Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Seven

“Hopes: Realized and Disappointed,” pages 44-49

Russell opens this chapter describing those contours of the global political situation that, in his youth, were expected to remain stable: the great powers were both European and monarchies, with the then-recent half-exception of France; England itself was class-ridden and imperialist. Not all of the queen’s subjects supported Britain’s expansionist tendencies, but even these dissenters nevertheless took pride in British might. “I both hoped and expected to see throughout the world a gradual spread of parliamentary democracy, personal liberty, and freedom for the countries that were at that time subject to European Powers, including Britain [p. 45].” The institution of free trade and the erosion of nationalism were expected to diffuse globally, and young Russell followed his parents and godfather in supporting the emancipation of women.

Russell indicates that his evaluation of political conditions has not changed since he was young. “The things which I thought good in those days, I still think good [p. 45].” Britain’s domestic situation has improved, with voting rights for women, moderate socialism that still respects liberty, and greater tolerance of moral differences. Life expectancy is higher, people are healthier, living standards are up; Russell believes, as a consequence, that people are happier in Britain than they were when he was young. (Russell is writing long after the publication of his own The Conquest of Happiness, but before the Easterlin paradox was conceived.)

The international scene has darkened, however. The old repressive regimes in Russia and central Europe have been succeeded by a worse tyranny out of Moscow. “China, after a long period of go-as-you-please anarchy, is being wielded in a great crucible of suffering into an infinitely formidable weapon of military power [p. 46].” The United States is backtracking on liberalism, and the specter of nuclear catastrophe hangs over everyone. “Perhaps a well-ordered prison is all that the human race deserves – so at least the Devil whispers in moments of discouragement [p. 46].” But Russell will hew to his youthful view of what constitutes the good life, and will not revise it to reflect momentary, pessimistic assessments of what can be hoped for. Failure to accept reality is undesirable, of course. “But it is also a bad thing to assume that whatever is in the ascendant must be right, that regard for fact demands subservience to evil [p. 47].” Regimentation might win some victories, but that does not make it admirable.

As the youthful Russell hoped and expected that good outcomes would emerge with time, so does the mature Russell. The threat of a war of annihilation can be eliminated, poverty can be overcome, tolerance can grow, and the scope for personal initiative can expand. Surely people will grow tired of living amidst “a welter of organized hatreds and threats of mutual extermination [p. 47].” People could not live that way with their close neighbors, and states should not arrange their affairs in such a manner, either.

Russell balances two voices in his head, that of the Devil’s Advocate and that of the Earnest Publicist (p. 48). The Devil’s Advocate chastises him for (earnestly) meddling in public affairs, which will prove impervious to his ramblings. But maybe the Devil’s Advocate is mistaken, maybe public opinion can sway dictators – and at any rate, political commentary at least offers a benign occupation for Russell’s time. “And so I go on writing books, though whether any good will come of doing so, I do not know [p. 49].”

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