• If War Is the Continuation of Politics by Other Means, the American Right Has Been There for Twenty Years


    Donald Trump’s threat to use the office of the American presidency to jail his political adversary, is little more than the logical culmination of the departure from traditional democratic principles by the American right some twenty plus years ago.


    While media outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post were uniquely complicit in elevating the sensational but essentially baseless scandals conjured by the right in an attempt to tar, cripple and delegitimize the Clinton presidency, and the Democratic Party as a whole, the matrix of this attempted putsch was an informal collaboration of right-wing law firms, activist groups and oligarchs.


    While the attempted delegitimizing of the Obama presidency was made more palatable to the Republican base because of the color of the president’s skin, smearing him as a non-citizen and illegitimate president was the next, and entirely predictable step in the right-wing quest for what at least initially would be a de facto one-party America. From there, codifying it would only be a matter of time.


    This is not a quest to dominate politics. It is a quest to end politics. This is not a thrust and parry in a contest of ideas in the public forum or within America’s governing institutions. This is an absolutist crusade with the goal of effectively abrogating the debate entirely. Threats to default on America’s debt obligations, or shut the government down are not politics, rather acts of sabotage, their manifest destructiveness only a trait of war.


    This journey to Trump Republicanism, or the full blossom of American authoritarianism has been greatly aided by the multifarious sources of hard, Orwellian propaganda so easily dispersed in the age of talk radio and social media, which in turn have resulted in the election to positions of power in state and federal government of demonstrably radical and irrational ideologues. And on the vicious cycle goes.


    Since the American left (with its own sliver of sanctimonious, self-involved puritanism) and timorous Democratic Party officialdom, along with major media outlets failed to distinguish this continuation of politics as war for so long, and to combat it in any effective way, we now face a blatantly and brazenly authoritarian cult figure unforgivably close to executive power in the United States.


    There is a small reformist wing of the Republican Party, which though it accepts in large part modern conservatism’s exotic and ridiculous economic dogmas, is not wedded to the racialist subtext on which Republican politics has built itself and thrived, since the inception of Richard Nixon’s southern strategy in the late Sixties.


    Unfortunately, there is an alternate reality in the United States, inhabited by a third of the American population (otherwise known as the Republican base, the Tea Party, or martyrs of diminished white entitlement) and this biosphere of ideological and cultural eccentricity will remain effectively impenetrable to reason, rationality, factuality and enlightened citizenship for the remainder of the natural lives of its inhabitants.


    While I consider myself a democratic socialist, it is worth pointing out that a callow, puritanical, self-involved and ultimately irrational sliver of the American left too often have been useful idiots in allowing this march forward of the authoritarian right. No better example is the credulous ingestion and regurgitation of manufactured scandal and calumny against the Clintons, who as irony would have it, were the first to be assailed in this burgeoning civil war.


    It is not only progressive values, but survival of the American polity as we have known it (for good and ill) that hangs in the balance, and anything other than wartime footing and survivalist mode is a decadent, inexcusable luxury on the leftward side of the spectrum.


    Donald Trump will lose, not because he embodies the resurgence of American reactionary radicalism, which he does, nor because he favors the policy positions of a radicalized Republican Party, but because he is a uniquely odious individual. While a growing majority of Americans reject today’s Republican ideology, the radical Republican minority will continue its warlike quest as a continuation of politics. Or more accurately, a substitute for it.


    While the eventual electoral decimation of Donald Trump will be a relief, as well as a delight, unless more Americans, including in the media, recognize what they’re up against, the relief will be short term.



  • Andrei Makine’s French Prose and Russian Soul

    Makine 2

    Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Ivan Bunin, Nikolai Leskov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Fyodor Sologub, Ivan Goncharov and more, the list of sublime and powerful Russian writers is long.

    For me, as for so many Western readers Russian novels retain an elevated stature, and Russian novelists claim an abiding reverence. How much of this should be attributed to Russia itself being such a vastly interesting place, with its epic, wrenching history, and how much to the writing facility of the authors themselves I’m not sure, though obviously, whatever the proper ratio it is some of both

    Andre Makine, born in 1957, has written all of his novels outside of physical Russia, though it would be right to say he inhabits the place still in important respects. Not only has he written all of his novels in Paris, he has written them in the French language. Hazy about his biography, it is unclear whether he learned the language while growing up in Siberia from a French-born grandmother or picked it up himself from books. But writing in French is hardly an un-Russian thing to do, French the preferred language of pre-Revolution Russian elites.

