TURES COLUMN: A Gentleman in Moscow … and Miami

Published 10:30 am Thursday, April 21, 2022

In 2016, Amor Towles set the world of literature afire with his best-selling novel A Gentleman in New York. The book covers a rich character, an intriguing setting, and pokes fun at the absurdities of Bolshevism. Though the historical fiction begins 100 years ago, it’s not too far away from our current debate over critical race theory and math textbooks in Florida today.

In the tale set in the new Soviet Union, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to be a “former person” by the “Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs” on June 21, 1922.  His punishment is to be placed under house arrest … or rather “hotel arrest,” at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, to live in a tiny attic apartment, with the threat of being shot should he exit the building. Of course, he has many adventures in his cosmopolitan lodgings, meeting fascinating people, and is always ready with a story, a simile, a clever style, or even some sarcasm at the situation. I shared it with my “Victims of Communism” colleagues.

Towles could have dragged us through the well-worn pages of the bloody Russian Revolution, Stalin’s brutal purges, or other cruelties of the USSR. Instead, we are treated to seeing the Communists in all of the zealous pettiness impose a combination of control and revenge for perceived slights, or anything that would deviate from the ideology or besmirch Mother Russia.  A writer-friend of Rostov’s is jailed for objecting to censorship of a line from an Anton Chekov letter because the playwright claimed he likes German bread better than its Russian variant.

A banal waiter, insulted by Rostov’s suggestion of a more appropriate wine to serve with Latvian stew, orders the workers spend ten days removing labels from wine bottles in the cellar so no one will ever again be able to appreciate the difference from one particular white or red wine. An actress’ career is ruined because some bureaucrat thinks her close-up camera images reflect too much “individualism” and not enough respect for the common struggle of the proletariat!

It’s ironic that one of the closer analogies to such absurdities can be found in the state of Florida today, among politicians who purport to be anti-communist, and reserve the label “Marxist” for their critiques. The news is reporting that just under half of the math textbooks to be used in public schools have been rejected because they contain elements of “critical race theory” or “social and emotional learning” or even the boogeyman “core curriculum,” once designed by a bipartisan group, backed by businesses.

As a college student who lived through both the wave of “political correctness” and the counterrevolution that sought to stamp it out (teaching me the perils of the concept “making the opposite mistake”) I was eager to see examples of how math had been co-opted by “wokeness.”  Imagine my dismay when the leaders insisted it was all there, but refused to make the overwhelming evidence public, despite claiming the process was “open” and “transparent,” another irony for a location dubbed “The Sunshine State.”

The state’s governor then defended the decision not to provide examples, claiming that the content is “proprietary information.”  A representative from that office released an example … from Missouri.  Hopefully it’s more accurate than the viral but debunked claim that Missouri children would have to repeat the entire 2019-20 academic year due to COVID-19.

Towles’ tale, and the Sunshine State story reveal what happens when any political ideology becomes orthodoxy to the point of irrationality.

Hopefully cooler heads will prevail before we’re punished for either not being woke enough, or disciplined for being “too woke.”