Shining the Light of Wisdom and Truth

Book Review:
The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror
(by Natan Sharansky)
Review by: Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse
January 26, 2005

The West first came to know Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky as an articulate and courageous fighter against Soviet rule who organized like-minded dissidents in a tireless crusade against their totalitarian oppressors. His work earned him a nine year jail term.

Sharansky recalls the time when he believed freedom might be possible:
One day, my Soviet jailers gave me the privilege of reading "Pravda." Splashed across the front page was a condemnation of President Reagan for having the temerity to call the Soviet Union an "evil empire." Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan's "provocation" quickly spread through the prison. The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth -- a truth that burned within the hearts of each and every one of us.

Reagan's infamous remark aroused the ire of liberals who believed that it heightened the conflict between the free West and totalitarian Soviet Union. Nothing could be further from the truth contends Sharansky. Reagan brought down the Soviet Empire because he had faith in democracy, a faith derived from his conviction that most people yearn to breathe free. The West needs to recover this faith and apply it in the world.

Broadly speaking two types of societies exist in the world. Free societies are the nations where citizens can "express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or punishment." Fear societies prohibit the free expression of ideas altogether.

Fear societies will always have a number of true believers. They impose a uniformity of thought that creates a kind of double think where a person acts and thinks one way in public and another way in private. Maintaining a constant state of anxiety about external threats is necessary for preserving a tyrant's rule because it creates the illusion of legitimacy for the regime -- South Korea or Cuba toward the US for example.

In regimes where no dissent exists, the rule of government is near absolute. No dissent is allowed or even possible. Examples include Saudi Arabia, Iraq under Saddam, Cuba, Korea, Palestine under Arafat, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and others

The absence of dissent creates an appearance of stability that often seduces Western cultural elites. In the 1930's when Stalin was killing millions, leftists like George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, and others defended Soviet tyranny oblivious to the carnage around them. Just recently CNN reported repeatedly that popular sentiment was behind the Taliban before the war in Afghanistan. Today we know the opposite was true.

Sharansky is solidly behind democracy. Democracy is a morally superior form of government because it promises the concrete opportunity to live in freedom. Free societies should deal boldly with fear regimes by linking diplomatic and economic initiatives to the lessening the grip of the tyrant's oppression. This brings moral clarity into international affairs Sharansky contends.

Elevating human rights will embolden freedom fighters in the fear societies. "I owe my freedom to Reagan," Sharansky writes because in linking American foreign policy to the internal workings of the Soviet Union, Reagan enabled Sharansky and others to begin changing the regime from within. Reagan's policy stood in stark contrast to Nixon's détente which Sharansky regards as a colossal failure, and Carter's stillborn attempt to elevate human rights as the centerpiece of American foreign policy.

Sharansky chides the Israeli government for seeking accommodation with Yassar Arafat and the PLO. Peace was not possible with Arafat because he was a terrorist and despot. If Israel had linked its policy to the democratization of the Palestinian people, the terror of PLO extremists would have abated because the PLO could be challenged internally similar to the Soviet Union. The greatest fear of despots and the greatest threat to their regimes is the emancipation of their people. Only democracy can defeat despotism and terror.

Can democracy work in nations with no democratic tradition? Sharansky believes it can and cites Russia, Germany, Japan, and Afghanistan as proof. Certainly some of these democracies function differently than democracies in the West, but almost no one believed democracy in these nations was possible before despotism fell. Already we see the emboldened dissent in different countries of the Arab world.

Sharansky argues in his own way the same point Alexander Solzhenitsyn made almost thirty years ago that the crisis in the West not a crisis of policy but courage. The relation between free and fear societies is first a question of morality and second a question of policy. Moral clarity needs to inform this discussion, and a renewed confidence in democracy will help that clarity emerge.

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and manages the website www.OrthodoxyToday.org. Reprinted with permission.