Natan Sharansky Sees Clearly


When I was growing up during the Cold War years, there were three Soviet citizens whose names everyone knew in the West: Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and Sharansky. They were heroes, and they suffered to tell the truth about the Soviet system. Their eloquence, their courage, their truth-telling were an inspiration to everyone. I am sure they are all but unknown among the younger generation--and maybe that is part of the problem with American culture today.

Only one is alive today--Natan Sharansky, who lives in Israel and is quite old now. A couple of days ago, he published an essay so pointed and so timely, it should be read by everyone, and I urge you to do so. It's entitled "The Doublethinkers," and it begins by discussing his life in the old Soviet Union. Before he became a dissident, he worked as a scientist within the Soviet system. Sharansky describes how the Soviet system "would build a classless society of equals. So-called bourgeois freedoms, minor matters like civil liberties and human rights, were nothing more than facades for exploiting others. The old world and its retrograde values had to be destroyed in order to bring forth social justice. Today, such a singular vision might be called Critical Class Theory—or maybe The 1917 Project."

"The term “politically-correct,” which is popular today, emerged in the late 1920s, to describe the need to correct certain deviants’ thought to fit the Communist Party Line. Any positive characters with bourgeois origins had to eventually check their privilege, condemn their past as oppressors, and publicly take responsibility for their sins. At first, True Believers who championed the Revolution’s noble aims easily accepted these restrictions. But as the Red Terror grew, the mounting attacks on religion and nationalism and private property destroyed most people’s illusions. The number of True Believers kept shrinking as the fear kept spreading. Yet amid the disillusionment, no one wants to sacrifice their personal dreams . . . As the Party Line you follow publicly becomes increasingly disconnected from what you believe or see or experience privately, your cynicism grows along with your mental agility—your skill in living and writing in two contradictory scripts at once. That’s how you become a doublethinker."

His own poor father was reduced to producing fake news for living, having a secret world at home where he would read books and make up stories for his sons. Sharansky himself as he entered school and then his career, was forced into doublethink, also: "To keep the growing mass of doublethinkers under control, the KGB turned our daily life into a series of tests. There were constant probes, some subtle, some direct, to determine your loyalty. You had to watch your language, your gestures, your reactions, your friendships—because “they” were always watching you . . . You mouth their platitudes, you play the good citizen, in order to get ahead in your own life."

Sharansky's courage to openly dissent was catalyzed by Sakharov's. Eventually Sharansky was jailed for 9 years, but he comments about the decision to dissent: "Once I had done it, once I was no longer afraid, I realized what it was to be free. I could live in history, a real history, with ups and downs, fits and starts, not the bland, ever-changing history-like-putty dictated by the authorities. I could live with real people and enjoy real friendships, not the cautious, constricted conversations of winks and nods among fellow doublethinkers. Most important, I could live without that permanent self-censorship, that constant checking of what you are going to say to make sure it’s not what you want to say. Only then do you realize what a burden you’ve been carrying, how exhausting it is to say the right thing, do the right thing, while always fighting the fear of being outed for an errant thought, a wrong reaction, an idiosyncratic impulse.

"And that was why, during nine years in prison, when the KGB would try tempting me to restore my freedom and even my life by returning to the life I once had, it was easy to say “no.” I knew what they wanted. They wanted to take me back to this open-caged prison of doublethink.

"It was easy enough to remind myself and them who was really free and who is a scared doublethinker. All I had to do was tell some joke about the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. Thank God, there were plenty of yarns about his arrogance, his crudeness, his senility. One kidded about him forcing Soviet cosmonauts to outdo the American astronauts who landed on the moon by rocketing to the sun, then reassuring them they wouldn’t be incinerated because they’d be launched during the night. As I’d tell my interrogators a joke, I’d laugh. And, as normal Soviet doublethinkers themselves, they would want to laugh. But they couldn’t, especially if two of them were there together. Laughter would end their careers.

"So they’d covered up that temporary glint in their eyes with a tantrum. They’d pound the table, shouting, “HOW DARE YOU?”

“Look,” I’d say to them calmly, “you can’t even smile when you want to smile. And you claim that I’m in prison and you’re free?”

"I did this to irritate them, because they spent so much time trying to irritate me. But, mainly, I was reminding myself that I was free, as long as I could laugh or cry in accordance with my own feelings.

"Over the last three decades in freedom, I have noticed that—with apologies to Tolstoy—every dictatorship is oppressive in its own way, but the doublethinkers’ mental gymnastics are all alike. The feeling of release from the fear and giddy relief when crossing the line from doublethink to democratic dissent is also universal across cultures. This understanding prompted the Town Square Test I use to distinguish between free societies and fear societies: Can you express your individual views loudly, in public, without fear of being punished legally, formally, in any way? If yes, you live in a free society; if not, you’re in a fear society."

What stuns Sharansky is that he sees that the West, including and perhaps most shockingly the U.S., is increasingly failing the Town Square Test. But there is no Stalin, no KGB, no Lubyanka prison. No, appallingly, says Sharansky, "In the West today, the pressure to conform doesn’t come from the totalitarian top—our political leaders are not Stalinist dictators. Instead, it comes from the fanatics around us, in our neighborhoods, at school, at work, often using the prospect of Twitter-shaming to bully people into silence—or a fake, politically-correct compliance. Recent polls suggest that nearly two-thirds of Americans report self-censoring about politics at least occasionally, essentially becoming a nation of doublethinkers despite the magnificent constitutional protections for free thought and expression enshrined in the Bill of Rights."

Ouch, that hurts. The little Stalins among our own people are turning our country into a pale imitation of the Soviet Union, according to Natan Sharansky, who has the right to make that comparison, having live through both time periods. We must summon our courage; we must catalyze the courage of others. As Sharansky puts it, "Ultimately, whether you will live as a democratic doublethinker doesn’t depend on the authorities or on the corporations that run social media platforms: it depends on you. Each of us individually decides whether we want to submit to the crippling indignity of doublethink, or break the chains that keep us from expressing our own thoughts, and becoming whole."

Amen, amen, and amen.