In his new book Defending Identity, Natan Sharansky once again mines his nine years in Soviet prisons for crucial insights on the major issues of the day. Defending Identity complements and enriches Sharansky’s previous work The Case for Democracy.
The two works draw on different aspects of the political activism that led to Sharansky’s arrest and imprisonment: The Case for Democracy on his work as a human rights activist and spokesman for the Helsinki Watch group; Defending Identity on his work for Jewish emigration. The two roles coexisted easily enough in Sharansky, but colleagues in each movement doubted whether he was really one of them because of his involvement in the other.
The Case for Democracy argued that totalitarian regimes are inherently aggressive, while democratic societies are the opposite, since democratic leaders need to provide citizens with that which they value most – their own lives. Defending Identity adds the caveat that individuals and societies that value nothing above life cannot summon the resources to defend themselves against aggressive enemies.
IN PRISON, those with the strongest identity – such as Pentacostals – were the least likely to be broken by the KGB. For those with a strong personal identity, the fear of betraying that identity and thereby rendering one’s life worthless was greater than the fear of death.
The KGB’s trump card, Sharansky quickly realized, was fear of the firing squad. The only way to resist was to overcome that fear of death with a countervailing fear even more powerful.
Though he then knew little of his Judaism, Sharansky termed that countervailing fear the fear of God. “[T]he fear of not being worthy of the divine image, not the fear of death, was what I was most afraid of in my interrogations with the KGB,” he writes. At that moment, the KGB lost its power over him.
AS WITH the individual, so with nations: “Without a strong identity, without a commitment to a particular way of life, without a feeling of connection to the generations who came before and to those who will come after, there can be enjoyment of life but not the strength to defend that life when it is endangered… [The] insatiable desire for the safety of the self can become the greatest danger to the safety of all…”
Western Europe could serve as Sharansky’s proof text. National identity is under assault in Western Europe. The commonplace description of today’s Europe as having been born in Auschwitz contains within, says Alain Finkelkraut, the message that anything that divides or distinguishes one man from another is bad: Borders are bad; Internet is good. The European Union is good; nation states are bad.
Differences led to Auschwitz – or so goes the argument. But turning Auschwitz into the entirety of European history has resulted in severing a thousand years of history and civilization.
That rejection of identity has left Western Europe unwilling to defend itself or its values. Since World War II, Western Europe has allowed the United States to defend it, while resenting it for doing so.
European peace movements, Sharansky notes, have consistently aided and abetted totalitarian governments. First, by assuming, as a matter of faith, that the ultimate desideratum for all nations is peace, and thereby ignoring totalitarian states’ reliance on high levels of external aggression to defer internal criticism. And second, by treating the right of all governments to manage their internal affairs as the highest moral value. In The Case for Democracy, Sharansky relates that he and his fellow prisoners knew that the Soviet Union was doomed when president Ronald Reagan declared it an Evil Empire to be confronted. Europeans, however, were appalled at his simplisme.
Only Muslims, not notably shy about asserting their identity or its superiority, are given a pass for doing so. Rather than defend freedom of the press or speech in the wake of Muslim rioting over relatively tame Danish cartoons, the European Union commissioner for justice, freedom and security counseled “prudence” with regard to sensitive topics. Muslims marching in London chanting “Behead the enemies of Islam,” can count on protection by a phalanx of British policemen. But those who point out how unlovely are such sentiments uttered in the name of Islam will find themselves hauled before human rights commissions on charges of Islamophobia.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA is the most cosmopolitan, the most European candidate, ever to run for president of the US. His identification with America is measured primarily by its readiness to submit to his guidance.
He presented himself to the Europeans as if running for president of the world – as one of them, sharing their loathing of the “cowboy” president. Like the adulatory crowds that greeted him everywhere on his European pre-victory lap, he views America’s dominant military power as more of a threat than a source of hope. Obama has promised to slash tens of billions of dollars from defense spending.
And like European peaceniks, he assumes adversaries are rational and peaceful at heart. His “can’t we just talk about this” approach to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – as if he possessed a magical verbal formula unknown to European negotiators in four years of being monkeyed around by Iran – bespeaks a faith that all conflicts can be settled around the conference table with a little bit of goodwill.
Obama would also declare the internal affairs of other states matters of no concern. During the primaries, he repeatedly insisted that no matter what bloodbath ensued in the wake of an American withdrawal from Iraq, it could not justify the death of one more American serviceman.
He takes no pride in the fact that American troops have made it possible for Afghani women to once again receive medical care from a male physician or that 60,000-70,000 Iraqi children no longer die annually of malnutrition due to Saddam Hussein’s diversion of billions of dollars in oil revenues to maintain a security state, in which no one could ever openly share his thoughts with another human being for fear of informers.
Attitudes toward military service are a rough litmus test of pride in the United States and belief in its exceptionalism. For much of the Democratic base, military service, like pregnancy, is something that happens to you if you are too dumb to know better. The ban of voluntary ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) on most Ivy League campuses and San Francisco high schools is one expression of that disdain. Fouad Ajami notes that when Obama spoke at Wesleyan University on public service, he excluded military service. (On 9/11, he joined John McCain in calling on his alma mater Columbia University to allow ROTC back on campus.)
There will be only a small audience for Natan Sharansky’s robust defense of freedom, national sovereignty and identity in Western Europe. Defending Identity will not resonate with Europeans any more than Sharansky’s earlier argument in The Case for Democracy that peace between Jews and Palestinians can only follow the creation of a free Palestinian society.
But his ideas will find a large audience in America, where he is to receive the 2008 Ronald Reagan Award this week. And that audience will not likely be shaken by European threats of everlasting contempt if American voters fail to confirm their choice of the anointed one.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on September 18, 2008.