    Makine lived in the Soviet Union until the age of thirty, seeking asylum in France during a visit to Paris. He was so penniless initially he sacked out for a while in Pere Lachaise, the famous Paris cemetery that is the final resting place of so many monumental artists.

    In his novels Makine engages with Russia’s Twentieth Century sweep and tumult in a quiet way. Often his characters are mentally and emotionally straddling more than one place, more than one life, and in the case of Russia itself two distinct eras. Often stories are told from the point of view of expatriates’ remembrances, sometimes incorporating visits back to their native land, or recounted to the narrator by others. The extremity, the brutality and cruelty to which some of these lives have been subjected are folded delicately and reflectively into Makine’s stories. His calm, precise, if not classical technique also has the effect at times of setting these extraordinary circumstances that engulf his “ordinary” characters’ lives into dramatic relief. Makine’s facility for evocation is unparalleled perhaps among living novelists, and his books are as transportive as anything you are likely to read old or new.

    His breakthrough novel in the West was Dreams of My Russian Summers (Le Testament Francais in the French Edition) and it is elegantly wrought, elegance a consistent characteristic through all of Makine’s books. It is, as the title suggests, an adult’s reminiscence of summers spent as a boy with his French-born grandmother in her home on the edge of the Russian steppes. Interwoven is the grandmother’s own remarkable and compelling story, intersecting as it does with a traumatic swath of Soviet history.

    Among the novels, Once Upon the River Love, and Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer may be my favorites. For Americans coming of age during the Cold War there was immense curiosity what life for ordinary citizens must be like in a place variously portrayed as an “evil empire” or as sealed behind an “iron curtain”. In these two books Makine portrays what is common about growing up and about adolescence, with the unique character of life in a communal apartment building in Confessions of A Fallen Standard-Bearer for instance, a world still shadowed in many ways by the catastrophe of the Second World War as much as by the peculiarities of life in an authoritarian state, the legacy of physical wounds as central as the oppressive bureaucratic oddities governing daily existence, all of it through the eyes of remembered adolescence.

    In Once Upon the River Love the universalities of coming of age are depicted along with life growing up in a Siberian village at times literally buried by snow, and in the neighborhood of a labor camp, its distant perimeters marked by barbed wire. There’s the commonality of the impressionability of youth, and the uniqueness of adolescents in a remote Siberian village obsessed by French New Wave films and the cool of Jean-Paul Belmondo, who appeared in many of them, representing not only suave but the exotic allure of modernity and a mostly forbidden West.

    Yet in both novels it is the daily-ness of the lives that prevails in the imagination and etches a place there.

    Many unforgettable souls populate these exquisitely rendered tales of bedeviled lives, internalized and indomitable natural wonder, of inviolable humanity: Olga in The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, the émigré living with her son in an ancient, crumbling building that is home to a community of Russian immigrants in Paris, and how she came to be suspected of murder; or Vera, the woman in The Woman Who Waited, in a tiny, wooded village that does not appear on maps or even have a name, where she goes about her remarkably busy and vigorous life while harboring her mysteriously abiding  hope for the return of a fiancé who decades ago left the village to go to war and never returned; or young Alexi, who on the evening he is to perform his first solo appearance as a concert pianist in Moscow, in Music of a Life, has his world profoundly and irrevocably altered by an act of the state.

    Perhaps as striking a current as any flowing through Makine’s work is the astonishing self-discovery that one may retain, and likely will retain nostalgia and true affection for a time and a place menaced by hardship, absurdity and banality; for the vital joys and satisfactions and daily-ness where life otherwise is dominated by cruelty, and beset with suffering, always amidst the redemptive beauty of nature.

    One might go so far as to say that in his books Makine is stylistically French while temperamentally Russian. I don’t know. But at the least, there is the resonance of two magnificent literary cultures in one distinctive author.

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