Democracy and its contradictions: Revolt

September 5, 2018

[The following is the third of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.  Here are links to part one and part two.]

The destruction and dismemberment of the Soviet Union at the hands of Russian nationalists was a prophetic event, though few grasped this at the time.  Nations bundled together under the abstract principles fashionable after World War I were coming undone:  Yugoslavia in 1992, Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Levant in 2011.  This, too, passed unperceived within any unified field of vision.  A tidal wave of particularism, of political fragmentation, was about to sweep over the globe, leaving little untouched.  None saw it coming, and only a handful, even after the fact, understood what had transpired.

The overwhelming reality at the end of the Cold War was the triumph of the last universal doctrine:  liberal democracy.  American elites interpreted the conflict, retroactively, as an ideological equation working toward a single inescapable solution.  Democratic nations would show the way.  Undemocratic nations, with a little help from the marketplace, would become democratic.  No alternatives existed.  The world had arrived at the fulfillment of history:  “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Francis Fukuyama’s thesis has been the object of much criticism and derision, yet it was and remains, in its essence, correct.  No universal system challenged liberal democracy in 1989, when Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?”  None can be found today.  In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, some argued that religion had provided a challenger:  specifically, that Islam was at war with democracy.  But the Taliban, in Afghanistan, is a tribal entity.  The Islamist groups the US has engaged militarily, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, are sectarian and particularistic, closer in spirit to Hitler’s worship of the mystical volk than to any universal principle.  Whatever bonds of faith and behavior are meant by “Islam,” the fact remains that there is no political unit with that name.  Islamist grievance derives exactly from this fact.

If humanity is foreordained to reach universal governance, then the future must necessarily be democratic and transnational.  That was Fukuyama’s insight.  In the placid afterglow of the Cold War, many intelligent people imagined that the hour of destiny had arrived.  V. S. Naipaul, nobody’s idea of a dreamer, could write in the 1990s of “our universal civilization.”  But universalism is a choice, not a historical necessity of any sort:  and democracy holds within itself the possibility of striking off in another direction.  Even at the height of its prestige, having knocked out the last totalitarian champion, democracy remained caught in contradiction.   It promotes individual freedom and tolerates an immense amount of contingency.  An individual may seek meaning or identity in difference:  qualities that separate a person, group, or nation from the human herd.  The democratic system that seemed, in 1989, like the “final form of human government,” allowed plenty of room for the particular.  Fukuyama’s Hegelian argument failed to take this dialectic into account.

The Cold War had locked two opposed universal doctrines into postures of rigid confrontation.  With the withering away of Marxism-Leninism, contingency rushed back into history – and was immediately cashed in.

So we enter the present moment with the forces of particularism and fragmentation utterly dominant.  Democracy contained this choice, and great numbers of the public, in many parts of the world, have so chosen.  For the first time since the defeat of fascism and National Socialism, nationalism has been re-sanctified.  Though accused of being a “populist” stance, it is popular enough to help win elections in the US, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere.  Certain features of twenty-first century nationalism recall the fascist past.  The nation, locus of meaning and identity, is said to be in precipitous decline:  it must be saved from its tormentors.  Donald Trump promised to “make America great again,” while Vladimir Putin’s calling has been to rescue Russia from the mutilated corpse of the USSR.  History, carrier of the universalist plague, has become the enemy.  Transnational aggregations of power, far from being ethically superior, have assumed the part played by the Jew under Hitler:  that of self-serving manipulators of national decadence.  Thus the European Union has been charged by Viktor Orbán of Hungary with “stealthily devouring ever more slices of our national sovereignty.” In a similar temper, the British public has voted to break loose from the EU – first overt shock dealt to the old order by the particularist revolt.

The contrasts with historic fascism, however, are much more striking and fundamental.  The nation, in politics, is always a lever:  a pivot-point.  For Hitler and Mussolini, nationalism was the pretext for conscripting the public into a mass movement controlled by the totalitarian state.  Only through the dictatorship of the avatar could particularism come to life:  this was the leadership principle.  Today the political polarities have been reversed.  Power erupts from the bottom upwards.  Modern government, perceived as a putrid “swamp,” elicits repudiations no less ferocious than those aimed at transnational organizations.  Both are in the hands of an elite class intent on foisting alien abstractions – multiculturalism, political correctness, “swinish capitalism,” economic globalization – on unsettled societies.  This governing class has become the target of the public’s rage.  Contemporary nationalism, in brief, is at war with national government – at war, it may be, against every form of authority.  The leadership principle dissolves into rant and ridicule in the age of social media.  Unlike the elaborate justifications for fascism and National Socialism, the anti-authority impulse lacks a coherent ideology.  It gives no thought to a mythical past or a revolutionary future:  therefore, its negations often resemble an escape to nihilism.

The nation, today, is a pivot to fractured identities.  Even as Britain demanded a break with the EU, the Scottish government has demanded a break with Britain.  The democratically elected officers of Catalonia were thrown in prison by the democratically elected government of Spain, to forestall secession.  In the US, state and local Lilliputians have learned to lash down the Gulliver of federal authority.  Republican governors fought a relatively successful guerrilla war in the courts against Obama administration policies.  Local jurisdictions “resisting” Trump have openly proclaimed their refusal to enforce federal laws.  At the top of the pyramid, where fascism posited the greatest concentration of political strength, one now finds weakness and failure.  David Cameron tried to keep Britain in the EU and failed.  His successor, Theresa May, tried to negotiate a divorce from the EU and has so far failed at that.  Angela Merkel wished to insert a transformed, tolerant Germany at the center of a multicultural empire.  Her policies have broken her power at home and boosted the electoral fortunes of anti-EU forces in Europe.

