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How Gatsby Skinned His Head

May 06, 2007

How Gatsby Skinned His Head

What fresh Hell is this? A mere seven years after Boris Yeltsin’s Pink Elephants were dispossessed of Russia’s nuclear football and something approximating political and economic stability began to reign in Russia, now Vladimir Putin the most intelligent, liberal and reliable head of state Russia has seen since Tsar Alexander II, with the possible exception of Gorbachev—has come under the cross-hairs of the Trotskyite Neocon War Party. Meanwhile the unctuous skinhead kleptocrat Boris Berezovksy has heeded his own hubristic hallucinations and openly called for the violent overthrow of the elected government of Russia. How did it come to this? How did America lose the Cold War to the heirs of Marx and Trotsky?

For a partial answer, look to America’s now degenerate Puritan heritage and its superstitious faith in material progress, and its paradoxical contempt for the primacy of spirit and mind over matter—precisely identical with the superstitions of Karl Marx.

The Puritans were the Bolsheviks of 17th century England,” I once suggested to a class of young Russians. The Puritans committed regicide, launched a civil war, established a military dictatorship,destroyed the better part of the nation’s religious artwork, confused material progress with an inexorable historical plan, and—most un-English and un-Russian vice of all—had precious little sense of humour.

Now, a declaration of personal bias: As a native of old Pennsylvania—the Quaker colony whose gentle aristocratic founder, William Penn, barely escaped being waylaid on the high seas, seized as a hereticand sold into Caribbean slavery by Puritan Cotton Mather of Massachusetts—I am antipathetic to Puritanism and its revolutionary Neocon permutations.

That said, let us see what all of our compatriot Americans of Judeo-Christian origins share in common, in the Old Testament: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither bread yet to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, buttime and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

Those words may or may not be reconcilable with the various claims of our several Christian and Jewish creeds. But they are utterly inconsistent with the secular doctrines of “The Market” (an inaccurate term for America’s bureaucratic economy) which are advanced by so many ostensible Bible-Believers, not to mention millions of other lukewarm believers and unbelievers. The Market favours persons of skill and understanding, does it not? And “time and chance” do not inhibitmaterial progress. “There is nothing new under the sun,” Ecclesiastes says; yet there is a “New Economy” (or whatever new brummagen jingle Thomas Friedman will coin in his next book), and a Providential one at that.

Our confused intellectual and spiritual condition would be so much clearer if we just came out and said we worship the Golden Calf. And this is not a trite polemic against materialism; it is discrimination between material conditions and the will of God or of History. A practical materialist would use the gold (sparingly and with careful regard for posterity), not obey it, not say, “The Market (or Dialectical Materialism, or the Golden Calf) is the Lord of History.”

Back to Russia: When I first landed in Moscow in August 1998, on the very day that the Ruble was devalued and Russia thrown into financial and political turmoil, I met another American lawyer, who, like me, had just arrived to teach law at a Russian university in the heady days of the Yeltsin years when many Russians still trusted Americans’ apparent intentions to assist Russia on the road to civil liberty and a rule of law. Like me, he was relatively young. Unlike me, he shaved his head, while I wore my hair rather long. We both called ourselves “conservatives,” but conserving what?

Continuity is as strong as change, and in the eeriest way, our encounter was between the direct heirs of the Roundheads and long-haired Royalists of the English Civil War, and between their American offshoots. He told me that he and I were “Minsters of the Gospel” inRussia, and my High Church inclinations recoiled in horror from that Cromwellian idea. The American Republic as such has no Gospel; to say nothing of how such a “mission” would sit with the Third Rome, Orthodox Moscow, upon which this chap had flung himself as a self-appointed missionary, to represent American thought to Russian students who still knew almost nothing about us.

By “Minister of the Gospel,” he meant the Market Gospel. By his own account he was not a Christian. He said, rather, that Alan Greenspan (then Chairman of the Federal Reserve) should be a “candidate forcloning,” and his rhetoric was devoted mostly to quasi-spiritual eulogies to Markets, which would liberate Russia. By now we all know the Neocon doctrine, almost not worth repeating, that what we blithely call “free markets” deterministically give rise to political and spiritual liberty. But that’s a lie, contrary to all the evidence of history, and contrary to the Gospel too.

The interesting thing about this fellow, I thought, was the discord between his skinned head (a common American fashion of the past decade or so) and his corrupted resemblance to Fitzgerald’s character, Jay Gatsby. His faith in material progress, his account of his humble origins and ambitious ascent from them, his affectations of “professional” manners which were transparently thin, were all like Gatsby, whom F. Scott Fitzgerald created to personify the American dream, its compromised nobility, and its tragic limitations. But Gatsby was a voluptuary, and a generous one, to some extent a lover of the material good life for its own sake; I cannot imagine Gatsby with a skinned head. Gatsby dreamed like an aspiring Cavalier; this other fellow dreamed and behaved like a Puritan, whose perfect Human specimen was not the beautiful –- if shallow—Daisy Buchanan, but ugly old Alan Greenspan.

How did the American Dream come to this, and to the effective loss of the proper end of the Cold War, which ought to have been an enduring fraternal accord and mutual defense between the natural civilisational allies of Christendom, Russia and America and Europe? The story of how Gatsby skinned his head – how Americans came to reverse the proper order of matter and mind, money and ideas, and came to resembleMarxists in the process—is perhaps centuries old, and involves entwined currents of thought too complex to disentangle. But whatever the complex etiology of this American disease, one of its most disastrous effects today is a poisoned relationship with the Russians, who—as they are among the most intelligent and perspicacious peoples in the world—have very sensibly recoiled from any further depredations upon their land and treasure by intellectually confused and spiritually dessicated American interlopers such as the Skinhead Gatsby. As Pat Buchanan has recently asked, “Does Putin Not Have A Point?

Do not blame the Russians, then, for reacting against what they—and worse, we—have mistaken for American thought, and for being tempted to recoil inward into old Muscovite isolationism from what they perceive as the “unspiritual” West. It is our failure as much astheirs; willy-nilly, we are joined at the hip. Andrei Sakharov wrote aspiringly about a possible “convergence” between the best values of capitalist and socialist nations. But dreaming his best dreams, he neglected to warn us that folly can also converge, and usually does.

Post-Communist Russia has traded with the West and received plenty of “information” from the West –BAD information, from persons like our Skinhead Gatsby and billionaire adventurers and bureaucratic NGOs. But it does not have our Liberty Bell, and precious few Americans have had sufficiently fertile imaginations to understand how the Bell poses a riddle which, if perceived rightly, offers an elegantly simple answer to the disastrous conditions and confusions of post-cold-war Russia and America. The Bell resides in my home city of Philadelphia, and is inscribed, “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof.”

Ah, but here comes the riddle: The Bell is cracked, and so, as an instrumental machine, it does not function, except in the minds of all boys such as I once was, who see it and dream old dreams, from a broken, cast-metal messenger, whose melted-down worth is almost nothing. The books of Moses also mention the Golden Calf, and how the nation was better off for melting it. John Ball taught International Law in Russia from 1998 to 2000.

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