Communists know that the strength of their regime is measured in terms of ideological uniformity. This is what makes the pervasiveness of COVID kitsch so unnerving. The coordinated censorship of opposing viewpoints, both scientific and conspiratorial, is creepily reminiscent of 20th-century excess.
Sabina, the headstrong artist in Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, is haunted by kitsch. In Czechoslovakia, her paintings must conform to the strictures of Socialist Realism—a ‘genre’ that consists of variations on a communist utopia. So when she makes it to the West, Sabina expects to find free people who recognize kitsch for what it is: a sentimental cover for an inescapably tragic world. Her hopes are dashed when she attends an anti-Communist march in Paris:
When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. ‘You mean you don’t want to fight the occupation of your country?’ She wanted to tell them that behind Communism and Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions, lurks a more fundamental, pervasive evil—the image of that evil is a parade of people marching side by side with raised fists, shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand. Embarrassed, she changed the subject.
In the heat of the demonstration, her Western friends are possessed by the great march of progress, reveling in its rhythmic inevitability. To them, protest offers an escape from the quotidian, a rare venue for heroism in a world so free that it has been liberated from meaning. The political slogans reverberating off the tree-lined streets of Paris confirm that, at least today, there is some greater purpose to an otherwise comfortable life. To Sabina, this is painfully kitschy. She has spent too long living in a society dominated by slogans to ever believe in one.
When Sabina wants to put on an exhibition of her artwork in Prague, she must apply for government approval. As a result, every day is carefully choreographed, for it is not talent but political identity that determines success in a totalitarian country. The shopkeeper who wants a vacation by the sea has to plaster his storefront with slogans; the student seeking a professorship has to lecture on the benefits of Marxism-Leninism. Theirs is a dictatorship of ritual, one never-ending expression of communist kitsch.
It is rarely noted that the most powerful dictators in the world resemble village busybodies: They spend their days worrying about what their neighbors think. The monstrous kitsch of Hitler and Stalin—the parades, the flags, the happy blond kids—was aimed not at the body but at the mind. Westerners, accustomed to the idea that power is a physical thing, usually treat all this as creepy but unimportant. Students are taught that totalitarianism only emerged in modern times because modern technology is a prerequisite for the total control of society.
Yet it would be a mistake to attribute the peculiar modernity of totalitarian governance to the superficial form of steel and concrete. Most of Russia was quite literally using Medieval technology at the time of the revolution; much of Romania still was when the Berlin Wall fell. What made Communism essentially modern was its rejection of all prior arrangements in service to a single idea. This would have been unthinkable in pre-modern times, in which tradition was held to be more important than anything that the Mind could conceive.
It is only in modern times that the individual is empowered to reject all that came before him—in which ideas become more real than the world. Mr. Kundera is one of many insightful thinkers to identify this link between modern totalitarianism and modern democracy. Consider Allen Ginsberg’s tortured Howl, which describes the best minds of his generation trapped in the mental prison of Moloch, even as they live free in America:
Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky!
The triumph of the Mind marks the beginning of a new and all-encompassing slavery. Torn from the body of history, thrown into the vacuum of the ideal, modern man stands alone. If this really is the starting point of the social contract, then all political order rests on the Idea. Personal conviction is, by extension, a political matter. That is why Communists bring the full weight of their power into the business of censorship. They know that the strength of their regime is not measured in terms of industrial production, but of ideological uniformity.
As Lenin writes, “the art of any propagandist and agitator consists in his ability to find the best means of influencing any given audience, by presenting a definite truth, in such a way as to make it most convincing, most easy to digest, most graphic, and most strongly impressive.” Ironically, the triumph of the Mind kicks off a race to find the lowest common denominator. We have arrived back at kitsch: the foundation on which modern tyranny rests.
What makes Sabina’s plight tragic is that she has no hope of escape. Her time in the West only confirms that “kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.” Only the simplest images can sustain the broad base of support that is needed in mass democracy. The Bolsheviks articulated a principle that all politicians intuitively follow as they kiss babies and promise the sky.
Mr. Kundera writes that kitsch is characterized by two tears. The first tear drops at the sight of something entirely beautiful and pure: children running on the grass. “The second tear says, ‘how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass.’ It is the second tear that makes kitsch, kitsch.” That second tear is the glue that holds all political communities together.
It follows that free societies are only distinguished from totalitarian states by variety. So long as Republican kitsch, Democrat kitsch, environmentalist kitsch, nationalist kitsch, libertarian kitsch, and progressive kitsch compete with one another, “we can still—barely—escape the inquisition of kitsch; the individual can preserve their personality and the artist can produce unpredictable work. However, when one political party has all the power, we suddenly find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.” It doesn’t matter if the flag is red or blue if you have no choice but to wave it.
This is what makes the pervasiveness of COVID kitsch so unnerving. The issue is not that unscientific claims are masquerading as verified truth—nothing could be more typical. It’s that the coordinated censorship of opposing viewpoints, both scientific and conspiratorial, is creepily reminiscent of 20th-century excess. Once again, powerful men are busying themselves with limiting the thoughts of the average Joe. If they succeed, only one kitsch will remain.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Mr. Kundera writes, “the true purpose of kitsch is to cover up death.” Behind the promises of politicians lies a world in which painful tradeoffs are ever-present. Overthrow a dictator in Iraq, and ISIS takes his place. Collectivize the farms, and the peasants starve. Bail out Wall Street, and Trump is elected. COVID kitsch is no exception: Lockdown the West, and famine rages in the third world.
This is why Mr. Kundera’s Czechs set out on a hero’s journey: to escape politics. His characters rage against their reduction into a primitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the regime. What they seek, however clumsily, is creative engagement with the world. This does not mean that they will ever transcend kitsch. All they can hope for is to be able to see what it obscures.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.