Absent the dictator to signify the center, the mass migration from the universal to the particular has gotten lost among a tangle of narrow and contradictory pathways.  The exercise of personal freedom has sometimes wandered beyond politics to private islands of identity, inaccessible to the rest of humanity.  “I am,” a young person assures us (by way of illustration), “queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able bodied.”  Each label here denotes a boundary in the space open to debate.  To speak “as a woman” or “as a gay person” is to reject the possibility that outsiders can penetrate the group’s perspective on truth.  Those who try can be silenced by the charge of “cultural appropriation”:  that is, theft of sectarian property.  But the accumulation of labels leaves the bearer entombed in a private and subjective reality.  Communication with the world, including one’s fellow citizens, is scarcely possible.  Participation in liberal democracy, as currently practiced, is scarcely possible.  The individual can only make claims and demands on the whole.

At this point, the flight to the particular has left nationalism and even sectarianism far behind, to plunge into a featureless landscape darkened by loneliness and grievance.  The nihilist temptation – the wish to re-enter the world by smashing at it – is always present, close at hand.


The triumphant doctrines of the last 100 years have held history to be the handmaiden of universal abstractions.

Under this scheme, government’s task is to realize abstractions in a scientific manner.  The objective of politics is predetermined:  the end of history in a rational, humanitarian society.  Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the methods of politics are expected to be democratic and peaceful.  The dictatorship of the proletariat has gone out of business.  Revolution has fallen out of favor.  This engenders much uncertainty about when and how the golden age will arrive – but the line of progress is clear enough.  Fukuyama wrote confidently about “a process that gives coherence and order to the daily headlines.”  Twenty years later, Barack Obama could still chide global actors he disapproved of with being “on the wrong side of history.”

The natural form of government for such an interpretation of history is heavily top down and obedient to expert opinion.  Political disputes occur over technical matters, within a narrow band of possibilities.  The big picture is given to those in the know.  They own the map to the future, and differences among them are tactical, almost sporting.  This is the ideology of the political and intellectual elites who have run the world since the end of World War I.  The democratic carnage of the twentieth century, they believe, has been justified by its teleology.  It was the price of admission to the next stage of human evolution.  Without the vision of ordained human progress, the elite class can imagine only moral horror or political chaos:  that is, fascism or anarchy.

Nonetheless, a substantial portion of the public is now defecting from this austere, abstract system.  The movement represents a reinsertion of the particular into democratic politics, and the return of contradiction, and hence of contingency, into history.  The rise of a strangely personalized nationalism is only part of the story.  An exaltation of freedom contradicts, without ever grappling with, a culture of endless grievance.  The lack of a unifying ideology is willful:  doctrine means oppression, an unacceptable reduction in the range of possibilities.  In truth, all politics are now willful.  There is no priestly caste to interpret the future, no predestined utopia, no religion of progress or science.  There is only the human will – what Ronald Reagan called “the energy and individual genius of man” – pitted against the gathered forces of history.  By a process of association, the elite class has been condemned to play the part of history in the present drama.

The public is less interested in governing or justifying the past than in disturbing the peace in the present.

In the middle of the scuffle one finds, inevitably, the question of equality.  That too has returned with a vengeance, though also with the lack of clarity typical of our age.  The established order, ideological to the core, seems unable to consider the concept without becoming entangled in archaic, almost meaningless formulas.  Thomas Piketty’s attack on capitalism thus recapitulates Marx and the forgotten world of the nineteenth century, with one crucial difference:  in the place of revolution, Piketty inserts a tax on the rich.  Instead of a new dawn in human relations, the wretched of the earth will get a slightly larger Leviathan.  The disproportion of ends and means is immediately apparent, and probably self-refuting.

The public in all its iterations, on the right and the left, populist and sectarian, has chased after equality in a manner similarly riddled with political nostalgia and contradiction.  Donald Trump descended on a golden escalator from his Fifth Avenue penthouse to speak on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of our country.”  Trump’s economic policies betray his generational origins:  tax cuts and import tariffs would look at home in the twentieth century.  On the other side of the spectrum, the politics of identity begin with a desperate cry for equality and tolerance but end with demands for special privilege and the silencing of hostile opinion.  “Antifascist” street fighters seek to reprise Berlin of the 1930s in contemporary Berkeley, California.  Digital culture, “a world that is both everywhere and nowhere,” source of so much of the political turmoil in the real world, preached in its origins a flower-child version of egalitarianism.  Today a handful of giant corporations decide, opaquely, most of what can be said and done online.

The universal ideologies that rivaled religion in the past century appear exhausted at last.  The public has sickened of a diet of abstractions:  it has deeper needs, and is moving to supply them in the particular, that is, in the nation, the sect, and the self.  In the flight from the universal, the public has scattered all over the landscape – and a question for democracy is how citizens can communicate intelligibly at such immense distances from one another.  Particularism, by definition, means fragmentation.  Pure assertion of political will, absent a program, ends with a babble of angry voices.  The lack of a conceptual framework, now confused with liberation, is in fact an unsurmountable obstacle to finding common ground.

Yet to be persuasive, even feasible, any such framework must first wrestle with the contradictions inherent to the idea of equality.  This isn’t a search for Platonic definitions.  The concept must be adjusted and made accessible to the digital age.  The fundamental question is whether equality is seen to entail the expansion of freedom or a decrease in difference.  All else follows from this choice, and each direction carries a long train of secondary questions.  How much actual inequality, for example, can be absorbed as the price of freedom?  What means of promoting equality can be considered legitimate in an open, democratic society?  Should speech be controlled to protect marginal groups or persons?  How wide is the circle of acceptable political dispute?  What lies beyond the pale?

Much intellectual work needs to be done.  It might be argued that, in a fractured environment, this effort might amount to nothing more than talking to oneself:  but that is an exaggeration.  Half the human race speaks English and is connected through Facebook.  One can dine on kimshi in Fairfax County, Virginia, and on Kentucky Fried Chicken in Seoul, South Korea.  In strictly descriptive terms, Naipaul (as usual) got it right.  The outlines of a universal civilization are visible from every corner of the earth.  The task is precisely to endow this civilization with democratic content.  This is a tall order, to be sure, but not an impossibility, and certainly not a reason for self-fulfilling pessimism.

