Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Live Not by Lies

That should be your motto. Write it on your heart. Suffer for it, and thank your God for that privilege.

It was the title of an essay he wrote, dated the day the secret police arrested him to ship him into exile. It circulated secretly among Moscow intellectuals, but was published in full light of day for the world to read in "The Washington Post" on Monday, February 18, 1974. And therein lies all the mistake his government made in thinking it had silenced him.

When violence intrudes into peaceful life, its face glows with self-confidence, as if it were carrying a banner and shouting: "I am violence. Run away, make way for me -- I will crush you." But violence quickly grows old. And it has lost confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally -- since violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies -- all loyalty lies in that.

The final grim pun, alas, does not exist in the Russian. It only makes the essay more potent in its American voice. As Solzhenitsyn himself proved to be, though he knew he never belonged here, to us, in the West. He landed luckily in rural Vermont, where small town people know the virtues of doing, not speaking.

On Thursday, June 8, 1978, he spoke to Harvard's graduating class and to all the West that would listen.

The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

And he called us to our old standards:

"It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people's right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil."

At that point, many turned away from him. He was not anti-Russian. He was not pro-American. It was a time that understood the world in those terms. But to pretend he was either would have been a lie, and that he would not do.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born the year the communists under Lenin took control of Russia. In his youth he was a good patriotic son of Russia, who bought the government's stories, studied diligently, and served with distinction in the war against the Nazis. But he had a penchant for telling the truth, and when he wrote disparagingly of Stalin in a letter to a fellow officer, he was sent into the gulag. By the time he came out, he had almost died -- twice -- and become a Christian. The crucible had tempered him into a man who would not live for any lie.

He wrote at the end of the first volume of "The Gulag Archipelago" that his years in prison had been a moral gift:

"It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an uprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: they destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more."

This William F. Buckley Jr. column appeared in National Review in August 1975. He was amused by the then-MSM's attempt to paint Solzhenitsyn as a right-winger by disillusioned liberals:

If Solzhenitsyn is a far rightist who appeals to the far right, he goes at it in a most unorthodox way. Having declared that the Russian people are the natural allies of the American workers, he commented in one of his recent speeches about “another alliance — at first glance a strange one, a surprising one — but if you think about it, in fact one which is well-grounded and easy to understand: this is the alliance between our Communist leaders and your capitalists.”

“This alliance is not new,” Solzhenitsyn reminded his audience. “The very famous Armand Hammer, who is flourishing here today, laid the basis for this when he made the first exploratory trip into Russia, still in Lenin’s time, in the very first years of the Revolution. He was extremely successful in this intelligence mission and since that time for all these fifty years, we observe continuous and steady support by the businessmen of the west of the Soviet Communist leaders.” Doesn’t sound to me like a typical far right talk ….

Solzhenitsyn went on to discuss a recent exhibit of the Untied States anti-criminal technology which the Russians brought up with fascination. The difference being that we were selling our scientific paraphernalia not to the law abiding for use against criminals, but to criminals for use against the law abiding: rather like inventing a guillotine for the purpose of chopping meat, and then selling it to Robespierre for other uses ….

Give the last word to Roger Scruton:

It is fair to say that the three-volume The Gulag Archipelago did more than any other publication to cause the scales to fall from the eyes of those who had been tempted to believe that communism would have been fine, had it not been perverted from its true course by Stalin. Solzhenitsyn showed the way in which, once accountability has been set aside, as it was set aside by Lenin in 1918, and once society had as a result been conscripted to a single goal, with all institutions gathered up into the collective advance, it is not "corruption" that leads to the triumph of evil. The conditions are now in place for evil to prevail, since there is nothing to prevent it.

Yet this evil should not be seen as an impersonal thing. Solzhenitsyn was far from endorsing the thesis of the "banality of evil" as Hannah Arendt had expounded it. Nor did he see totalitarianism as the ultimate source of the evil that it promotes. Rather totalitarian government is the great mistake, made for whatever noble or ignoble purpose, of putting the final goal before the present dilemma. It is this which gives evil intentions the same chance as good ones, which enables the criminal and the psychopath to compete on a level with the saint and the hero. Yet even in totalitarianism the evil belongs to the human beings, and not to the system.