Solzhenitsyn dead at 89
August 3, 2008 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has died. ( BBC ) The great author and opponent of totalitarianism lived to see the end of Communism in the Soviet Union and almost everywhere else. He survived WWII as a commander in the Soviet army before being put into gulags where he spent 20 years. He went on to write the Gulag Archipelago and win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.
posted by sien (75 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
.
posted by etaoin at 3:22 PM on August 3, 2008


The post suggests that Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for the Gulag Archipelago, this is not the case, he won the prize in 1970 and wrote the Gulag Archipelago later. This would, make him one of the few people to win the prize and then go on to write their most famous book.
posted by sien at 3:24 PM on August 3, 2008


The Cancer Ward was magnificent. I've got to read that again, soon.

.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:26 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by R. Mutt at 3:28 PM on August 3, 2008


If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn't change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

Socrates taught us: "Know thyself."

Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.

From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.

And correspondingly, from evil to good.


—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
posted by spiderwire at 3:32 PM on August 3, 2008 [10 favorites]




.

I read the first three books of The Gulag Archipelago in highschool, and it buttressed, cemented, underscored, my hate for the Soviet system and for totalitarianism in general.

It's one reason I give Reagan, and his military build-up, a pass.

And I suppose it's also one of the reasons I'm so fearful of what the United States has lately become, and is becoming.
posted by orthogonality at 3:40 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


.
posted by fire&wings at 3:46 PM on August 3, 2008


"My Lord! What canal is there deep enough for us to drown that past in?"
Gulag Archipelago, Vol II Chapt 3
posted by metastability at 3:47 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:54 PM on August 3, 2008


Oh my.

.
posted by jokeefe at 3:55 PM on August 3, 2008


I have waited for some time now for his late book, out for years now, on the history of the Jews of Russia, which many readers have declared to be anti-semitic and others a luke-warm understanding of "the Jewish problem in Russia"

http://www.ncsj.org/AuxPages/112502TNR.shtml
why has this not been translated
posted by Postroad at 3:56 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


.
posted by scottymac at 4:01 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by oonh at 4:16 PM on August 3, 2008


.

Oddly enough, I was introduced to the Gulag Archipelago by Reader's Digest.

I then sought out and read the book. That never happened. Guy must've had something in his style, I guess.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 4:19 PM on August 3, 2008


RIP, dear, dear sir.
posted by sleepy pete at 4:21 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by WPW at 4:27 PM on August 3, 2008


"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is one of those books that after reading had me sitting silently, mouth agape...shellshocked.

I'm sad that he's passed, but a bit confused. I'dassumed that he had died years ago.
RIP
posted by robotot at 4:43 PM on August 3, 2008


I read an article a few years back about his return to Russia, and how his name was nearly unrecognizable for anyone under 30. How difficult that must have been for him, to have outlived his time in such a way, after all he suffered.
posted by jokeefe at 4:43 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, 1978:
However, the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or communist, self-determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American Intelligentsia lost its [nerve] and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your shortsighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam had been a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation's courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?
He was, in a sense, one of those who gave the moral backing to Reagan's foreign policy, which itself was the progenitor of this president's foreign policy.

Not that Solzhenitsyn wasn't important to me -- I read a number of his books when I was in college at setting of the Soviet empire -- but a thorough reading of his works and writings would make the liberal rank-and-file of MeFi visibly cringe, even as they embrace his clear-eyed observation of the gulag system, even as they point to it like a preacher to the Bible every time we here about still another atrocity of human rights committed by our currrent government.

Because if you look at that quote -- from 30 years ago, from another time when people were licking their wounds from a failed war and living in between detente and tension with the USSR -- you can see echoes of where we are today. And the frightening thing is that if he's right, the neo-cons may have been right too, even if they did turn truth into origami and create a useless war that has left a country (or two!) devastated and tens of thousands dead along the way to finish their proof.

Embracing Solzhenitsyn is embracing a cactus.

.
posted by dw at 4:44 PM on August 3, 2008 [6 favorites]


I'll also never forget how thrilled I was, as a teenager, to realize that Al Stewart's song Roads to Moscow was about Solzhenitsyn.
posted by jokeefe at 4:45 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


I read the first three books of The Gulag Archipelago in highschool, and it buttressed, cemented, underscored, my hate for the Soviet system and for totalitarianism in general.

It's one reason I give Reagan, and his military build-up, a pass.


Uh...
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:48 PM on August 3, 2008


members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there.