Democracy and its contradictions: Revolution

September 1, 2018

[The following is the second of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.  Here is a link to part one.]

The end of World War II found the universalist principle everywhere triumphant.

The two superpowers that inherited the world represented the two poles of democratic universalism at its most stringent and abstract.  The United States, Lincoln had insisted at Gettysburg, stood apart from other nations in being dedicated to a “proposition”:  that all were created equal.  The history of the country could be interpreted as an immense odyssey, full of mishaps and struggle, toward the conclusions made necessary by this premise.  Given the persistence of Jim Crow and political bossism, much distance remained on the journey – yet progress along this virtuous trajectory, by itself, allowed Americans to reject the contradiction between equality and freedom.  To the American mind, both were God-given.  Lincoln’s proposition unlocked an extensive domain of contingency in which everything became possible, including the reconciliation of the universal to the particular.  The work of government, therefore, was to protect the rights of the individual in his pilgrimage to that vast frontier, no less than to enforce equality.

Despite the inevitable contradictions of American society, the US government assumed leadership of the free world as a universal mandate, unencumbered by hypocrisy or irony.

The Soviet Union, for its part, espoused universal doctrines at their most extreme – but with a difference.  Stalin ruled a one-party dictatorship in the name of democracy, and he institutionalized state terror to impose equality.  The moral inversions of revolution were for him extended indefinitely in time.  The USSR was governed as if by a small band of conspirators, with constant denunciations of “deviationists” and “saboteurs,” opaquely sectarian trials, and deportations, assassinations, and massacres on an unprecedented scale.  The bloodshed was sanctified in the birth of a “new man”:  Marxism-Leninism always claimed ownership of the perfect future.  That was its seductive charm.  The classless society, final solution to all human contradictions, hovered just beneath the horizon.  Stalin invented the totalitarian state and terrorized his own people to end, by brute force, the oppressive cycles of history.  After two world wars, many thoughtful observers were willing to embrace this Faustian bargain.

The 45-year collision between the US and the USSR – that is, between unequal freedom and undemocratic equality – has been called the Cold War, but the label scarcely does justice to the realities of the age.  Tens of millions were put to death in the Marxist nations alone, an ideology-driven crime spree that has yet to receive full accounting.  The battleground nations – Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Angola – suffered almost as severely.

The conflict was perceived to be a “war of ideas,” and was hedged with abstractions to a degree unmatched even by the Wars of Religion of the seventeenth century.  Universal principles were inflated to the full dimensions of reality, squeezing out the exceptional and the particular.  Nationalism was masked in revolutionary jargon.  Dictatorships became “democratic republics.”  The hot wars of the period were fought for universal reasons in inconsequential places like Korea and Nicaragua.  The United Nations, a conflicted, inept bureaucracy, nonetheless retained a sort of science-fictional legitimacy as global arbiter.  Other transnational institutions proliferated with abandon, for purposes of war and peace:  NATO, SEATO, the Warsaw Pact, the World Trade Organization, COMECON, the Common Market, the various tariff-reduction “rounds.”

Given the terms of the struggle, advantage lay with whichever side could claim the most complete and sincere surrender to democratic universalism.  By a curious paradox, this largely favored the totalitarian state.  It had crushed individual freedom, ostentatiously, on behalf of “real” democracy and economic justice.  The revolutionary faith tolerated judgment only from the skewed perspective of the future:  all present horrors would be applauded retrospectively.  In the decades after World War II, Marxism-Leninism spread far beyond the European homeland, penetrating nations, Furet writes, with little previous exposure to democracy or Christianity.  American failure to hold on to South Vietnam gave this tendency the feel of inevitability.  Hordes of Western artists and intellectuals jumped on the Soviet bandwagon, afraid to be left behind by history.

In contrast, the US faced the charge that it was a merely bourgeois democracy:  an empire of selfishness and alienation festering under the cover of individual rights.  Marxist analysis, which many intellectuals endorsed, denied the universal reach of the American adventure.  To be bourgeois was to be ruled by money – the most repulsive kind of particularism.  Events, from Vietnam and race riots to campus revolts and the baffling Watergate scandal, appeared to confirm that the nation was indeed a house divided.  By 1979, a sitting president could warn of “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives” and “the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

Yet Jimmy Carter was an anomaly.  US governments and elites responded to the Cold War with a sustained effort to align national life with the universal abstractions it was expected to embody.  The particularism of the South with regards to race was finally obliterated.  Local political machines were reformed out of existence.  The welfare state grew enormously to compensate for the inequalities of freedom.  Intermediate entities, like the states and the parties, were drained of much of their authority.  The presidency towered over politics, and the political process was made more inclusive and democratic, hence more unpredictable.  From 1945 to 1980, the pull of the universal transformed American society.  The election of Ronald Reagan completed the process by raising to office the most visionary American leader since Woodrow Wilson – and the most militant defender of personal freedom, it may be, since Thomas Jefferson.


There is no doubt that material causes featured prominently in the discrediting of Marxism-Leninism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  The Soviet economy couldn’t compete with the US.  Reagan’s weapons build-up pushed the old men in the Kremlin to desperate measures.  In this context, the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev appear as a forlorn attempt to lash the egalitarianism of the one-party dictatorship to the productive superiority of liberalism.  The gamble proved fatal:  Gorbachev, putative savior of the USSR, made history as its undertaker.  The contradiction he sought to bridge was too immense and fundamental.

Other contradictions, arising from the “war of ideas,” contributed to the downfall of the Soviet system.

