The title of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story came to mind when I read of the death of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust. She was 110, and grown up in Prague, where both Kafka and Mahler had been friends of her family. Herz-Sommer had gained some fame in her last years for her remarkable spirit, and her dedication to the music of Chopin, which helped sustain her during her time in a Nazi camp -- and probably saved her and her son from death.
She was in the "model" camp at Theresienstadt, used by the Nazis as a showcase for the Red Cross, to show their 'humane' treatment of prisoners. (Although the very fact of imprisoning, say, a young woman and her young child simply because they were Jewish perverts the very notion of "humane," however the prisoners might have been treated.) And of course,in reality, the regimen in Theresienstadt was harsh -- tens of thousands died there -- although it was lightened from time to time in preparation of a Red Cross visit.
Herz-Sommer was part of the camp orchestra. The New York Times recounts her experience with the orchestra, and how it saved her from the fate of many others in the camp, including her husband:
“These concerts, the people are sitting there — old people, desolated and ill — and they came to the concerts, and this music was for them our food,” she later said. “Through making music, we were kept alive.”
Terezin was a transit camp. From there, Jews were deported to forced-labor and death camps; of some 140,000 Jews who passed through Terezin, nearly 90,000 were deported to “almost certain death” at such camps, according to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 33,000 died in Terezin itself.
One of the prisoners transported from Terezin was Leopold Sommer, who in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz, and on to Dachau. He died there, probably of typhus, in 1945, a month before liberation.
Music spared Mrs. Herz-Sommer a similar fate. One night, after she had been in Terezin for more than a year, she was stopped by a young Nazi officer, as Ms. Stoessinger’s book recounts. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “I only want to thank you for your concerts. They have meant much to me.” He turned to leave before adding: “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.”
Thus she survived, due to the sentimental caprice of a Nazi officer, who had doubtless facilitated (or even directed) the transport of thousands of others to death camps. This is always the face of power, of dominance and control: we give, or we take away, we spare, or kill, at our own whim; there is nothing you can do about it.
By a bitter irony, the story about Herz-Sommers' death appeared on the NYT website alongside a story about the Obama Administration wrestling with the "thorny question" of whether they should murder an American citizen in cold blood or not. It was the usual fluffy "process piece," where White House insiders relay the thoughtfulness and moral struggle of the noble president and his death advisers as they pore over their "kill lists" each week. The Times has become the primary 'normalizer" of this unbelievably hideous, barbaric and inhumane practice, which of course extends not only to named, specific targets like the American in question here, but to unnamed, unknown individuals who are murdered by the president and his agents in "signature strikes," attacks based on certain ill-defined "behaviors" recorded by robot drones.
The president and his agents kill people -- or spare them -- without any due process of law, any oversight, without giving their victims a chance to defend themselves or even prepare themselves for death. They decide, they strike -- out of the blue, with drone missiles, inhuman, implacable, and very often killing other people in the vicinity of the impact. They kill in perfect safety, without the slightest threat to their own person, inviolable, completely dominant, striking down defenseless victims who have no power to strike back. In this they are no different from the officers in the Nazi camps.
It may be that on occasion President Obama is moved by a sentimental whim to spare some potential victim. Perhaps he's had a touching moment with one of his daughters at breakfast, or seen a photo that called up a piercing memory of his mother -- or perhaps he's just been listening to a piece of music that moved him. And so, on that particular "Terror Tuesday," when he sits down with advisers to go over the list of "extrajudicial killings" they should authorize that week, Obama hears the intelligence report on a target -- a young man, say, who had (allegedly) joined a jihadi group after his mother had died -- and, still under the influence of his sentimental mood, says, "Let's hold off on this one, fellas. Let's get a little more data on this." Thus the young man is spared, and they move on to other targets, most of whom are not so lucky, and are marked for death.
Obama and his advisors don't see themselves as monsters, any more than the Nazi officer who saved Herz-Sommer did. They see themselves, as he did, as moral men, carrying out difficult but necessary duties yet still retaining their humanity, their compassion, their capacity for kindness and empathy. But of course none of that matters. What matters is not how we regard ourselves, for good or ill, but how we actually treat others, the actuality of what we do.
