Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 IX

In 1960, Russell met Ralph Schoenman, a young American activist who quickly ingratiated himself with Russell through flattery. Schoenman almost became part of Russell's family at their house in Wales, and he had a major influence on Russell for several of the remaining years in Russell's life. Russell became involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100, and before long he was speaking at large rallies in London and participating in demonstrations, which authorities grew tired of. He was jailed briefly in 1961. By then he had become an international spokesperson against nuclear armament, though his positions varied over time. Usually he proposed unilateral disarmament, but on one occasion he seemed to support nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This activism was initially connected with the Labor Party, but soon took an independent turn. As previously, Russell had disagreements with others and proved once again to be poor at reconciling differences with real or perceived foes. I must confess that my eyes glaze over almost immediately when I read about politics, in which the underlying issues are almost never addressed and the discussion is endless.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Russell's fame occurred in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He sent telegrams to world leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and U Thant, and though, in his mind, his actions contributed to a reconciliation, that seems unlikely according to knowledgeable sources. In 1963, he and Schoenman also became involved in a Sino-Indian border conflict, during which Schoenman made a fool of himself while visiting China on Russell's behalf. Schoenman was, as Monk describes him, a simplistic radical, and, with Russell, engaged in complex international conflicts which far exceeded their expertise. I think that Russell loved being the center of attention, but the truth was that all he was good for, particularly when he was in his nineties, was a few good slogans: war is bad; nuclear was is very bad; a world government could reduce conflicts; there are too many people.... One of Russell's weaknesses throughout his life was a tendency to make sweeping statements without understanding all the facts, and this condition only worsened in his old age. He liked playing the oracular philosopher for effect, but often had little to back it up. In this respect, he took advantage of the fact that most people didn't have the slightest idea that modern academic philosophy was merely an esoteric subject with no significant applications. His political views wavered over time. Initially he favored socialism, but when he saw what the U.S.S.R was like, he decided that, though he disliked capitalism, the U.S. was the best country to follow in the immediate future. Then, when nuclear weapons came into existence, he perceived the U.S. as a threat to mankind. It is notable, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that Russell did not have command of all the facts, and he misattributed the defusing of a potentially catastrophic nuclear confrontation to his shrewd negotiation techniques. In his house and in the village of Portmeirion, Wales he was treated as if he were the savior of mankind, but that sentiment didn't spread very far.

I should mention that at this point Russell's household was freefalling into chaos, just as his previous households had. His grandchildren, Anne, Sarah and Lucy (though Anne was not biologically related), disliked the family environment and felt ignored by both Russell and Edith. They spent most of their time away at school, but it is significant that they felt displaced by both Edith and Ralph Schoenman in Russell's attention. No one seemed to have cared about their emotional needs, and this is reminiscent of the experiences of John and Kate. I have peeked ahead, and there is yet another family disaster looming.

As you may be able to tell, the further I delve into this biography, the less impressed I become with Bertrand Russell. Fortunately for me – and you, if you're sick of reading about Bertrand Russell too – I have only a few pages left and will finish up on my next post. I have little criticism of Ray Monk, because, unlike many biographers, he has refrained from idealizing his subject and has dutifully reported his concerns about Russell's character. Our misery will be over soon. I am reserving my final conclusion for then.

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