Interesting perspective, Alexey. In what, pray tell, were the members of the U.S. pro-war movement involved?
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:49 PM on August 3, 2008


a thorough reading of his works and writings would make the liberal rank-and-file of MeFi visibly cringe, even as they embrace his clear-eyed observation of the gulag system, even as they point to it like a preacher to the Bible every time we here about still another atrocity of human rights committed by our currrent government.

Appreciation for his literary achievements doesn't imply blindness to the other things about the man which, by the late 70s, had already made me turn away from him. I looked up to him as a writer who was passionate in giving voice to the dead of the Gulags and in creating an artistic freedom for himself. The right-wing patriarch I have less affection for; that doesn't mean I admire One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch any less in consequence.
posted by jokeefe at 4:50 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


The book that helped take me outside myself and encourage me, when I was eleven and being constantly punished by my teachers and bullied by my classmates, was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

дерьмо.
posted by notquitemaryann at 4:51 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by jenh at 4:57 PM on August 3, 2008


Second the recommendation of Cancer Ward. The beauty and redemption Solzhenitsyn pulls from from such a bleak setting is breathtaking. It is simply one of the best books ever written.
posted by squalor at 4:59 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Embracing Solzhenitsyn is embracing a cactus.

I don't know about that. He really put the lie to Western intellectuals who were still enamoured of the Soviet Union, in spite of the immense atrocities of Stalin. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was particularly shattering, and made it impossible to turn a blind eye to the horrors being perpetrated in the name of the Revolution.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:59 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by aerotive at 5:05 PM on August 3, 2008


dw: Embracing Solzhenitsyn is embracing a cactus.

It's possible to respect the man and his work without uncritically accepting everything he said. On Vietnam, he was wrong; it was not short-sighted for the US to accept defeat in Vietnam. The anti-war movement, and the US politicians who ended the war (e.g. Kissinger), were right.
posted by russilwvong at 5:05 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:13 PM on August 3, 2008


I'd assumed that he had died years ago.

As a writer, essentially he had. Once the USSR collapsed, his raison d'être was gone, and he'd written himself out with The Red Wheel, so he spent his last years as a tiresome crank ignored by virtually everyone, a sad fate for someone who saw himself as a prophet.

As I've been telling people since the news broke, I have no idea how to form a balanced judgment of him. His courage and devotion to the truth go without saying, he provided an inestimable service with The Gulag Archipelago, One Day and Cancer Ward and "Matryona's Yard" (or whatever it's called in English) and a few other things will last, parts of the Red Wheel novels are an unforgettable record of what it was like to be Russian during WWI and the Revolution, but a lot of his characters are wooden (especially his women) and his prose is usually clunky and the hectoring gets worse than Tolstoy's, and yeah, all that crap about US foreign policy and the evils of democracy was repellent, and the thing about the Jews—I don't think he was anti-Semitic, but he had strange ideas... I dunno. I think he may have lived too long, sad though it is to say. But I honor his memory. He was there when he was needed.
posted by languagehat at 5:19 PM on August 3, 2008 [8 favorites]


.
posted by sentinel chicken at 5:19 PM on August 3, 2008


I met him once in Vermont, while visiting his son Ignat at their farmhouse. Ignat -- who was a teenager at the time -- had been playing the piano when he suddenly stopped. An moment later his father appeared in the doorway to the living room, glanced in, nodded at us both, then vanished.

Later, I asked Ignat how he knew his father had been approaching. He explained that it was impossible to not know precisely where his father was, because of the powerful energy he seemed to radiate.

I hope Ignat can feel him still.
posted by william_boot at 5:21 PM on August 3, 2008 [7 favorites]


I learned about Solzhenitsyn, like many others, from reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I was in high school. I remember reading it, being horrified, and then wondering how someone could write those scenes with such authenticity. It changed my views on authority completely.

This man became the nagging conscience of a generation- if they could but be bothered to listen. I think there's still tons to be gleaned from his writings and speeches, if you just pay attention.

A true giant. RIP, Mr. S. I'll miss you.
posted by pjern at 5:21 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by gurple at 5:38 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by glycolized at 6:12 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 6:29 PM on August 3, 2008


Solzhenitsyn's views on lawbreaking (according to my former member of parliament):
Mr. Dave Van Kesteren (Chatham-Kent—Essex, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I have been listening with some interest, especially to the Liberal side talking about crime and prevention. We keep hearing that the studies prove that mandatory minimums do not work. However, a study done by Thomas Gabor of the University of Ottawa states quite the opposite. I could quote some others. I could quote Solzhenitsyn, who also writes in one of his books, I believe The Gulag Archipelago, that severe punishment worked well within the Soviet system. I am not advocating the Soviet system but there is enough proof out there. We are seeing a shift that seems to imply that we are looking now at strictly rehabilitation. Is prison not part of punishment too? Are we not recognizing that when people break the law they must pay the penalty? My question is not necessarily for the hon. member but for members of the Liberal Party. Are we are not engaged in another process here, the process of when somebody breaks the law there is a result and a consequence to it?

