there’s the transit to one of the camps. Again, an awful experience, prisoners crammed into carriages, shitting themselves, dying of hunger and cold. This is where you might meet the Russian criminal underclass, who would immediately rob you of your clothes and possibly rape you.

If you survive that, you arrive at one of the 474 camps found right across the country. If you were lucky! Often there was no camp yet, and you had to build it, sleeping in tents or sometimes just a hole in the ground while you toiled in minus 25. And then it was off to work in one of the grand economic projects that Stalin liked to use slave labour for, such as the gold mines of Kolyma or the nickel mines of Norilsk. You were fed according to how well you worked. If you worked badly, you were fed less and would starve and die.

All in the name of communism and the people.

I realized, when I read Applebaum’s book, that Solzhenitsyn is actually too generous. He doesn’t mention the women and children in the camps, the gang-rapes, the babies ripped from their mothers and thrown into gulag nurseries, where they grew up ignored and incapable of speech. It’s almost too painful to read, particularly if you imagine your own loved ones in their place.

This all happened so recently, so close. I think this is one value of reading history. You get a sense of how bad things can get. It can help temper our culture’s tendency to hysterical pessimism, particularly on social media. As when people whine that 2016 was the worst year ever, because Trump was elected and David Bowie died. Westerners are terribly unprepared for how bad things can get.

Reading about the Gulags is also a good corrective if you should happen to have any romanticism about Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism (they are one ideology in my opinion, and Marx deserves his share of the blame for the atrocities that followed.) Why is this authoritarian ideology not condemned to the same degree as Nazism?  Why do we tolerate Seamus Milne, senior advisor to Jeremy Corbyn, defending Stalin’s record in the Guardian? Why do we celebrate the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who continued to support the USSR after its invasion of Hungary? How can hip Leftist authors like Slavoj Zizek and China Mieville get away with celebrating the Bolshevik revolution or even the Stalinist purges? How is that not like celebrating fascism?

Russia itself has never gone through the public examination which Germany did after the fall of Hitler. No one ever went on trial for the gulags. Stalin is still seen as a hero by many, including Putin, the KGB president, who says the fall of the USSR was a national disaster. What is the consequence of this failure to face the past? Russia is still a country where the government holds people’s lives very cheaply, where journalists can be thrown out of windows, no problem, where planes can crash and submarines sink without any particular fuss, where state-hired Russian mercenaries can run around Syria testing out new forms of nerve gas on prisoners, and then try them out in England too, where KGB kleptocrats can still amass billions and billions of dollars for their own greasy consumption, and nobody who complains is left free or alive for very long.

Yes, Nazism was a different sort of evil. The USSR did, like Nazism, condemn people not on the basis of what they did but who they were. But the official enemies of the people were constantly changing – Poles one year, engineers the next, depending on Stalin’s deadly fits of paranoia. The USSR didn’t make hard ethnic distinctions between the good and the evil – anyone could find oneself in the camp, including disgraced Soviet leaders and those who ran the camps.

True, the USSR never constructed camps designed to kill people. It just didn’t much care if they lived or died. The inmates were soulless commodities. And, unlike Nazism, the Gulag system survived for thirty-five years, until the death of Stalin.  18 million human beings were sent to the Gulags. Another six million were sent into exile, another form of slave-labour. 4.5 million died in the camps. And, as Solzhenitsyn says, for each life directly destroyed, there would be two or three of their family members whose lives were likewise destroyed by the impact. It’s impossible to take in such numbers, until one puts names and faces and feelings to them. Each one of those 18 million could have been your brother, your daughter, your mother, your father, or you.

It is sickening to read, but it’s too easy to blame all the evil on Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism.  Solzhenitsyn writes:

let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being….During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place…

This line goes through every culture and country as well. We can’t believe Russians still adore Stalin, yet we worship Churchill, vote him the greatest ever Brit, make eulogistic films about him, and give those films Baftas and Oscars. And if anyone criticizes Winston, they’re a ‘sickening turd’. No mention of the 1943 Bengal Famine, in which around three million Indians died, on our watch. No mention of how Churchill handed over 36,000 Cossacks to Stalin at the end of the war, betrayed them, knowing they would be murdered. This was great power politics, and the lives of millions were pawns on the chessboard. Of course, Churchill wasn’t all bad. But he certainly wasn’t all good. Nor was the British Empire, with its ideology of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. How many slaves did we ship…

Ah well.

The line of good and evil goes through my heart too. I wonder how I would have coped in the gulags. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lasted a month. I’d have signed a confession straight off. I hope I wouldn’t have incriminated others, but who knows? And at the gulag itself. I just can’t imagine it.

I was reminded of Viktor Frankel’s Man and His Search for Meaning. This book, beloved of the self-help industry, has the very Stoic message that ‘everything can be taken from a man except the last of the human freedoms: the freedom to choose your perspective’. But surely this can also be taken from a man all too easily. Just deprive them of sleep for a few days, strip them naked, beat them up, and then let’s see their Stoic defiance.

How dare we turn people’s hellish experiences into a glib self-help mantra.

Still, while Solzhenitsyn admits he and all the other gulag inhabitants were, on the whole, bewildered, terrified and demoralized ‘rabbits’, he does manage to find some sort of resilience and transcendence in that hell. And there is something Stoic in his message.

The way to survive, he says, is to accept that your old life is finished and gone. Accept that you’re at the mercy of external circumstances over which you have very little control. Let go of your attachment to possessions. But then you may find something that cannot be taken away. He writes of ‘that glimmering light which, in time, the lonely soul of the prisoner begins to emit, like the halo of a saint’. That’s certainly the role he takes on, a role readily prepared for him by previous Russian authors like Dostoevsky. Like Dostoevsky, he almost seems to celebrate his suffering and take pride in it: ‘very early and very clearly, I had this consciousness that prison was not an abyss for me, but the most important turning point in my life’.

