Apr 5, 2012

The Cannibal Revolutions

“Revolutions,” says a friend of mine who lived through the worst of the communist regime in Bulgaria, “devour their own”—and so they do. Orwell saw it, too: in 1984, some of Big Brother's highest profile victims were the vanguard of the original revolution. The characters Aarenson, Jones, and Rutherford aided Ingsoc's rise to power only to be arrested, tortured and executed for treason to the Party.

They were based on three real Russians: Nikolai Bukharin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, revolutionaries whom Stalin purged as Nazi-paid Trotskyites. That accusation makes no sense, but then again, it doesn't have to: 2+2=5 after all, as both Orwell's Big Brother and Stalin's Five Year Plan observed.

Orwell got so many things right that he can be easily forgiven for those few he got wrong. 1984 was published in 1949; there was no way he could have foreseen the collapse of the Soviet Union 40 years later—for that matter, most intelligence experts on the Soviet Union didn't foresee it until it happened right in front of them. So, ironically, it is the book's best-known line—the immortal “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever”—that is its least accurate. No—not forever. Not even for seventy years.

What Orwell missed is a generational problem. Outlook, belief, and knowledge get passed from generation to generation much like DNA, but much like DNA the transmission isn't exact. Your chromosomes get reshuffled, you have a mutation or two, and different generations have different patterns of thought. 1984 is a chronicle of a revolution betrayed: many of the original leaders—like Aarenson, Jones, and Rutherford—may really have believed that they were doing something good. The second generation—O'Brien and Stalin—knew they were in it solely for power, and that's where Orwell stops: with his boot on a human face, forever … except not.

The book ends before the next generation comes to power, and it's the next generation when things start to fall apart. Stalin's death came three years shy of the Soviet Union's halfway mark. His successors believed neither in power nor in Communism, but in its propaganda. The fire of inspiration died, leaving the ash of a self-perpetuating institution, and you wind up with slogans like 'Ronald Reagan – enemy #1 of the Tutrakanska village system!' Or, my personal favorite, spotted on the local equivalent of a hot-dog stand: “Всеки кебаб е коршум срещу световния империализъм!“--'Every meat-patty is a bullet against the world imperialism!' These cultural talismans so thoroughly saturated the Party that they became an almost liturgical backdrop to life and thought.

The revolutionaries had an idea that they believed in; the cynics who took over had propaganda that they used. They didn't believe a word of it, but their subjects did. Then eventually the cynics died, and the generation that had grown up with “Every egg—a bomb; every hen—a flying fortress against the aggressors!” hung over the commune's chicken run took over. Thus your Andropov, thus your Honecker, thus your Zhivkov, and thus your Tea Party.

I'm not saying the Tea Party are Communists—they both have some crazy ideas about economics, but the resemblance stops there. However, they have visibly encountered similar difficulties: what happened to the Communists also happened to the Tea Party. Look at them as the third generation of a political revolution—the ones who believed the propaganda and took over from the cynics—and suddenly the whole movement starts to make sense.

Reagan is the beginning: he has energy and inspiration; he sets things going; he announces 'morning in America' and breaks onto the scene with a dynamic, optimistic smile. It creates a real groundswell: a movement is born which has ideas, solutions, goals, and a vision for what it wants to accomplish.

Fast forward to 1994: second generation. Newt Gingrich writes his famous and aptly titled memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” In New(t)speak, “Democrat” becomes synonymous with “decay,” “failure,” “stagnation,” “waste,” “sick,” “ideological,” “anti-family,” etc. Joe Klein describes another important shift: “[Bill Kristol's] turning point came when he advised Republicans to oppose the Clinton health care plan on purely tactical grounds–he didn’t want Clinton to win the political victory that reform would represent. And yet, he refused to propose an alternative. He didn’t even support the Republican alternative.” Power supersedes ideas; having power is more important than solving problems or accomplishing goals; language becomes propaganda.

Now fast forward to 2008: third generation. The propagandized take over, or at least try to, and suddenly the folks who bought into that nonsense are running the show. The propaganda is believed, and not just believed: all the catchy little buzzwords become us-versus-them cultural identifiers. Take the Communist slogans, change the bad guy from “imperialism” to “socialism” and they would fit right in on Sarah Palin's twitter or a Tea Party sign: jingoistic patriotism, xenophobia, and the defining struggle against the 'enemy'—all largely free of any connection to reality, all fervently believed. All political movements have their slogans, of course, and all politicians say all manner of things to get elected. But there's a certain threshold of drinking your own Kool-Aid beyond which a chain reaction builds and bad things start to happen. The Tea Party has crossed it.
By the time you really cross that line, there's nothing left of the original idea that drove the movement. Vision decays to image, and in the vacuum beyond reality adherence to the image becomes the highest goal. Who can shout the sacred words the loudest, who can raise their fist the highest against the imperialists or the socialists: these become the ultimate litmus tests, and whoever isn't 'true' enough—the RINO's and the betrayers of the revolution—gets devoured with piranha-like efficiency. Thus Sarah Palin, thus the endless jockeying among the not-Romneys to be the 'true' conservative, thus “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”

Revolution devours its own—that's true not only of the victims, but of the followers as well. It devours their minds, it devours their time, it devours their emotions: 'Fox Geezer Syndrome' (coined by Richmond Ramsey of Frum Forum) is an ongoing national tragedy. In the grand scheme of things, this revolution will soon pass like all the rest, but it's an open question just how soon is 'soon', and just how much damage will be done in the meantime.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the most insightful analyses of the Tea party that doesn't address the religious apect of the phenomenon. Though, one must ask which comes first in the minds of the true believers--evangelical fundamentalism or radical Republican politics? Reagan was a mainline Protestant, so I think we have our answer there.