Our Reconcilable Differences with Russia

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Our Reconcilable Differences with Russia

“It is a singular anxiety which some people have that we should all think alike.”

––Thomas Jefferson

 “We are wiser than we know.”

––Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When everybody is alike, anything different becomes shocking.”

––George Santayana[1]

I dunno, Waldo. We may not be that wise. I don’t know what to make of Lee Smith’s January 17 piece in The Tablet Magazine: “What Obama Owes Putin—and Why Donald Trump is Let Holding the Bag.” It essentially takes the position I commented on by McCrew on January 9 and turns it on its head, arguing that rather than Putin, “misdirection has been Obama’s guiding principle for seven years.”

Instead of the U.S. being on the receiving end of an information war propagated by Russia, Smith seems to argue that the U.S. and Russia are actually allied on good number of things, and that the only ones left in the dark about how reality really works are everyday American and Israeli citizens who are the targets and victims of a Russo–American disinformation campaign with regard to Syria and Ukraine. Susan Hennessey and Jordan A. Brunner’s January 25 piece of LawFareBlog.comWhat Do We Know About Investigations into Trump’s Associates’ Ties to Russia?” seems to show that while friendliness between the two counties may not exist, a certain absence of malice has started to emerge.

I agree we Westerners should not goad literature to explain the world’s problems. Reading translations of Russian nineteenth-century literature is no panacea for twenty-first century political engagement. Yes, this can become a form of so-called “orientalism”—but outside the acolytes of Edward Said, does anyone in the East or the West of 2017 even believe or act on or behave as if orientalism is something related to tangible reality?  Something tells me no. Something tells me those ideas remain trapped in the 1980s (like New Wave music).

How do we proceed? When we are actually confronted with specific answers, we soon complain of being suffocated or inhibited, of being denied the opportunity to contribute “creatively” and “freely” on our own; and we at once begin—usually with some success—to pick holes in what has been presented us. But as soon as we feel we have pushed all this aside, and at last stand free and ready to make our own contribution, the human heart shrinks at its new nakedness and its new gift of what Santayana calls “vacant liberty.” We start once again to crave specific direction, and turn reproachfully, notebook in hand, on those who are now exhorting [strongly urging] us—in the very spirit we had before demanded—to “go and do likewise….”

––Walter Jackson Bate (1918–1999)[2]

On this issue of misappropriating literature for political purposes at her Tumblr account, Sandra Afrika complains (via Alexey Kovalev) about clickbait coming from Harvardpolitics.com, as if that URL alone wasn’t enough of a warning sign not to read any further. I think her complaints are a little overblown. A little. I wouldn’t believe anything from Harvardpolitics.com, or Kremlin.com, or Breitbart.com, or the Wrap or the Onion or Rotten Tomatoes.  These sites are made for nothing but clickbait, and one cannot legitimately complain and moan at a baker for baking bread.

But that doesn’t mean old literature has no use or relation to the world’s current problems. I don’t think I was wrong to recently pull some of my favorite quotations from Russian works, again, translated into English, amid a discussion of the (non)relationship between the White House and the Kremlin. But I nonetheless need to be more careful about doing so from now on.

So perhaps we are not wiser than we know. Perhaps the world is too wise for us.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;––
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

––Wordsworth

NOTES

[1] For Jefferson and Santayana see: Kallen, Horace. M. “The Laughing Philosopher.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 61, No. 1. (January 1964.) 19–35 at 24–25. For Emerson, see “The Over-Soul.”

[2] Bate, Walter Jackson. The Burden of the Past. 1970. Harvard UP, Cambridge. p. 56. Continuing with Bate:

In a very real sense, therefore, human feelings, at least potentially, work outward toward reality, hoping to re-enforce and secure themselves by the ‘stability of truth.’ To this extent, they contain their own tension upwards and outward, if only in their need for reassurance, for external justification and support. But in order to use this to advantage there must first be some sort of exposure to what will arouse or satisfy us; our desires cannot clarify themselves or find objects to satisfy them unless we know or suspect the existence of such objects. Unless we have first tasted what we desire, hunger often remains only an uneasy and painful sensation, without a clear object. Accordingly, as a contemporary of Johnson pointed out, very young babies, suffering from physical hunger, often fight against food unless they have already experienced the taste of it….

The channeling effort toward achievement, in other words, constitutes a certain limitation: to be one thing is, by definition, not to be another. It is limitation, at least, when compared with what Santayana calls ‘vacant liberty,’ even though this blank liberty to drift without purpose in the dark is meaningless until it is again channeled into specific aims and renewed efforts. The history of human achievement is strewn with compulsive by-products—and with by-products that become, if not more pronounced, at least more striking, in proportion to the degree of concentration on the end desired. Too often, of course, we find a tendency to interpret the achievement as either the flowering or else the compensation of the secondary traces that accompany it, putting the hoof-prints before the horse, and regarding them as a pre-determined path. We are never unwilling to ‘lessen our disparity.’ We all feel disturbing psychological quirks in ourselves; and it is not unpleasing to imagine that if we allowed them to be a little more pressing, the achievement we are interpreting could be our own. (The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. Oxford UP. 1955. pp. 140–41, 155)


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