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Security State Art

March 20, 2010

I think my Autarkic House on the Prairie post provides further evidence that the Overton Window has shifted right. I stand by what I wrote, especially the distinction of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” But I realize that I discussed “freedom from” entirely as the far right describes it: freedom from European-level marginal tax rates. But this is a weak understanding of what “freedom from” really involves.

One of my favorite genres of literature and cinema is “security state art.” These are works written by dissidents and survivors of authoritarian regimes. They explore how the permeation of state security into every aspect of life perverts even the most upstanding citizen. Everyone becomes culpable; everyone is co-opted. Mistrust between friends and family becomes endemic. It’s like a national case of Stockholm Syndrome. I promise you, consume enough art in this genre and you will develop a visceral hatred for the Communist security state. Great novels include Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Non-fiction includes Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Hedrick Smith’s The Russians. Great movies include Burnt by the Sun and The Lives of Others (the only East German work on the list). Of course, there are many more.

First I’ll tell you what none of these works rails against: socialism – high taxes, state-owned industry, long lines in stores, dearth of Western consumer goods, or anemic growth rates. The Communist states were far from efficient, and certainly had lower standards of living than the West, but people had enough material provision to be happy. Furthermore, I promise that no one in these works has ever complained about universal health care, state-run pensions, or the social safety net. People liked it when the state provided for its citizens. After Eastern Europe recovered from the shock of the transition to capitalism, all of the new states re-established welfare states more generous than what Americans currently have. Quite simply, Communism does not have a bad name because it allowed for its poorest to see a doctor.

So what do people who lived through Communist regimes remember bitterly? The Security State: the NKVD, the KGB, and the Stasi. Ideologically motivated state intervention in science. Unreliable, overly-ideological media. A knock on your door in the middle of the night. Warrentless surveillance of citizens. Unlimited detention of citizens without bringing charges against them. Trials without pretense of justice. Torture. And no, none of those links will take you to discussions of the Soviet Union or East Germany.

The far right tends to forget that Communism has a bad reputation because Communist dictators enacted national security policies resembling those policies currently popular on the right. Pretending to be zealous advocates of freedom, illiberal forces on the right seek to undermine the proudest legal and philosophical traditions of the (classically) liberal West. While they are busy scuttling our cultural inheritance, these same forces pretend that health care reform is the biggest threat to liberty since the New Deal improved the well-being of millions of Americans.

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More recommendations:

Non-fiction: Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind (Polish), Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler, Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, Philip Short’s Mao: A Life, Victor Klemperer’s Diaries (Part II) and Language of the Third Reich (I still need to read Klemperer, but I’ve heard amazing things about his books)

Fiction: Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago

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One Comment
  1. The Glenn Beck Review permalink

    I just discovered the Overton Window today. I’d love your comment on my view of it.

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