Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Brooks can't stop even if Putin can

St. Vladimir. Via Eastern Gift Shop.
Mr. Pierce and Drifters have the savage irony department covered on the subject of David Brooks condemning the old launch of a messianic preemptive war thingy:
Let us pause for a further moment and see if we can recall, in our recent history, a war of aggression launched melodramatically and in pursuit of grandiose eschatalogical visions. Let us pause for yet another moment and see if we can recall a war launched based on a nation's notion of itself as exceptional, with a unique spiritual status and purpose
What I'd like to do is dwell for a while on the Protean skill with which Brooks recasts himself from moment to moment as the universal pseudo-polymath, the Tory Professor Corey, the Isaiah Berlin of derp, leaping from posing as the World's Foremost Authority [jump]
on the 18th-century English essay just a few days ago to World's Foremost Authority on late Imperial and early Soviet Russian philosophy and its implications for today, today. How the feck did he do that?

Well, I'm a Googling man myself, and I think I can tell you. It starts around noon on Monday when he's lounging in his suite at the Hotel Pomo wondering what the better class of pandit are getting up to—Andrew Sullivan, naturally, with a piquant quote from somebody you've never heard of, and Sully hasn't either, I'll wager, name of Maria Snegovaya, writing in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage:
what exactly this pro-Soviet worldview means is fairly poorly understood. To get a grasp on one needs to check what Putin’s preferred readings are. Putin’s favorites include a bunch of Russian nationalist philosophers of early 20th century – Berdyaev, Solovyev, Ilyin — whom he often quotes in his public speeches. Moreover, recently the Kremlin has specifically assigned Russia’s regional governors to read the works by these philosophers during 2014 winter holidays. The main message of these authors is Russia’s messianic role in world history, preservation and restoration of Russia’s historical borders and Orthodoxy.
as well as a money quote from one of the philosophers, to which I will come way down at the end. He doesn't even need to look at Snegovaya's essay, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't look at it, but instead clicks immediately on that link to the provincial governors' reading list, which gives him some Russian text at the Kommersant newspaper, which Google kindly offers to transfigure for him into something similar to English prose, which doesn't, as you can imagine, make much immediate sense, but does give him enough material for a couple of paragraphs:
Even cynics like to feel moral. Even hard-eyed men who play power politics need to feel that their efforts are part of a great historic mission. So as he has been throwing his weight around the world, Vladimir Putin has been careful to quote Russian philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries like Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin.
Putin doesn’t only quote these guys; he wants others to read them. As Maria Snegovaya pointed out recently in The Washington Post, the Kremlin recently assigned three philosophic books to regional governors: Berdyaev’s “The Philosophy of Inequality,” Solovyov’s “Justification of the Good” and Ilyin’s “Our Tasks.”
Note how he follows his usual pattern of offering the big general statement, then mentioning his source, then mentioning a detail, as if to suggest he knew the big thing already and the source just helped him out with a little color.
Vladimir and Rogneda. Anton Losenko, 1770 (via Wikipedia).
You can tell he got it from Google Translate by the spelling of "Solovyov" instead of Snegovaya's "Solovyev" (I would write Solov'ëv, and Il'in), later reinforced by Wikipedia. And the story of Putin's presence at the repatriation of Il'in's ashes from Ann Arbor to Moscow, where he saw them buried in 2006, which comes next:
Putin was personally involved in getting Ilyin’s remains re-buried back in Russian soil. In 2009, Putin went to consecrate the grave himself. The event sent him into a nationalistic fervor. “It’s a crime when someone only begins talking about the separation of Russia and the Ukraine,” he said on that day.
Looks like he really liked the story, Googling something along the lines of "Putin Ilyin grave", because that's the only way he could have found that quote, with its unidiomatic "when someone only begins talking", which is found uniquely, on the entire Internet, in the second item that comes up:

