(A potable portion from a chapter of A Republic of Books, the ‘novel in progress’ to be found elsewhere on this site.)
Has our Thirty Years’ War only just begun, or has it ended long since and the news simply not yet arrived via a slow internet connection? I have often felt that way about history—in my youth especially. In those days the various socialist religions had long been at odds, much as the Catholics and Protestants of the Reformation once were—Christian killing Christian, with one Wallenstein after another rising in the ranks: Lenin and Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, Mao or Khrushchev, Fidel and Che. From 1918 to 1989, this bloodletting had been an endless seventy years, more than twice the length of the key Reformation conflict, but a hundred times more deadly if mere lives are counted. Mere human lives, you understand, unlived. But then again, there are those who believe the Reformation never ended. And I see all of that in the troubled eyes of some students today.
Why do I carry this book, or that, they ask? Their professor has reliably informed them that it is evil. Don’t I know that he is a nazis and she is a fascist? By which they mean, he thinks everyone is different, and she believes someone has a right to say what they please, no matter how unpleasant. There is no attempt to reconcile the objective with the motive. Few of them know what a ‘nazis’ actually was, though many of their father’s died to stop those creatures. Fewer still understand what a fascist is, because they seldom if ever look to themselves for blame.
How many died in Stalin’s purges? That doesn’t matter! How many more died in Mao’s cultural revolution? That’s not the point! Exactly what did Adolf Hitler think he was going to accomplish? Don’t change the subject! You should not be selling that book!
This then was the disdain for human life you’d commonly find in the political tracts of my early age, with people classified as bourgeoisie, or proletariat, blue collar or intellectual, rich or poor, male or female. It didn’t matter. The theories were all the same in the end.
One of those thinkers I didn’t especially like early on was Elias Canetti, who wrote Crowds and Power. He was a prick, and a dilettante, and a prime example of mid-Twentieth Century European self-supposed intellectual smugness (having successfully destroyed several hundred million other lives in there pursuit of a pan-Europa, they and their superior insight had somehow survived) but then, I suppose, even Elias Canetti had a few good things to say. This is my favorite of those: “It is always the enemy who started it, even if he was not the first to speak out, he was certainly planning it; and if he was not actually planning it, he was thinking of it; and, if he was not thinking of it, he would have thought of it.” Unwittingly (as I am sure that bile, not wit, was one of Canetti’s main strengths) he has captured the Orwellian mindset of the modern progressive of the early Twenty-first Century, whether in Cambridge, England, or Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Their fear was, and is, nationalism, not government—a larger and more powerful government was the answer to nationalist bickering, no matter how often it was tried before. They’ll get it right this time! Nationalism is divisive. It breeds discontent. Everyone is the same, after all, so they deserve the same government, whether they like it or not. And exactly what government is that? One that insures equality, of course. One that can enforce equality!
But it was this bit of wisdom from Mr. Canetti that kept me from placing blame, you see. And this was infuriating as well, especially to those who wanted another body to whip, because, “It is always the enemy who started it, even if he was not the first to speak out, he was certainly planning it; and if he was not actually planning it, he was thinking of it; and, if he was not thinking of it, he would have thought of it.”