.
posted by acro at 6:32 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Al Stewart's song Roads to Moscow was about Solzhenitsyn.
-- jokeefe

As was Mother Russia by the (mostly) 1970s English prog rock group Renaissance. Quite long (vocals don't even start until 2:08), with musical quotes from Raymond Scott's Powerhouse among others, and with lyrics supposedly inspired by Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich.

From what I remember from the time of his exile from the Soviet Union and elevation to media figure status in America (adding 'gulag' to our vocabulary, and 'archipelago' to that of many), he wasn't much in favour of either; nor of being manipulated as a political symbol by either.

.
posted by Herodios at 6:41 PM on August 3, 2008


Fun game: go through Solzhenitsyn's list of torture techniques employed by the Soviets and see how many of the Bush Administration's enhanced interrogation procedures you can find.
posted by EarBucket at 6:43 PM on August 3, 2008 [3 favorites]


I had a girlfriend who lived in Ignat's neighborhood here in Philly, she worked in the preschool his son Dmitri attended. She had never seen a more serious four year old, at snack time he would he deliberate over his food and then clasp his forehead and say things like, "No. No, this brownie. I...will not eat this brownie."
posted by The Straightener at 6:51 PM on August 3, 2008 [6 favorites]


he spent his last years as a tiresome crank ignored by virtually everyone, a sad fate for someone who saw himself as a prophet.

Well, to be fair, all prophets are regarded that way by their own people. To the west, Solzhenitsyn always seemed like a disappointment because his anti-Communism went hand-in-hand with his disdain for western materialism and a skepticism of the idea that the alternative to Communism was US-style liberal democracy.

Solzhenitsyn was truly a Russian patriot. In America, patriotism and "Serving your country" are, according to its president, the acts of going shopping and traveling. One can certainly understand why Solzhenitsyn didn't see eye to eye with those in the west who wanted to use him as a symbol for their own hobby-horses.
posted by deanc at 6:59 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


.
posted by jtron at 7:01 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by wfitzgerald at 7:04 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by konolia at 7:31 PM on August 3, 2008


Everyone is a human being. Each and every one of us has a vast expanse of ideas, attitudes, and experiences. Some of them are distasteful. Most of our friends accept us as we are.

People like Solzhenitsyn suffer from the fact that we prefer our writers and thinkers dead and buried. That way we can twist their words to mean what we like more easily, and excise the really bad parts from the canon.

He was brave enough to say something that really needed saying, and that actually took courage to say. He was flawed, but so are we all.

.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:38 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Embracing Solzhenitsyn is embracing a cactus.

Artists are like that.
posted by R. Mutt at 7:41 PM on August 3, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm glad I'm not the first to admit I had assumed he already died many years ago.
posted by yhbc at 7:57 PM on August 3, 2008


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was the hungriest book I ever read. It made me want to eat bread and soup slowly, so I could savor its warmth.

.
posted by malaprohibita at 8:11 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


One of Solzhenitsyn's quotes helped changed the direction of my education, and subsequent career:
"As every man goes through life he fills in a number of forms for the record, each containing a number of questions... There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from every man, millions of threads in all. If these threads were suddenly to become visible, the whole sky would look like a spider's web, and if they materialized as rubber bands, buses; trams and even people would all lose the ability to move, and the wind would be unable to carry torn-up newspapers or autumn leaves along the streets of the city. They are not visible, they are not material, but every man is constantly aware of their existence.... Each man, permanently aware of his own invisible threads, naturally develops a respect for the people who manipulate the threads."
Written in 1968, but could have been yesterday.
posted by Static Vagabond at 8:12 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've been meaning to read something of his for years -- it's probably sad that it was his death that will spur me on to reading "A Day in the Life...", but like yhbc said, I kind of thought he'd died years ago.

(okay, okay, my turn for a Solzhenitsyn story. Ignat used to live down the street from my parents; I had moved out by then and never met him, but my sister has, in fact, babysat for the grandson of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn.)
posted by kalimac at 8:14 PM on August 3, 2008


Reading "Gulag" cured me of a bad case of lifelong leftism.
posted by Faze at 8:23 PM on August 3, 2008


He had a big impression on me as a twelve year old. I remember being home from school sick, and bored. I found a copy of A Day in the Life... on my father's bookshelf and read it through- that first time of being really "grabbed" by literature.

