A voice from beyond the grave

The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision on aboriginal title to a huge area of land claimed by the Tsilquot’in Nation came little more than 30 years after Russian intellectual Alexander Solzhenitsyn forecast it was on the way.
Not that Solzhenitsyn was thinking specifically of the Tsilquot’in claim – or any other individual First Nation claim – when he delivered the Commencement Address at Harvard University in 1978. He was warning, however, that the short period of time during which European nations had been “seizing colonies everywhere, not only without anticipating any real resistance, but also usually despising any possible values in the conquered peoples approach to life”, was coming quickly to an end.
He emphasized how “short lived and precarious” those conquests had been, whether by force of arms or “extremes of subservience” and then spoke these remarkable words of prophecy: “It is difficult yet to estimate the total size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns, will be sufficient for the West to foot the bill.”
It is true that Solzhenitsyn was talking about global powers and comparing Eastern (Russian) values and failings with the values and failings of life in Western Democracies. His thoughts on the weaknesses of Communistic rule under Stalin resulted in years of imprisonment for him in the infamous Gulags of Siberia. His repeated criticisms of Western ways were received politely, without recrimination – and ignored.
He told his Harvard audience that while he had great respect for Western freedoms many of them weakened society rather than strengthened it. His startling example of a strength with built in weakness was the rule of law, a rule most of us believe essential to safe and happy living. As Solzhenitsyn put it in 1978, in the West “the limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws” – but the boundaries are broad and some have “acquired considerable skill in interpreting and manipulating law.”
He makes the point that in the western democracies “if one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required.” And suggests that anyone rejecting a favorable ruling because it, although correct in law, was morally wrong, would be regarded as a strange person.
Solzhenitsyn died on August 3, 2008. in Moscow having returned to his home land in 1994 after being exiled and expelled 20-years earlier for his fearless criticism of Stalin’s governance. Readers unfamiliar with his career and ideals can find a wealth of information with a Google of his name. For the full text of his Harvard speech his name and “Harvard commencement” will get your thought buds bursting.
Look for his brief discourse on that most precious modern democratic treasure “human rights” and his challenge – repeated in other writings – that: “It is time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” Think about it before you insist rights come before obligations.
And pay special attention to his thoughts on the boundless space and “destructive and irresponsible freedom” granted media “which can both stimulate public opinion and mis-educate it”. In his life Solzhenitsyn was never afraid to tilt at sacred cows and the sacred slogan of the press “everyone is entitled to know everything” is a favourite target.
He refers to the “shameless intrusion of privacy of well known people” under the “right to know” banner and told his Harvard audience “this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense and vain talk.”
Personally, with more than 60-years of journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and now blogger, I have held the view that while publishers certainly have the right to publish what they will, they also have the far greater right and responsibility NOT to publish what they believe to be untrue, unfounded or just plain stupid.
I don’t agree with everything Solzhenitsyn said at Harvard in 1978, nor do I expect readers to agree with everything, but I hope these few excerpts – and they are just a few – will encourage readers to take a closer look on line. With Solzhenitsyn dead, I can’t thank him for his challenges to popular thought but I can, and do, thank Harvard for keeping the full text alive and making it available on line – and reader Grant Jones for reminding me where to find it.
Any other readers with thoughts or challenges deserving wider exposure can drop e-mail suggestions to jhume@shaw.ca

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