Friday, September 28, 2007

Blind to Long Term Damages

Tibor R. Machan

Eva Hoffman has written some interesting books, including novels, about post-Communist Eastern Europe. For all her insightfulness in those works, however, she can exhibit a profound blindness about the impact of communism on the societies that were touched by that system.

In a review of Polish novelist Adrzej Stasiuk’s novel, Nine, published in the October 11, 2007 issue of The New York Review of Books, Hoffman gives clear and sadly surprising evidence of this blindness. Here is the passage that jumps out at the reader:

“During the Communist decades, the food and clothing shortages, the grim Warsaw architecture, and the dreariness of living quarters could be seen as symptoms of ‘the system.’ Under which people had a perfect right to be unhappy. But no such rationales could be sustained after the Soviet bloc dissolved. The material conditions of most people’s lives remained largely unchanged, especially in the early stages, but a whole layer of ennobling interpretation was stripped away. Drab apartments, shabby clothes, and other indignities could no longer be seen as part of a large struggle against communism, but became simply signs of poverty and hopelessness”(p. 42).

So, let’s see what Hoffman is telling us here. Poland and the other former Soviet bloc countries could be seen as suffering all kinds of indignities, economic, psychological, moral and the rest, during the Soviet era because the Soviet system was seen to account for them. But as soon as that system ended, the lingering similar indignities Hoffman lists were left simply as “signs of poverty and hopelessness.” This suggests that the Soviet socialism had an impact on these countries and its people and institutions only up until it lasted as an operating system.

Now this is bizarre. When people suffer injuries in, say, an automobile crash, they usually need months to recover after the crash is over. When victims of assault and battery are no longer being beaten up, they go on suffering from the effects in innumerable ways. Would it not be reasonable to think, too, that after 45 years of tyranny, economic calamity, oppression, murder, mayhem and all the rest of what the Soviet system delivered upon its victims, the process of recovery would take time and the awful aftereffects of the ordeal would be extensive and last quite a long time. Especially when the follow-up to the ordeal is not really a healthy exercise in freedom but a mishmash of welfare statism these countries cannot afford and advice from erudite foreigners that does very little put the societies on the path of bona fide convalescence and recovery.

I suppose the reason Eva Hoffman is blinded to what to me seems quite obvious is that she, being a friend of the editors of The New York Review of Books, holds out hope for some kind of recovery in Eastern Europe without actual radical change. This is actually an attitude many share in those parts, somehow wishing both to cast off the Soviet style socialist oppression but retain, in some magical way, the expectation of the promises of socialism—equality, abundance, society-wide mutual love, absence of seeking profit in a market place, etc., etc., and so forth. This dream of squaring a political economic circle is most likely what is exacerbating the malaise that Ms. Hoffman and the author of the novel she was reviewing find so upsetting but apparently quite incomprehensible.

The fact is that bad systems can end and yet leave long lasting effects. Just consider America’s tragic history of chattel slavery and how the country hasn’t yet managed to recover from it. And when intellectuals like Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Stasiuk seem to be clueless about these matters and give their analyses and advice in light of their gross cluelessness, the problems keep piling up instead of abating.

I am not someone who likes to draw analogies between living organisms and societies but to a point that can be instructive. When a living organism has suffered enormous damage from some calamity, it needs to be treated with the utmost care and trained to regain its strength. A failure to recognize that the damage has produced long lasting effects can only make things worse.

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