Thursday, November 1, 2018

What’s an hour worth? Political prisoners teach us about the time-value (and human value) of self-determination

What is an hour of your time? Is it your output? Some benchmark wage? Even if you put a price on it, you know it’s something more. It’s not only making, it’s also being. And being doesn’t want a value-number, because being is too proud for that. An hour of being doesn’t promise anything. It demands full freedom for itself. Being presumes its own value.

Nietzsche wrote in Will to Power:
There is a solitude within him [sic: the “higher man”] that is inaccessible to praise or blame, his own justice that is beyond appeal.

Isaiah Berlin expanded on this idea in The Crooked Timber of Humanity:
It makes no difference whether a man’s own inner light shines for others or not; nor whether he serves it successfully; serve it he must, even if he makes himself ridiculous in the process, even if all he does ends in failure. Indeed this sort of failure is considered as being morally infinitely superior to worldly success, even success as an artist-- provided only that it is the fruit of the blind and exclusive service of what a man knows to be his mission, of what the inner voices tell him that he must do.

As one who loves the literature of political dissidents,
Solzhenitsyn served 8 years in the gulags,
including hard labor at Ekibastuzin in
northern Kazakhstan.
I take a lesson from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Liu Xiaobo and Milan Kundera. There is something in human time that thrives on its own free expression and withers under external control. An hour intrinsically motivated is something very different from an hour (or decade) extrinsically compelled. On the Central Asian steppe, in a Chinese re-education camp, in a prison in Czechoslovakia, these three were subjected to the crushing monotony of arbitrary, externally-imposed ritual. And make no mistake, such ritual is purposefully designed.
Kundera's early novel The Joke is considered
 a partly autobiographical account of arrest,
humiliation and prison sentence which the
author himself endured, narrowly avoiding
death penalty, and serving 14 years in a
Czechoslovak prison. 
To the letter it elevates and painstakingly justifies itself (why else carefully recorded confessions?), creates and sustains a massive bureaucratic machinery around itself (surely so many blouse- and tie-wearing officers cannot be wrong!), metes out soul-crushing brutality alongside ludicrous rituals of hygiene, productivity and patriotism, and always, unfailingly, documents, documents, documents!!

I often wish that anybody fervent about teen well-being would take the time to get acquainted with Solzhenitsyn, Xiaobo and Kundera.

They lived in systems that treated/treat the human spirit as a mush to be smashed and remolded into a thing: thing-1, thing-2 and thing-3. They should plug into machines that whistle and click, and a uniform glob should plop out the other side. It should plop cheerfully and reliably. This to the smiling, nodding approbation of
Liu Xiaobo was one of few Nobel Laureates held in prison
and unable to receive the award personally. He died in July 2017 not
long after release from prison. 
doe-eyed co-conspirators--classmates, co-workers, neighbors--who unflinchingly turned them over for arrest. These authors were unstoppable voices. But behind them were/ARE snuffed out millions that these machines in their perfect rhythm successfully digest.

Living at various times in Moscow, Kyiv and Astana over the past twenty years, I have only brushed with the machinery that continues to grind human time in the state clinics, post offices, railway ticket-counters, internats and state department stores--remnants of a deeply-ingrained culture of soul-smashing. The quiet, patient plodding from queue to queue, the never-quite-complete bundle of documents, the pleading, smiling offerings to petty demons, the rank smell of bad plumbing, the shrieking calls to wear paper shoe-covers. As a foreigner, I could observe--with irritation--from the privileged vantage-point of one not depending on or bound-into these systems. At the oncology center in Astana, I brought my kids and made small-talk during chemo. Notwithstanding the barking of the shoe-cover lady, impatience of the blood-tester nurse (we had to do it in a line), and the occasional cursing tirade from another patient, I tried to make the best of the hours there. The head nurse was fascinated with me and called me into his office for tea. ‘You’re the only patient we have who wants to go on living,’ he told me.

So what is an hour? For one thing, it’s defiantly not being dead.

Maybe there should be two different words for an hour. Here is an hour that celebrates the machine. It goes click-rattle-plop-plop. It sucks in the mush on one side, and pushes out the plop plop on the other. It generates the false hum of false progress. Its laborers dig ditches in the morning that they will fill in the afternoon, its farmers lean on hoes over crops that will be reappropriated, its production quotas, harvest yields, birth rates(!!) boast an impossible unity of compliance and desire.

Here is an hour that celebrates the man. It races by while he stutters and gasps to express himself. He flails and fights against monotony, fights to be meaningful.

These hours are not defined by geography or politics, but by our own estimation of the human being. Make no mistake that so-called free countries also hold task-masters, pinheads and bean-counters. How easily would we trade hours and years of another person’s life for the reassuring whistle-click-plop-plop, the reliability, the ritual, the documents? Who are we crushing along the way?

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