Reading "Gulag" cured me of a bad case of lifelong leftism.

The GULAG really doesn't have much to do with the left- more a function of an oppressive system.

The opposite of the left is the right- and, no thanks.
posted by mattoxic at 8:55 PM on August 3, 2008


"members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American Intelligentsia lost its [nerve] and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States."

I grew up reading his books, forbidden at the time in that grey city of Moscow. Having visited Vietnam, I can only describe what he says as an understatement. The horrors of the Vietnam war pale in comparison to what happened there once the communists had taken over.

As a great Russian patriot, Vladimir Bukovsky, has said, it's beyond unfortunate that Communism has been spared the Nuremberg trials. An ideology that killed more people than Nazism has been allowed to remain fashionably en vogue.

Sometimes truth is a cactus.
posted by bokononito at 9:02 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


The thing about Solzhenitsyn is that most of his ardent supporters here made the logical leap of assuming that his opposition to Soviet totalitarianism translated into support for western-style democracy ... and that simply wasn't the case.
posted by RavinDave at 9:28 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:35 PM on August 3, 2008


.
posted by nickyskye at 12:03 AM on August 4, 2008


.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:59 AM on August 4, 2008


I read two of his books in high school: Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I wish I had his faith.


.
posted by RussHy at 5:31 AM on August 4, 2008


The horrors of the Vietnam war pale in comparison to what happened there once the communists had taken over.

Bokononito, I respect your anti-communisim, but you make the "leftist" mistake of privileging the welfare of the collective above that of the individual. For someone who died in the Vietnam war, the horrors of postwar Vietnam might not seem so horrible compared to death and non-existence. Individuals tend to place their own survival above all other values. What is "Ivan Denisovich" but the tale of an individual's determination to survive, despite the collective's determination to destroy him? Unfortunately, Solzhenitsyn himself succumbed to the collective fantasy of war, when he berated American peaceniks for the loss of Southeast Asia. War is a seductive fantasy, like casual sex: casual murder. But do you think there is anyone in Vietnam today, saying to him or herself, "I would gladly have been killed in 1968 to prevent this. I'm sorry to be alive." That person would be mentally ill.
posted by Faze at 5:58 AM on August 4, 2008


I am not sure how one gets "cured of leftism" by reading about the evils of the Russian state.
If by ridding yourself of Leftism, you are now a conservative, then ask yourself what it means to have a free market when so many of the industries are subsidized by the govt. That, alas, is more like socialism. If you want a free market, then capitalism is what the middle class in America has.

Mistake to confuse the totalitarianism of China and Russia with "leftism"--how many nations in Europe are more "leftist" than Marxist or conservative?

On the death of a great writer:
why is it nearly impossible to get hold of his final book, which is a study of the history of the Jews in Russia? one vol out in translantion and that is out of print and is not the entire work.
posted by Postroad at 6:36 AM on August 4, 2008


Postroad, believe it or not, one is not either "left" or "right", or "liberal" or "conservative". In curing me of my leftism, Solzhenitsyn cured me of the religion of politics and government. This was a liberation.
posted by Faze at 7:07 AM on August 4, 2008


The Gulag Archipelago was magnificent. Although horribly, horribly morbid, there were moments of dark humour, as if spirits had sunk so low that the only thing to do was snark.
posted by spamguy at 7:38 AM on August 4, 2008


.
posted by hexxed at 8:14 AM on August 4, 2008


If you liked The Gulag Archipelago (in spamguy's sense), you'll love the Kolyma Tales of Varlam Shalamov, which are so powerful Solzhenitsyn said he wouldn't write much about Kolyma in TGA because Shalamov had said it better than he could. Warning: very, very dark.
posted by languagehat at 8:40 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Cassilda at 8:57 AM on August 4, 2008


Reading "Gulag" cured me of a bad case of lifelong leftism.

It's a slippery slope from universal healthcare to slave labor camps
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:21 AM on August 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


East Manitoba -- It's a slippery slope from the desire for a small group to dictate "universal" solutions to human affairs, to the desire to achieve those solutions by eliminating those who by their obdurate individualism, stand in the way of the common good. A perfect example: rationing of services, which is an inevitable part of any "universal" healthcare solution. Life is spectacularly individualized. The desire for "one-size fits all" solutions like universal health care, is the smiley-face cousin of the "one-politics fits all" solution of the Gulag, and the "one-race fits all" solution of the Holocaust.
posted by Faze at 9:45 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow. Universal healthcare does not involve making private or alternative healthcare illegal. It's not one-size-fits-all, it's one-size-fits-people-who-want-or-need-it.

