Monday, January 23, 2006

Sharansky on freedom vs. tyranny

The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, by Natan Sharansky

This book has been out since November 2004 but I read it this fall and I loved its unorthodox and unique storyline. It begins in the birth of the Soviet refusenik movement of the 1970s and 1980s. This was a protest movement mobilized against the Marxist-Leninist state which was oppressing Soviet Jews who applied to emigrate from the Soviet Union to live in Israel. It was a high-profile human rights issue. Those who applied were not only refused (hence the name) but were fired from their jobs, barred from employment and suffered further restrictions. Some, like Sharansky, did time in Soviet prisons and in the gulags. It took years for permission to emigrate to be granted, and when it was, it was frequently for only one family member at a time. The purpose of all this was to weaken opposition to the regime. But what it accomplished was to create an anti-Soviet human rights movement with worldwide sympathy.

What set many of these refuseniks apart as human rights activists was their decidedly right wing point of view, yet their years of activism in and out of the Soviet gulags endowed them with unimpeachable credentials. Particularly indigestible to the more conventional left-wing "human rights" activists in the west was the refuseniks' embrace of then U.S. President Ronald Reagan as their de facto patron saint. Most Canadians and Western Europeans had and still retain a fairly dim view of Reagan. To the refuseniks, however, Reagan, through his unnuanced rhetoric of confrontation with the Soviet Union, and through his use of labels such as "Evil Empire," forever captured their hearts and minds.

This book is the story and manifesto of one of the most prominent of these refuseniks - Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky. It is the story that begins with his birth and upbringing in the Soviet Union. It carries through to his years as a scientist working within the Soviet system, to his disenchantment and finally his identification as one of the leaders of the refusenik movement. It details his emigration to Israel and his election to the Israeli parliament (Knesset) as the leader of the Russian immigrant party, which became a cornerstone in the governing Likud coalition.
This book is an articulate and powerful assault on conventional wisdom, especially in regards to support for human rights. Sharansky's thesis, for which he draws inspiration from Ronald Reagan, is that freedom is for everybody regardless of ethnicity or religion. If many of the former Soviet states can become functioning pluralistic democracies in a few short years, he argues, then certainly so can other states with an equally poor record in democratic practice, especially Arab ones.

In the part of the book that reads like a manifesto, Sharansky describes the modus operandi of tyrannies as "fear societies" that have to create an external enemy in order for the ruling clique to maintain control. He argues this was true of the Soviets in their demonizing of capitalism, and is true now of the Palestinian authority and other Arab states in their demonizing of Israel. He calls for such states to be forced to respect human rights at a very basic level.
Sharansky's main thesis, amply supported by his personal anecdotes, is that only through forcing tyranny to recognize human rights is real peace and prosperity eventually possible. Ultimately a hopeful tome, Sharansky's book belongs on your reading list because of its clarity, and because the thrust of his argument is so clearly at odds with Canadian conventional wisdom that it yields unexpected insights.

This is a well written book and a must read.

Highly recommended.