History records saints of many religions who spent their entire lives in a paroxysm of self-hatred -- for their unseemly lusts, murderous rages, sickening thoughts and urges, their inner madness -- yet acted toward others with love and self-sacrifice, humility and service. If they acted with love, what did it matter what they might have felt or thought in the always-churning, flowing, passing mental and emotional streams that pass through our minds? And similarly, what does it matter how righteous and self-regarding we feel, how deeply we might be touched by some affecting situation or work of art, if our actions lead to evil?
The sentimentality of brutal power spared Herz-Sommer, but the life of deep meaning she made in the aftermath stands as a stark rebuke to the very notion of domination.
*** While writing this, I thought of another piece I did a while back that touched briefly on some of these themes -- the dichotomy between inner life and outward action, malevolent currents and ordinary goodness, etc. It even mentioned a 'grand lady' of ancient age. Of course this wasn't a reference to Herz-Sommer, but the piece did seem somewhat apt in this context, so here's a link.
It is no secret that Barack Obama is one of the supreme illusionists of modern times. The disconnect between his words and his deeds is so profound as to be almost sublime, far surpassing the crude obfuscations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Their projections of unreality were more transparent, and in any case were merely designed to put a little lipstick on the pig of policies they were openly pushing. For example, they openly wanted to conquer Iraq and expand the militarist state, they openly wanted to redistribute national wealth to the elite, so they just gussied up this unhidden agenda with some fantasies about WMD and the occult magic of "tax cuts," whereby enriching the rich and degrading all notion of the common good would somehow create a utopia of prosperity (for deserving white folk, at least).
There was a disconnect between their rhetoric and reality, to be sure, but it was easily seen through (except, of course, by the highly-paid credulous cretins of our national media). Indeed, the Bushists seemed unconcerned by how threadbare their lies were; they delivered their lines like bored performers at the end of a long stage run, not caring whether they were believed or not -- just as long as they got to do what they wanted.
But Obama has taken all this to another level. He is a consummate performer, and strives to "inhabit" the role and mouth his lines as if they make sense and convey some sort of emotional truth. Also, most of the time his rhetoric, his role, his emotional stance are in stark opposition to his actual policies. He is not just gilding his open agenda with some slap-dash lies; he is masking a hidden agenda with a vast array of artifice, expending enormous effort not to prettify an ugly reality but to create an entire counter-reality, an alternate world that does not exist. Again, no one one was in any doubt about the Bushists' militarism, their dedication to the financial elite or their disdain for anyone who was not, in their view, a "normal American" (white, traditionalist, bellicose, greedy). In fact, that's exactly why millions of "normal Americans" voted for them. But Obama's image -- cool, compassionate, progressive, peace-seeking, non-traditionalist, anti-elitist -- is so far at odds with his actual policies, and with the world as it actually exists, that you can get severe whiplash turning from his rhetoric to reality.
Take his astonishing attack on Vladimir Putin for "interfering" in Ukraine. That Obama could make this charge with a straight face -- days after his own agents had been exposed (in the infamous "Fuck the EU" tape) nakedly interfering in Ukraine, trying to overthrow a democratically elected government and place their own favorites in charge -- was brazen enough. But in charging Putin with doing exactly what the Americans have been doing in Ukraine, Obama also fabricated yet another alternate world, turning reality on its head.
Speaking at a summit in Mexico, Obama unilaterally declared that Ukraine should overturn the results of its democratic election in 2010 (which most observers said was generally "fair and free" -- perhaps more "fair and free" than national elections in, say, the United States, where losing candidates are sometimes wont to take power anyway, and where whole states dispossess or actively discourage millions of free citizens from voting). Instead, the Ukrainians should install an unelected "transitional government" in Kiev. Why should they do this? Because, says Obama, now channeling all Ukrainians in his own person, "the people obviously have a very different view and vision for their country" from the government they democratically elected. All of the people of Ukraine have a different vision, you understand; every last one of them. And what is their vision, according to Obama the Ukrainian Avatar? To enjoy "freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, fair and free elections." Something you might think they had enjoyed by having fair and free elections in 2010, and exercising freedom of speech and assembly to such a degree that a vast opposition force had occupied much of the central government district for months. But the Avatar knows better, of course.
Now, this is not a defense of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's government. It is, by all accounts, a highly corrupt enterprise given to insider deals for well-connected elites who influence government policy for their own benefit. I guess this might be a reason for overthrowing a democratically elected government with an armed uprising supported by foreign countries, but I would be careful about espousing this as a general rule if I were an American president. The old saw about stones and glass houses comes to mind.
