Stanislav Petrov and our common humanity


The first time I watched Gorky Park in the 1980s I remember how strange it was to see citizens of the Soviet Union, or as we called them all then irrespective of ethnicity, “Russians,” with normal human motivations and concerns. In other words, depicted in the fullness of their humanity.

As a child in Reagan’s America what we knew about Russians was that they were citizens of the Soviet Union, and what we knew about the Soviet Union were military parades and the dour mien of their leaders. When Mikhail Gorbachev emerged on the scene it didn’t really humanize the citizens of the Soviet Union. Rather, he was a totem or exemplar of a new spirit in the world, and that perhaps we weren’t all doomed to nuclear annihilation.

As for Russians. Who were they? In the 1990s they were our allies somehow, at least on paper. I think the truth of the matter is that we did take advantage of them as a nation and a people who were experiencing difficulties, insofar as America maneuvered itself into even more advantageous positions while they were down on their luck. Eventually, the images of godless Communists faded in the 1990s…to be replaced by kleptocrats and Russian mafia.

This is not to say I do not believe Communism was evil. I do believe it was evil. But, normal human beings with the same concerns and aspirations as those in the West were part of a system, which on occasion made them the tools of evil in this world. For that, perhaps they must be judged. Some say the same of American citizens. I may disagree in the particulars…but the principle is the same.

I bring this up because recently we found out that Stanislav Petrov died last spring. His story is well known at this point; he made a judgment call and ignored a false alarm that five American ICBMs were headed toward the Soviet Union. He acted humanely in a moment of high drama. As an American we are so often drilled into repeating the mantra we are the “good guys.” Petrov shows us that decency persisted even in the “evil empire.”

Our civilization’s Ottoman years

Some right-wing intellectuals are wont to say that multicultural and multiracial empires do not last. This is not true. Historically there are plenty which lasted for quite a long time. Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottomans, to name just a few of the longest. But, though they were diverse polities modern liberal democratic sensibilities would have been offended by them. That is because these empires were ordered and centered around a hegemonic culture, with other cultures accepted and tolerated on the condition of submission and subordination.

The Ottoman example is the most stark because it was formally explicit under the millet system by the end of its history, though it naturally evolved out of Islamic conceptions of the roles of dhimmis under Muslim hegemony. For 500 years the Ottomans ruled a multicultural empire. Yes, it decayed and collapsed, but 500 years is a good run.

I bring up the Ottoman example because I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, an academic, and he brought up the idea that the seeming immiseration of the middle to lower classes in developed societies will lead to redistributive economic policies. Both of us agree that immiseration seems on the horizon, and that no contemporary political movement has a good response. But I pointed out that traditionally redistributive socialism seems most successful in relatively homogeneous societies, and the United States is not that. American society is diverse. Descriptively multicultural. There would be another likely solution.

Eleven years ago Amartya Sen wrote a piece for The New Republic which could never get published in the journal today, The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism. In it he looked dimly upon the emergence of plural monoculturalism. Today plural monoculturalism is the dominant ideal of the identity politics Left, with cultural appropriation in vogue, and separatism reminiscent of the 1970s starting to come back into fashion. Against plural monoculturalism he contrasted genuine multiculturalism. I think a better word for it is cosmopolitanism.

The Ottoman ruling elite was Sunni Muslim, but it was cosmopolitan. The Sultan himself often had a Christian mother, while during the apex of the empire the shock troops were janissary forces drawn from the dhimmi peoples of the Balkans. This was a common feature of the Islamic, and before them Byzantine and Roman empires. The ruling elites exhibited a common ethos, but their origins were variegated.

Many of the Byzantine emperors were not from ethnic Greek Chalcedonian Christian backgrounds (before the loss of the Anatolian territories many were of Armenian, and therefore non-Chalcedonian, origin). But the culture they assimilated to, and promoted, as the core identity of the empire was Greek-speaking and Chalcedonian, with a self-conscious connection to ancient Rome. I can give similar examples from South Asia or China. Diverse peoples can be bound together in a sociopolitical order, but it is invariably one of domination, subordination, and specialization.

But subordinate peoples had their own hierarchies, and these hierarchies interacted with the Ottoman Sultan in an almost feudal fashion. Toleration for the folkways of these subordinate populations was a given, so long as they paid their tax and were sufficiently submissive. The leaders of the subordinate populations had their own power, albeit under the penumbra of the ruling class, which espoused the hegemonic ethos.

How does any of this apply to today? Perhaps this time it’s different, but it seems implausible to me that our multicultural future is going to involve equality between the different peoples. Rather, there will be accommodation and understandings. Much of the population will be subject to immiseration of subsistence but not flourishing. They may have some universal basic income, but they will be lack the dignity of work. Identity, religious and otherwise, will become necessary opiums of the people. The people will have their tribunes, who represent their interests, and give them the illusion or semi-reality of a modicum agency.

The tribunes, who will represent classical ethno-cultural blocs recognizable to us today, will deal with a supra-national global patriciate. Like the Ottoman elite it will not necessarily be ethnically homogeneous. There will be aspects of meritocracy to it, but it will be narrow, delimited, and see itself self-consciously above and beyond local identities and concerns. The patriciate itself may be divided. But their common dynamic will be that they will be supra-national, mobile, and economically liberated as opposed to dependent.

Of course democracy will continue. Augustus claimed he revived the Roman Republic. The tiny city-state of Constantinople in the 15th century claimed it was the Roman Empire. And so on. Outward forms and niceties may be maintained, but death of the nation-state at the hands of identity politics and late stage capitalism will usher in the era of oligarchic multinationalism.

I could be wrong. I hope I am.