Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Great Challenge

John ArmstrongAmerica and Americanism

When the recently-deceased Russian dissident, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, gave his now famous address to Harvard thirty years ago this summer, he warned us that we should not buy into the belief that all nations longed for American style democracy.  But this is precisely the thinking that is behind the philosophy promoted by President Bush at the present moment. It makes the late Solzhenitzyn look even more like a prophet when you read his words these thirty years later.

What Solzhenitsyn observed in the summer of 1978 was a "decline in courage" in America. He noted that this decline had impacted the West deeply. He believed that this had changed "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?" We had turned the "pursuit of happiness" (which did not mean what we now think it means in modern times) into a private goal, resulting in a materialism that replaced our moral and character development. "Today," he added, "well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask."

And for good measure he suggested that our modern stress on individual rights has begun to erode any interest in 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." For good measure he added, "Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as . . . misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror."

He was particularly alarmed at the American notion that everyone is entitled to "know everything . . . We have the right to not stuff our souls with gossip, nonsense and vain talk." And all of this was said before there was a CNN, Fox News or MSNBC to fill us with 24/7 nonsense. I wonder if anyone heard him then. I doubt that more than a few are willing to hear him today, including most Christians who love their private rights and pursuits more than the love of their brothers and sisters.