The reality (if anyone cares about such a thing) is that the situation in Ukraine is complex. Opposition forces have a legitimate beef against a corrupt and heavy-handed government. The Kremlin is obviously trying to manipulate events and policies in Ukraine, just the United States is doing. (Obama's remarks on this topic are comedy gold: "Our approach in the United States is not to see [this] as some cold war chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future." Yes, as long as they make the right decisions, unlike in 2010, when they voted for the wrong person.) Ukraine is polarized along several different lines -- political, ethnic, historical, religious, linguistic -- but these lines are not clear-cut, and often intersect, intermingle, are in flux. The pull away from Russia's orbit is strong in many people; the desire to retain close relations to Russia is equally strong in others. (Although any attempt by Russia to quash Ukraine's independence would likely unite all factions in resistance.) Many people look to the West as a model, even a saviour, although the EU deal that Yanukovych turned down, precipitating the outpouring of opposition, actually offered Ukraine very little other than Greek-style financial servitude, while the Kremlin, at least, proffered cash on the barrelhead. The opposition itself is not a monolith of moral rectitude; one of its driving forces is an ultra-nationalist faction that happily harks back to Ukraine's fascist collaborators with Nazi invaders and spouts vile anti-Semitic rhetoric. It is likely that the ultra-nationalists are chiefly behind the opposition's turn toward violent resistance, overshadowing the young, moderate, West-yearning, anti-corruption factions that have been the face of the uprising thus far.
And the fact is, not a single one of the Western governments now denouncing Ukraine for its repression would have tolerated a similar situation. Try to imagine thousands of, say, Tea Partiers, having declared that the elected government of Barack Obama was too corrupt and illegitimate to stand, setting up an armed camp in the middle of Washington, occupying the Treasury Building and Justice Department for months on end, while meeting with Chinese and Russian leaders, who then begin demanding a 'transitional government' be installed in the White House. What would be the government's reaction? There is no doubt that it would make even Yanukovych's brutal assault this week look like a Sunday School picnic.
So the situation in Ukraine is many-sided, complex, filled with ambiguity, change, nuance and chaos. Protest against a specific unpopular government policy first turned into a broader opposition to the government in general and is now threatening to turn into civil war. Such things do happen in the world, and yes, great powers do seek to influence and direct these events to their own advantage. It would be good if Ukraine could be rid of rule by corrupt elites; it is not all clear that a civil war led, at least in part, by racist nationalists, would lead to this happy outcome. But one thing that is not happening in Ukraine is Barack Obama's fantasy that the entire Ukrainian people is rising to rid themselves of a tyrant so they can hold fair and free elections. They had such elections in 2010; and if the entire Ukrainian people now wants to get rid of their president, there are free elections scheduled for 2015. It is highly likely that Yanukovych's corrupt and maladroit performance in office -- not least his reaction to the protest movement itself -- would have guaranteed his peaceful defeat at the ballot box next year. But it is also likely that these elections will not be held now. One way or another, Yanukovych will be forced out of office by the violent chaos that he, and sections of the opposition, and the machinations of Moscow and Washington have together produced. In any case, there is almost certainly more needless suffering in store for ordinary Ukrainians.
This is the reality, and tragedy, of the situation. But in the artfully hallucinated world of Barack Obama – a fantasy-land in which the entire American political and media elite also live – none of this matters. All that matters is the real agenda (which was also the agenda of George W. Bush, and Vladimir Putin for that matter): advancing the dominance of a brutal ruling class through manipulation, militarism, and deception, whenever the opportunity arises.
Arthur Silber is in dire straits again. Another bout of bad health has laid him low, bills are coming due, and now a computer breakdown threatens to silence him completely. At the moment, he is working with an antiquated back-up, not likely to last long. If it goes, then his voice will be lost to us -- and he will lose his lifeline to the world. If you are able to help at all, or know someone who can, I urge you to go to his website here, and get more information.
Silber has long been one of the most insightful, intelligent -- and indispensable -- analysts of our dismal and despairing age. But he is no mere compiler of crimes and outrages; he also offers thoughtful and practical ideas for genuine change, different approaches, new understandings of our political and personal realities. To resort to what has become a thoroughly degraded vernacular, what Silber offers is simply (and complexly) this: hope.
