Something to Read: The Haunted Land by Tina Rosenberg

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The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghost After Communism is an old book that is frustratingly relevant right now. The book concerns itself with the Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia), Poland, and East Germany in the days and years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was published, and won the Pulitzer prize, in 1995.

Rosenberg argues that communism survived through an unending strategy of “them.” Each person within the system believed that there were other, higher people within the bureaucracy who were the real opponents of change. “I can’t print this because of them”; “I would ignore this conversation, if it weren’t for them”; “I can’t help but condemn this person to torture because of them.” Communism – and particularly Polish communism – Rosenberg argues, was essentially a system composed of millions of people, none of whom wanted the status quo, but none of whom had the ability – at least in his own mind – to oppose the system as a whole.

The question that springs to my mind is this: what are the horrid injustices endemic to American Democracy that we ascribe to ambiguous others. Do we have a similar class of ‘them?’ 

When I was in college, professor Charles Hill – a man I later discovered to be a neocon and big proponent of the second Iraq War – was a huge advocate of rising high in your career before you tried to do anything good. He believed you would ultimately do far more to further your own ideals and interests if you worked for fifteen years to become the VP of some major corporation or the first deputy in an embassy somewhere before chasing your improve-humanity goals. This notion – rise first, then help – strikes me as the closest analogue I can think of of the American ‘them.’ Seek the approval of your supervisor or his supervisor or the company owner before you worry about what it is that you actually want to do. Focus on personal advancement, then worry about the consequences.

In a way our ‘them’ is as entrenched and pernicious as the communist one was. It’s particularly hard to topple since the ‘them’ is not some single state bureaucracy but rather myriad individual or corporate interests. Tomorrow, we imagine, we'll be the head of our particular company and then – maybe then – we can finally think about how we can treat poor people better. When I get to the head of my medical firm, I'm going to really change things up! In the meantime, though, it’s probably best to do the best damn oxycodone promotion that I can. That way I’ll get promoted sooner sooner and be able to stop selling oxycodone.

The problem, or one of the problems, is that even at that top you are constrained by the culture of the business you are in as well as by the expectations of your shareholders and the people around you. More to the point, you yourself have been shaped by years of putting the company first. You have acclimated yourself to the idea that profitability should be the great goal of your career. It’s not so easy to give that up and imagine solutions to the vague injustices you were obsessed with when you were eighteen. You're strapped with twenty years of psychology now.

The Trump presidency is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of this culture of ‘profit above all else.’ The Trump organization built itself on insider political connections, discrimination, and heavily lobbied for tax breaks because Trump’s one unending goal was to get richer regardless of what that took. Now, in his presidency, we can see what a ‘profitability without scruples’ model of living looks like. He’s arrived at the highest position anyone could ever hope for and he doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. The morality of government now depends entirely on what he can get away with. This is what it looks like when someone accumulates power for its own sake, and it's hard to feel any more purpose to Trump's regime than, say, Kruschev's. 

(Rosenberg’s book also beautifully examines the Czech Republic and East Germany. I may have veered onto a tangent here.)