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Freedom fries not to Solzhenitsyn's taste

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Alexander SolzhenitsynWhile he was best known for his unrelenting criticism of the atrocities of the Soviet system, Alexander Solzhenitsyn also provided a devastating critique of the excesses of Western capitalism.

It is worth revisiting his address titled 'A World Split Apart', delivered at Harvard University in 1978, in which he called into question the myth of Western superiority. He offers a sobering insight into why today's so-called 'rogue nations' and 'forces of terror' are impelled to act violently and destructively against the West.

He begins with the suggestion that 'any ancient deeply rooted autonomous culture ... constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking'.

Western visitors chose not to allow themselves to be arrested by the beauty and majesty of these cultures. Instead, they conquered them.

'How short a time ago, relatively, the small new European world was easily seizing colonies everywhere, not only without anticipating any real resistance, but also usually despising any possible values in the conquered peoples' approach to life.'

It is tragic that Robert Mugabe's single-minded determination to remind the west of this absurd and unfair reality has only served to destroy Zimbabwe.

Solzhenitsyn goes on to offer a critique of the western understanding of freedom. The US and its allies, including Australia, have continued to wage war in Iraq in order to impose this value on the people of Iraq. But Solzhenitsyn made a distinction between 'freedom for good deeds and freedom for evil deeds'.

George W. Bush knew only one variety of freedom fries. For his part, Solzhenitsyn said:

'Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defence against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people.'

The affirmation earlier this year of Americans' constitutional freedom to own guns is a further example of freedom gone wrong.

Meanwhile Solzhenitsyn added another important qualification to freedom. He believed it was dangerous to talk of human rights per se.

'It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.'

For him, speaking up for human rights without the corollary of an obligation to do good, was a form of fundamentalism.

'Life organised legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.'

Solzhenitsyn also applied his principle to press freedom, and it could be worth using it as a criterion with which to judge China's derided attempts to censor internet access during the Olympics.

Solzhenitsyn said: 'People also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one.'

We may scratch our heads and ask how this can be. It does not make sense to the western mind, yet we're being asked to accept it. That is Solzhenitsyn's point.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: michael mullins, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, soviet criticism, A World Split Apart



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Existing comments

It's the old story of confusion between licence and freedom. The latter is a controlled freedom and the former is totally unrestricted. The "freedom" to bear arms in America seems to fall into the area of licence.

As to Iraq, what a pity that GWB did not study history and recognise one of the oldest cultures of the world.

Adrian Bellemore | 11 August 2008  

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