Are we so surfeited with hope and wisdom these days that we can afford to let a light like this go out? I think not. So please, if you can, do what you can to give Silber some assistance. We will all reap the benefit.
A little late with this, but I meant to mark Boris Pasternak's birthday this week (Feb. 10, 1890). It would be hard to express how much his work meant to me when I was first finding my way into the world. In later years, I had three brief, indirect contacts with Pasternak, beyond his work. In the mid-1990s, I went to his house in Peredelkino, remarkably preserved since his death in 1960, and got to spend a few minutes in his upstairs study, where he'd written his late verse and much of Doctor Zhivago. That same day, after a long, convoluted search, I found his grave nearby. Then a few years after that, in the downstairs den of a well-appointed house in Oxford, I came face to face with Pasternak's oldest son, Yevgeny -- by then an old man. He had come to Oxford for the opening of an exhibition of paintings and drawings by his grandfather, Leonid, Boris's father. They were to be shown at the Ashmolean Museum, but for now, before the opening, many of them had been hung throughout this private house, the home of the poet Craig Raine, who is married to Boris Pasternak's niece, Anne Pasternak Slater. It was some sort of open house for the paintings, I suppose; I don't remember how I heard about it, but I lived a couple of blocks away at that time, so I went over. I didn't expect to see Pasternak's son there. He was standing just across from me, chatting with someone; I thought I saw something of his father's face in him. I wanted to say something to him, shake his hand, but I hung back. I didn't know if he spoke English, and I knew my own poor Russian couldn't sustain even a light conversation very far; I was afraid of embarrassing myself, I suppose. I wouldn't hang back today, but it's too late. The moment has passed. (And Yevgeny Borisovich died in 2012, at the age 89.) But I was glad I saw him, glad for the other fleeting contacts.
Below are a couple of previously posted pieces on Pasternak, just to mark (belatedly) the occasion.
From February 2010:
From April 2008: Immortal Communion: One Lowly Word and the Subversion of Power
1. Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago, is best remembered for its star-crossed love story and its sweeping panorama of the Russian Revolution – themes amplified in David Lean's 1965 film version, a beautiful travesty which has largely supplanted the book in the public mind. But within his conventional narrative of shattering passions and historic upheavals, Pasternak subtly diffuses a deeply subversive philosophy that overthrows power structures and modes of thought that have dominated human life for thousands of years. Yet remarkably, this far-reaching, radical notion is based on one of the most humble concepts and lowly words in the Russian language: byt.
The word has no precise equivalent in English, but in general it means the ordinary "stuff" of life: the daily round, the chores, the cares and duties, the business and busyness that drives existence forward. The connotations of byt are not always positive; it is frequently associated with another Russian word, poshlost', a more pejorative term for the miserable muck of daily life that can trap a noble soul yearning for transcendent heights – for shattering passions and historic upheavals, perhaps. Benjamin Sutcliffe has described this association well in his extensive analysis of the notion of byt in Russian literature by women:
"The 'everyday' is a problematic concept that Russian culture consistently links with women. Byt is not only povsednevnaia zhizn' (daily life), but also a corrosive banality threatening higher, often intellectual aspirations…. Vladimir Nabokov connects byt to poshlost', the soul-killing realm of the crass and insensitive. In an even more sepulchral metaphor, Andrei Siniavskii compares Soviet culture to a pyramid: the grandiose grave of a hollow society whose time has passed. Byt is the sum of both those constituent parts, often seen as 'women’s work' (care for the self, care for others, maintaining a household) and the negative adjectives ascribed to them: petty, small-scale, mundane, exhausting, repetitive, and ultimately deadening."
In contrast to this mundane and deadening level stands the realm of the transcendent: the "great questions" of life, the grand abstractions – nation, faith, ideology, honor, prosperity, family, security, righteousness, glory – for which millions fight and die. It's the world of power, fuelled by the dynamic of dominance and servitude – a dialectic that governs relationships in every realm: political, economic, religious, artistic, personal. Everywhere, hierarchies abound, even among the most professedly egalitarian groups, from monasteries to movie sets, from ashrams to activist collectives. Everywhere we find, in Leonard Cohen's witty take, "the homicidal bitchin'/That goes down in every kitchen/To determine who will serve and who will eat."
