Putin’s Crucifix

by G. Murphy Donovan (December 2012)

Everywhere a man will be sure to meet at least once in his life something that is unlike anything he had happened to see before. – Nikolai Gogol

A photo of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin strolling along a rustic stream, fishing rod in hand was one of the more amazing images of the early 21st Century. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, but he was wearing a crucifix. Consider here that Russia’s first citizen was a former member of a godless Communist Party in the former Soviet Union; indeed, the station chief for the KGB in East Germany. At some point after Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin must have had a “road to Damascus” moment; a point where he cast off the conventional wisdom, the old ideology, and plotted a new course with a new moral compass. The cold warriors of Communism had been the enemies of all religions; but now, a president and prime minister becomes a defender of the Russian faith.

This is not to make too much about any parallels between Putin and Paul; yet, similarities abound. Both were key apostates in a revolutionary era. Paul of Tarsus was a rabbi and Roman citizen. Putin of Petersburg was an apparatchik and Communist. Both had a foot in two worlds and both were positioned to change the future in ways that their backgrounds would never suggest.

Saint Paul’s conversion is traditionally attributed to a deus ex machina

So we are left to speculate! Unlike Paul, Putin’s conversion was probably more pragmatic than miraculous. And secular rationalism, the potash of Communism may have leavened the millennial Russian revival, that late great “revolution without guns.” If nothing else, Marx and Lenin were empiricists, men who thought reason alone might be both necessary and sufficient.

Yet, the apostles of sterile reason were wrong. Communism collapsed, as George Kennan prophesied

Putin and like-minded 21st Century Russian leaders are transitional figures, astride a new millennium and the ghosts of Russian history. If these pioneers were smart enough to seize and hold the reins of power, we have to believe that they understand the debits of the old and the credits of the new.

Struggles between reason and faith litter the wake of human history. This is not to equate faith or religion with morality, but relate we must. Morality, even in breach, has always been a subjective rather than a mathematical calculation. Science and ethics, as a consequence, have been strange bedfellows since the Middle Ages. Philosophers underscored the divide. As Bertrand Russell put it:

“Perhaps there is not, strictly speaking, any such thing as ‘scientific’ ethics. It is not the province of science to decide on the ends of life. Science can (only) show that an ethic is unscientific.” (Our Changing Morality, 1930, p. 15)

Russell’s worldview is the conventional wisdom. Nonetheless, several prominent religious scholars make novel arguments about the artificial separation of the natural (scientific) and transcendent (spiritual) worlds. Prominent among these are Joseph Soleveitchik (1903-1993) and his disciple, Yoram Hazony. In his posthumous, The Emergence of Ethical Man, Soleveitchik argues that the spiritual world and morals are natural phenomena too; and like science, a process of human discovery. A categorical imperative, the instinct to do the right thing, makes no sense without the agency of men; men (like Putin?) and women whose physical brain and transcendent soul are inseparable. Soleveitchik, the 20th Century sage of Yeshiva, like Pericles, also argues that immortality does not require a separate world or supernatural paradise. The good or heroic deeds, that might or should be done, are those actions, memories, and traditions that live on in the hearts of men – indeed, posterity.

Were the philosophers of duality, like Russell, to revise and amend their remarks today; they might admit that knowledge and expertise often decays into blinders, a kind of witless immorality. Old ideas become the enemy of new ideas, if you will.  And the bigger the problem, the less useful specialized knowledge or scientific parsing becomes. Calculation tells us what we can do, but formulaic approaches seldom reveal what must or should be done – or how. In short, the great, as yet unanswered, questions of our time are moral.

Nevertheless, since the Enlightenment, and the so-called Age of Reason, science has been ascendant. That rise may have may have peaked, or hit the wall, in 1968. Garett Hardin gave ethics an early Christmas boost in December of that year with the publication of “The Tragedy of Commons,” a small essay which redefined the limits of reason and narrow science. Hardin was trying to make an ecologist’s argument; suggesting that “common” resources like air, water, and land would inevitably be degraded tragically because individuals were likely to exploit these things for local gain at the expense of the common good or, worse still, at the expense of posterity.

The virtues of Hardin’s thesis are self-evident by now. He asserts that there are no technical solutions to the great ciphers facing mankind; and that prudent ethical answers, like restraint, are unlikely to be accepted by individuals or sovereign states. 

In short, an environmental scientist offers morality as the last great hope for human survival. This time around, the devil isn’t the villain; the enemy is us. Without restraint, human history is a universal zero-sum game. In the long run, according to Hardin, less may actually be more. The alternative is certain tragedy.

Since Hardin’s day, his thesis, about the hazards of growth and excess have bled into other fields and disciplines like foreign affairs, national security, and economics. Surely, inertia and a temperance deficit are at the heart of European and American economic woes. Nonetheless, the dead souls of European, and maybe American, social democracy seemed poised to burn rather than turn.

Yet, there are some signs that restraint is entering the global conversation. Recently, the Russian president made just such a foreign policy argument in Vladivostok. Putin complained that American and European interventions, lack of restraint, in the Muslim world were counterproductive, actually allowing a political toxin to become viral; aiding the growth and spread of Islamism. Indeed!

