Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wisdom From Milos Forman on Political Regimes

. Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I've always been a casual fan of Milos Forman's films, and I had a vague sense of his personal history. I knew that he grew up in occupied Czechoslovakia and fled after the Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks. (I didn't know until today that, per Wikipedia, his father died at Buchenwald and his mother at Auschwitz.) I've recently become more interested in his early work, particularly the comedies he made in the 1960s as part of the Czech New Wave, which I'd not seen before. So he was already on my mind when I saw that he'd published an op-ed in the NY Times. I was first surprised that he'd written such a thing. I was then surprised by how good it was.

Forman makes one simple political point, one simple literary point, and one simple musical point. The simplicity of each does not detract from their potency.

The political point is that people who actually lived under actual totalitarian Marxist regimes find it absurd when those terms are used to describe the social democracy lite initiatives proposed by Obama. That's because what defined life under state communism was not the particular policies those regimes enacted, but the capricious and unquestionable exercises of power those regimes expressed.

Forman tells one story in which a man who helps a poor, haggard stranger out of a storm is sent to a work camp. Why? Because the stranger had complained about the ruling regime, the Good Samaritan had not cast him out for it, and the stranger was actually an undercover agent working to entrap the unsuspecting. This type of thing, while anecdotal, is significant. It illustrates that the political regime was seeking to use the good works of its own citizens against them. It was trying to bastardize feelings of community and philanthropy. It was trying to abolish all civic virtues and replace them with unquestioning adherence to the state, and denunciation of all else. It was, above all else, designed to instill fear and trepidation. And the communist Czech government was one of the kinder, gentler Soviet bloc regimes!

This is related to the literary point. When Forman was asked to direct the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest some of his friends advised against it, saying that tinkering with a beloved American cultural artifact was a risky business for a recent immigrant. Forman responded that for him, and others like him, One Flew was a global cultural artifact which portrayed the arbitrariness of power corrupted. Just because Kesey wrote it in one context does not mean it was no applicable to others. Forman though he was the perfect man for the job.

The musical point follows from this passage:

I’m not sure Americans today appreciate quite how predatory socialism was. It was not — as Mr. Obama’s detractors suggest — merely a government so centralized and bloated that it hobbled private enterprise: it was a spoils system that killed off everything, all in the name of “social justice.”
Forman's argument here is twofold: first, that state socialism (in its pernicious form) is not recognizable a set of particular policies, but is rather a method of control; second is that achieving perfect social justice is impossible, and the process of striving for it is corrupting. Instead, we should work towards social harmony, wherein different instruments are allowed to be played so long as they stay within common rhythm.

It's a bit trite, but as simple analogies go it's not so horrible. It recalls JS Mill's admonition for a marketplace of ideas, the republican virtues of a government of rules rather than men, and the enlightenment principle of decentralized authority. These are the principles that were cast aside in the socialist regimes of the 20th century. These principles are not under serious threat from Obama, or any recent American politician.


Wisdom From Milos Forman on Political Regimes
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