Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s work and life can best be described as those of a prophet. The prophet died last Sunday at the age of 89. Solzhenitsyn was not only a critic of the Soviet Union, of communism and Socialism, he showed the West — and particularly the United States — more than a few of its own flaws.
Thirty years ago this summer, Solzhenitsyn gave an address at Harvard that was biting in its critique, exemplary in its wisdom and visionary in its predictions for what the future would hold should America and the West remain on their present path. It was a monumental speech that many academics — at Harvard and elsewhere — who had cheered Solzhenitsyn while he resided in the gulag, hated, but I loved.
Solzhenitsyn warned the West not to be deluded by what he said was a false belief that all nations yearn to be like us. This thinking is at the heart of President Bush’s doctrine for dealing with the Arab and Muslim world. Solzhenitsyn called this “the blindness of superiority” and warned against thinking that only “wicked governments” temporarily prevent other nations from “adopting the Western way of life.”
The Russian novelist observed that a “decline in courage” has affected the West and especially, “the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. … Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?”
Solzhenitsyn said that in the West, the pursuit of happiness through self-gratification and materialism has replaced moral and character development: “The constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression. … The majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about.” And yet, “Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask.”
What about America’s emphasis on individual rights? Solzhenitsyn said the result has been to ignore the welfare of the many: “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.”
There was more to disturb the self-satisfied intellectual elite. Surely faculty members at Harvard must have gnashed their teeth in the face of this remonstrance: “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.” According to Solzhenitsyn, life organized around laws and the individual has shown an inability to “defend itself against the corrosion of evil.”
Solzhenitsyn did not spare the media’s role in the decline of the West. He said the media’s constant parroting of the maxim “everyone is entitled to know everything” is “a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.”
Again, this was 1978, just two years after Ted Turner created WTBS, just six years after HBO was launched in Pennsylvania. Today, cable programming is filled with the vain, the vulgar and the vacuous and Solzhenitsyn’s critique rings even more true in 2008.
Solzhenitsyn loved America, but said he couldn’t recommend it in its present state as a model for his country: “Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.”
There’s plenty more and every student and politician — indeed, every American — ought to read, or re-read the speech. It was a sobering and prophetic address and contains far more substance than anything we’ll hear at the upcoming political conventions.