The Soviet Union was a nation and an engine of revolution.  It had particular interests and a universal mission.  Tension was inevitable and could not be papered over by phrases like “national Bolshevism” or “socialism in one country.”  Stalin openly stoked Russian patriotism in response to the German invasion of 1941.  The Third International was dissolved in 1943.  After the war, Soviet troops occupied East Europe and set up puppet regimes by brute force rather than revolution.  Revolts were suppressed in blood and iron.  The 1968 “Prague Spring,” which held out hope for “socialism with a human face,” was crushed under the tread of Soviet tanks – alienating, at long last, much of the European intellectual class.  At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union began a long march to particularism that would end only with its own dismemberment.  The schism with Mao Zedong’s China was a decisive juncture along this path.  If the two great Marxist-Leninist nations were now divorced, who retained ownership of the future?

The idea of revolution stood at the heart of the riddle.  Revolution was the reason for the Soviet Union’s existence, yet by the 1960s the heirs to October 1917 ruled over a nuclear superpower and a restive empire.  Radical political change was a threat, not a friend.  Neither Marx nor his philosophy of history, in any case, had much to say about the atomic age. The fires of Leninism had failed to forge a new Soviet humanity:  the classless society, like the Christian end-times, retreated to the realm of myth and hope.  At the same time, the savagery of the Soviet past, long buried under a mass of propaganda, began to seep into the light.  Khrushchev repudiated Stalin’s “cult of personality,” before being shunted off to make way for a succession of cautious Party apparatchiks.  The publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973 showed the totalitarian state to be (in the words of Bernard-Henri Lévy) “barbarism with a human face.”  Intellectuals in need of revolutionary heroes began to look outside the USSR, among exotic avatars like Mao and Castro.  Yet these men were nationalists rather than world redeemers – and Mao’s regime displayed, to the edge of madness, every pathological excess associated with the dream of revolution.

It took a genuine proletarian revolution in Gdansk, Poland, in 1981, to confront the Marxist-Leninist system with the sum of its paralyzing contradictions.  The Polish proletariat demanded freedom from the dictatorship of the proletariat.  It chose indeterminacy over equality.  In the national elections of June 1989 it got just that, setting in motion the process that would lead, five months later, to the fall of the Berlin wall and the cracking apart of the Soviet empire in East Europe.

Democracy and its contradictions: Reaction

August 31, 2018

[The following is the first of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.]

Democracy is caught in a contradiction:  between universal claims of equality and particularist claims about individual freedom.

Equality makes no exceptions.  This principle planed away the categorical differences in status inherited from aristocratic society – noble/bourgeois /peasant, man/woman, etc.  Henceforth all were “citizens.”  All were, in some transcendent way, equal members of the democratic nation in the first instance, but also equal and undifferentiated members of the great movement toward a democratic international order that would impose justice without borders.

Equality, in short, is the necessary foundation for the many-mansioned house of democracy.

Freedom of the individual is more closely associated with liberalism.  In the liberal vision, the individual, shielded by rights and protections against the tyranny of others, must be free to find his way, express his thoughts, and accumulate wealth as he sees fit, within the law.  For Furet, the accumulation of wealth is the chief attribute of bourgeois society.  Even if one finds this characterization too simple (and too French), there can be no question that competition for wealth is one attribute of liberal society.  This activity can never be described in universal terms.  It’s private and particular.  The end result is an enormous disparity in wealth and influence between supposedly equal citizens.  Freedom, in other words, entails indeterminacy and inequality, while democracy demands an unchanging and universal ideal of equality.

The nation stands at the pivot-point of contradiction.  Nationhood can be conceived in universal terms, as it was in the French Revolution and the revolts of 1848.  In those cases, the democratic nation was seen as a beach-head in the overthrow of the Old Regime and the establishment of a rational new international system.  Conceived in particularist terms, however, the nation is a mere aggregate of private ambition and interests, played out in a territorial theater that must be defended, or even expanded, at other nations’ expense.  This was the mindset of manifest destiny and of the men who led Europe into World War I.  The assertion of nationality uber alles is willful and therefore indeterminate:  liberalism can elide into ethnic or racialist thinking, in which the nation stands opposed to the state, or it can fracture even more microscopically along group or personal “identity” lines.

In neither instance is the nation a stable end in itself.  As a source of meaning and an object of loyalty unto death, the nation is always a stage on the way to something greater or something more intimate than itself.


According to Furet, World War I, the first fully democratic war, ripped open the contradiction at the heart of democracy.  Whole societies threw all they had at one another.  The original war aims were particularistic – Alsace-Lorraine, overseas colonies – and entire populations went to battle in a spirit of exalted patriotism.  But four years of fruitless slaughter demanded a reinterpretation commensurate with the sacrifice.  Woodrow Wilson waged war for the “liberation of peoples,” by which he meant some impossible mix of democracy and “national sovereignty.”  Lenin blamed the war on bourgeois greed, even as he reclaimed the mantle of democratic egalitarianism and the glory of revolution.  The historic nations of Europe, which had grown organically around a monarchy and were governed by a muddle of principles and classes, were destroyed in the conflict.  They were replaced by abstractions.  Four great empires were butchered on the altar of national sovereignty.  The smaller inheritor states, Furet comments, were just as mutually hostile and ethnically incoherent:  but they were blessed by a universalist grace.

Whatever the role of the bourgeoisie, the war was in essence a failure of the nation-state system.  The narrow claims of nationality had loosened the red-rimmed tide that nearly drowned European civilization.  By 1918, appeals to particularism had lost all purchase on the political and intellectual classes.  Two universal principles of legitimacy for governments and nations confronted each other over the wreckage of war:  representative democracy, internationalized through the League of Nations, and revolutionary equality, propagated by the Third International.

