Let's Contemplate the Alternatives to Liberalism This Holiday Season
Book and movie recommendations from The UnPopulist team
Holidays are a time for cheerful celebrations. But they are also a time for edification, reflection and taking stock of the world. To the latter end, The UnPopulist team offers you below it’s reading and viewing recommendations. Our suggestions won’t fill you with joy—but they will, we hope, help you better understand the challenges to liberalism, often based on serious objections, and also see that the alternatives on offer would deliver not more peace, prosperity, and well-being— but the opposite.
Our mission for the next year—and years beyond—is to keep looking for ways to put liberalism on a firmer footing. To that end we’d love for you to write to us—with criticism and encouragement as well as suggestions for topics and new features.
And we ask you to not just continue your subscription, but also share our work and ask your loved ones to do the same. We are a little shy of our year-end goal of 5,000 subscribers and a little push from you will put us over the top.
There are many fine publications out there demanding your time. But, as I like to say, The UnPopulist is the best free deal in an unfree world. It has writers from all over the world offering in-depth accounts of the rising forces of populist authoritarianism in their countries. It has a growing stable of fresh voices in the United States that are devoted to taking on the various ideologies and figures questioning this country’s longstanding, bedrock liberal commitments. And we have fascinating podcasts with politically diverse thinkers all trying to understand the allure of illiberal ideas.
We will take a break for the holidays next week but will return in the New Year with a renewed dedication to our mission. See you then.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.
The novelist Joseph Conrad once wrote that his task was, “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” If so, then the late Lion Feuchtwanger—a novelist, playwright and German Jew dispossessed by the Nazis—achieved much with his 1933 novel The Oppermanns. It is the only story I’ve read so vivid and palpable it gave me nightmares.
The Oppermanns is first-rate literature, and kudos are due to McNally Editions for bringing it back into print. Feuchtwanger wrote the book in France at a white heat in 1933 to recount the Nazi’s recent rise to power and their crescendoing persecution of the Jews. While never descending into a tract, the novel is informed by Feuchtwanger’s own experience, the reports of German acquaintances and contemporaneous newspaper accounts. It was composed nearly in real time as a purposeful act of witness to an unfolding humanitarian disaster amid the remnants of Germany’s liberal democracy—a disaster soon transformed into the Holocaust.
The novel’s emotional intensity is due in part to its bucolic beginning in the exurbs of Berlin, where the story’s main protagonist, Gustav Oppermann, has awoken to celebrate his 50th birthday. We watch as his modest professional and personal wishes for that day quietly come true. Scion of a furniture magnate, Gustav is a man of letters working on a biography of the German Enlightenment dramatist Gotthold Lessing; Oppermann now receives word that a publisher has accepted his manuscript. As the day progresses, friends and family arrive to celebrate with Gustav. Most of them are, like him, German Jews comfortably ensconced in German culture and the German landscape; indeed, we learn, “The Oppermann family had been established in Germany from time immemorial.” If Feuchtwanger’s readers weren’t already familiar with the setting, they might expect a novel reminiscent of George Elliot.
But a perceptible shadow on the Oppermanns’ lives emerges during their evening discussions: the persistence of “the Nationalists”—the Nazis—in Germany’s public life, despite their crassness and apparent ineptitude. And as the story progresses, Hitler’s rapid and improbable ascent to power transform the novel’s leisurely and civilized atmosphere in appalling ways for Gustav and his circle, particularly his brother Martin, who runs the family furniture business; his brother Edgar, a renowned surgeon; and his nephew Berthold, a promising student at a local high school.
Readers familiar with Holocaust literature may nevertheless be taken aback by Feuchtwanger’s chilling, detailed descriptions of the daily threats the Oppermanns face in Berlin from the Brownshirts and state police: the loud chants of, “Until the last of the Jews is dead, there’ll be no work and there’ll be no bread,” and the risk of beatings, shakedowns, humiliations, kidnapping and torture. It is unnerving to witness peaceful members of society denigrated, robbed and brutalized amid a climate of legality, bureaucracy and organized officialdom.
