21 July 2005 - Thursday

Notes on CfD: Chapter 2

There is a great deal to like in the second chapter of The Case for Democracy. Sharansky's main point is self-evident: the nature of "public opinion" in societies that repress dissent is fundamentally different from the nature of public opinion in open societies.

His argument centers on doublethink in closed societies. Interestingly, he uses the term to refer to conscious self-censorship of expression. This is different from Orwell's usage, which emphasized the effectiveness of state propaganda in forcing mental submission. Orwell called doublethink a way "to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them." Sharansky, however, uses it to refer to a clear division between real belief and public pretense:

Doublethinkers, who must play a role their entire lives in order to survive, will have little problem hiding their true beliefs and still convincing an outsider of their sincerity. Their role playing is made easier by the fact that many outside observers have an idealogical bias that allows them to willingly suspend their disbelief and not see the effects of tyranny. (54)
In a sense, I suppose, Orwell's original usage of doublethink characterizes the latter group more than the former. I do not mean to criticize Sharansky on this ground. He was a dissenting member of Soviet society; I think he can be trusted as an observer of the psychology of repression. I merely mean to clarify the usage a little.

Arguing that a state of doublethink dominates individual and collective expression within "fear societies," Sharansky takes Western observers to task for embracing propaganda that many of the oppressed themselves only pretend to believe. Brainwashing always happens and always finds some success in fear societies, but "eventually, bitter experience belies the propaganda so that not even some of the people can be fooled all of the time" (59). Outsiders, therefore, are foolish to believe what they hear from oppressive regimes, even when the party line comes from ordinary people. As the author points out, the results of such credulity can be pathetic, as when a parade of Western intellectuals hailed the government of the USSR as a paragon of enlightenment during the 1930s.

Applying this principle to present conflicts, Sharansky argues that the expressed opinions of some Arab publics should be viewed with suspicion. Among the Palestinians, for example, political expression should be evaluated carefully. Although the Palestinian Authority has been highly successful in molding the actual beliefs of its people, even in a "much more open societ[y]" than some (58), still Arafat's apparatus intimidated many Palestinians into doublethink:

After all, Arafat and the PA controlled the distribution system of food aid, a monopoly over many basic goods, the hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid that were supposed to go to improving conditions for Palestinians, tens of thousands of permits that allowed Palestinians to work in Israel, and much more. Many Palestinians had to express loyalty to Arafat and the PA if they hoped to feed their families. (59)
I am not sure, of course, whether or not this should be taken as a hopeful sign for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. On the one hand, the author tells us that Palestinian hatred of Israel is widespread and real; on the other hand, he tells us that it was reinforced by propaganda from a regime that kept power through fear. The author has hope. He suggests that the role of coercion in current Palestinian opinion actually indicates that independent thought is possible in Palestine; pointing to the situation in Iran, he notes that the Iranians are growing very restless under their repressive leaders even though they were the ones who originally put that government into place.

There may be a problem with this line of reasoning, however -- at least, a problem from the perspective of the West. Unless one accepts Sharansky's view that "all free societies will guarantee security and peace" (xxv), which I do not, one must remember that the Palestinian people could be free of coercion at home and still engage in rampant terrorism against Israel. Indeed, at this time, the most viable political opposition to the current PA leadership seems to be the terrorist group Hamas, which has already won some municipal elections.*

I return, however, to Sharansky's reference to Iran. Here again, he makes an interesting point:

The attitude of those living in fear societies toward of America is a reflection of their attitudes toward their own regime. If America is seen as supporting that regime, as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the people hate America. If America is seen as opposing the regime, as in Iran, the people admire it. A few months ago, a leader of a former Soviet Republic told me about his recent visit to Iran: "It reminded me of the Soviet Union. All the officials criticize and condemn America and all the people love America."

Even those who genuinely hate America do not necessarily hate free societies. Rather, part of their hatred is due to the perception that by supporting the nondemocratic regimes that are oppressing them, America is betraying the democratic values it claims to uphold. (60)

In this, the author is undermining some of the concepts espoused by America's leadership. Since 11 September, it has been commonplace in some circles to say that "terrorists hate freedom." Sharansky's analysis, however, suggests that our (largely Saudi and Egyptian) assailants in al Qaeda are attacking the US for precisely the reasons they say* they are attacking the US: because they identify the United States with oppressive government at home. Terrorism is a threat to freedom, of course, but that is not necessarily the terrorists' war aim. Furthermore, this suggests that if the War on Terror strengthens American ties to certain nondemocratic allies, as it has been doing, it may actually reinforce anti-Americanism.

This is an intriguing chapter. For me, it is interesting especially because it updates old lines of thought; in much of our discourse, the connections between the struggles of the Cold War and the struggles of the present day are crudely and erroneously drawn if they are drawn at all. Sharansky does not deal much with strategy in this chapter, but his social observations have some strategic implications. In any case, I enjoy the application of his experience to more recent global conflict.

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