He, and others, managed to find a new mission in the gulags: to record and remember, and to hurl the truth at the Leviathan like a harpoon. It’s an awful story, but everyone should read it, and then thank their lucky stars for a warm meal, a bed, and a more or less functional democracy.

Culture war profiteering

Another bomb has gone off in the culture wars. Gillette, the razor manufacturer, has sparked outrage – OUTRAGE! – with its advert suggesting men can and should do better. It’s been watched 19 million times on YouTube, rapidly attracting a million dislikes, as well as half a million likes.

Like it or hate it, people are talking about it. It’s generated a huge amount of publicity for Gillette, just like Nike’s advert featuring NFL refusenik Colin Kaapernick.

It’s a marketing tactic that goes all the way back to Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and father of public relations. He formulated shocking, attention-grabbing marketing tactics, like arranging a march of suffragettes in New York, who all lit cigarettes at the same time. A press release announced they were lighting ‘torches of freedom’. The campaign was intentionally provocative. Bernays obviously didn’t really give a damn about the suffragettes. He was making waves, then riding those waves to get attention.

This is what’s known as culture war profiteering. War profiteers don’t care who’s winning, they see any war as an opportunity to make money. The last thing they want is for the war to stop, so they stoke it to continue cashing in.

Piers Morgan understands the game better than most. He obviously weighed in on the major issue of the day – the Gillette advert – declaring it ‘the worst ever betrayal of men’. Does he really believe that? It doesn’t matter. He seeks confrontations, so the media can report on his ‘furious row with Carol Vorderman’, or ‘Twitter feud with Ariana Grande’. It’s the Trump playbook. Provoke outrage. Get attention. Get clicks.

Milo Yiannopolous was a very successful culture war profiteer, for a while. Did he really believe that ‘feminism is cancer’? Who cares. It got a lot of attention. And hundreds of thousands of angry online men bought into his stage-managed provocations. Ghostbusters is being re-made with a female cast? Who gives a shit. But any incident can be stoked up by culture war profiteers. Here’s a riot, and I’m selling bricks.

Even a well-meaning intellectual like Jordan Peterson can’t resist but profit off the culture wars. It’s just too easy money. There’s the Jordan Peterson who writes earnest but mediocre books like 12 Rules for Living, and there’s the online Jordan Peterson, who goes into extraordinary paroxysms about post-modernism and social justice warriors. And it’s this latter Jordan Peterson who is truly raking it in.

On the Left, the same rules of the attention economy apply. Hone your message into the most simplistic polarising headline you can. ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’. That will really get the white people talking. Genius.

Politics and culture have become a Punch and Judy show, and internet giants like Google, Facebook and YouTube are the puppeteers. They’re the ones who really profit off all this outrage and polarisation. Perhaps they didn’t plan it like this. But they created an economy based on attention and clicks, and it rapidly became obvious that the more obnoxious and polarising you are, the more you get clicks. Oh no you don’t! Oh yes you do!

It’s so easy to get drawn into the Punch and Judy show and find yourself screaming at the puppets.

There is Punch, the great villain of the culture wars – the straight white male.

This week, the American Psychological Association has announced that traditional masculinity – ‘marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” It urges therapists to help men “identify how they have been harmed by discrimination against those who are gender nonconforming”.

Stoicism is bad? Stoicism inspired the most successful form of therapy we have – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Competitiveness is confined to ‘traditional men’ and is pathological? What a simplistic, ideological and silly statement. How OUTRAGEOUS! OH NO IT ISN’T!

It’s also easy to get triggered by the leftist ideology of intersectionality, in which your moral value is defined by your identity – black is good, white is bad, female is good, male is bad, LGBTQ is good, cis is bad. Black female lesbian is very very good. Straight white male is very very bad. Bad Mr Punch!

Morality is messier than that. I have male friends who’ve been beaten up by their female partners. I have male friends whose girlfriends got pregnant to try and keep them, and who then used the child as an emotional hostage in their campaign. I have a lot of male friends who happily accept non-traditional gender roles, and embrace being stay-at-home dads.

Yes, male mental health could be better, and male suicide is a problem. But is there really a crisis in male mental health? The statistics suggest the real crisis is in the mental health of women and girls. The rates for hospitalisation for self-harm among teenage girls has gone up 189% in the last decade in the US, and nearly that much in the UK.

Why? Psychologists think it’s mainly because of social media. Girls are more socially intelligent than boys, and this natural, biological social sensitivity has been heightened and wrecked by social media. It’s not men that’s fucking young women up. It’s Instagram and Twitter – exactly the technologies that fired up #metoo.

All sides of the culture wars buy their ammo in the same gun shops. We are all being played.

There is a genuine issue with anti-social masculinity, but it’s biological as well as cultural. Testosterone makes us men prone to aggression and it makes us horny. One of the main challenges of civilization over the millennia has been what to do about young men when they’re at their most aggressive and most horny.

Different cultures cope with this issue in different ways. The West has shifted from a culture of religious prohibition towards a culture of permissiveness and tolerance – creating several outlets for male horniness, such as pornography, prostitution, the toleration of sex before marriage, and the toleration of homosexual sex. I think that’s probably worked better than religious prohibition, judging by how Islamic and Hindu men treat women in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh or Rotherham.

What’s interesting is the interaction between culture and biology. Apparently, male testosterone levels have been declining for the last thirty years, as muscle men become less necessary for manual labour and war. Our chemistry is evolving in real time in response to cultural changes.

But that is too nuanced to get me any clicks. How’s this: THE GILLETTE ADVERT MAKES ME WANT TO SLASH MY WRISTS.