Liberation's Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age
National Review, 6/11/2003
Shelf Life: Back from the USSR?
By Michael Potemra
For the first time in this century, God has smiled on Russia." With these words, literary critic Yuri Karyakin greeted the fall of Soviet despotism in 1991. But the era of optimism was not to last long. In a stark and sobering new book, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale, 314 pp., $29.95), longtime Moscow correspondent David Satter depicts post-Soviet Russia as a nightmare world of poverty, corruption, and violence.
Satter covered Russia for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and has a reporter's eye for detail. His book is good journalism, but it could also be used as a textbook in courses on political philosophy; it describes, more compellingly than any abstract theorist could, the consequences of nominal freedom without rule of law. Classical political philosophers say that, in principle, anarchy is the enemy of freedom, because there is no way one can exercise freedom unless one is supported by some sort of order. Satter's book shows the truth of this contention, in dramatic fashion: The Russia he depicts is close to the dystopia of A Clockwork Orange, in which any freedoms people enjoy are not "rights" based on abstract justice, but merely the temporary fruits of irregular power.
Satter describes the post-Soviet reformers as being in a hurry to establish "capitalism," without putting in place the necessary underpinnings for an effective free market: "Only the rule of law can assure the basis of a free market's existence, which is equivalent exchange. Without law, prices are dictated not by the market but by monopolization and the use of force." Thus did criminal gangs come to dominate the Russian economy:
The criminal terror against well-connected Russian businessmen . . . was short-lived. Soon the gangsters, businessmen, and corrupt officials began to work together. The gangsters needed the businessmen because they required places to invest their capital but, in most cases, lacked the skills to run large enterprises. For their part, businessmen needed the gangsters to force clients to honor their obligations. Before long, nearly every significant bank and commercial organization in Russia was using gangsters for debt collection. . . . By 1997 a ruling criminal business oligarchy was in place. A small group of bankers and businessmen, all of them previously unknown but with close connections to both gangsters and government officials, had gained control of the majority of the Russian economy.
The Soviets, Satter contends, left behind them a moral vacuum -- with consequences that will long afflict Russia. But corruption and violence are no more intrinsic to the Russian soul than to that of any other nation, as Satter recognizes when he dedicates his book "to the honest people of Russia." Building free institutions there will be an uphill task, but to call it impossible would be to despair of human nature altogether.
-- Tibor R. Machan, now at the Hoover Institution and Chapman University, is a distinguished philosopher and a serious exponent of conservative libertarianism. In his new book, The Passion for Liberty (Rowman & Littlefield, 243 pp., $24.95), he makes a convincing case for freedom, using a moral (as opposed to utilitarian) argument: "It is impossible to guarantee against human corruption in or outside the free society. . . . [But] nothing on the order of a good human community is possible when people who think themselves morally superior begin to play parents to their fellows. A restrained, maybe even well-behaved, Skinnerian human community is at least imaginable under those conditions -- but not a morally and politically excellent one."
In one of the best passages of the book, Machan defends prudence as a moral virtue. In the worst passage, he defends abortion rights -- on the grounds that up to a certain point in its development a fetus has not acquired "the familiar distinguishing capacity of a human being . . . the capacity (even if not yet exercised) to think and conceptualize." A pro-life libertarian would object that the fetus -- immature though he undoubtedly is -- deserves the same protection as any other citizen, when it comes to preserving his right to engage, eventually, in the pursuit of happiness and moral excellence. To insist on abortion rights in the law is to privilege one class of persons -- parents -- over another -- children -- even to the extent of allowing the former the power of life and death over the latter. It's a position more consistent with tribal patriarchy than with rights-based libertarianism. Nonetheless, Machan's eight pages on abortion should not distract the reader's attention from the rest of his book; this is, on the whole, an impressive primer on the principles of liberty.
-- Education is the transmission of the culture and values of one generation to the next. Given some of the confusions of culture and values in our times, however, one might wish the process of education were unsuccessful; it's positively unhealthy for the kids to be indoctrinated in the stuff most people believe today. Kay S. Hymowitz is one of America's best analysts of child-rearing as it is actually practiced, and her new book is a fascinating report on what the kids are learning. In Liberation's Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age (Ivan R. Dee, 202 pp., $24.95), she describes the soul-deadening process by which the young are socialized into a culture in which the central value is "the meritocratic struggle for success." From elite day-care centers all the way to what Hymowitz calls "J. Crew U.," the kids are slighted when it comes to any "identity that is larger than cognitive skill."
Hymowitz is on to some very important truths in this book: When sex and money are the most important things to adults, should anybody be surprised that the children are following suit? Also, be sure not to miss Hymowitz's terrific chapter on what's wrong with Sesame Street -- it's a masterpiece of culture criticism.
-- The preservation of human dignity is one of the key goals of a just society. The new, revised edition of Wesley J. Smith's Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder (Spence, 364 pp., $17.95) offers a compelling account of the threats posed to our common humanity by an easy regime of state-endorsed suicide -- and what we need to do about it. Smith's writing is full of conviction, and appeals to the most basic principles. He views the marginalization of the sick and elderly as a frightening new incarnation of the attitudes of the Jim Crow era:
Equality is the bedrock foundation of our culture. . . . Let us not make the mistake of replacing current groups of oppressed people with a new collection of "others" -- this time based on our fears and prejudices about health, age, disability, and death. . . . As we open our arms to those whom we have traditionally rejected, let us not turn our backs on the dying, the disabled, and the chronically ill. . . . As we painfully achieve true equality, let us not undo our work by countenancing the killing of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
What makes Smith's book especially valuable is that he views the fight against the euthanasia culture not only in negative terms -- i.e., let's beat back the euthanizers -- but in resonantly positive ones. What he seeks is a broad social reaffirmation of the value of each human being, no matter how powerless or mentally and physically tormented. He wants society to become genuinely compassionate. "If we succeed in doing that," he argues, "the battle will be won and the euthanasia movement will simply fade away."
-- It has been aptly observed that the plays of Shakespeare can stand, collectively, as a human comedy to parallel Dante's divine one. This is clear enough from a mere reading of the plays; the words themselves create a dazzling and comprehensive vision of the breadth of human experience. But to appreciate Shakespeare's strength specifically as a dramatist, it helps to hear his works interpreted by actors who are both talented and respectful of the text. And this is what The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare (Audio Partners, $600) -- a British production of all 38 plays, unabridged, on compact disc -- accomplishes.
I have already listened to over one-third of the plays in the Arkangel set, and they are, for the most part, terrific. The audio performances give the text a great emotional immediacy -- greater, indeed, than that of many Shakespeare productions I've witnessed in the theater. This set's King Lear, for example, packs a greater emotional wallop than any I've seen. Equally impressive is what the producers have done with less-well-known works: The three Henry VI plays are not just comprehensible but actually rousing, and the comedy All's Well That Ends Well has a very convincing undercurrent of sadness. The letdowns of the series are few and slight: Macbeth is just a little overemphatic, and Othello's accent has a modestly distracting lilt. The most serious drawback is that the publishers have, as yet, no plans to release the plays one by one; they are available only in the complete set. For the time being, then, this is an expensive Shakespeare -- but one in which it is easy to revel.