Just as Solzhenitsyn agitated the Soviet Union with his criticisms, so he agitated the West with his critique of the United States during his 1978 Harvard address. This is Part 2 of that address. See Post 81 for background and discussion of Part 1.
I will continue from where I left off. Click the link below for the entire transcript of this speech. I have added italics for emphasis.
The Direction of Freedom
In the West, we have always prided ourselves on freedom, but Solzhenitsyn asks if democracy has any restraints. It is really the opposite question of what one would ask the Soviet Union at this time. Do they have any freedoms? What is the direction of freedom? The pure democracy leader faces the challenge of pleasing diverse constituents. And thus, democracies, according to Solzhenitsyn, can achieve a sort of stasis of mediocrity.
Today’s Western society has revealed the inequality between the freedom for good deeds and the freedom for evil deeds. A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; thousands of hasty (and irresponsible) critics cling to him at all times…Thus mediocrity triumphs under the guise of democratic restraints.
The reason is simple. Powerful individuals must frequently pander, prioritizing specific groups over the greater good, neglecting its pursuit. This is often termed “the tyranny of the majority”. Democracy has been characterized as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.
It is feasible and easy everywhere to undermine administrative power and it has in fact been drastically weakened in all Western countries. 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.
This is where Solzhenitsyn earlier stated that leadership today is characterized by cowardice. Democratic leaders, fearing constituent backlash, will go to great lengths to please the majority. Presently, universities yield to woke culture, limiting free speech against their own beliefs.
Totalitarian regimes emphasize citizen responsibility and downplay rights for obvious reasons. Licentious or decadent societies will emphasize rights at the expense of responsibilities. The emphasis on rights began with John Locke, a topic I hope to address in a future post. A healthy society emphasizes both. What Solzhenitsyn is saying, and it should be obvious to anyone with a modicum of awareness today, is that the West overemphasizes rights. This is why he talks above about “defending 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.
Here he is talking about morality. Under the guise of “freedom”, virtually anyone has unlimited access to and endless stream of pornography. This is considered perfectly acceptable to most people. Even those, who do not indulge, for after all, who are they to curtail the freedoms of others? The only exception is child pornography, but looks like it is in the process of changing. For those who moved the Overton window to this point certainly know how to move it even further, to points that we would have considered possible just a few year ago.
It is well documented how damaging pornography addiction can be. Not just to individuals but, by extension, to society as a whole. Solzhenitsyn calls this “moral violence” against young people. Looking at the individual, one may make an argument, possibly for his or her right to indulge in such things. The problem with a rights focus is that it often neglects consideration of the greater good. Imagine having a populace conditioned to focus on the greater good in addition to individual rights. In this case, individuals would be willing to forego some of their rights and privileges to promote the greater good. The damage caused by pornography addiction is well known. Considering this, we should be willing to outlaw it for the sake of the greater good. But sadly, we are so conditioned by rights at the expense of responsibility. Even such a proposition seems ludicrous to us.
So, this idea that I have the right to do whatever I want. It includes looking at pornography or not, as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others. It is woefully inadequate as a bulwark against evil for the reason stated above—it ignores the greater good. While we are distracted, arguing with one another over our rights, the enemy comes in and sows seeds of destruction. A society legalistically constructed on rights has no soul. It is a Frankenstein monster created from disparate composite parts with no ultimate soul guiding it.
And what shall we say about the dark realms of overt criminality? Legal limits (especially in the United States) are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also some misuse of such freedom. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency—all with the support of thousands of defenders in the society. When a government earnestly undertakes to root out terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights. There are quite a number of such cases.
Now he moves from morality to criminality. During his speech, the United States still held the reputation of being a law and order society. If what Alexander observed this back then, how much more true is it today? Almost every type of heinous crime is justified to day. From looting and mass vandalism to murder, all in the name of justice. Think even about abortion where a woman has a “right to choose.” But no obligation whatsoever to the life within her. To even mention such a thing is said to impose an undue burden upon her. When, in reality, living a self-centered life is one of the most miserable and burdensome conditions that an individual could experience.