Almost at once, a powerful reaction set it.  In the context of specific histories and societies, both democracy and revolution could assume the aspect of alien and destructive forces.  In Germany and Italy, the nation was amputated from history and the state, and made to stand for an abstraction:  the volk, the chosen people, with eternally frustrated claims to greatness.  German-ness and Italian-ness had nothing to do with one’s passport.  It was a mystical extract of blood and memory (that is, fictitious history), articulated by the two avatars, Hitler and Mussolini.  The fulfillment of the nation, like the classless society, lay in the far future.  The method of getting there, borrowed from the Bolsheviks, was to be revolution and dictatorship.  It was never clear that the mass of people shared the pacifism and anti-nationalism of the intellectuals.  Then as now, the people craved identity and meaning.  The new particularist movements sought to oblige with cinematic spectacles and a radical conception of the nation as an instrument of war.

The future between the wars was crowded with anti-democratic stakeholders.  The question, for a person of good faith, was whether history belonged to the particular or the universal, embodied in “totalitarian” regimes of the right and the left.  Only armed conflict could settle the matter.  If, as Furet remarks, World War I seemed inexplicable in terms of what preceded it, World War II was inevitable.  Hitler’s program demanded a conflagration, just as it demanded a holocaust of “non-Aryan” peoples under his control.  National Socialism had placed a transcendental burden on the particular.  That burden could be eased only through the conquest and extermination of lesser races.  The Nazis, it should be clear, stood far removed from the simple nationalism of 1914.

The catastrophic defeat and dissolution of these regimes in the cauldron of World War II negated their chief claim to legitimacy:  that of national strength.  With the ignoble deaths of the avatars, the “leadership principle,” last word in particularism, stood refuted.  German chancellors of the postwar period would seek to expiate rather than dominate.  Italian prime ministers would head national governments almost denuded of effective power.  Yet even defeat was not as damning as the visual evidence, broadcast by the victors, showing Hitlerism to have been a death cult that sacrificed millions to the ravenous gods of ideology.  Totalizing the particular had always meant, in principle, the end of any space for social or ethnic difference:  but films of the extermination camps exposed, irrefutably, the moral horror of that principle in action.

The appeal of revolutionary particularism to public opinion and intellectual tastes was in this way extinguished, if not forever (there’s no forever in history) then certainly to the present hour.  Today fascism and Hitler live on strictly as empty labels and boogeymen – the worst kind of political insults.

Jose Fernandez and the burdens of freedom

November 1, 2016


Jose Fernandez was a golden young man, with a golden right arm and a golden future.  At 24, he had already been selected twice to represent the Miami Marlins in the All-Star Game, and as starting pitcher he performed with talent and dominance given to very few in every baseball generation.

On the mound, he displayed an intensity that bordered on contempt for the opposition.  Bryce Harper of my Washington Nationals, a kindred spirit, placed Fernandez among those who are “making baseball fun again” because he wore his emotions so openly.  “Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.  And if you hit a homer and pimp it?  He doesn’t care.  Because you got him,” said Harper admiringly.  The last time Fernandez pitched, he shut out the Nationals, Harper included, making a good team look like a pack of minor leaguers.

Fernandez, in brief, was a star who should have become one of the greats in the history of the game.

That was not to be.  Around midnight of Saturday, September 25, propelled by whatever restlessness drives a 24-year-old with endless supplies of money, he and two friends went out to the dark waters of Biscayne Bay on his speedboat, the “Kaught Looking.”  Two hours later the boat was found upside down on a jetty.  The three men on board had been crushed to death.  The golden youth, the golden arm, and the golden future were lost forever.

A bit over a month later, the Dade County medical examiner’s office released its report on the autopsy.  It had found cocaine and high levels of alcohol in Fernandez’s blood.


The back story of Jose Fernandez’s life is in some ways more significant than his career in professional sports.

He was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and he determined from an early age to escape that crumbling dictatorship.  By the time he was 15, he had tried and failed three times to leave the island.  Failure cost him a prison term:  in Castro’s Cuba, you are a traitor if you aren’t happy with your life.  In this, Fernandez showed the same determination he was to display on the mound.  In 2008, along with family members, he tried a fourth time.

The boat he was in hit turbulent waters on the way to Mexico, and Fernandez’s mother was swept overboard.  He jumped in the ocean and rescued her.  “I have always been a strong swimmer, since I was a kid,” Fernandez said by way of explanation.  In fact he was a kid when this ordeal took place – barely 15 years old.

The fourth attempt succeeded.  Fernandez eventually made it to the US, attended high school in Miami, became an American citizen, and rode the golden arm to wealth and fame.  He was a ballplayer with a difference.  He had been born unfree and all possible paths were now open to him.  Fernandez often said that pitching in the major leagues never made him nervous.  He had lived through too much to worry about anything that transpired within a game.

The question that haunts the life and death of Jose Fernandez is that of the burdens of freedom.  He faced down a dictatorship with unyielding courage.  Given the freedom to do so, he succeeded, materially and professionally, beyond the dreams of the vast majority of people.  Can anything more be asked of a young man whose life, though eventful, had scarcely begun?

A number of Cuba’s baseball “defectors” – the word implies treason against the state – who have gone from nothing to freedom, appear to have had trouble working out the implications of the latter condition.  The great closer Aroldis Chapman was suspended from the game for 30 days for domestic violence.  Hector Olivera, with a $62 million contract in his pocket, served ten days in prison for misdemeanor assault of a female acquaintance.  Yasiel Puig, worth a mere $42 million, was involved in a drunken barroom brawl after a fight with his sister.  Livan Hernandez, favorite of Nationals fans, has clearly kept company with drug traffickers and has been investigated for money laundering, though he has never been prosecuted.

These men defied Castro’s decrepit tyranny, and succeeded materially and professionally beyond most people’s dreams.  But it may be that freedom, properly understood, entails something more than this.