The absence of restraint in the West mirrors a similar intemperance in the Muslim east where almost any barbarity might be justified in the name of Allah, the prophet, or scripture. Recent atrocities in Libya speak directly to these phenomena in the Ummah worldwide. The Islamist is the quintessential zero-sum political competitor. Eventually, such malignancy might be suppressed or defeated by reform, a kind of bloodless restraint. How much damage might be done before then is another question.

And science in these matters is often more problem than solution. The robust tradition of junk science doesn’t help either. The zombies of faux science include: numerology, graphology, phrenology, alchemy, astrology, and more recently, branches of sociology and psychology. Recent social science confuses military terror with crime; and the so-called experts in psychology have transformed almost every human foible into a “sickness.” If sinners and criminals are guiltless, who can vouchsafe the priests or lawyers? If behavior is biology; why then have any law or any restraints? Shouldn’t we just take another pill?

We can only hope that psychology becomes the next casualty in the long history of bogus science. Adding insult to injury, “expertise” is used frequently to cook the books of other flaccid science like law, medicine, sociology, and environmental studies.

Better theory now suggests that specialization, or expertise itself, often contributes to the problem.  These blind spots were highlighted recently in a small book with a grand theme – ignorance. Stuart Firestein at Columbia University claims that the best science is driven by ignorance, not fact. Firestein argues that knowledge, or what we believe, often gets in the way of questions and new insight. Putting the unknown in the driver’s seat is, if nothing else, like faith, an act of humility. If we elevate what we don’t know over what we think we know; a new world beckons. 

For most people, knowledge does not come from introspection, analysis, or original thought. Even expertise, in the main, is a received wisdom; a cant that we accept, relegating any skepticism to the margins. The expert is frequently a captive of specialization and hostage to the hubris that it often produces.

None of this has ever been news to saints and poets. Take Nikolai Gogol, the 19th Century prose poet who altered Russian, if not global, literature forever. Gogol gave us an appreciation of poshlost, a word which probably has no literal English equivalent. Nonetheless, poshlost is some mix of hubris, vanity, intolerance, self-importance, obliviousness, cupidity – all leavened by a toxic incapacity for introspection or foresight. Puskin gave the term a sexual twist with an adjectival form, poshlusty.

Other languages might not have the word, but other poets surely recognized the foibles. Cervantes, Hugo, Dickens, Twain, Orwell, and Mencken are examples, just to name a few. Of these, H.L. Mencken, the satiric sage of Baltimore, may be the American who comes closest to Gogol’s comic cynicism. Mencken once claimed that 80% of the world’s population will never have an original thought. Experts were no doubt included. Like Gogol, Mencken didn’t think people were necessarily stupid, uneducated, or inexpert; the problem was more like obliviousness or lack of introspection, coupled to an absence of restraint. Knowledge and excess are often fast friends.

The former mayor of Moscow, Yuri Lushkov and his wife, could be poshlost poster children. An American exemplar might be Anthony Weiner, the former congressman, erstwhile heir to the mayor’s office in New York City. Weiner, you may recall, shortly after his marriage, sent naked photos of himself via the internet to women he had never met. Weiner was a protégé of Bill Clinton, who, were he a Russian, might have been known as President Poshlost after two terms in office. If a man exhibits no sense of personal restraint, there’s no reason to expect restraint in the public square. H. L. Menken and Rabbi Soleveitchik were clearly optimists.

Neither poets nor saints could ever have imagined the digital banality, the viral poshlost that would come with the internet. Consider modern electronic values: shopping, pornography, followers, screen names, Facebook, YouTube, likes, pokes, hits, views, and tweets. Alas, a digital world where literature might be restricted to 140 characters; haiku for the poshlusty. Also consider the global actors, owners of smart phones and laptops. The purveyors of contemporary poshlost are modern elites, educated scions of the so-called developed world. Pushkin would never have believed that these Dead Souls ever emerged form under Gogol’s Overcoat.  And Orwell must be spinning in his grave.    

And thus we return to Putin’s crucifix and the potential significance of such icons. Putin is no Saint Paul. Maybe he’s a little like Saint Andrew. Both were fishermen; the first a fisher of men; the latter a hunter of something for the plate. A generous interpretation would be that a new cross on an old Communist is a harbinger of things to come.

National and corporate survival in the 21st Century is likely to require restraint and superior morality, not superior technique and surely not expertise without ethics. The latter two appear to be separate things today only because the poshlusty insist on such banality.

Before long, Putin, as an example, faces two moral challenges. The first will be the need to resist making the church a state religion. And the second will be a willingness to provide for a peaceful transfer of power. Both moral dilemmas will require restraint.

But for the moment, if we can ignore political machinations, Putin and Medvedev might be the best things to arrive at the Kremlin since potatoes and onions. Some necessary but pedestrian evils may persist. Still, Putin may have set the table for the next Russian generation to resurrect values and morals, if not some of the restraint that made European civilization and common sense possible in the first place.

If Gogol, Mencken, and Putin could have a beer together today; they, like Garret Hardin and Joseph Soleveitchik, might not be sanguine. Culture and politics today is not anything like Gogol’s overcoat; the Internet Age is more like Hemingway’s shotgun.

G. Murphy Donovan is a former intelligence officer who writes frequently about politics and national security. This essay is dedicated to the late Colonel Jeffery Barrie, a former US Army attaché in Moscow, who was fond of describing the advent of 21st century Russia as a “revolution without guns.”

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