This, we are given to understand, is the real world, the important world, far above the tawdry, tedious humdrum that fills the dead hours between epiphanies and exaltations. The Russian Revolution is of course one of history's great manifestations of this dynamic, where the "transcendent," world-shaking abstractions of ideology and high politics (imperialism, capitalism, revolution, Bolshevism) uprooted whole nations and produced suffering and dehumanization on an almost unimaginable scale. The modern era's "War on Terror" bids fair to surpass the Revolution in this regard, with its wildly inflated rhetoric and grand abstractions, its epiphanies of violence and exaltations of terror – on both sides – inflaming a conflict that has already devoured nations and destabilized the entire globe. The dominance paradigm – so thoroughly worked into our consciousness, so ever-present in our interactions, large and small, public and private – is the engine driving this vast machinery of death and ruin.
But below this "higher plane" lies the reality of byt. Far from the soul-killing muck that Nabokov found so distasteful, in Pasternak's hands the true nature of byt is revealed: creative, sustaining, nurturing, an infinite source of meaning. For the most part, the novel conveys this indirectly, in passages where Pasternak shows us byt in action – people going about their work, having quiet conversations, preparing food, fixing stoves, tending gardens, washing floors – or in the richly detailed backgrounds and descriptions given for minor characters who pop up briefly in the narrative then are rarely, perhaps never, seen again.
Over the years, some critics have decried these passages as the clumsy strokes of a fictional amateur, a poet gamely trying and failing to match the rich plenitude of Tolstoy's novels. (And to be fair, the English translations of the novel, though serviceable, are hobbled by clunky prose that ill-serves the original Russian.) But surely Pasternak, a writer of immense talent and intelligence, knew exactly what he was doing with these portions of the novel. The "clumsy" strokes that brake and complicate the grand narrative are central to the book's meaning. "Zhivago" means "the living," its root word is "life." And life is immense, comprising every aspect, every atom of reality. "Life, always one and the same, always incomprehensibly keeping its identity, fills the universe and is renewed in every moment in innumerable combinations and metamorphoses," as Zhivago says at one point. It is in the careful observation and deeply felt experiencing of the details of daily life that the meaning of existence can be found – or rather, consciously created.
Elsewhere in the novel, Pasternak deals with more openly with this theme, especially in one of the book's central chapters, made up of a diary that Zhivago keeps when his family have been driven from Moscow by the privations of the Revolution – and by Zhivago's own political unreliability, which stems from his refusal to hew to any party line and its grand, impersonal abstractions, its distorted caricatures of the infinite complexities of human reality. They are living off the land, deep in the countryside, their whole life taken up by the struggle to survive: byt in its starkest terms. Only at night, their work done, can they turn to their books, the handful of Russian classics they've taken with them into exile.
The whole chapter is like a marvelous concerto, blending and concentrating all of the novel's themes and variations in what appears to be the most artless of forms: the ramblings of a private journal. Among the many passages that illustrate the relation of byt to the "overworld," the realm of dominance and hierarchy, this one stands out:
"What I have come to like best in the whole of Russian literature is the childlike Russian quality of Pushkin and Chekhov, their shy unconcern with such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or their own salvation. It isn't that they didn't think about these things, and to good effect, but they always felt that such important matters were not for them. While Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky worried and looked for the meaning of life and prepared for death and drew up balance-sheets, these two were distracted, right up to the end of their lives, by the current individual tasks imposed on them by their vocation as writers, and in the course of fulfilling these tasks they lived their lives quietly, treating both their lives and their work as private, individual matters, of no concern to anyone else. And these individual things have since become of concern to all; their work has ripened of itself, like apples picked green from the trees, and has increasingly matured in sense and sweetness."
2. Of course, the supreme irony of the relation between the humble, private, "pointless" world of byt and the "real world" of power and exaltation is that the former is actually where any genuine "transcendence" can be found, while the latter is the merely the outgrowth of our most primitive and meaningless urges.