To a man just released from a cage, all his desires will appear licit.  This is an illusion.  It is too much and not nearly enough.  Freedom, I think, is more than the buzz of cocaine, the chill of alcohol, the youthful madness of roaring over the water at 2 a.m. in a magnificent speedboat – more, too, than the right to strike at the persons who deny our desires, and who seem, by that denial, to be pushing us back in a cage.

We must make allowances for those who have escaped from darkness into the light of day, and are dazzled and blinded by the sudden brilliance.  But this isn’t freedom at all.

If you want to learn what freedom means, ask a couple in love.  Ask a parent.  Ask a soldier at war.  Freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  A tinseled despot like Fidel Castro may say, “I own your life – you belong to me.”  Freedom consists of the following response:  “No.  My loyalty is to my family.”  Or to my country.  Or to my friends and neighbors.  Or to my church.

Doing anything we desire isn’t freedom.  It’s tyranny of a different kind.  It’s playing the part of Fidel Castro in a Mini-Me sort of way.

The burdens of freedom are the obligations we choose.  Once chosen, they must be shouldered to the end.  To the shallow mind that may feel like a cage, but it is really integrity, wholeness, the rare and mysterious dignity of being a complete human being.  If you are truly married, you will be loyal to your spouse.  Otherwise, why bother with so many lies?  If you are a good parent, you will give up the party life, the days of rum and cocaine, the midnight races in the Bay, so you can be there to protect your children, and wipe their bottoms, and put up with their temper tantrums, and work for their happiness and success in life.  Otherwise, what do the words “father” and “mother” mean?

Jose Fernandez’s girlfriend, we are told, had just revealed that she was pregnant.  I am old-fashioned enough to worry about the notion of a pregnant girlfriend.  That seems like an obligation, too.  Fernandez, though, was nothing if not loyal, and I want to believe that, had he lived, he would have married the mother of his child.  But he never woke up to what fatherhood meant.  Maybe he needed more time, but he still acted like a restless 24-year-old with an endless supply of money, and then there was no time left.

His girlfriend, I presume, will inherit nothing.  His child will grow up never knowing his father, just as he will never know his child.


I’m not really writing this to moralize over the death of Jose Fernandez.  Even at 24, he was old enough to know better, but he paid with his life for his misjudgment.  That was much too high a price.  There can be nothing but sadness from the loss of this extraordinary young man.

I write because I believe many of us – not nearly so young, not nearly so dazzled by wealth and fame – have lost sight of what freedom means.  We have come to reject the very idea of obligation, because it feels like oppression.  We blame shadowy forces, some secretive but all-powerful Enemy, for whatever doesn’t go our way.

Everything today ends in politics, and this post, alas, will be no exception.  I don’t know how it happened that American politics became the equivalent of a cocaine high, with so many of us feeling like brazen masters of the universe, expecting as a matter of right the triumph of our opinions and the fulfillment of our every desire.  I don’t know how we came to believe that only the villainy of those who disagree with us is blocking the perfect utopia of our dreams.

But that isn’t the way of freedom at all.

Personal freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  Political freedom entails the understanding that our choices will often collide.  Only the tyranny of a single will – rule by a Fidel Castro, say – can prevent that from happening.  The frustration we feel because others disagree with our choices is the essence of political freedom.

If we embrace freedom as a political ideal, then we must shoulder certain obligations.  Chief among them is the assumption that others are as wise in their reflections and as virtuous in their intentions as we are.  On any given question, they may turn out to be right, and we may turn out to be wrong.  If we desire the power to persuade others, we must be willing to be persuaded.  Keeping an open, receptive mind is the only way to make room for all of us.

We can’t shrug off the burdens of freedom without vandalizing our own objectives and beliefs.  We can’t strike at those who block our political desires and not expect rage and rant in return.  None of this is particularly profound, but all of it, I suppose, is hard, being a question of character.  Still, every generation since the Civil War managed the trick:  and we can too, if we so wish it.  The alternative is to allow American politics to fly with reckless abandon into dark waters, stupefaction at the helm, and count off the seconds until the fatal hour.

The great moral structure of the world

March 6, 2011

I am troubled by a word President Obama kept repeating in his recent statement on the Libyan uprising:  “accountable.”  The president said he intends to “hold the Qaddafi government accountable” for its atrocities.  He said it again:  “Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable.”  He used the word four times in all.

This is not a new rhetorical device.  In earlier remarks on Libya, the president made this sweeping generalization:

Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need, and to respect the rights of its people. It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities, and face the cost of continued violations of human rights.

“Accountable” is a deeply moral term – and, indeed, the president’s use of it is in the context of Qaddafi’s barbarities against his own people.  But I would like to know what he means by it.

Webster’s International Dictionary defines “accountable” as “Subject to giving an account:  answerable.”  Answerable to whom?  Webster’s provides a helpful example:  “every sane man is accountable to his conscience for his behavior.”  Muammar Qaddafi’s sanity is a topic of controversy these days – my take is that a lunatic rarely hangs on to power for 42 years – but his lack of a conscience is beyond dispute.

Asked about the violence in the country he rules, Qaddafi responded, “My people love me.  They would die to protect me.”  This is not a man who is going to hold himself accountable for his behavior.

Of course, there’s a simpler explanation.  When the president of the United States asserts, “Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power and leave,” it’s reasonable to assume American power will make it so – that Qaddafi isn’t accountable to his own forgiving conscience, but to us.

Yet nothing in the president’s statement suggests the slightest exertion on our government’s part to help see Qaddafi off.  When asked about US military intervention, the president spoke vaguely of contemplating the “full range of options” and having “full capacity to act” – but seemed to imply that any action would wait on the development of a humanitarian crisis, and on “consultation with the international community.”

President Obama does not sound like a man who will personally hold Qaddafi accountable.