True freedom comes from exercising our responsibilities for the greater good and sacrificing for others. This is what accounts for the apparent paradox that the more rights-focused individuals get what they want, the more depressed and angry they become. This is because they are sliding into a dark abyss for which there is no escape.
A “rights” focus should protect citizens from tyranny, as it prevents government overreach. In contrast, a duty focus could subordinate citizens into a subservient underclass. But paradoxically, the opposite is true. A rights focus turns the citizenry into a bunch of spoiled children who are always badgering their government for freedoms. As long as they get those freedoms, they couldn’t care less what the government does in its own course of duties.
Whereas a responsibility focus orients the citizen. Its not just toward himself but toward the government as well, holding it accountable for its duties. A citizen has the duty to hold his government accountable. One of the difficulties with this is that it takes much more effort as well as continual vigilance. It is far easier to make enough noise to get what you want with the tacit agreement that if I get my rights, I will ignore your corruption.
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 this 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; there even is considerably more of it than in the destitute and lawless Soviet society. (There is a multitude of prisoners in our camps who are termed criminals, but most of them never committed any crime; they merely tried to defend themselves against a lawless state by resorting to means outside the legal framework.)
There is a great divide between classical/medieval and modern times. In the past, people emphasized virtue and character. The Greeks, Romans, and medieval societies believed in virtuous citizens leading to a virtuous society. With the Enlightenment, emphasis shifted from the internal to the external. If we could just control our environment, then all would be well. Enter massive government programs—a New Deal leading to a Great Society. The currency of virtue is suffering. If we respond correctly to suffering, then we build virtue. In this economy, we sometimes even welcome suffering because we believe in the principle of “no pain, no gain.”
Burdensome taxation often extracts the currency of the Great Society, which is the dollar bill. Yet, with all of the billions spent on such programs, we have not only advanced but have fallen far behind. Everything that we try to fix with a program gets drastically worse, whether it is crime or education. Expensive programs cannot make up for a lack of virtue. He mentioned that crime was lower than in the Soviet Union. And that is true. The society was characterized by virtue not because of virtue itself, but because everyone in that society was oppressed under the thumb of authoritarianism. Neither society is virtuous.
The Direction of the Press
The press, too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word “press” to include all the media.) But what use does it make of it? …There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the totalitarian East with its rigorously unified press: One discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole (the spirit of the time), generally accepted patterns of judgment, and maybe common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Unrestrained freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly transmit in a forceful and emphatic way those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and that general trend.
He was surprised by what he found, comparing the free press in the West to the rigorous unification present in the totalitarian U.S.S.R. I imagine that he expected to find a diverse press with a free interchange of ideas. Rather, he found another unified press, this time not by a totalitarian regime but by “common corporate interests”. In his day, there were fifty such media companies that controlled all of the information.1 Today, in the United States, that has considerably shrunk to just six corporations that control 90% of the news and information. Just 232 executives are making decisions about what information is disseminated or, more importantly, hidden from the public, to put it another way. So what was bad in Solzhenitsyn’s day is even worse now. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that, since Solzhenitsyn’s time, there has been a major backlash for the simple reason that people desire to know the truth. And if you starve them of it long enough, then they will make a serious effort to find it, thus the rise of the citizen and independent journalist. The irony is that, even though Solzhenitsyn did not see that coming like he did many other things, he actually helped start the movement, illustrating how powerful it could indeed be through his writings that helped crush the Soviet Union.
