National Review recently published an English translation of a short piece by the very late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was an old response to the highly critical reaction towards his infamous 1978 Harvard Commencement speech apparently available in English for the first time. In this “new” piece he doesn’t really say anything particularly profound but his words are remarkably more relevant today than in the past. He has been dead for a decade yet still speaks uncomfortable truths.
As a relative late comer to ideological conservatism I was unaware of how big a deal Solzhenitsyn was at one point. His Gulag Archipelago is often referenced as a 20th century touchstone. But his fiction seems mostly forgotten and the man with it. He was a sort of darling in exile after he left the Soviet Union. Apparently until that fateful day at Harvard. Because on that day he essentially went after the poorly hidden leftist sympathies of elite America. In the NR piece he calmly explains that the media completely and willfully mis characterized what he had said. At least in the elite mainstream press. As this wave of reaction eventually made its way to the heartland the responses were more tenured, more fair, more reflective and ultimately more responsible. It seems that what he spoke in Boston couldn’t be heard there. He has often been called a kind of prophet and there is nothing more prophetic than being turned on by those who initially fawn.
American media has rarely been fair to its critics. From Nixon to Trump it seems that anyone who points out that establishment media has an inordinate and essentially unaccountable position of influence becomes a subject of their ire. There’s never a real mea culpa, no real change ever occurs. Conrad Black has said that Nixon’s fall from the White House was what finally broke the public’s trust in the media. And if true this makes their continual attempts to double down on the significance of Watergate through documentaries, films, etc even more troubling to the public mind.
Nixon vs Solzhenitsyn
But there is a vast difference between Nixon and Solzhenitsyn. Nixon was a politician. The official American system has never made it easy for politicians because power should be difficult to attain and maintain. But it’s clear that an unofficial part of our structures of power, the 4th estate, has continually made it easier for certain kinds of politicians to thrive. For every Nixon there’s two Kennedies. At least that’s the way it feels to those of us with flyover values.
But I’m starting to wonder if the media’s handling of Solzhenitsyn was more damaging to their credibility than Nixon. Because Nixon wasn’t exactly innocent. He may have been ignorant but that’s not the same thing, and in some ways just as damning to the credibility of the leader of the free world. And the story the media tells about Nixon, while strictly speaking false, is very much in line with conservative values. The American left idolizes dictators, not conservatives. So if Nixon was as bad as the left tells everyone he was conservatives should be the first to acknowledge this and condemn him. And it was the GOP establishment that basically forced him to relent from the White House. He didn’t have to be impeached because he stepped down. They took responsibility for one of their own and decided it was game over.
Was this fair? No. Especially compared to what Obama and the Clinton’s have got away with. But considering the circumstances it was good. It was the right choice to make. And conservatives are supposed to know that life isn’t fair. Politics is dirty work. If you aren’t up for the game it will crush you. So there’s a sense in which we get that what happened to Nixon wasn’t fair and yet understand that this is life. Politics is a dangerous game. And if you have an R in front of your name you will be held to a higher standard. Which means you need to act accordingly. And this is the main difference between the handling of Solzhenitsyn and Nixon by the media.
Solzhenitsyn wasn’t a political actor. He was a writer. In some sense a journalist. And when he decided to criticize key aspects of western society at one of our most hallowed institutions the gatekeepers shot him down. Whether the American people realized it or not what they had witnessed was in essence a kind of cannibalism. They invited him into the elite echelons and when he spoke back they devoured him.
Breaking the Bonds of Trust
The emotional imagery of that alone might be enough to finally sever the emaciated bonds of trust. But when you combine it with the content of Solzhenitsyn’s address it becomes clear that the media wasn’t really cannabalizing one of their own. Solzhenitsyn was an avatar of American conservatism. He wrote:
“However, in early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.”
He is absolutely correct that the founding fathers envisaged freedom as dependent upon religion. They also saw that genuine religious devotion was dependent on freedom. Os Guinness calls this the golden triangle. Freedom requires virtue, Virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom. Remove faith and virtue erodes then freedom eventually disappears. The delicate balance that is the golden triangle meant that the success of the US government was entirely based upon the people instead of the state. This is why Franklin answered the question of what the continental congress had accomplished with a challenge: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
But that is entirely contrary to the progressive worldview. The Republic is where actual power is located and so it becomes the sole bearer of responsibility for the people. The people become un responsible for themselves. And when the Republic becomes what keeps the people it starts to feel awfully close to Mussolini’s axiom: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
“Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were — State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.”
The Constraints of Faith
This is what happens when the constraints of faith are removed from the people. This is how the progressives established themselves and this is why the media became so upset with Solzhenitsyn. They understood exactly what he was saying and that was why they hated it. But he made it worse by going after LBJ’s great society:
“When the modern Western states were created, the principle was proclaimed that governments are meant to serve man and man lives to be free and to pursue happiness. See, for example, the American Declaration of Independence. Now, at last, during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state.”
Now any conservative will tell you that the welfare state and the pursuit of happiness do not go together. Not factually or in theory. But Solzhenitsyn was not saying that the declaration of independence by itself was logically predetermined to end in the welfare state. The conception of happiness would have to change and divorce faith from human flourishing. He goes on to show this by defining the welfare state in explicitly LBJ terms:
“Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness — in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades.”
When happiness comes to mean merely material well being then the great society is the outcome and all its horrible tragic consequences. This is why his message was heard in the heartland. When your happiness is based upon the romantic benefits of your current marriage, or financial security, or getting the right reactions from the right people when you tweet…this is not happiness.
True flourishing comes from peace. Peace is a spiritual state not a physical one. But it isn’t accomplished through poverty or riches. Peace comes through a moral communal balance. As Solzhenitsyn put it at the end of his speech: “a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.”
And that’s the real reason they hated what he said. The state cannot grant anything spiritual. There is no earthly solution to spiritual poverty. The western soul and has grown weak and fat off of success. Off of “too much winning.” And because of this we have become contented. Not peaceful. Peace can lead to action. Out of peace of mind we can act in courage without fear of reprisal. Contentedness is a spiritual trap. As C.S. Lewis said:
“Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”