Equally unsettling is Feuchtwanger’s characterization of the Nationalists. We inevitably meet thugs, vandals and calculating thieves, but Feuchtwanger artfully draws out the Nationalists’ occasional virtues: strength, willpower, enthusiasm. When Berthold’s high school classmates meet their new Nationalist teacher, they are prepared to despise him, but as he rhapsodizes on the German folk hero Arminius, their “delicate ear for what is honest and what is put on” forestalls them. They “were well aware that the man who stood before them, ludicrous as his appearance was, spoke from the heart. They did not laugh. They looked, instead, with a certain abashed and inquisitive air at this fellow, their teacher.”
And at the beginning of the novel, as 17-year-old Ruth Oppermann listens to her uncles shrewdly explain why the Nazis pose no real threat, she “suddenly burst[s] out: ‘You all have such excellent theories, you explain everything so cleverly, you know everything. The [Nationalists] know nothing, they don’t care a rap if their theories are stupid and all contradictory. But they know one thing. They know exactly what they want. They act. They do something. I tell you, … they are going to do the trick and you will get left.”
This tension between thought and action is a theme revisited throughout the story; so is the tension, as Feuchtwanger fashions it, between common sense and decency. Does one avoid hopeless confrontation no matter the cost, or is there a case for protest at the risk of martyrdom?
Readers looking for answers will find sober appraisals, but no easy answers. The same is true for readers looking for parallels between that era and our own: There are encouraging differences, but similarities as well—a central scene between the Nationalist teacher and young Berthold sat me bolt upright in my chair. That experience, like the nightmares, hardly evokes the spirit of the holidays, but to hear, to feel and to see this troubling and far-off time is, truly, a gift.
Romantic critics of modernity have long sought to transport humanity back from cities to more rural and traditional ways of life. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century French philosopher widely regarded as the architect of the Romantic era, famously declared, “Cities are the abyss of the human species.” This view was subsequently picked up by English poets like William Wordsworth and Russian novelists like Leo Tolstoy—before fizzling out in the 19th century. Romantics regarded city life, in contrast to wholesome and rooted village life, as degrading and deracinated, with atomized individuals engaging in an empty pursuit of mammon.
This critique is experiencing a political revival in our times among religious communitarians on the right like the University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen. Deneen is Catholic, but curiously his lodestar for a healthy America is 17th and 18th century Puritan New England, where a small, homogeneous, tightly knit community arranged itself around commonly held religious values rigorously enforced through widely shared norms. What’s more, because the community was economically self-sufficient, living off the land, fishing and farming, it was shielded from corrupting external influences.
It’s an attractive ideal—so long as one does not look too closely. But that is exactly what Dev Bhoomi (Land of the Gods), a 2016 Indian film that I recently stumbled upon, does. And what it reveals ought to give pause to romantic dreamers longing for a pastoral past.
Dev Bhoomi is an understated but brilliantly observed film. Directed and co-produced by Serbian filmmaker Goran Paskaljevic, it begins with the return, after 40 long years, of Rahul Negi from London to his tiny, remote, ancestral village, nestled in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Located near one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage spots (India’s Hindu nationalist government favors infusing movies with Hindu symbols and imagery these days!), the village’s rugged mountainous terrain—sublimely captured in the film—gives it a natural shield from civilization, protecting its gentle rhythms and somnolent ways. The first person that Rahul encounters when he walks across a flimsy bridge—above the furious Ganges—is a kind priest who, asking no questions, welcomes him into his spare monastery.
The movie proceeds slowly, as if to imitate village life itself. At first blush, the little community seems worthy of Wordsworth’s ode to rustic life in Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Its residents live in harmony with each other, their surrounding environment and their religious beliefs. If city life is frenetic, conflict-ridden and stressful, life in this village seems calm, peaceful and restorative. It is exactly the kind of refuge sought by city dwellers trying to escape the madding crowd and rest their weary souls.
But then Paskaljevic zooms in on the village residents and their relationships with each other, and a different picture emerges. Its tranquil beauty masks turbulence and human ugliness that is hard to cure precisely because it is so cut off from Enlightenment forces.
We discover that Rahul, played by Viktor Banerjee, a sharp-featured heartthrob from my youth known for playing offbeat roles, has returned not to revisit happy memories of the past, but to salve unhealed emotional wounds inflicted by his parochial kin. We learn that this hamlet in the hills is not a place for spiritual repose, but a redoubt of rigid caste and patriarchal hierarchies enforced through daily cruelties, big and small—and, on occasion, violence. The slightest deviation from prescribed norms to follow one’s heart makes one an outcast, reviled even by one’s loved ones. That is what happened to Rahul, and, as he discovers, nothing has changed during his long absence. In other words, the much-ballyhooed communal bonds of small communities offer not so much a security blanket in life, as the Romantics would have it, but a noose one slips, sometimes only via death.
