Sunday, March 12, 2006

Conscience and Spirit

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - The Gulag Archipelago

It is a “pitiful ideology which holds that human beings are made for happiness.” (114)

Solzhenitsyn is in the First World War and is complaining by letter to a friend also in the war. This lands him in jail. He gives the sense that the only justice is having the right friends and believing the right things. There just isn't any room for dissent, or failure. People that were captured by the Germans were considered spies and upon release and return to Russia they were arrested. The law is interpreted liberally in whatever way suits the interrogator to help him get his job done.

How did the justice system disintegrate? Shakespeare’s Macbeth killed the king to become king and continued the killing to stay king.  It only worked for so long because after a while he didn’t have the mental justification for his actions.  Ideology solves that problem.  It can turn a wrong action into something that is right.  Depriving a man of rights and justice is wrong, but it can be justified by the ideology that it is for the good of society.  A large part of that ideology that Solzhenitsyn doesn’t talk about is fear, the fear of the capitalist forces, the terrorists.  Hmm, sounds familiar.

So how does a person face this dehumanizing ideology and come out as human?  By accepting that “My life is over… Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.” (97)  The interrogators and guards always wanted the prisoners to sign a confession of guilt that twisted their words, or be an informant in the camp.  It was an exercise in power; they would control a person using threats.  One of the characters was threatened that if he didn’t do what they wanted his family would be thrown into the camps as well.  This got to him, but he eventually came to the conclusion that they would be thrown into the camps anyway.  They served their ideology, not any agreement they made with him.  There is some truth to the cliché “we don’t deal with terrorists.”  Except it is usually a guy in a bank, not the government of the USSR or the patriot act.  

The one thing that struck me that I think I take for granted is that I have a lot of stuff on this blog that is anti-corporatist but I am not thrown in jail for it.  Mind you, being in jail would stifle my consumption, so that just wouldn’t make sense.  

The next part made me question the thankfulness for my freedom; maybe it is just a façade for my corruption.  Solzhenitsyn said that those who lost their humanity lost it in freedom, not in captivity.  

I watched Mr. Deeds this weekend and his big speech at the end was to ask what people wanted to be when they were children, then what they had turned out to be.  Everyone made sacrifices on the way.  Another cliché… no one will say they wish they had spent more time at work on their death bed.  I think this makes a lot of people want to take expensive holidays that they have to spend more time at work to be able to afford, it encourages people to spend like tomorrow is their last day instead of living responsibly.  Reign in the spending and live how we know we should be.  

Solzhenitsyn has this to say “Do not pursue what is illusory - property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night.  Live with a steady superiority over life - don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not year after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.  It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold, and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides.  If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then who should envy? And why?  Our envy of others devours us most of all.” (100-1)

So what does it mean to retain my spirit and conscience?  It means I have to obey myself before any exterior voice.  Don’t be politically correct because you don’t want to offend anyone and just want to get along without any conflict.  This has nothing to do with being conscious or concerned with the lives of homosexuals or women.  Political correctness is obeying “the man.”  If I am going to be sensitive and change my language it should be because my conscience tells me it is the right thing to do.  This will happen after I become acquainted with the lived experiences of women and homosexuals.  

If I want to change someone’s language about women it shouldn’t be through using the power of the popular, it should be by showing the injustice.  Marilyn Warring uses time use graphs to compare men and women.  This gets the point that free-time shouldn’t be a function of sex.  

But back to the point, I have to live for myself, not making compromises.  Camus made the same point in the Guest.  This doesn’t mean that the world becomes a place where everyone fights for their ideologies.  It just means that my acceptance or rejection of your argument has nothing to do with how much I like you or want to be like you.  My accepting your argument has to do with my own conscience and spirit.  Because at the end of the day, that is what I am left with, that is what I have to answer for.  When the riot is over the consequences are dolled out to individuals.  

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