Monday, August 4, 2008

The west is the best? (Part two - Solzhenitsyn and Harvard, 1978)

After I wrote my first post on Alexander Solzhenitsyn's death, I found and shared a link to an article by Andrew Cusack. Part of the article delved into Solzhenitsyn's commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, and Harvard's reaction to the speech.

Giving the 1978 Commencement Address at Harvard University, Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered a sharp and stunning rebuke to the modern West, repudiating its liberalism, materialism, and supremacism.

This is (part of) what he said:

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. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

And what shall we say about the dark realm of criminality as such? Legal frames (especially in the United States) are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also certain individual crimes. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency with the support of thousands of public defenders. When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights. There are many such cases.

Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected. Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society....

Very well known representatives of your society say: we cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world.

Solzhenitsyn then told his audience about the cause of the West's ills (unlike then-President Carter, he did not choose to refer to a "malaise"):

How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.

This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our days there is a free and constant flow. Merely freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones.

Much of the reaction after the speech was negative, as documented in the book Solzhenitsyn at Harvard. The New York Times and the Washington Post ran editorials against the speech, and James Reston and Archibald MacLeish also spoke against it. I was unable to locate these writings, but a contemporary article in the New York Times included the following:

[W]hen he stepped outside Cavendish [Vermont], as he did when he addressed the Harvard graduates in 1978, his condemnations of American politics, press freedoms and social mores struck many as insensitive, haughty and snobbish.

There were those who described him as reactionary, as an unreconstructed Slavophile, a Russian nationalist, undemocratic and authoritarian. Olga Carlisle, a writer who had helped spirit the manuscript of “The Gulag Archipelago” out of Moscow but who was no longer speaking to Mr. Solzhenitsyn, wrote in Newsweek that the Harvard speech had been intended for a Russian audience, not an American one.

“His own convictions are deeply rooted in the Russian spirit, which is untempered by the civilizing influences of a democratic tradition,” Ms. Carlisle said. And Czeslaw Milosz, generally admiring of his fellow Nobel laureate, wrote, “Like the Russian masses, he, we may assume, has strong authoritarian tendencies.”

Andrew Cusack, writing after Solzhenitsyn's death on Sunday, equated Harvard's rejection of Solzhenitsyn with its Protestant heritage:

Harvard was not amused. It had identified a genius, it had awarded him laurels, it had graced him with earthly dignities, but he had seen through all its pretensions and glanced the rotten core of its very soul. Harvard is one of the highest temples to Man in our realm. It was founded as a Protestant seminary, and Man’s usurpation of God’s role is inherent (if only implicitly) in Protestantism. In Catholic Christianity, not even the Pope can change the Truth; in Protestant Christianity, every single individual person is the arbiter of every single aspect of doctrine, belief, and morality. Catholicism is authority, Protestantism is the absence of authority, and the liberal Enlightenment thinking which easily superseded Protestantism at Harvard is the negation of authority.

But while some Roman Catholics may use Solzhenitsyn's views as ammunition against Protestant ideals, Solzhenitsyn wasn't their friend either:

He also sought to "protect" the national character of the Russian Orthodox church and fought against the admission of Catholic priests and Protestant pastors to Russia from other countries.

Twenty-five years after the fact (in 2003), Jay Nordlinger documented the effects of the Harvard speech in a National Review article:

We were in the Me Decade, remember. And here Solzhenitsyn was talking about self-restraint, sacrifice, God, and all that stuff. As Harold J. Berman, a law professor here, put it, “Solzhenitsyn seemed like a man from Mars.” News reports tell us that there was frequent applause, and some hissing, chiefly from the student section.

The First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, used the National Press Club to defend her country against Solzhenitsyn’s blasts. No, she insisted, “the people of this country are not weak, not cowardly, and not spiritually exhausted.” How’s that for playing to the peanut gallery? This same Rosalynn Carter, however, did not feel so good about the American people after November 1980. Asked to explain Reagan’s success, she said, “I think he makes us comfortable with our prejudices.”

Mary McGrory, too, rose to the defense of America: Not the least of Solzhenitsyn’s achievement at Harvard was to wring a flag-waving column out of Mary McGrory. Not sure she’s written one since.

And Nordlinger neglected to mention that, about a year after Rosalynn Carter said that the people of the country are NOT spiritually exhausted, her husband gave a speech that included the following:

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

Carter was criticized for his "malaise" speech, in a manner similar to the way in which his wife criticized Solzhenitsyn for his Harvard address. The parallels are striking.

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