Rahul is preternaturally quiet and calm—a living metaphor for what village life is supposed to be—not some fiery revolutionary. He keenly understands the limits of his power to change the villagers’ hidebound customs. They refuse to forgive him for his waywardness during a village meeting held to confront his alleged sins. But he forgives them for their bigotry and oppression. He takes a “turn the other cheek” approach to soften them just a little into accepting some small and incremental reforms.
The movie is no celebration of modernity or urban life (Rahul recounts how hard life was in London, materially and spiritually)—but it does shine an unsparing light on the alternative. And there is nothing romantic about what it reveals, Rousseau notwithstanding.
So even as we take stock of what’s been lost in modern living, we should also celebrate what’s been gained: An end to claustrophobic dogmas and stultifying traditions that shrink our world and diminish our space for self-actualization.
Aaron Ross Powell
The holidays are the perfect time to watch something antifascist.
They are when we gather with family and wish for peace on earth and goodwill toward men. Many of us exchange gifts as symbols of interconnectedness and gratitude, and we look forward to a fresh year and a commitment to making it a better one. The holidays are a celebration of hope, of the things that give us hope, and of our striving to relate to each other with beneficence and generosity.
They are, in other words, the antithesis of the corrupt values of grievance and exclusion underpinning fascism. The palingenetic ultranationalism of the fascists conflicts with the virtues of a celebration that spans family structures, ethnicities, languages, and religious creeds, as “the holidays” become secularized and celebrated even by those—such as my own Buddhist family—who reject the underlying Christian metaphysical claims.
And so Andor, the newest Star Wars series on Disney+. It’s a dozen episodes, each a master class in story and world construction. But Andor is also the most deeply antifascist TV show in recent memory. It is, as well, the most learned about why fascism and political authoritarianism find purchase, and about how people living under fascist regimes come first to imagine breaking free, and then take the hard and messy and dangerous steps to do so.
Set in the early days of the rebellion against the Empire, before “the rebellion” was a rebellion at all, and instead just a fragile promise, it’s the story of scared and sometimes reluctant revolutionaries feeling out the cracks in a system that pursues total control in the name of total order. The narrative moves from thieves on the edges of the galaxy to politicians and bureaucrats at its center, from capitals to prisons, and from self-serving impulses to noble motives. All the while it plays with the idea that our need for order, and our aversion to the untidiness of liberty, can push those most put out by the free choices of others into authoritarianism. The Empire, in its authoritarianism and fascism, is at least clean and well-lit, compared to the grime of the more anarchic Outer Rim.
There’s a moment, toward the end, when a passage from a rebel’s manifesto is read aloud. While I must fight the urge to reprint it all here, I will pass along some of the best bits as a taste of Andor’s message—one that is very much in the spirit of the season. “Freedom is a pure idea,” we hear in voiceover. “It occurs spontaneously and without instruction.” Contrast this with the Empire’s need for control, which is “desperate because it is so unnatural. Tyranny requires constant effort. It breaks, it leaks. Authority is brittle. Oppression is the mask of fear.”
Freedom’s spontaneity is possible because, deep down, even across our partisan divides, we can have our own Christmas Truce and recognize each other’s dignity and shared humanity. We can reject the base urges and prejudices of fascism. We can refuse to draw arbitrary lines to justify hating, excluding and punishing those on the other side. We can look with skepticism upon ideas of nationhood and authoritarian calls for national renewal. Instead, we can embrace the disorder of a pluralist and dynamic society of free people living imperfect, messy and often weird lives, seeing it as our most cherished—and beautiful—social and political accomplishment.
And we can enjoy some truly excellent Star Wars.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.
I have not watched Andor but I find it fascinating that Tony Gilroy is the creative force behind it. He wrote and directed one of my favorite movies, Michael Clayton, which seems to share themes with Andor.
If you want a summary of city/small town tradeoffs that is shorter than a novel or film, this song summarizes it all https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-wOWlsiNU4