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November 3, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Anne Applebaum’s NYROB essay* on the ways Communists locked down civil society in Poland shortly after World War II, the general mechanism is described and illustrated by example. First, the general mechanism:

…the elimination of all remaining independent social or civic institutions, along with the exclusion from public life of anyone who might still sympathize with them. (39)

How far does this process extend? Applebaum describes one official being horrified at the existence of a substantial number of chess clubs not tied to Communist organizations, for example. But more chilling is this interlude during a congress of diverse youth groups:

[Some] of the more radical Communist delegates held a meeting in a side room, during which one of them complained about the church group leaders [present at the conference]. He thought they should be expelled. The Communist officials told him not to worry, the religious young people would be kept under control: “We will give the churches ten blows a day until they lie on the ground. When we need them again, we will stroke them a little until their wounds are healed.” (39)

One begins to see a rather full toolkit available to the ruling party, ranging from labor camp sentences for troublemakers to the banning of independent organizations even of the seemingly most benign kind. In time the population comes to expect no social or civic openings for meaningful free expression, and they are defeated.

In “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel theorizes about the forms of expression that undermine this kind of power, even when there is no overtly political content, as we might see in some forms of music. He describes eastern Europe a half generation or so later than Applebaum’s essay, a time when the enforcements of Soviet bloc life were very powerful but the ideological façade of the bloc was widely understood to be a sleight of hand enforced essentially by threat of poverty, prison, or, in the case of countries, invasion. Nevertheless, for Havel the problem has much to do with the ability of the society to enforce silence and of the populace to find ways to speak.

I cannot find a direct link between the two generations of silencing in the Soviet bloc and the apathy of American voters, but the seemingly insurmountable indifference of a society (of government? of companies and markets? of social systems such as education?) to a mass of its people’s woes will, often enough, silence them rather than provoke them into speaking. That’s one lesson I take from the beaten-down parts of rust belt cities like ours. Somehow silence is the norm in both kinds of society, one that seeks it with the help of cunning and force and one that pledges openness in all its credos. Go figure.

*(“How the Communists Inexorably Changed Life,” NYROB, 11/22/12, in print or online for subscribers only, it appears. See also Applebaum’s nearly simultaneous NY Times piece on “The Dead Weight of Past Dictatorships | After Tyrants, the People Must Act.”)

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