A transgressor who won’t answer for himself must be held accountable by a higher authority.  It is notorious that, among sovereign nations, no such authority exists.  The UN is just a theatrical stage where nations scuffle for advantage.  As Ortega y Gasset observed, there isn’t even such a thing as international law, because true law would require a higher court of appeal, and that would require a surrender of sovereignty – something no government on earth would willingly contemplate.

President Obama is in no way a fool.  He must know all this.  If he isn’t willing to give the order to bring the Qaddafi regime to account, then in what sense does he believe the man will be held accountable?

I believe I know the answer.  It’s speculative, but I’ll stand by it.

The world, according to President Obama, is contained by a moral structure resembling a powerful gravitational field:  all human events are embedded in this force, and are driven to their inexorable conclusions by it.  The great moral structure of the world is like fate with Judgment Day attached.  It acts as the impersonal author of history, rewarding certain actions, punishing others.  Only the wisest perceive the flow of the moral structure – and they have deciphered the course of history.

That the president counts himself among the wisest should not be in doubt.  He warned Qaddafi’s henchmen to heed the “way history is moving, they should know history is moving against Col. Qaddafi” – and there followed another assertion that they will be held accountable for violence against the population.  In defending US inaction, President Obama argued:  “The region will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history…”

“The region will be watching,” “The whole world is watching,” “violence… will be monitored” – an abiding feature of President Obama’s view of the world is fear of being caught out while on the wrong side of history.  That is what he believes has happened to Muammar Qaddafi.  Qaddafi’s goons are on YouTube killing unarmed civilians.  He thus “has lost legitimacy to lead.”  The great moral structure of the world, rather than any person or nation, will hold him accountable.  He will have no choice but to step down.  “It is the right thing to do.”

If I’m right in my interpretation, the president is about to commit a tragic error.  It’s an error because morality doesn’t pertain to the world but to human action.  And it’s tragic because, in the face of turmoil and suffering, he has found a pretext for doing nothing.

The president is like a lifeguard who sees a man drowning in the middle of the river, and walks away thinking, “The current will bring him safe to shore.”  But inactivity is an action:  if the man drowns, the lifeguard will be accountable.  Personal responsibility, not public exposure, is the engine powering morality in the real world.

Each of us is accountable for those actions within our power to do:  nothing more, but nothing less.  The Libyan people are being tormented by a moral monster, whose grip on power is slipping and who is fighting back without scruples or restraint.  Qaddafi’s defeat is not predestined.  His victory would set a grim precedent in the area.

The United States has it within its power to intervene in this bloody scene.  We aren’t duty-bound to overthrow Qaddafi – just to do our best to preserve decency and protect our interests.  To stand by brandishing words and proclamations is to play a game of chance with human life.  If that is President Obama’s policy, let’s pray that luck is on his side.

Otherwise, the Libyan people will – rightly – hold him and us accountable.

The American silence

February 26, 2011

In a few days or weeks, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, a true moral monster, will be overthrown by his own people.  His fate will then parallel that of other tyrants who suddenly find themselves unemployed.  He may go the way of Mussolini, or he may end his days in a retired totalitarian’s home in Caracas or Havana.

Whatever the future brings to Qaddafi, his regime, or Libya, one thing appears certain:  the United States will have had no influence over the outcome.

In the midst of the most astonishing global upheaval since 1989, American foreign policy can best be characterized as an embarrassed silence.  We seem to have no official opinion about these transformational events, no interests we wish to protect, no outcomes we prefer.  President Obama rarely speaks, and when he does, he says nothing.  Secretary of State Clinton makes vague pleas for an end to violence – as if a resumption of the Qaddafi regime’s control over the population were devoutly to be desired.

Never in my long life have I witnessed anything like it.  I have seen presidents with bad foreign policies and good, who succeed or fail in their endeavors.  I have never seen a president with no foreign policy, whose approach to the world imitates the mute self-righteousness of a Trappist monk.

The case of Libya exemplifies this urge to quietude.  Unlike events in Egypt and Bahrain, where pro-American authoritarians were challenged by popular uprisings, Qaddafi’s current troubles don’t represent a conflict between our interests and our ideals.  He’s a bloody-minded egotist, a plague to his own people, a bomber of commercial airliners, a murderer of innocents, including Americans.  He loves us not at all – and we owe him nothing.

So why the vow of silence?  I have heard rumors in the media about a concern that the Libyans would take Americans hostage.  If true, this is naïve on many levels.  It assumes Qaddafi would strike at American citizens only in response to US actions, and not because, at a given moment, he considers this move to be in his best interest.  It also supposes Qaddafi will respond more favorably to silence and passivity than to a show of force.  Yet we have evidence to the contrary.  After President Reagan bombed Libya in 1986, Qaddafi pulled his head into his shell and didn’t pull it out again for years.

Another explanation whispered by the media is that we have no influence to bear on Qaddafi or Libya.  This is both hypocritical and false.  Hypocritical because where we did have influence – in Egypt, for example – we refused to apply it, and chose to wait on events instead.  False because, absent this administration’s reflexive twitch to look away and bite its tongue, a great power always has options.

After all, Peru – not a great power – broke relations with Libya three days ago.  Switzerland – tiny and neutral – froze Qaddafi’s assets two days ago.  These countries didn’t ask anyone’s permission, didn’t make excuses:  they acted.  Surely our own government can do as much.

We can state aloud our preferred outcome:  a democratic and peace-loving Libya.  We can say what we won’t tolerate:  the slaughter of the Libyan people by Qaddafi’s forces.  And we can warn, clearly and specifically, of the measures we will take if the intolerable occurs:  impose economic sanctions, say, or a no-fly zone with the Sixth Fleet – or take out Qaddafi’s armor and air force.  None of this will guarantee that events will flow in our direction.  What it will do is ensure that US interests and values are in play, and must be reckoned with by friends and foes in the region.