Gone are the days of a sharp distinction between press and public. In reality, in the era of smart technology, anyone and everyone can be a journalist. In fact, citizen journalism is actually replacing the establishment media. The First Amendment theoretically protects anyone who decides to discover and disseminate the truth as a member of the press. There are a lot of individuals and independent news organizations that are doing some excellent work, and this is, I think, one of the most important legacies of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
In fact, I think the one of the greatest movements in our contemporary times is In fact, I think one of the greatest movements in our contemporary times is independent citizen journalism. People have lost faith in corporate journalism—everyone except the most naive among us. We have been deluded into thinking that an official Press exists and that everyone else is merely a consumer of news. Did you know that there is no such thing as a “press credential”, not in the official sense? Anyone can be a member of the press by just reporting on what he or she observes, especially in the age of social media.
There are many people doing great work. They call themselves the First Amendment Auditors. I have included links below to some of the better ones. I would encourage you to check those out.
A Fashion in Thinking
Next, Alexander discussed what appears to be the beginning of Cancel Culture in the West:
Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden, have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad. There is no open violence, as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to accommodate mass standards frequently prevents the most independent-minded persons from contributing to public life and gives rise to dangerous herd instincts that block successful development. In America, I have received letters from highly intelligent persons—maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but the country cannot hear him because the media will not provide him with a forum. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to a blindness which is perilous in our dynamic era. An example is the self-deluding interpretation of the state of affairs in the contemporary world that functions as a sort of a petrified armor around people’s minds, to such a degree that human voices from seventeen countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will be broken only by the inexorable crowbar of events.
In the late seventies, at the time of this address, more liberal or free-speech-minded individuals began using the term “political correctness” to criticize extreme left rigid ideology, which we now know as cancel culture.2 Later, conservative critics like William F. Buckley, Jr., joined the fray. Solzhenitsyn, even as a non-Westerner, was picking up on this at the time, which is not surprising given his exceptional ability to see through the lies and deception of those in power, be it in the U.S.S.R. or the United States.
In academic institutions, one can only get hired if they are a leftist Marxist, which is the very thing Solzhenitsyn escaped from. Even if one is on the faculty of one of these left-leaning universities, one small intellectual step off of the PC reservation can lead to swift and permanent cancellation.
In the seventies, non-Marxist ideas were frequently suppressed, exerting passive control. Nowadays, there is rampant censorship, often accompanied by brutal treatment of the perpetrator, aiming to set an example for others. “Hate Speech” laws are on the books federally and in various states that seek to punish those that fail to conform. In this way, the passive type of information control in the 1970s has given way to a more overt censorship reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. If only we had ears to hear when Solzhenitsyn warned us of almost fifty years ago.
It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world the way to successful economic development, even though in past years it has been sharply offset by chaotic inflation. However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of no longer being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. And this causes many to sway toward socialism, which is a false and dangerous current.
I remember the sense of emptiness that seemed to prevail in our country, especially in the mid- to late-seventies. The Vietnam War severely demoralized the United States. The sexual revolution of the sixties was starting to bear the bad fruit of deep emotional wounds, especially for women, and broken relationships. Considerable increases occurred in drug and alcohol abuse, accompanied by a general sense of pessimism; people perceived a collapse of the moral framework that had previously supported the U.S. As one objective example, not the spike in alcohol consumption in the seventies, even though the United States was doing far better economically than Communist countries at the time, the emptiness of the soul prompted many to seek the answer in a new economic system, i.e., Socialism. Solzhenitsyn described this trend as a “false and dangerous current”.
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 certainly not speak for such an alternative. The mathematician Igor Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliantly argued book entitled Socialism4; this is a penetrating historical analysis demonstrating that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death. Shafarevich’s book was published in France almost two years ago and so far no one has been found to refute it. It will shortly be published in English in the US.
Shafarevich, in his book, links the socialist movement with Nihilism. Solzhenitsyn states above that “socialism of any type or shade leads to the destruction of the human spirit”. He obviously includes Communism, in its various flavors found worldwide at the time, along with overt Socialist governments, especially in Europe, when he says “of any type.”
