Much Ado About Inflammatory Rhetoric

Inflammatory rhetoric must be purged, some say.  Not necessarily a bad idea, provided would-be arbiters of civil discourse begin by questioning the enshrinement of writer Susan Sontag in college rhetoric textbooks.  It would, after all, take a most peculiar notion of civility to endorse Sontag’s 1967 declaration that “[t]he white race is the cancer of human history”.  Somehow, nevertheless, those who object to being labeled “cancer” find that their objections are ignored while they themselves are expected to take seriously speeches by pundits professing hatred of hate speech.  Evidently the only real problem with The Matrix’s misanthropic Agent Smith is that he fails to confine his animosity to those of European descent.  Should he clean up his act, perhaps he could land himself a job with some nice office of diversity affairs somewhere:  And we… are the cure.

Yet fairness demands credit where credit is due:  Sontag did at least own up to Western liberalism’s collaboration with Communist atrocities.  As early as 1982 she conceded that many “people on the left” — including Sontag herself — had “willingly or unwillingly told a lot of lies” during the Cold War:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism?  The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our [conservative] enemies were right?

Critics of Sontag may of course demand where, after having admitted this, she still had the nerve to continue pontificating about world affairs for the remaining two decades of her life.  But at least she was honest enough to confess her part in a great wrong, which is more than can be said for others.

To put that wrong in context requires going back to the USSR’s origins and looking at another activist who was at least as intellectually rigorous as Sontag — Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.  Candidly disdainful of his country’s intelligentsia, Lenin scorned Russian intellectuals’ claim to be “the brains of the nation”:  “In fact they are not its brains but its shit.”  Likewise blunt regarding the prosperous peasant-farmers known as kulaks, Lenin saw such peasants’ resistance to land collectivization interfering with his effort to control agriculture.  Hence in one memo he ordered the hanging of over 100 of them “to be accomplished in such a way, that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know and scream out:  let’s choke and strangle those bloodsucking kulaks.”

Thus the conventional claim that the revolution was humane until Stalin betrayed it proves difficult to support.  As a potential threat to Russian Marxism the Orthodox Church was specifically singled out for a beating, with 1,000 priests and 28 bishops executed in the first five years following Bolshevik ascendancy.  A shrewd political operator, Lenin deftly turned famine caused by Bolshevik collectivization policies into a political weapon against religion.  In a letter to the Politburo he insisted that “[w]e must pursue the removal of church property by any means necessary in order to secure for ourselves a fund of several hundred million gold rubles,” and observed that mass-starvation provided a perfect pretext for seizing consecrated vessels and religious art:

Now and only now, when people are being eaten in famine-stricken areas, and hundreds, if not thousands, of corpses lie on the roads, we can (and therefore must) pursue the removal of church property with the most frenzied and ruthless energy and not hesitate to put down the least opposition.

Needless to say, the wealth stripped from the churches did not transform Russia into a paradise of well-fed happy workers.  What Lenin’s regime did achieve was the birth of the vast GULAG network, beginning with the establishment of a labor camp at the Solovetsky Islands in 1923.  It was at Solovki where new techniques were devised and perfected for the management of prisoners:  Men were fed based on their productivity, while inmates who fell afoul of the guards were liable to be stripped and then bound to a tree, thereby offered up like sacrifices to insatiable clouds of mosquitoes infesting the region.

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