President Obama doesn’t confide his motives to me, but I doubt the explanations in the media account for the strange American silence.  The recipe for the president’s quiescent slouch in the Middle East, I’d guess, is one part perplexity, one part belief in the nefarious effect of US power, and eight parts indifference to the fate of the world.  He found the time and energy to chastise his political opponents in Madison, Wisconsin, but for days, while Qaddafi’s goons murdered protesters by the score, he looked the other way and kept mum.

Silence is a form of action.  It has consequences.  In Libya, as in Egypt, America’s unwillingness to defend its interests and values will be noted by all political forces currently contending for ascendancy.  Those who hate us and despise our way of life will feel emboldened.  Those who might have advocated liberal democracy will feel forsaken and betrayed.  The vast majority, fence-sitters all, will embrace with various degrees of sincerity whatever ideology fills the void left by our withdrawal.

This is unlikely to be kind or gentle.  It is, in my opinion, a fact of history that when America grows silent, freedom loses its voice.

When dictators fall

February 12, 2011

On New Year’s Day, 1959, the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista packed his family and his gold into an airplane, and took off for Spain.  A week later, when the charismatic hero of the revolution addressed an adoring public in Havana, he seemed curiously unwilling to celebrate, and instead aimed his considerable rhetorical arsenal against political groups not directly under his control.

That was the beginning of a half-century of horror – a suffocating nightmare from which the Cuban people have yet to awaken.

Similar dismal scripts followed the overthrow of the shah in Iran, and of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua.  Celebrations of freedom gave way to a more savage and lasting oppression than the old regime’s.

There are no iron laws in history, however.  The fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Phillipines restored democracy to that country.  The same transpired in Argentina when the military junta ceded power after its defeat at the hands of the British.  More surprisingly, the collapse of the Suharto regime began a democratic experiment in Indonesia, a country with no history or tradition of political freedom.

With the fall of tyrants, nothing is fated, nothing is promised.  The problem is that these great upheavals of power are also reversals in the flow of time.  They appear, to the rejoicing crowds, like a happy ending, but are in reality the start of an uncertain tale.

Those who have never endured life under a dictator can’t imagine the nauseating hopelessness everyday life can achieve.  Fear sucks the air from the atmosphere.  The sight of a policeman, a sycophant, a censored news report poisons the happiest moment with feelings of shame and disgust.  Hypocrisy becomes the highest virtue – the ability to smile outwardly, and weep and rage in one’s soul.

Without freedom, the day is long.  Time is the ally of tyranny, an oppressive force which, by sheer dreariness and repetition, breaks down the strongest will.  Tomorrow will be like yesterday:  and the dictator, in his heroic pose, will cast a sickly shadow over both.

So when history miraculously resumes, when the clock begins to tick again, and the regime of lies crumbles before something very like the truth, it’s understandable for the long-suffering population to wish to celebrate an ending.

But consider the task ahead.  Political life, and many social and economic arrangements, have been hollowed out by the dictator.  Corruption like a contagious disease has spread from the palace to the marketplace to the home.  With the despot’s departure, distrust will replace fear as the overwhelming emotion of the public square.

People have little experience in self-rule or civic-mindedness, but own vast stores of knowledge in how to lie and cheat to feather one’s own nest.  The government which follows the dictator’s will be composed of his creatures or of neophytes, will preserve his system or trample on it, will be called “provisional” or “popular”:  regardless, it won’t last.  Citizens will learn that, beyond hatred of the old regime, they share little in common.  Some will advocate democracy.  Others, the triumph of some messianic ideology.  Others still crave economic betterment, or revenge for past humiliations.

At some point, a powerful and attractive voice will cry above the turmoil, “I can restore order” or “I can purify society” or “I can find work and dignity for all.”  And that will be the hinge of history, with freedom and tyranny in the balance.

To say yes to the charismatic voice is to open the door to an Ayatollah Khomeini, a Fidel Castro:  to slip from bad to worse.  The crowd, weary of celebrating liberation, will acquiesce in silence to a resurrected oppression.

The starting-point of these reflections is the fall from power in Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, after 30 years of rule.

Nobody knows what the future will bring for Egypt.  I mean that quite literally:  nobody, on principle, can know, because complex systems are inherently unpredictable and every human being is a complex system.  In the matter of prophecy, President Obama and CIA are off the hook.

But we know that the path to freedom will be long and difficult, and will require the intelligent assistance of friends of freedom everywhere, but most particularly in the United States.  The sanest message the Obama administration can send at the moment is that this is a beginning, not an end.

Egypt has some traditions of self-rule, though few Egyptians alive today will remember.  The country also spawned the Muslim Brotherhood, which the US should make every effort to marginalize:  not because it is anti-American, but because it is anti-democratic.  Although, unlike Al Qaeda, the Brotherhood is happy to play the electoral game, its political objective is identical to Osama bin Laden’s:  the restoration of a powerful caliphate.

As part of their long march to freedom, Egyptians must decide whether democracy is a suicide pact.

A more immediate concern is the Egyptian military, who have inherited power in an opaque arrangement that is unlikely to endure.  Apparently the military enjoy some popularity among the people.  They possess most of the guns and much of the wealth – Mubarak, we would do well to remember, was a fighter pilot.  There will be a temptation for the officer class to divvy up the pot now the boss is gone, as happened in Paraguay after Generalissimo Stroessner was pushed out.

The US should have some influence over the Egyptian military, since we pay them big money.  But we should cherish no illusions on this score.  The rules of the game are now broken:  anything goes.  The military will cut its own deal with Egyptian society, and with the world.  From one of its officers, I suspect, will come the siren song of restoration of order and final solution of problems.  The new riddle of the sphinx will be a choice between faux Napoleonic glory and real democratic drudgery.

On the answer given by the Egyptian people will hang their fate and the possibility of freedom in the land of Pharaoh.