March 30, 2021

QUESTION ASKED AND ANSWERED:

Growing up at nice lefty, wildly expensive private schools, I learned history as a series of progressive triumphs over conservative intolerance.

It made me happy to know that was how the world unfolded. It made me happy to know I’d be on the righteous side. It made me happy to know that the good team would win out. Each day is better than the last, and the path forward is always clear.

Religious schooling does not impart that message. It can’t. The Bible’s myths are all about chaos and complexity, sin and redemption, destruction and forgiveness, cowardice and courage, idiocy, luck.

To instill blissful confidence in me, the educational system had to downplay or ignore leftist failure. Secular, liberal Americans like me are taught a very beautiful and simple myth. It goes a little like: every progressive program that has failed or caused suffering didn’t do so because of some flaw in the plan or some misunderstanding of human nature. It failed because of forces on the wrong side of history.

This is how the system popped me out, at 22 years old, with only the vaguest knowledge of why the Soviet Union was a disaster. I had absolutely zero awareness that Jews there had any issue at all. If any of this was taught, it was fast and light enough to scuttle across my mind without leaving a mark.

My ignorance hit me hard in my Jewish 101 class, where one student was the daughter of Russian Jews, but she knew very little about Judaism from her family. I had no idea Judaism has been illegal there, that the rituals and the community had been pressured for generations to erase all traces of religiosity, all traces of difference, any part of themselves that might be Jewish. I’d never heard about any of that.

“Why Do I Know Nothing About the Soviet Union?”, Nellie Bowles, Substack, Thursday.

Another troublesome fact has cropped up, gravely complicating the longtime dream of socialism. That troublesome fact may be best summed up in a name: Solzhenitsyn.

With the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the invasion of Czechoslo­vakia in 1968 it had become clear to Mannerist Marxists such as Sartre that the Soviet Union was now an embarrassment. The fault, however, as tout le monde knew, was not with socialism but with Stalinism. Stalin was a madman and had taken socialism on a wrong turn. (Mis­takes happen.) Solzhenitsyn began speaking out as a dissident inside the Soviet Union in 1967. His complaints, his revelations, his struggles with Soviet authorities—they merely underscored just how wrong the Stalinist turn had been.

The publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, however, was a wholly unexpected blow. No one was ready for the obscene horror and grotesque scale of what Solzhenitsyn called “Our Sewage Disposal System”—in which tens of millions were shipped in boxcars to con­centration camps all over the country, in which tens of millions died, in which entire races and national groups were liquidated, insofar as they had existed in the Soviet Union. Moreover, said Solzhenitsyn, the system had not begun with Stalin but with Lenin, who had im­mediately exterminated non-Bolshevik opponents of the old regime and especially the student factions. It was impossible any longer to distinguish the Communist liquidation apparatus from the Nazi.

—Tom Wolfe, “The Intelligent Co-Ed’s Guide to America,” 1976.

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