I'm not sure how he came up with the next quote but it too is an Internet unicum, first sentence of a 1928 essay by Ivan Il'in, fifth result if you Google "Ivan Ilyin humiliation" or ninth after "Ivan Ilyin ashes":
To enter into the world of Putin’s favorite philosophers is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions. “We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness,” Ilyin wrote.
Incidentally there is not one single bit of melodrama, mysticism, or grandiose eschatology in this little essay, which Brooks plainly did not read beyond that first sentence; it's about "salvation through quality" or, like everything else at this Russian Organization for Quality website, striving for excellence and emulating Toyota, insofar as a 1928 essay could be. The melodrama and mysticism are Brooks's contribution, together with Russian exceptionalism, which apparently unlike American exceptionalism is a bad thing; devotion to the Orthodox faith, which is at best sketchy although Brooks is normally crazy about religion as long as he doesn't have to practice it; and belief in autocracy (although Berdyaev, for one, was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922 because of his opposition to autocracy, as Wikipedia can tell you), making up a deadly cocktail of quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy that is sure to make a noise.
These philosophers often argued that the rationalistic, materialistic West was corrupting the organic spiritual purity of Russia. “The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia,” Ilyin wrote, “Having lost our bond with God and the Christian tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism.”
Epigraph in bold italics to a brief biography of Il'in at, fifth Google result under "Ivan Ilyin materialism".
You can hear echoes of this moralistic strain in Putin’s own speeches, especially when he defends his regime’s attitude toward gays and the role of women. Citing Berdyaev, he talks about defending traditional values to ward off moral chaos. He says he is defending the distinction between good and evil, which has been lost in the outside world.
This is true, from a speech Putin gave in response to criticism of the anti-gay laws last December; in fact he sounds kind of like Brooks:
Quoting early 20th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, the president said conservatism does not stop society from progressing but "prevents it from falling backward into chaotic darkness and the state of primitive man." (AP, via Al Jazeera)
It is not true, on the other hand, that
Solovyov argued that because Russia is located between the Catholic West and the non-Christian East, it has a historic mission to lead the way to human unification.
Rather, Solov'ëv argued for the unification of all of Christianity through Russian Orthodoxy against the East, of which he was terrified. (I'm not sure what Brooks's source was on this; I used the Transnational Solovyov Society, which has some language that Brooks might have misinterpreted this way, but it's well down the page from where he usually looks.) And when Berdyaev discussed the "Russian messianic conception" in 1944, in Paris, he was urging the White exile community to offer its support to the Stalinist regime, which he believed was becoming more friendly to Christians (correctly, I guess, at the moment; official atheism was not really revived until well after Stalin was dead, in 1959), and against the pagan Nazis, but it is clear that Brooks quotes it simply because it is the third Google result for "Berdyaev messianic" or first for "Berdyaev messianism".
Uncredited image of Vladimir the Great via American Family Rights.
The technique throughout is to make up the argument out of the author's own mastery of cliché—
Russia is frequently seen as a besieged fortress. The West is thought to be rotten to the core and weak yet so powerful that it can be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Russia has immeasurable spiritual potential yet is forever plagued by a lack of self-respect, lack of self-assertion and unmet potential
—and then not so much support it with citations as decorate it with whatever seems relevant, whether it actually is or not. Or perhaps he's actually laying out his obscure quotations first in those famous patterns on the carpet and then adding bits of his own prose to string them together. The effect in either case is that air of remarkable breadth of reading obtained by what amounts to a randomization of the Google tailings. And it's taken him just part of the afternoon to do half the week's work for which the Times pays him.

In his preoccupation with making himself look original without having any ideas or learning anything, Brooks doesn't notice that the whole complex of issues is very well known under the rubric of Eurasianism and its 19th-century Slavophile roots, something that even the National Review managed to pick up on the other day, although in a pretty revolting panic-stricken way. Even though he glances on Eurasianism himself in an Il'in quote from the 1950 essay "What does Russia's partitioning mean to the world?" (as cited by Snegovaya-quoted-by-Sully, mashed together with its Brooks-found citation with an alternate (and I think inferior, as well as alarmist) title translation, misdated 1948 by Eduard Kuz'min):
In his 1948 essay, “What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World,” Ilyin describes the Russian people as the “core of everything European-Asian and, therefore, of universal equilibrium.” Yet the West, he argues, is trying to “divide the united Russian broom into twigs to break these twigs one by one.”
How Il'in imagined anybody was trying to divide Russia from Ukraine in 1950 is not explained. The Eurasianism is right there, in any event, and Brooks looked right past it.

And in his insistence on Putin as comic-book villain, he misses what I'm starting to think is the most interesting thing of all, that Putin seems to be a true Orthodox believer, secretly baptized as a child, extraordinary builder of churches, and regarded by some of his devotees as a saint. He's a real conservative, monomaniacal and sentimental, willing to lie to accomplish what he regards as sacred goals; a Brooksian conservative in fact. Which is kind of funny.

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