For what is the desire to "project dominance," to erect hierarchies, but the elaboration of the same unconsidered instinctual drives that underlie the social structures of the animal world? You can see it in any colony of apes (although they too have their forms of sustaining, nurturing byt). I've written of this elsewhere, but I think it has some application in this context as well:
Is it not time to be done with lies at last? Especially the chief lie now running through the world like a plague, putrescent and vile: that we kill each other and hate each other and drive each other into desperation and fear for any other reason but that we are animals, forms of apes, driven by blind impulses to project our dominance, to strut and bellow and hoard the best goods for ourselves. Or else to lash back at the dominant beast in convulsions of humiliated rage. Or else cravenly to serve the dominant ones, to scurry about them like slaves, picking fleas from their fur, in hopes of procuring a few crumbs for ourselves.
That's the world of power – the "real world," as its flea-picking slaves and strutting dominants like to call it. It's the ape-world, driven by hormonal secretions and chemical mechanics, the endless replication of protein reactions, the unsifted agitations of nerve tissue, issuing their ignorant commands. There's no sense or reason or higher order of thought in it – except for that perversion of consciousness called justification, self-righteousness, which gussies up the breast-beating ape with fine words and grand abstractions…
Beyond the thunder and spectacle of this ape-roaring world is another state of reality, emerging from the murk of our baser functions. There is power here, too, but not the heavy, blood-sodden bulk of dominance. Instead, it's a power of radiance, of awareness, connection, breaking through in snaps of heightened perception, moments of encounter and illumination that lift us from the slime.
It takes ten million forms, could be in anything – a rustle of leaves, the tang of salt, a bending blues note, the sweep of shadows on a tin roof, the catch in a voice, the touch of a hand. Any particular, specific combination of ever-shifting elements, always unrepeatable in its exact effect and always momentary. Because that's all there is, that's all we have – the moments.
The moments, and their momentary power – a power without the power of resistance, defenseless, provisional, imperfect, bold. The ape-world's cycle of war and retribution stands as the image of the world of power; but what can serve as the emblem of this other reality? A kiss, perhaps: given to a lover, offered to a friend, bestowed on an enemy – or pressed to the brow of a child murdered by war.
Both worlds are within us, of course, like two quantum states of reality, awaiting our choice to determine which will be actuated, which will define the very nature of being – individually and in the aggregate, moment by moment. This is our constant task, for as long as the universe exists in the electrics of our brains: to redeem each moment or let it fall. Some moments will be won, many more lost; there is no final victory. There is only the task.
And of course, that's what byt entails, in both its literal sense and in the heightened, deepened understanding of Pasternak's art: the task, the work, the busyness of sustaining life.
One last passage from Zhivago provides a striking encapsulation of this, although a word should be said about the Christian symbolism it employs – a symbolism worked deeply into the plan and language of the entire novel. As Pasternak told one interviewer, the religious symbols were "put into the book the way stoves go into a house – to warm it up. Now they would like me to commit myself and climb into the stove." Later he added: "The novel must not be judged on theological lines. Nothing is further removed from my understanding of the world. One must live and write restlessly, with the help of new reserves that life offers. I am weary of this notion of faithfulness to a point of view at all cost. The great heroic devotion to one point of view is very alien to me – it's a lack of humility."
Here Pasternak, like his Zhivago, resists adherence to any party line, even one that he finds enormously congenial, like Christianity. It is not in pious certainties but in the humble, shifting, temporary coalescences of everyday existence, in byt, that some measure of always-imperfect, always-provisional meaning can be found.
But the languages of faith – structures that for centuries were the chief embodiment and expression of the human yearning for illumination, encounter and escape from the brutalities of dominance and servitude – can still serve as vehicles to convey a deeper reality, as Pasternak shows here, in the voice of one of his characters, the philosopher Nikolai Vendenyapin:
"I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threats – any kind of threat, whether of jail or retribution after death – then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion-tamer with his whip, not the preacher who sacrificed himself. But don't you see, this is just the point – what has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the attraction of its example. It has always been assumed that the most important things in the Gospels are the ethical teaching and commandments. But for me the most important thing is the fact that Christ speaks in parables taken from daily life, that he explains the truth in terms of everyday reality. The idea that underlies this is that communion between mortals is immortal, and that the whole of life is symbolic because the whole of it has meaning."
Immortal communion, in the transient, private, churning flow of byt: this is what Pasternak offers as an alternative to the violent estrangement of the "overworld," to its violence and fear, its bombast and lies. This lowly word could bring down empires, and stands in defiance of death itself.
On Monday, the New York Times featured, on the front page of its website, a long piece of giddy gush about the latest trend in luxury hoteling: super-suites for the super-rich, costing up to $28,000 a night.
For more than 1,100 words, the Times gives us an uncritical (indeed, adoring) panorama of the new high-swankery expected by our owners as they perambulate around the global plantation. There's the $25,000-per-night room in the New York Palace, a three-story "penthouse Versailles," the Times, all atremble with excitement, tells us, which comes complete with a million dollars' worth of designer jewellery on display to refresh the weary eyes of the travelling titan. Or New York's Mandarin Oriental, 3,300 square feet of even greater opulence -- a steal at $28,000 a night.
Such elite enclaves are springing up all over the country, say the many industry insiders and financiers quoted in the piece. (Despite the vast acreage of news-hole available, the 'paper of record' could not find any space for comments voicing even the slightest hint of unease at these developments. Of course, it would be very hard to find anyone within the ambit of a NY Times business reporter who would object to such brutal ostentation; still, you'd think the paper could drag out some wheezing moderate-liberal-centrist type academic who could offer up a bromide on how this trend is, potentially, something that could possibly be somewhat troubling. I mean, the paper's rolodex is crammed with such worthies. But apparently not even the mildest moderate's most gentle murmur was to be allowed to besmirch the story's sweet, glossy bussing of oligarchical posteriors.)
However, you shouldn't think the frenzied construction of these gilded hog pens is simply a matter of Heep-like toadying to every whim of super-rich (although it is that). No, it's also a question of 'brand-building,' of luring in envious middle-class patrons who want to catch a faint whiff of elite effluent as it wafts down from on high. As the Times notes:
Hotel industry professionals say these over-the-top suites serve a dual purpose. “A large part of what we do is creating an image,” Mr. Tisch said. Super-suites cater to the needs of billionaire travelers as well as the imaginations of middle-class tourists.
“This hotel already had a fantastic flow of high-net-worth people using our suites,” Mr. Chase said, listing Saudi diplomats and royalty, as well as Hollywood and sports stars, as regular guests.
They also indirectly attract a middle-class, aspirational traveler, Mr. Chase said. “It is the attention — the halo effect — doing a suite like this brings,” he said. Even if they’ll never be able to drop the cost of a new compact car on a night’s stay at a hotel, some travelers want to brush elbows with that level of wealth.
Yes, work really, really hard, and you too might one day be able to afford one night on the bottom floor of a hotel where a Saudi prince or a movie star once actually took a dump hundreds of feet above you. Now there's something to fire up your pathetic little middle-class imagination!
The story is summed up with a piercingly accurate phrase from one of the chief quotees in the piece, Pam Danziger, the "president of the luxury marketing firm Unity Marketing and author of 'Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury.'" (Follow-up volumes will include Putting the Use Back in Usury: From Payday Loan-Sharking to the Penthouse, and Putting the Pen Back in Penury: Parking the Poor Where We Don't Have to See Them.) Eschewing the gauzy rhetoric of a "halo effect" and other euphemisms for protecting the power and privilege of the rich by exciting envy in everyone else, Danziger cuts right to the heart of the matter:
Ms. Danziger described it as a “shock and awe” campaign that would help drive bookings of regular rooms.
Shock and awe, baby: that's right, it's war -- class war. And guess who won?
But it's not enough just to win; you must be seen to have won, you must have your conqueror's status confirmed for you, at every turn, in the most ostentatious way, so that your victims know they have been crushed and dare not rise again.
2. On the same day -- the same day -- that the NYT's grovel-and-gush piece appeared, Oxfam released a report on the astonishing, well-nigh incomprehensible level of inequality between the Times' celebrated super-rich and the rest of the human race.
The Oxfam study showed that the richest 85 individuals on earth have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet. 85 people control as much wealth as 3.5 billion.
This is not the natural fruit of the market's mythical "invisible hand." It is the result of carefully crafted, deliberate policies put in place over the past 40 years by elected leaders who have been bought, like chattel, by the rich, and have used the power of the state to skew the political, economic and social structure of nation after nation toward the ever-increasing domination of an ever-smaller circle of elites. As Larry Elliot points out in the Guardian:
For much of the 20th century, the more far-sighted business leaders … understood that their workers needed reasonable wages so that they could buy the goods and services they were making. They grasped the idea that a market system in its rawest form was incompatible with democracy and so acquiesced while some of the rough edges were knocked off via progressive taxation, welfare states and curbs on capital. Deep down, they feared that the Russian revolution would provide a template for disaffected workers in the west.
