Disillusioned

In 30s of the last century a great many liberals, including folk song icon Pete Seeger, flirted seriously with Communism.  Indeed, Seeger was a member of the Communist Party, as were a great many liberal thinkers at the time. For one thing, the ideals of Communism resembled in a great many ways the ideals of Christianity with which many in the West were familiar– if not enamored. It espoused strong communities, the eradication of exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, and the equal distribution of all property, including wealth. It also embraced the notion that we should all care about our fellow humans. In any event, as I noted, a great many liberals embraced the ideals of Communism though most of them later became disenchanted when the reality of Communism began to stare them in the face. At the time it seemed an obvious alternative to hated Fascism and some, like George Orwell went so far as to join the anarchists on the side of Communism in Spain fighting against Franco and Fascism. The term “anarchist” denotes the confusion on the Spanish left as it included both socialists and Communists all in the name of “Nationalism.” But they were united in their hatred of Fascism.

Orwell, author of the recently best-selling 1984 (thanks to the election Donald Trump in America) wrote a journal describing the gradual awakening to the horrors of Communism that took place on the part of a young, idealistic reporter who went to Spain to write about the war and ended up joining the anarchists. His journal is titled Homage To Catalonia and it describes in painful detail the story of a young idealist waking up to the harsh reality that those in power, even those one admires and who seemingly embrace the same ideals as oneself, succumb to the temptations of power and wealth and behave just as badly as those against whom you are risking your life — perhaps worse, since they join hypocrisy to their other flaws.. Orwell was seriously wounded in battle against Fascism and nearly lost his life. He spent the rest of his days fighting a verbal game against the totalitarianism he saw up close.

Lionel Trilling wrote a paper in 1952 extolling the virtues of a virtuous man, as he considered Orwell. Not a great man, but a virtuous man, one who embraced the Victorian notion of “my station and its duties.” This was a man who walked the walk and who had no patience whatever with closet liberals who talk the talk but become lost in abstractions and find themselves lame when it comes to standing up to the sort of reality he saw up close. He was, above all else, honest to a fault. He was an advocate of democratic socialism though he saw clearly that democracy is also flawed; it has

“. . .told us that genius is available to anyone, that the grace of ultimate prestige may be had by anyone, that we may all be princes and potentates, or saints and visionaries and holy martyrs, of the heart and mind. “

In a word, it tends toward mediocrity, a leveling down of human aspirations to the gathering of wealth and the having of as much as our neighbor, the refusal to allow that there is greatness in the world, that some are actually better persons than others, that failure can be an important lesson learned. So says, Lionel Trilling. But he echoes the convictions of George Orwell who embraced democracy for all its faults — perhaps because, as Winston Churchill said, it is the worst form of government except for all the others. Heaven knows, Orwell saw the “others” up close — at least in their twentieth century guise. And he saw that the best government is the one that empowers the greatest number of people and in socialism he saw that restrictions were necessary to prevent the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few who have no idea how to manage the power it delivers to them. These things Orwell saw up close and in person. It almost cost him his life, but he lived to warn us all to be suspicious and not fall for the empty promises of ideologues and the pretty speeches of politicians whose only interest is their own welfare. And above all else, he urged us to become engaged in the world in order to preserve our precious human freedom.

Homage to Catalonia is well worth reading if only to see how painful it was for this one man to have his eyes opened to the realities of a world gone mad, a world in which even those who seemingly embrace the highest ideals also easily succumb to the temptations of power and the desire for great wealth. He worried above all else that we would be lulled to sleep by mindless diversions and political apathy

“…sleeping the deep, deep sleep . . ., from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake until we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

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Remembering Churchill

Not many years after the Second World War the world had only a hazy memory of the man who may have saved Western Civilization, namely, Winston Churchill. Historians have wondered over the years why the man was not more honored toward the end of his life as he sat, for the most part quiet, in Parliament and awaited his inevitable death. To be sure, his nation remembered him on the day of his burial while millions paid a last tribute to the man whose voice they heard countless times during that awful war telling them to remain calm and carry on. But perhaps they, like the rest of the world, wanted to forget as soon as possible the horrors of that war and thus Churchill was not given the tribute that many, if not all, of his biographers think he deserved. One of those biographers, Geoffrey Best, asks a profound question as he pondered this rather confusing determination to forget:

“One might not lament the end of ‘glory,’ but what about ‘chivalry’ and ‘honour’? There must be improvement of some kind in the fact that the concept of ‘dying for your country’ no longer provides a model of an ideal death; but there may not be much of an improvement in not knowing whether there is anything in your country worth dying for, whether you belong to this country or that, or even whether you belong to any distinctive country at all.”

Since the time of Winston Churchill’s death this question has become more and more pressing as we begin to see that the wars that cost so many lives are often, if not always, fought for the wealthy to become even wealthier and the poor who survive the wars even poorer. The scales have been removed from our eyes as we see more clearly now what it is that makes men and women do what they do — especially in this country in the past few months as a man who is riddled with shortcomings, prejudices, ignorance, and blurred vision, who has no concept whatever of what true patriotism and self-sacrifice involve, has become one of the most powerful men on earth. One asks seriously whether we truly belong to this country.

The terms “great” and “honor” are called into question in a relativistic age as we ponder the pressing questions of how we, too, can become wealthy and where next to find the latest titilation. Chivalry, of course, went out with hooped skirts and the moral high ground has been leveled so no one stands any higher than anyone else. The past is forgotten by people scurrying about like the creatures at Alice’s caucus race, hoping for some sort of tangible reward simply for making the effort: trophies for all participants and find the path of least resistance — but for heaven’s sake, don’t stop and think about what is going on around you!

Men like Winston Churchill were, in fact, great men, because they took advantage to the opportunities offered them and did what they knew had to be done — at great personal risk. Early on he was pilloried by his own countrymen for warning them about the dangers of Naziism, though he was later honored during the war when he rose to great heights; but he is now largely forgotten along with the rest of the men and women who created and sustained Western Civilization.  And there don’t appear to be many around able or willing to take his place.