How does Socialism, and by implication, Communism, completely destroy the human spirit, even leveling mankind unto death? This is a topic unto itself, but in short, it takes away man’s God-given dignity by reducing him to a ward of the state, taking away his initiative to be his own person. Rewarding all citizens equally, regardless of their talents and efforts, destroys incentive. God did not create everyone with equal abilities; far from it. God likes variety, whether among human societies or in nature itself. Placing people in an environment where they can flourish according to their talents, working ultimately for the Creator Himself, brings them the greatest happiness.
Historically, people have pitted Communism against Capitalism, portraying the former as bad and the latter as good. This has also lent itself to the designations “liberal” and “conservative”, especially in the 20th Century. I think that this is also wrong. The capitalistic sweatshops in the United States and England ushered in by the Industrial Revolution were not environments to foster human dignity in any way, shape, or form. What kind of dignity is given to a child who often worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, during the Industrial Revolution? Not to mention that the Industrial Revolution pulled many away from their homes, communities, and family businesses and turned them into anonymous cogs in a Capitalistic machine.
Today, the sweatshops have been replaced with large corporations that often relegate their employees to duties that rob their souls of any joy and happiness. Women sacrifice their own families, or even having a family, in order to build equity for corporate executives that they will never meet. Rather than striving for a familial legacy, they expend their entire lives for a large corporation that will almost immediately forget them after they retire. This form of Capitalism can destroy the human spirit and level one’s soul to death as well.
I think that it is time to move beyond the tired and overused paradigm of Communism versus Capitalism. Rather, I think that devolving the economic center of power back to self-sufficient communities could once again uphold and empower the family business. Not everyone is gifted to be an entrepreneur, but to have family businesses as nuclei in a community that provide dignified work for members of the community at large is a step in the right direction. I live in such a community and have a business that employs people. Such an arrangement seems much more organic, as it fosters healthy working relationships rather than “job descriptions”. Corporate capitalism is here to stay, but we can fight against both it and Socialism by providing attractive and healthy alternatives and possibly drying up their labor supply. We need to create our own communities based on such principles.
One of the problems with this model is the issue of benefits, especially health benefits. Health insurance companies, which are legalized scams protected by the government, supply good benefits only to large corporations, which gives them a large advantage when trying to attract good workers. This has to stop. One possibility is for small businesses to band together to create non-profit entities for the purpose of pooling resources together in order to help pay the medical bills of owners and employees, similar to Christian medical sharing companies.
Another possibility is to end the crony capitalistic protections afforded by the federal and state governments that enable health insurance companies to legally, but dishonestly and immorally, steal money from people by denying claims for services and needed medication, not paying doctors over technicalities, all the while charging exorbitant premiums. We would not stand for this in any other industry. Imagine pre-paying for a full tank of gas and only getting half a tank because of a technicality in the way you entered your credit card information, and there was nothing you could do about it!
I didn’t mean to go on so long on this point, but this is the type of issue that keeps people trapped in large corporations or drives them into wanting a socialistic system. The true answer, I think, is neither of those, but power put back into the hands of the people in a way that families and communities can be more autonomous and less reliant on government and corporate entities.
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Footnotes and Endnotes:
- “The Big Six’s big media game”, Mira Nalbandian, Pathfinder, May 9, 2022
- Roper, Cynthia. “political correctness”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Mar. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/topic/political-correctness. Accessed 22 June 2023
- APPARENT PER CAPITA ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION: NATIONAL, STATE, AND REGIONAL TRENDS, 1977–2018, Megan E. Slater, Ph.D.
Hillel R. Alpert, Sc.D., National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, April, 2020
- Shafarevich, Igor, The Socialist Phenomenon, published 1975; You can search online for a hardcopy of this book or to read it online, click the link above. This is a seminal book on the history of Socialism, especially with his large historic overview and the way he associates it with modern Nihilism.
Further Reading and Information:
First Amendment Auditor Links:
Shafarevich, Igor, The Socialist Phenomenon, published 1975; You can search online for a hardcopy of this book or to read it online, click the link above. This is a seminal book on the history of Socialism, especially with his large historic overview and the way he associates it with modern Nihilism.