Solzhenitsyn: The Disaster of the West

I’ve never read any of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels. His Gulag Archipelago has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of decades at least. Yes, I’ve glanced at it a few times, but to my utter shame, I’ve not taken the time to digest it. My only excuse is the volume of other reading that has always been either more enticing or more needed at the time.

I do plan to read it, fitting it in somewhere between Dante’s Divine Comedy and Plato’s Republic, among others.

Yet this doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who suffered in that very gulag he wrote about, who was then internally exiled for a number of years, who had to sneak his writings out of the USSR, and whose brilliance was recognized in the West by the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and was then expelled from his native country for “treason” in 1974.

Solzhenitsyn lived in the US for many years during his expulsion, hibernating in small-town Vermont and rarely making public appearances. However, in 1978, he accepted an invitation to speak at Harvard’s commencement. The liberal intelligentsia didn’t know they were going to hear a speech about the spiritual vacuum of the West; they were appalled at his audacity. In fact, he was speaking truth.

I read that speech in the late 1980s and was deeply impressed by his willingness to say that hard things that needed to be said.

His second paragraph offered a preview of what the audience could expect to hear that day:

Harvard’s motto is “VERITAS.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.

When Harvard first came up with that motto, it knew what truth was. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had departed from God’s truth. Solzhenitsyn was prescient when he noted that when we leave aside truth, we still have “the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it.” That’s the status of a typical university in our day.

He went on to make a statement that undoubtedly caused his audience to squirm, as it seemed to be aimed right at them:

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations.

Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

This was in 1978. The statement rings true still today.

Governments were meant to serve man, Solzhenitsyn noted, and America embedded that concept in its Declaration of Independence, but the pursuit of happiness of the eighteenth century has now resulted in the welfare state and a debased meaning of “happiness.”

If Solzhenitsyn were alive today, he might be amazed how another of his warnings has become the norm for our society:

The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.

On the other hand, destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence, for example against the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror.

This is all considered to be part of freedom and to be counterbalanced, in theory, by the young people’s right not to look and not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

From his decidedly Christian worldview, he asserted,

This tilt of freedom toward evil has come about gradually, but it evidently stems from a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which man — the master of the world — does not bear any evil within himself, and all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected. Yet strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still remains a great deal of crime.

In other words, man is sinful.

Solzhenitsyn wanted to make sure his audience did not misunderstand his critique:

I hope that no one present will suspect me of expressing my partial criticism of the Western system in order to suggest socialism as an alternative. No; with the experience of a country where socialism has been realized, I shall not speak for such an alternative.

What then, is to be done? The rest of his speech is replete with memorable phrases that I will attempt to offer here in a coherent, logical order:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Delivering His Harvard Commencement Address

The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive. You can feel their pressure, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?

How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present debility? . . .

In early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. . . .

Subsequently, however, all such limitations were eroded everywhere in the West; a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. . . .

Thus during the past centuries and especially in recent decades, as the process became more acute, the alignment of forces was as follows: Liberalism was inevitably pushed aside by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could not stand up to communism. . . .

I am not examining the case of a disaster brought on by a world war and the changes which it would produce in society. . . . Yet there is a disaster which is already very much with us. I am referring to the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.

It has made man the measure of all things on earth — imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. . . .

We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.

There is so much more, but I will stop there. Read it all for yourself sometime. You can see why it was not enthusiastically received by the liberal elite. Yet it was truth delivered from the depths of personal experience.

Behind WikiLeaks

Sometimes a story hits the news that kind of takes over, yet I have less interest in it than the news outlets do. That’s pretty much how I feel about the whole WikiLeaks controversy. It’s not that I don’t recognize it as a genuine story—I even have deep concern over the unauthorized leaking of private government information. It’s just that it is so covered that I don’t simply want to rehash what everyone already knows.

However, I have discovered that the two individuals most closely connected to this controversy have backgrounds and beliefs that I haven’t really heard mentioned on the newscasts.

Take Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier who illegally released thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables. What do you learn about him on a typical newscast? You know he is currently being held at Quantico facing a court martial and up to 52 years in prison for his actions. But that’s about all.

A simple Google search reveals much more. For instance, he was raised a Catholic, but says he never believed any of it. His antipathy to Christianity is so pronounced that he wore customized dogtags labeled “Humanist.”

Manning also is homosexual, but I’ve never heard that publicly proclaimed. He apparently is angry over the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Those who were classmates in his younger days describe him as someone who always had a bit of an attitude. Add to all of this an ongoing pity party— complaining to an online acquintance that people ignored him, that he felt isolated, and that he was self-medicating “like crazy.” Well, now he has one wish fulfilled—he’s not being ignored any longer.

Then there’s the guy who decided to take what Manning gave him and broadcast it all to the world: Julian Assange. He’s rather secretive himself, which is ironic, but it appears that he was raised by a single mother in Australia, moving 37 times before age 15. He became a computer hacker at an early age and got in trouble with the law over it—arrested in 1991 and charged with 30 criminal counts. Facing prison, he was able to strike a plea deal in which he only had to pay a fine.

Currently, Assange is in hiding as Interpol just added him to its Most Wanted list after Sweden issued a new arrest warrant against him in a sex crimes probe.

Trying to discern Assange’s guiding philosophy is difficult. In an article in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, the writer poses these questions: “Is he anticorruption? Antiwar? … What is he hoping to accomplish? In the end, what does Julian Assange want?” The writer concludes that he just seems to be on a crusade against secrecy of all kinds, yet WikiLeaks itself is shrouded in mystery:

But WikiLeaks itself may be turning into just the sort of opaque entity it criticizes. Its hierarchy is unknown, its funders are unclear, and its plans are unverifiable. It reserves the right to decide whether it is in the public interest to disclose the information it obtains (as do many mainstream media outlets). Those who feel victimized by its actions – such as, say, Afghans who work with the US and didn’t want their names known to the Taliban – don’t get to argue the case for continued secrecy before damage is done.

In other words, Assange doesn’t want to be held to the same standard he applies to everyone else. His next target, by the way, is bank records.

Upon examination of the character of both Manning and Assange, I can say unconditionally that neither is a hero. Their actions only undermine the kind of secrecy that is sometimes necessary, particularly in dealing with other countries.

Manning should be imprisoned for his actions; Assange should be held accountable for what he has done as well.