Attitudes have changed in the past 30 years. The so-called Great Compression of incomes seen from the 1930s to the 1970s went into reverse, with the top 1% grabbing the fruits of growth. The rich used their money and their influence to ensure that governments did their bidding. After the Berlin Wall came down, there was no rival model and less need to show restraint. With the arrival of a unipolar world came a return to a more aggressive form of market economics that had not been seen since the early days of industrialisation.
Elliot then quotes the Oxfam report:
"When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favour the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all. Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich."
Anyone see any sign of one of these fatcat-curbing "bold political solutions" coming down the pike anytime soon? In most countries -- including most emphatically the US and UK -- even the so-called "progressive" or "liberal" factions who one might wistfully expect to wanly offer such solutions long ago sold themselves, happily, giddily, to Big Money. Who dismantled most of the (few) "curbs on capital" that had been instituted during those 40 years of growing income equality (and more widespread prosperity)? Why, Democrat Bill Clinton and Labour's Tony Blair, who else? Both of these cool, young, swinging liberal-type guys did more to destroy the restraints and unleash the elite dogs of domination than their conservative predecessors such as Reagan and Thatcher.
And the beat goes on under the even cooler, younger, hipper more liberal progressive-type guy in the White House today. As Elliot notes, one of "the most striking findings of the Oxfam report is this little nugget:
"…In the US, the wealthiest 1% have captured 95% of post-financial crisis growth since 2009 while the bottom 90% have got poorer."
Yes, this is the real truth of the much-vaunted "recovery" of the U.S. economy under the leadership of Barack Obama: 95 percent of the tepid growth since he took office has gone to the 1 percent. A full 90 percent of the American people have grown poorer. This is because Obama's carefully crafted, deliberately chosen economic policies have been designed to use the power of the state to skew the nation's economic, social and political structures toward the super-rich, in some of the most brazen ways imaginable. From the very beginning, the focus has been almost exclusively on "saving" the financial sector that caused the crisis, bailing it out, protecting its privileges, extending its reach and -- as the statistics clearly show -- enriching it at the expense of every other sector of American society.
Obama's defenders will point to the intransigence of the Republicans as the reason why the rich are getting obscenely richer under Obama while the rest get poorer and the 'safety net' and social structures (and infrastructure) of American life are relentlessly degraded. But of course, it is only this intransigence that has saved us so far from the even greater degradation that Obama has been seeking since his first days in office: the "Grand Bargain" that will slash the remaining threads of the safety net and gut most non-military spending in order to "balance the budget" (while maintaining a world-encircling military machine and all-pervasive "security" apparatus).
Over and over, Obama has offered the Republicans savage budget cuts and safety-net gutting that were beyond the wildest dreams of the arch-conservatives of yore -- or even, say, Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, or George W. Bush's administration. But the GOP is now dominated electorally by theocratic extremists who believe any tax rise (even the minuscule bumping Obama meekly suggests as part of his "bargain') is of the devil, while the corporate interests who let these theocrats front for them have decided to vanquish even the pretense of any restraint on their power once and for all. Their scorched-earth campaign and the zero-cooperation stance of the zealots have blocked Obama's frantic efforts to destroy the remnants of the New Deal, but one day, they may take the bait -- and then you can tell Granny to go dumpster-diving, because the state ain't gonna feed no useless eaters no more.
And let's not forget that it was Obama's choice not to spend the enormous political capital of his first election triumph to rescue the millions of workers and homeowners going under, but to instead put all his energy into "saving" the perpetrators of the global collapse -- and pushing a "health reform" plan created by a right-wing think tank in the 1990s: a wretched piece of corporate profiteering that cleverly, and completely, co-opted the "left" into defending an elitist boondoggle and effectively killing genuine health care reform for years, perhaps for generations.
No; we are where we are because our elected officials, of both parties, on both sides of the ocean, have long been and still are the prostituted servants of a rarefied, ravening, bellicose elite. The elite have won the war; they've imposed a brutal occupation on the vanquished -- and now they are withdrawing beyond the clouds, to golden citadels and 'specialist suites,' where they can disport themselves in luxury and safety, while looking down, with a satisfied smile, on the billions and billions of worthless suckers they've left behind.