Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Fear and Freedom

I’ve now finished reading The Case for Democracy. The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror by Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer (Public Affairs, 2004, 303 pp.). I was struck, when I received it, by the book’s old-fashioned physical appearance – with its toned-down red, black and white dustjacket and Sabon typeface, it looks and feels like a volume from an earlier era: perhaps the late 1940s or early 1950s. Its content, however, is wholly modern and contemporary: though it traces the origins of our present predicament all the way from the end of the Second World War, it is the world of the present that is its real subject and focus.

While the book is the result of a joint project, and is co-authored by Sharansky with a young U.S. researcher and consultant, Ron Dermer, the ideas and arguments put forth in its pages are Sharansky’s own, with Dermer apparently only providing occasional notes and historical explanations.

Sharansky’s case for democracy is founded on two basic premises: a) that there are in the world two kinds of society: what he calls the “fear society” and the “free society”. And b) that not only are all people created equal, “but also that all peoples are created equal.” (p. 279)

In writing of the “fear society”, Sharansky certainly knows what he is talking about. As a political prisoner in the Soviet Union he spent nine years in labour camps. Along with such figures as Andrei Amalrik, Elena Bonner, Alexander Ginzburg, Anatoly Marchenko, Yuri Orlov, and Andrei Sakharov (to whose memory the book is dedicated), he was one of those who bravely and single-mindedly faced down the apparatus of Soviet tyranny, appealing not only to stifled public opinion within the Soviet Union, but also to public opinion in the world at large. In order to achieve the breakthroughs that ultimately led, via the Helsinki Agreements, to the collapse and dismantling of the Soviet system, he had, like other dissidents, to overcome the fear that was an integral part of that system, built into it by a political leadership that relied on threats, informing, intimidation and violence to attain its ends.

As a Jewish dissident, Sharansky extended his political activity to include the cause of the so-called refuseniks – the many Soviet Jews who in the 1970s wished to emigrate to Israel, but were prevented from doing so by the Soviet authorities. And, on his release in 1986, as the first political prisoner to be freed by Mikhail Gorbachev, he went to Israel, where be quickly became involved in programs designed to assist the integration of the steadily increasing flow of Soviet Jews into Israeli society. To the nine years he spent as a political prisoner, he was able to add nine years as an Israeli politician, putting into practice the results of the lessons he had learned in captivity.

The Case for Democracy is in some ways addressed to a younger generation of readers: those for whom the Cold War may be something they have only read about it books and newspapers, a concept rather than a lived reality. It is also mainly addressed to a Western readership – to those who have no direct experience of life in a totalitarian state, and for whom the manipulations of an organization like the KGB must inevitably seem arcane and even remote in terms of real motivation. The book’s message is a wake-up call to a realization of something very simple: that the democracies of the West possess something unique and irreplaceable – their freedom. And that freedom is still denied to a large proportion of the world’s inhabitants. By showing, from his personal experience in the Soviet Union, how dictators and tyrants use fear in order to deprive people of their freedom, Sharansky points to the present-day world, where the same struggle persists in the Arab world, in China, North Korea, and beyond. As an Israeli, his concern is primarily with the situation in the Middle East, and in a very powerful chapter he shows how the lessons of Helsinki failed to be carried across to the so-called “peace process” begun in Oslo in 1993:
A cursory glance at the map of Europe shows the capitals of Finland and Norway only a few hundred miles apart. Yet despite their proximity, the accords reached at Helsinki and Oslo represent decidedly different approaches to international relations. In both of these Scandinavian cities, parties ostensibly seeking an end to a decades-old conflict entered into negotiations that culminated in a historic agreement. But unfortunately for the prospects of genuine Arab-Israeli reconciliation, the similarities end there. The process started at Helsinki helped end the Cold War and liberate hundreds of millions of people. The process started at Oslo unleashed an unprecedented campaign of terror and left millions of Palestinians living under a tyrant. (p. 144)

Sharansky’s view of Oslo is informed, like his view of Helsinki and the events and processes that led to it, by the book’s other central concept: that of moral clarity. He points to the “doublethink” that characterized the attitudes not only of large sections of Soviet society, but also of considerable areas of Western public opinion during the Cold War – attitudes that led to “a world without moral clarity… a world in which , in the name of peace, pacifists in the West marched alongside emissaries of the KGB who, posing as peace activists, sought to undermine the efforts of a free world to defend itself against Soviet aggression.” A similar danger threatens the world today, he believes, and his prescription is for more of the educative and integrative action in which he took part during the Cold War:
…the unique partnership that once brought together the “human rights camp” and the “security hawks” must be reconstituted. In the Cold War, political leaders, religious leaders, human rights organizations, writers and journalists transcended partisan and ideological divisions to work together to confront tyranny and support those inside the Soviet Union who were fighting for freedom. To win the battle against today’s tyrants, we must once again turn political opponents into allies and unite the world’s democracies in a common purpose. We must recapture moral clarity by recognizing that the great divide between the world of fear and the world of freedom is far more important than the divisions within the free world. At a time when freedom and fear are at war, we must move beyond Left and Right and begin to think again about right and wrong. (pp. 274-275)

This is a book that needs to be studied and re-read constantly in the light of contemporary international developments. Its message is clear: freedom is a supreme value, which can only be divided or relativised at the cost of human life and dignity. The arguments of those who want to believe that “freedom is not for everyone”, that there are peoples and nations in the world for whom freedom is simply not suitable, are shown to be lacking in humanity and moral integrity. It’s notable that, with only one rather hesitant exception (pp. 28-29), throughout the book the author avoids discussing the state of contemporary, post-Soviet Russia. When he does turn his attention there, he remarks that obviously, the Russia of today cannot be compared to the fear-ridden totalitarian Soviet Union. And the sceptics - mostly on the political left of Western thinking – who like to argue that Russians, because of their history, are somehow incapable of true democracy, are simply wrong. Look, Sharansky, says, at the collapse of the Soviet Union: there was a triumph of democracy if ever there was one. Quoting a New Statesman article which claims that in today’s Russia “the memory a time in which the KGB was the backbone of order is precious”, the book’s authors upbraid the sceptics:
Only those who have no understanding of tyranny could take such nonsense seriously. Russians do not want to return to totalitarianism. To believe that the Russians long for a return to a totalitarian past because of the difficulties they have encountered in the present is like believing that African-Americans who suffer from unemployment and poverty long for a return to slavery. Even those Russians who claim to want to go back to the “Russia of old” do not want to return to a world where people are arbitrarily killed, where family members can be suddenly arrested or imprisoned, or where the government controls nearly every aspect of life. (p. 28)

As in some other sections of the book, it’s hard to know which of the co-authors is speaking here. One suspects that Sharansky’s own personal view might be rather less sanguine – and indeed, on the preceding page, there is a reference to “very troubling” “setbacks on the road to democracy in Russia today”. However, in the context of the book’s main argument – that freedom and democracy are for everyone, and not for a few “chosen” nations in the West, the point is fairly made.

It’s a point that has relevance, too, in the context of some of the contemporary world’s most pressing problems – the War on Terror, the crisis in the Middle East, and the American intervention in Iraq. Sharansky’s view is unequivocal: just as the Soviet leaders were made to realize that international acceptance was conditional on the implementation of human rights at home, so the leaders of the Arab dictatorships must be made to understand that “if they continue to repress their people and stifle dissent, they will lose the benefits the free world has to offer, from legitimacy and security guarantees to direct aid and trade privileges.” The West should not wait for dictatorial regimes to consent to reform, and should not wait, either, for the support of international organizations. Finally, for the resolution of the present conflicts, Sharansky has a new and novel proposal:
To protect and promote democracy around the world, I believe that a new international institution, one in which only those governments who give their people the right to be heard and counted will themselves have a right to be heard an counted can be an enormously important force for democratic change. Such a coalition of free nations could turn a government’s preservation of the right to dissent – the town square test [being able to express one’s views without fear on the “town square”] – into the standard of international legitimacy. Countries that fail to meet this standard would be shunned and sanctioned, and the people they repress would be embraced and supported. (p.278-279)

It’s an optimistic view of human nature and development – but one that is hard to counter, because its moral centre is grounded in a personal experience of tyranny and oppression that is not granted to many in the West. In one sense, the book is a message from another time and another place – but it's also a message from the rest of the world, and one that we will ignore at our peril.

No comments: