European Diary

The Dogma in the Manger

As readers of this column may have noted, I hardly ever comment on events in Moscow.  Since 1984, when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in Russia, I have taken the view that the clever understand what transpires there without need for fresh explanations, while the daft, no matter how ingenious one’s explanations or persuasive one’s reasoning, will understand as little as they did in 1948, when Orwell’s novel was written.  A central thesis of the novel, it may be recalled, is that, in a totalitarian state, books and ideas are not only not world-changing or life-saving but are actually a provocation, a trap, a stratagem to flush out and suppress dissent.  To this I would add that, in a crypto­totalitarian state, far from threatening or weakening absolute power, they abet it by clothing it in the purple of reason and the iridescence of pluralism.

It is a stubborn fallacy that freedoms of thought, speech, or expression are hardwired into the matrix of civil liberties in Western democracies, while their absence is the sine qua non of totalitarian regimes.  A similar fallacy concerning freedom of commerce was spectacularly exposed in the Third Reich, where the fact that ordinary people could do what their neighbors in the East could only dream about—such as sell potatoes or mend shoes for a living—did not make Hitler’s regime...

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