Faze, you appear to have had the revelation that really, politics is an incredibly simple one-dimensional line from right-wing authoritarianism to left-wing authoritarianism, and if only the sheeple would break free from The Matrix of balancing the health of society with the rights of the individual everything would be great. Why can't they see? It's all just black and white!

This is the same line of thinking that gives people the flash of brilliance that, really, economics is incredibly simple and if we would only we would go back to the gold standard we'd have no inflation.

Politics is the art of the possible, and thus of compromise. Anarchic utopian absolutism is the art of the impossible.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:37 AM on August 4, 2008


Faze, you appear to have had the revelation that really, politics is an incredibly simple one-dimensional line from right-wing authoritarianism to left-wing authoritarianism, and if only the sheeple would break free from The Matrix of balancing the health of society with the rights of the individual everything would be great.

No, more of an imbred game of tug-o-war between left and right-wing authoritarianism, using their own penises.

Stable anarchy or minarchy is no more impossible than well-functioning bureaucracy that meets the needs of the people who feed it.
posted by rob paxon at 12:12 PM on August 4, 2008


.
posted by Westringia F. at 12:19 PM on August 4, 2008


the many, many horrors of the Soviet system were quite clear by the 1930s (if you cared to look), self-evident by the late 1940s, and a big fucking blinking neon sign by 1956; anybody who needed to wait to read overlong, pedantic, boring-ass books by that Tsarist, nationalistic, antisemitical anachronistic windbag that was Solzhenitsyn, they either had not been paying attention or were simply blinded by dishonesty.

if you needed to wait for his books you had something much, much worse than a "lifelong case of leftism", whatever that is (a penchant for equal rights regardless of race? for a woman's freedom of choice? for voting rights? if Solzhenitsyn cured you of that, I'm sincerely sorry).

Being unable to understand Russian (I can read the alphabet, period) I have never read him in the original language so I'm judging his books based on translations -- I try to read Russian authors in the French version whenever possible (languagehat can explain you why much better than I would), and the three books by Solzhenitsyn that I read (in French), with their clumsy writing and many cardboard characters and sad case of Tolstoy envy and all-out windbaggery convinced me that Solzhenitsyn might very well be the worst writer to ever win a Nobel, ex aequo with the dread Pearl S. Buck of course.

Not that he won it for literary reasons, which is fine by me (but then, if they wanted to give an award based on humanitarian value, why not the much greater Primo Levi who wasn't simply a -- wonderful -- writer victim of the bestial savagery of an authoritarian State but also a wonderful, wonderful man -- a saint, if Judaism had saints, obviously).

If one really wants to read a jailed hero of the resistance to the Soviet Bloc horrors, I suggest one reads Vaclav Havel, a much better writer -- and a much better man than Solzhenitsyn.
posted by matteo at 12:57 PM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


.
posted by papafrita at 5:12 PM on August 4, 2008


Communism didn't cause gulags, much as National Socialism didn't cause concentration camps. Theories don't kill people, people kill people. All totalitarian governments, regardless of their putative ideology, act in remarkably similar ways. Naomi Wolf has made a study of the ten steps that despots use to close down open societies. The second? Listen up, America:
2. Create a gulag

Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in legal "outer space") - where torture takes place.

At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, "enemies of the people" or "criminals". Initially, citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders - opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists - are arrested and sent there as well.

[...]

With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantánamo in Cuba, where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and without access to the due process of the law, America certainly has its gulag now. Bush and his allies in Congress recently announced they would issue no information about the secret CIA "black site" prisons throughout the world, which are used to incarcerate people who have been seized off the street.

Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger and more secretive, ever more deadly and formalised. We know from first-hand accounts, photographs, videos and government documents that people, innocent and guilty, have been tortured in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those we can't investigate adequately.

But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses involve only scary brown people with whom they don't generally identify. It was brave of the conservative pundit William Safire to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller, who had been seized as a political prisoner: "First they came for the Jews." Most Americans don't understand yet that the destruction of the rule of law at Guantánamo set a dangerous precedent for them, too.
Oh, and:
.
posted by cirocco at 9:52 AM on August 5, 2008


« Older More was Lost than Just the Rocket   |   The Walking Dead Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments