Thursday, April 13, 2006

Tolstoy and Politics

I love Tolstoy - especially Anna Karenina... he is incredibly insightful into the human psyche - describing, with uncanny brilliance, the differences among and between people, and our motivations...

I especially like his view on why his main character, Stephen Arkadyevitch, a popular and charming fellow, came to his political viewpoints - it seems to me very maybe it's kind of universal.

Disclaimer - I don't dislike 'liberals,' as some would call them, or conservatives for that matter. I don't particularly like one or another either. I like PEOPLE, any people, based on their ability to truly think on a matter themselves, their ability to be unruffled by another point of view, their ability to handle and process complexity, their ability to filter out the bullshit and comprehend fine and nuanced distinctions. I dislike people who think they know all the answers especially when there's a huge group of people standing behind them. It's just not that simple. Actually, I don't dislike much anyone - but my sense of that person as a reliable or interesting source of information drops when I find them taking simplistic - and group supported - views on many subjects.

Anyway, hope not to offend - but that's the point of this blog - to say what I think...

"Stephen Arkadyevitch had not chosen his political opinions or his views; these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves, just as he did not choose the shapes of his hat and coat, but simply took those that were being worn. And for him, living in a certain society - owing to the need, ordinarily developed at years of discretion, for some degree of mental activity - to have views was just as indispensable as to have a hat" (p. 10).

What a fascinating, and completely accurate way of putting it. Having views is indispensible. When you have views you appear strong to people, like you know what you're about (and they're about), like you are together. It is a good way to become popular because people will follow a good image. Moreover, it says, yes, I belong here - it's like a badge of membership. When people aren't looking to connect in a real way with each other but merely to create an ingroup and an outgroup, similarities (albeit superficial ones) like these are essential to the group's glue. But are we all still just striving to be popular then? Have we not left middle school yet? Isn't there something else in life that we are after?

"If there was a reason for his preferring liberal to conservative views, which were held also by many of his circle, it arose not from his considering liberalism more rational, but from its being in close accordance with his manner of life. The liberal party said that in Russia everything is wrong, and certainly Stepan Arkadyevitch had many debts and was decidedly short of money. The liberal party said that marriage is an institution quite out of date, and that it needs reconstruction; and family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevitch little gratification, and forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which was so repulsive to his nature. The liberal party said, or rather allowed it to be understood, that religion is only a curb to keep in check the barbarous classes of the people; and Stepan Arkadyevitch could not get through even a short service without his legs aching from standing up, and could never make out what was the object of all the terrible and high-flown language about another world when life might be so very amusing in this world . . ." (p. 10).

What a master Tolstoy is! He astounds me.

1) Look at how he uses the repetition of Stepan Arkadyevitch's full name. Why does he do this? It certainly adds to the irony here. It shows Stepan Arkadyevitch's self-blown importance - the first time it is used, Stepan's life is being compared to "everything in Russia." A rather large leap. Moreover, it is highly unnecessary to use the full name again and again and again - three times in this short paragraph. However, one gets the feeling that Stepan Arkadyevitch would do so - that he is a little like a spoiled child. Tolstoy, through the full name repitition shows that Stepan thinks primarily of himself, feeling he and his desires are of the utmost importance - important enough to base serious common good problems on his personal situation. Thus, this repetition of the full name serves to highlight the foolishness and ultimate unimportance of this likeable, but superficial, man. He is the name. He is the image. He is not much more than that. But he does take and awful lot of unwarranted pride in the name.

2) Tolstoy does not just highlight Stepan's overblown sense of his superificial self, but also infantilizes Stepan's thought process by expressing the liberal party's views with the childish formulation, "the liberal party says..." One can just here the little boy running down the street telling the other children gravely, "well, my teacher says...." or "my dad says..." as if that was the end of the question. The liberal party is Stepan's undoubtable authority. And like a child who believes his parents or his teacher fully and without his own thought, Stepan accepts what the liberal party says, without any real research, without any heavy thought, and then feels gratified.

3) Finally, Tolstoy ridicules Stepan's feelings of entitlement and his inability to be accountable for his own situation. As he discusses Stepan's life situation, he chooses wording and verb tenses to show Stepan's detachment from any accountability he might take for the given situation. The first phrase where this occurs is, "and certainly Stepan Arkadyevitch had many debts and was decidedly short of money." Tolstoy mirrors Stepan's thoughts here in not saying that Stepan had incurred many debts or inherited many debts or recently worked his way into debt. Tolstoy completely passes over blame in general and in so doing shows us that Stepan himself does. It's not Stepan's fault he's in debt (or anyone else's since he's an easy-going guy, not one to blame), it just happened. Just a little later in the boook it becomes very clear where the blame does lie - and that is undeniably with Stepan.

The second phrase where this occurs is, "and family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevitch little gratification, and forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which was so repulsive to his nature." Again, we see the detachment from blame. In fact, this pharse is stronger than the first. Things didn't just happen to him. In this case, Stepan was forced. Tolstoy uses the passive form of this verb (was forced) to say that Stepan's actions in no way contributed to his lying and hypocrisy, but that he had no choice. Moreover, Tolstoy underlines Stepan's belief that marriage should "afford him" gratification - that it should give it to him. Tolstoy writes to underline the deficit of thought that occurs in the assumption that he deserves something from a marriage in which he has shown no sign of taking an active part.

Finally, this detachment from blame, occurs again in this third phrase, "and Stepan Arkadyevitch could never get through even a short service without his legs aching from standing up, and could never make out what was the object of all the terrible and high-blown language about another world..." Tolstoy relieves, in the name of irony, Stepan of any accountability by saying that he 'could not' and 'could never' - that attending to these religious duties was actually impossible for Stepan. Tolstoy, in mirroing Stepan's thoughts, shows us that Stepan does not understand that he makes choices - and that they necessarily have consequences. And Tolstoy ridicules him, by exposing Stepan's choice to side-step blame and thus relinquish any personal power. Again, Tolstoy infantilizes him and describes him as he might a child.

Stepan Arkadyevitch was undoubtedly a silly man. But his personality is a universality, I do believe. We take such strong opinions, but do we really know the facts? Can we really know? Or are we just doing another version of "mommy said..." What do we really know? Why is it so hard for us to realize the complexities and difficulties of any given situation.

Further, don't we often step aside and say things are not our fault - that are? But every time we say - it's not my fault - we also give away a little power. We say "I am incapable" meaning that we say "I also do not have the power to change this problem," and we lie to ourselves.

That is the problem with some liberals and some conservatives today (however, I happen to be surrounded by the liberals so they annoy me more). In every group there are people who genuinely want the world to be a better place - no one party or group or religion or lifestyle holds the corner on that. Getting there, truly moving forward though, is so complex. None of us can be sure about what the right decision is - we can only think about it, research on it, talk together, and then make the best of the outcome. Yet, some people seem so sure that we know the magic bullet that will change the world around if people would just get off their self-interested asses and listen...!

And this is where I am a little conservative. I want things to get better - bit by bit. But what we have in America, though flawed, though problematic, though hard, works. It is possible to succeed. We do have our freedom to try (and thus to fail). Our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are protected and fought for every day - just as the founding fathers would have wanted. I think people who want a complete overhaul are missing a few things.

1) The truth of this world is - no one owes us anything. We don't deserve anything. We live in a country where we work together for the common good so we can be afforded some basic rights. But, just like Stepan Arkedyevitch thinks coming together with another person should result in his own gratification without putting in the necessary work, so do we think that living in a country should result in our own gratification without putting in similar work. We can make it here. We just need to realize that it is up to us. There's nothing wrong with that.

2) We are safe. Unbelievably safe. In a domestic and international sense. Domestically, why do we have more supposed crime than European countries then? (My opinion is...) Because we expect safety - thus, when there is a problem - we report it. I'm not sure the Europeans expect safety. You can't assume the water quality is decent here, or that the car emissions standards are up to par. Moreover, I went to a university in the states that was in a very poor area - and so I lived in a very poor area. (Not the worst - there are some very bad places of course.) But anyway, where I lived I wouldn't think twice about leaving, for example, my backpack in my car when I went to class or while I ran into a food place to get something to eat. Here, in the south of France, even in affluent areas - no one would leave a bag in the car because it WILL get stolen - right from your own driveway. I've had a bag snatched out of the back seat of my car through an open window while I was IN the car - and I was not in a bad area. They all have locked, gated, fences around their houses because otherwise people just take up residence and they can't get them out. And these are in affluent as well as middle-class areas. You can report these things there but - why bother?

Further, on an international level - we have an ocean between us and most real danger. It is amazing what that has done for us, that ocean. It has encapsulated us, keeping us sheltered, and protected for most of the last two hundred years. And I think it has allowed us to take for granted our international safety in this world. September 11th rocked the boat of complacency a bit - and I'm glad it did though it was a terrible thing that happened. But we could all die - something could go terribly wrong - our system could fall - if we let it. (Iran has just figured out the engineering for a step toward creating nuclear weapons - heaven forbid - and people need to realize the danger of that - luckily most countries are taking stands against Iran's latest actions but...). We KNOW that this system works enough that we can all fumble along on our merry way and not expect to be bombed. But if we make dramatic changes to our system (like many activists of various things want) - we may end up weakening it. And if we think it is a good idea to weaken ourselves we are being extremely naive about the true and real dangers of this world which our country protects us from so well that we don't even know we are being protected.

3) So, yes, let's all work for change. (Though I think an important first step would be if we could, especially the ones who want change so much, just all be a little more loving to the people who are actually in our lives. I am very irritated by bitchy activists - do they not see the hypocrisy involved in their self-righteousness?) But let's not take apart what we have - let's move forward with it. Block by block. It has gotten better over the years - it will get better - but until something else is proven to work better - maybe in the form of another country that had nothing to lose by starting anew - lets not tear apart what works from its very foundations. And instead of focusing on the negatives, let's be grateful for what we have in the states. We are an ungrateful nation, many of us, and that saddens me. So many people in this world live such hard lives - never have even a chance.

That's all.


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