Friday, December 30, 2005


This essay actually appeared a couple of months ago, but I've just come across it and it's great and thought-provoking, well worth a read, Sheila Fitzpatrick's "A Little Swine" in the London Review of Books.

It's a review of a wonderful-sounding book called Comrade Pavlik: The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero by Catriona Kelly; Fitzpatrick herself is the author of Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. I think I must get both of these books and read them, this is a topic of endless fascination to me.

Here's a choice paragraph of Fitzpatrick's:

Imagine Denunciations, a parlour game, in which you, as a player, have to decide whose wrongdoing, and wrongdoing of what kind, to denounce to the authorities: your son's marijuana-growing; your neighbour's tax evasion; a colleague's affair with a student; a commuter who parks without a permit in front of your house; an Islamic extremist; an illegal immigrant; a paedophile schoolteacher or Scout leader; a sexist boss. Are all these denunciations equal in moral terms? Which, if any, could properly be addressed to a non-democratic government? Within the democratic context, to which authorities - local police, FBI/MI5, the inland revenue, your child's headmaster, your immediate boss at work - would you be willing to pass information, and what euphemism would you use? You might even go a step further and require players to offer their own most recent experience of denunciation, either as victim or as perpetrator.

The person who most taught me to think about these things was Judith Shklar, whose core lecture course on "Political Obligation" I took as an undergraduate at Harvard (I fear it was rather wasted on me at the time, it was certainly one of only a couple core courses that I really loved and learned a lot from--the other was a fantastic one called something like "The Development of the Modern State," with Stanley Hoffman, Tom Ertman and Peter Hall all lecturing--I had Hall for my section-leader and he was absolutely brilliant, one of the best teachers I had in college). Shklar's course included all sorts of good stuff, I can't remember exactly what (that's what I mean about it being wasted on me, my English classes I can name every single book on the syllabi) but there was Locke's Second Treatise of course and some Hume and a lot of Rousseau and Shakespeare's Richard II and Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and it was altogether an example of the intellectual life at its best. (And almost certainly the first time that I realized political philosophy was the kind of literature I most liked to read and write and think about.)

I didn't get to know Shklar at all, since it wasn't a literature class per se I was keeping a low profile, but it really fundamentally shaped my understanding of what was interesting and important to think about. And when I later came to write my PhD dissertation on hypocrisy, there was no single book that more immediately affected my sense of what I wanted to argue than Shklar's Ordinary Vices, with its chapters on cruelty and hypocrisy and other "ordinary vices" and its reflections on political-psychological phenomena such as denunciation, betrayal and so on. (Well, there are some pages in Arendt's On Revolution that were important too, and Sissela Bok's Lying, but I think my approach was closer to Shklar's than to either of the others', partly because she was so attentive to language.

(By the way, I disagree with all of them with regard to hypocrisy, but then hypocrisy is the great misunderstood thing in eighteenth-century writing....) If you like Arendt but haven't read Shklar, do take a look at some of her writing, you pretty much can't go wrong with it.

And messing around looking for links for this post led me to a really wonderful essay of Shklar's called "A Life of Learning"--click on the link and check it out. I'm pasting a few paragraphs in below for a taste, but it includes fascinating reflections on women in academia in the 1950s and 1960s, reading Rousseau as a psychologist (metaphorically, not literally) and the condition of being a refugee.

Anyway, here are her wry paragraphs about arriving at Harvard as a graduate student:

In many respects the Harvard that I entered in 1951 was a far less open scholarly society than it now is. The effects of McCarthyism were less crude and immediate than subtle and latent. The general red-bashing was, of course, a collosal waste of energy and time, but I cannot say that it deeply affected day-to-day life at the University. What it did was to enhance a whole range of attitudes that were there all along. Young scholars boasted of not being intellectuals. Among many no conversation was tolerated except sports and snobbish gossip. A kind of unappetizing dirty socks and locker room humor and false and ostentatious masculinity were vaunted. With it came an odd gentility: no one used four letter words and being appropriately dressed, in an inconspicuous Oxford gray Brooks Brothers suit, was supremely important. More damaging was that so many people who should have known better, scorned the poor, the bookish, the unconventional, the brainy, the people who did not resemble the crass and outlandish model of a real American upper-crust he-man whom they had conjured up in their imagination. For any woman of any degree of refinement or intellectuality, this was unappealing company.

To this affected boorishness was added a slavish admiration for the least intelligent, but good-looking, rich, and well connected undergraduates. Their culture was in many respects one of protected juvenile delinquency. Harvard undergraduates were easily forgiven the misery they inflicted on the rest of Cambridge. High jinx included breaking street lights and unrailing trolley cars. Conspicuous drunkenness on the streets was normal on week-ends. One of the nastiest riots I ever saw, long before the radical sit-ins, was an undergraduate rampage set off by the decision to have English rather than Latin diplomas. Several tutors were physically assaulted and injured. All this was seen as high spirits, and secretly admired. Nor were these private school products particularly well prepared. Few could put a grammatical English sentence together, and if they knew a foreign language, they hid it well.

The real ideal of many teachers at Harvard in the 1950s was the gentleman C-er. He would, we were told, govern us and feed us, and we ought to cherish him, rather than the studious youth who would never amount to anything socially significant. There was, of course, a great deal of self-hatred in all this, which I was far too immature to understand at the time. For these demands for overt conformity were quite repressive. Harvard in the 1950s was full of people who were ashamed of their parents’ social standing, as well as of their own condition. The place had too many closet Jews and closet gays and provincials who were obsessed with their inferiority to the “real thing,” which was some mythical Harvard aristocracy, invented to no good purpose whatever. What was so appalling was that all of this was so unnecessary, so out of keeping with America’s public philosophy. It was also a bizarre refusal to think through the real meaning of the Second World War.

On which note, I will sign off. But do go and read that Shklar essay if you have any interest in these things....

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