28 December 2013

The trouble with white émigrés

Now, as I make the following commentary, please bear in mind, gentle readers, that I write as someone with a very profound respect for a number of white émigrés – in particular Nikolai Berdyaev and Fr Sergei Bulgakov, the two intellectual lights which most strongly directed me toward Orthodoxy. And of course, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Fr Alexander Schmemann, Vladimir Lossky, S. Ioann the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco and numerous others are worthy of mention as decent, well-grounded Orthodox men and women who deserve our respect and admiration. This commentary is not directed at them. This commentary is directed at a much wider, and dare I say much more troubling general phenomenon.

White émigrés – those who fled or who were forced into exile by the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, East Asia, Indochina and Latin America – are often hailed as heroes and stalwarts of anti-communism, and not just the Russian ones, for reasons which continue to puzzle me. For one thing, strange and even contradictory though it may sound, not all white émigrés were anti-communist. (Those defenders of the Republic of China and the Guomindang, for example, who fled to Taiwan in 1949, included amongst their number the ‘true’ Chinese Marxists who saw Mao Zedong as a threat because he would not embrace the Marxist prejudice that only the urban industrial proletariat would have the class consciousness and the wherewithal to form and sustain a successful revolutionary state. And, of course, the Dalai Lama still calls himself a Marxist, despite also being the head of a Buddhist sect and at least two virulently anti-leftist political movements.) But this merely showcases the fragmentation even within that failed philosophy. What I speak of is something much more subtle.

The white émigrés were generally people of privilege, and that privilege has followed them into the lands where they sought refuge. One may recall the passage of A Tale of Two Cities (aye, pre-Marxist and all of that, but even so quite prescient), wherein Dickens – no friend he of the French Revolution! – recounts:
Monseigneur, as a class, had dissociated himself from the phenomenon of his not being appreciated: of his being so little wanted in France , as to incur considerable danger of receiving his dismissal from it, and this life together. Like the fabled rustic who raised the Devil with infinite pains, and was so terrified at the sight of him that he could ask the Enemy no question, but immediately fled; so, Monseigneur, after boldly reading the Lord's Prayer backwards for a great number of years, and performing many other potent spells for compelling the Evil One, no sooner beheld him in his terrors than he took to his noble heels.
We need not be communists to recognise that communism was in part a judgement upon the people who fled it; just as, indeed, Dickens being no revolutionary had very little sympathy for the old French élites, beyond the needed human sympathy he extends to all people in a hard way. And indeed, though we must feel some compassion for the plight of the white émigrés at the hands of the communists, we must be vigilant and careful in not allowing that sympathy to cloud our political judgement. Heroes and stalwarts they are not, merely for happening to be in the right places at the right times – although the actions which led to their exiles may have been heroic or somewhat less so. Sadly, both they and their admirers seem to be of that most curious of opinions: that they are more suited to lead and speak authoritatively about former communist societies precisely on account of their not having lived through them.

And, too often, the white émigrés form a political consciousness entirely in the negative, and this can have some very serious implications. To give one example: the alliance between the Tibetan exiles in India and the far-right Hindu nationalist movement there is troubling indeed, given the political capital that the Tibetan independence cause has can sway amongst India’s allies on the world stage, and the barbaric violence the followers of Hindutva inflict, not so much upon India’s Maoists, but upon her Christians and Muslims! For another: the continuing detrimental influence Florida’s Cuban exiles continue to have on that state’s – and our nation’s – domestic politics. For yet another: the embrace of neoconservative ideology by the Ignatieff clan in Canada, stemming from his alliance with Pearson so steadfastly opposed by that greatest and most truly conservative of the Ignatieff in-laws, George Parkin Grant. For still another: the execrable anti-Christian fanfiction and serial-killer worship of one Miss Alisa Rosenbaum, which still for reasons unfathomable continues to exert an undue influence on our nation’s political discourse.

Liberalism – identity politics, libertarianism and neoconservatism all very much included – widely being considered the Manichaean counter-pole to communism and the ‘strongest’ in geopolitical terms (being backed by the full power of the American nuclear and conventional arsenals), it is little wonder so many white émigrés have embraced it without much question. This is why it is so important to treat white émigré polities and positions with discernment and caution, preferably at arm’s length, and not just blind sentimentalism and sympathy.

Too many of them are now opposed to the reassertion of geopolitical strength by an increasingly-Orthodox Russia, based entirely upon their experiences with a virulently anti-Orthodox regime. Too many of them are unwilling to even deal with China’s leadership, preferring instead to throw monkey-wrenches into her international engagements whilst doing massive collateral damage within their host nations. Too many of them have no problem with Christians being slaughtered in the Middle East and elsewhere as long as it saves face for liberal-democratic governments in the global north. Too many of them are willing to trample children, the elderly, the poor and the economically-distressed underfoot, wherever they are, as their ideological commitments demand. Too many of them are still boldly reading the Lord’s Prayer backwards and performing spells to compel the Evil One.

And if we are honest in our conservatism, we will not help them in doing so.

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