In this excerpt of Milan Kundera’s “The Joke,” Ludvik, the protagonist, has just learned that the newest, and most wide-eyed, member of the soldiers is dead. Prior to this discovery Ludvik’s friends and a non-commissioned officer think Alexej is sound asleep, and because the consensus is that he was the outsider among the black insignia men, they plan to pour a bucket of water on him to try to wake him up. Ludvik finds this scene repulsive and is disgusted with the soldiers’ blind willingness to side with the enemy (the corporal).
“I was overcome with rage, a blinding rage aimed at the entire lot of them, at their unthinking eagerness to believe every accusation, at their readily available cruelty…” Ludvik instinctively yells at Alexej to get him to wake up and is then confronted by a fellow soldier. Moments later, they realize he is dead.
As for the fateful moment in the university lecture hall, Ludvik is referring to the day his professors and closest friends, among others, voted to have him expelled from the Communist Party and from the university he was attending due to “The Joke” (a short, humorous letter he sent to a girl. It ended up enraging, rather than entertaining, her and members of the Party).
Now read this piece by Hitchens:“My old mentor and friend Robert Conquest, another single-handed historian and truth-teller…is still mistaken when he suggests that most of our woes derive from idealists, social engineers and Utopians. He is correct in his way…However, as often as not you will find that—whatever the high-sounding pretext may be—the worst crimes are still committed in the name of the old traditional rubbish: of loyalty to nation or “order” or leadership or tribe or faith. To train the condemnation upon the Utopians is to miss the historical point (the point made in Animal Farm, among other places) that Utopians become tyrants when they start to emulate their former masters.” –“Letters to a Young Contrarian,” Christopher Hitchens
It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that Hitchens is trying to dispel the idea that idealists and Utopians, or any thought leaders under similar labels, look to the future as their way of leading revolutions, because when you think of visionaries, you think of the word “new.” But, what inspires these visionaries, Hitchens says, is what also fuels the rulers they’re fighting against.
Besides the serendipitous order of reading Kundera’s “The Joke ” after Hitchens’ “Letters to a Young Contrarian,” the reason I’ve brought these two passages together is because, after such a tumultuous year of uprisings and mass mobilization, it is necessary to remember that revolutions are nothing new.
Much attention has been focused on which tools these modern revolutionaries have employed, and how they’ve been successful, and this is crucial for a number of reasons many experts have reiterated. I won’t delve into that, but if you’re curious, Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” is a good primer.
So, revolutions are nothing new. Most, if not all, countries have had multiple revolutions or, as 2011’s most salient legacy, are currently undergoing one.
Revolutions don’t scare me in that I believe both self-appointed and democratically elected heads of state, including their governments, should constantly be challenged for their idiosyncratic flaws. What does frighten me a bit is when the outcome of a revolution betrays its initial aim.
The sentences in boldface reveal the unsettling nature of humans, yesterday, today and tomorrow. What seemed like genuine solidarity at first turns out to be disparate pieces brought together “on the force of circumstance.” Earlier in the book, Ludvik is amazed at each soldier’s singularity, but in this scene, he observes their transformation into a band of like-minded beings (which was prompted by their consensual dislike of Alexej), bringing to light their latent “readily available cruelty.”
These soldiers are deemed enemies of the Communist state and treated as such, and yet here we witness their unconscious approval of brutal behavior towards the minority. And then we insert a bit of Hitchens wisdom: “…Utopians become tyrants when they start to emulate their former masters.”
I’ve seen this behavior among my own friends and when observing crowds. I’ve taken part in this herd mentality as both a victim and an instigator, obviously not at the same time (and not quite as obvious, I’m not proud of the latter).
I see it on Twitter all of the time, the same tool used by revolutionaries to find refuge among an international community and expose the atrocities happening in their part of the world. People, from respected journalists to political figures to visionaries, gang up and, via a slew of biting tweets, bully the person whose views they don’t agree with. These same people also regularly send out tweets in support of religious and ethnic tolerance and in defense of freedom of speech. They demand respect, but don’t reciprocate. You then envision how this could play out in something as big as a revolution and outside of Twitter.
When revolutions occur, we are all reminded that we are capable of bringing about change; what we never quite acknowledge is that we are also capable of being cruel towards those we deem cruel and even towards other non like-minded revolutionaries.
Will 2012 be a repetition of history? I certainly hope it won’t.