Beginning of Delerium

Red_Papier Mache_2010-01-03

2013-06-08 – In a rare solo excursion, I drove down to the University of Chicago to see my cousin David Satter’s documentary film Age of Delirium, which is based on his book by the same title. It’s about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The film was presented as part of the Alumni Weekend. It was David’s 45th reunion. It was my 40th. After the film, David took questions.

Before I get to the questions, I want to give David one more plug. David’s film, just yesterday, won the Van Gogh Grand Jury Prize of the Amsterdam International Film Festival. I didn’t know that David was a film maker and here he is winning prizes! Congratulations David! Your mom and dad would be proud.

Now for the questions, or to be precise: one question.

One woman, a member of David’s class of 1968 asked how he compared Soviet atrocities and disregard for truth with what’s going on in the United States today. To me the question answers itself, but David gave the question great respect. He said that this question is often asked when he shows the film in the United States or Britain but that it’s not on people’s minds when he shows it in Russia. The reasons? There are two: First, the scale of the atrocities and deception of the Soviet Union were in a completely different league of enormity. Millions killed is a different level of persecution than enhanced scrutiny of an application for tax exemption! The second reason is that, even though there is plenty of contention in US politics, there is an underlying acceptance of a framework of right and wrong that didn’t exist in the Soviet Union. We could debate this latter point, but the first point is right on target.

I didn’t ask any questions. But if I had, I would have reframed this comparison question as follows.

David, when you analyze a regime like the Soviet Union, after its fall, or Nazi Germany, after its defeat, you have knowledge of the monstrosity that the regime became. My question is about the beginnings of delirium. Were the seeds of monstrosity planted from the very beginning? (And focus your answer on the Soviet Union. Let’s assume seeds of Nazi monstrosity were probably present from the beginning.)  In your talk last night, you acknowledged that communism had appeal to many intelligent people. How does a people know when they are on the right path or the wrong path?

Folks in our political world like to talk about slippery slopes. Of course, only our opponents are on the slippery slope. Folks on the American right like to call things socialist that aren’t. Folks on the American left like to call things fascist that aren’t.

But the Soviet Union was authentically evil. When in its formation did it cross the line? And, based on your analysis, do we have anything comparable to worry about?

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3 responses to “Beginning of Delerium

  1. My cousin David Satter sent me the following response to my question:
    “I think the root of the evil is the ideology. Lenin said that there is no universal morality. Right and wrong are determined only by the interests of the revolution. Once you start with this assumption, any crime that advances the revolution is “right.” Many people became confused because they saw the goal of revolution as highly virtuous – a classless society, end of exploitation, etc. What they didn’t see was that the goal was a fantasy and the means necessary to fight for that fantasy would become more and more murderous as the real world resisted the imposition of a lie until all that was left was millions of dead and a slave society.”

  2. David– Lenin can SAY there is no universal morality, but that doesn’t mean there is none. People have an innate squeamishness with murder and cruelty. I’m not saying it is strong, but it is there. So what you are really saying is that the fantasy goal of communism trumped this moral feeling that people have. It is not rare for this to occur. But this moral feeling has to at least be a speed bump that inhibits the formation of genocidal movements–somewhere, I hope. The question then is, what does it take to get you past the speed bump. In other words, is there any speed bump on the “slippery slope”?

  3. David’s further response to my last comment:
    “I think there is a speed bump. Most people feel intuitively that acting as executioners in the name of some political ideal is wrong. But people are weak and unsure of themselves. Many are simply not equipped to resist the power of group dynamics or to find arguments on behalf of what they sense is right.”

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