Saturday, June 16, 2012

Manufacturing Heroes

Although the Bolshevik Revolution was laced with heroism, the longevity of the Soviet experiment in corrupt, coercive government is a tribute to humankind's endless capacity for cowardice.  For decades, most Soviet citizens chose not to risk their jobs in defense of liberty, religious freedom, or any other abstract civil or human conceit.  In fact, most Soviet citizens even failed to protest when their neighbors, colleagues, or even family members were unfairly harassed or persecuted.  Famously, Molotov seems not to have uttered a word of defiance when his boss, Stalin, permitted Molotov's wife to be thrown into prison, even though Molotov remained one of Stalin's most important collaborators.

This is not to judge the Russian people:  the Soviet regime could brutally oppress its opponents even in its softer, more humane, twilight years; and even people in the West act in cravenly ways now and again.  As it turns out, even the relative security of democratic states fails to elicit bravery when it comes to speaking up in favor of the basic human dignity associated with reproductive rights, marriage equality, or the right to receive a reasonable standard of medical care even if one happens to be out of work.  In my own life, I'm amazed at how often I've failed to do the right thing, even when a dash of courage would have helped me in the long run.

Two days ago I got back from my first trip back to Montreal since I graduated from McGill University in the mid 1990s.  Strolling around the campus, I popped into the history department and recalled how torturous my time in Montreal had really been.  On the one hand, I was thrilled to be living in one of North America's greatest cities, and utterly enjoyed the city's storied diversity.  With its street festivals, bilingual identity, strident cosmopolitanism, original architecture, lively gay quarter, and scenic natural backdrop, I couldn't have been happier with my surroundings.  On the other hand, I knew deep down inside that, notwithstanding my academic program, I had no interest in becoming a professor of history.   How then did I find myself attending history lectures?  In a word, my own cowardice was at fault;  rather than remain true to my interest in international relations, or risk trying something entirely new, I fell back on the one thing I knew best--school, and history, my best subject in school, in particular.

Over time, my subconscious apparently rebelled at my decision to make the study of history a a full-time occupation.  I began having trouble writing my thesis,  started reading broadly in fields that had nothing to do with my chosen subject matter, got a little depressed, and eventually left graduate school altogether.  But the decision to leave graduate school took an appallingly long time, approximately four years.  I ascribe the delay now to cowardice, a failure to face up to the simple fact that I had made a mistake, and a similar failure to court uncertainty by starting over in a brand new venture rather than doubling down on a bad investment and applying to a doctoral program in Urbana, Illinois.

Living a life of cowardice is anything but easy.  You avoid short-run pain but only in order to experience a double dose of long-run pain.  Courage isn't my forte.  As readers might expect, I attribute my cowardice to my mother's abrupt departure from this world when I was a teenager.  I suspect that I was so overwhelmed by my mother's illness and death that I made the subconscious decision to go out of my way to avoid any other form of pain in the future, and that included even the short-run pain associated with brave decisions.
No doubt you, the reader, are skeptical.  How is it possible to blame the author's every flaw and blemish on a dead woman?  If the woman faced cancer bravely, why should the son be paralyzed by fear for decades afterward?  I submit that obsession, and especially the obsession of an aspiring artistic, needs no explanation.  It is what it is.  It's impervious to logic, impervious to scrutiny.

How did courage operate in the Soviet Union?  I call the reader's attention to one of the Soviet Union's most courageous citizens, Abram Tertz, who ignored the Party's official aesthetic ideology, socialist realism.  Abram Tertz was insanely brave.  He wrote brave  novels, defended his decision to do so when put on trial by the monstrous Soviet state, and went to jail for doing so.  The Soviet Union was a machine for manufacturing both cowards and heroes like Tertz.  While most Soviet citizens were given ample opportunity to grovel at the feet of bureaucrats and Party leaders, others were constantly being forced to consider a career in heroism.  In the Soviet Union, one either surrendered all moral autonomy, or choose to avoid all moral compromise.  Most folded, but Abram Tertz and others choose bravery.

In Putin's Russia, cowardice continues to thrive.  For instance, the press is almost wholly silenced.  Oligarchs compromise with Putin to avoid the fate of Khordorkovsky.  Politicians vote the way they are asked to vote.  On the other hand, Valery Panyushkin's new book of biographical sketches, entitled 12 Who Didn't Agree, shows that at least a handful of Russians prefer ostracism, business seizures, jail, police surveillance, exile, physical beatings, unemployment, and indeed the threat of extermination, to cowardice. Panyushkin's well-told tales--more literary than most modern literature--show that people get to courage in a variety of different ways:  some are innately obstreperous, some draw strength from friends and family, some experience a sense of invulnerability born of celebrity, and some turn dissident out of moral outrage or near-death experiences.  In the end, Panyushkins' book holds out the hope that everybody, no matter how intimidated by circumstance or personal history, can at least become conscious of an alternative between a life of cowardice and a life of courage.  Perhaps this is what led so many ordinary Russians to take to the streets in recent months.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous post. You could write a whole book on cowardice: it's a fascinating subject. I wonder if cowardice is a symptom of modernity (that old canard). Thoughts?