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Solzhenitsyn, Again

The great Russian thinker foresaw the situation which now faces George W. Bush.

11:00 PM, Mar 11, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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THE HARVARD COLLEGE CLASS OF 1978 meets in Cambridge in three months to celebrate its 25th reunion. Among the events, lunches, panels, and dances, I hope time has been allocated to remember the most significant event of the 1978 ceremonies: a commencement address by Nobel Laureate Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn delivered his remarks in Russian. There was an intermittent drizzle, and the odd dual delivery of speaker and translator made an overcast day even more gloomy. The speech the Russian gave did little to lift spirits. A day earlier Rodney Dangerfield had keynoted the Class Day festivities. We knew immediately that this speech would be different when, in his third sentence, Solzhenitsyn explained that "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."

He titled his address "A World Split Apart," and put out as his premise that the then-dominant split between the West and the USSR masked even deeper divides: "The truth is that the split is both more profound and more alienating, that the rifts are more numerous than one can see at first glance. These deep manifold splits bear the danger of equally manifold disaster for all of us, in accordance with the ancient truth that a kingdom--in this case, our Earth--divided against itself cannot stand."

Solzhenitsyn listed the camps: the West, the USSR, China, India, the Muslim world, and Africa, "if indeed we accept the approximate viewing of the latter two as uniform." A quarter century has confirmed his hesitation on this last point.

There is a great deal to be mined in his prophecy. It was not well received in 1978 and its application to today's events is just as jarring. But perhaps someone will assemble a score of thinkers to rake over the words. There are two sections which deserve a quick read today, however, as we stand on the eve of war.

First, Solzhenitsyn asked whether the West possessed enough courage to defend itself:

"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 of 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.

"Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or doomed currents which clearly cannot offer resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

"Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?"

Then Solzhenitsyn pondered the struggle of a leader who would accomplish great things:

"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 highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; thousands of hasty (and irresponsible) critics cling to him at all times; he is constantly rebuffed by parliament and the press. He has to prove his every step is well founded and absolutely flawless. Indeed, an outstanding, truly great person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind does not get any chance to assert himself; dozens of traps will be set for him from the beginning. Thus mediocrity triumphs under the guise of democratic restraints."

President Bush is attempting to do what Solzhenitsyn argues cannot be done, depending upon a latent courage that the great Russian could not see because he did not conduct his survey in a wide enough fashion. Solzhenitsyn may have known his French, but underestimated his Americans.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.