The United States is far from a dictatorship, thank heaven — we’re a glorious liberal democracy — but I still think that what Natan Sharansky says about people under dictatorship may apply. What goes for closed societies, goes for open societies, to a degree. Hear me out for a second.
Sharansky says there are three groups. There are two tiny groups at either end of the spectrum, and the vast middle in between.
The two tiny groups are true believers and dissidents. The true believers are the people who support the ruling party, and are the ruling party. They are ideologues, unshakable. The dissidents, obviously, are people in open opposition to the ruling party. They’re willing to speak their minds, and to go to jail for doing so.
And in the vast middle? People who are keeping their heads down, just getting by — not wanting to cause trouble or to be troubled. They just want to get on with life. The dissidents can give them courage — the courage of their inmost convictions. They may even tip them into action. The people in the middle may say, “You know, those crazy dissidents are right. The way things are in this country — it’s wrong.”
Most people in the world go with the flow. A few people, it seems, change the flow, for better or worse.
I think of a couple of examples in our own country. I have used these examples many times before. One day, in about 1990, I think, Jesse Jackson held a press conference and said, “Henceforward, black Americans will be called ‘African Americans.’” Hours later, the people around me were saying “African American,” though they had never used or even heard that phrase in their lives.
It was stunning. Jackson and his allies changed the culture — a little part of it — on a dime.
How about smoking? In my lifetime, smoking was stigmatized — it was made uncool. And this was long after the surgeon general’s report.
It will never happen with alcohol, of course, and it will probably never happen with porn. Or with adultery or divorce. But smoking was stigmatized and virtually outlawed, short years ago. The remaining smokers are pariahs, out on the sidewalk.
What I’m saying is, culture is a strange and wondrous thing. When “they” — the great “they” who decide the culture — move, all of us move. Weird.
Another thought occurs to me: At the Salzburg Festival, in particular, people will say to me, “Wasn’t that a wonderful production?” (This will refer to an opera production.) I’ll say, “No, actually. I thought it was abominable, a disgrace. It did violence to the score and the libretto. The director hijacked the opera. It made no artistic sense whatsoever.”
They’ll say, “Really? I think so too.”
You see, all they needed to know was that it was okay to stand up to the commissars — not even to stand up to them, merely to disagree with them, in private. They needed to know that it was okay to think what they actually thought. They needed someone to say, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”
People are terrified of being thought uncool, conservative, square, not with-it. Bold others can help them get over their terror.
A lot of people know it’s wrong that junior-high kids are screwing one another. They just need to know that it’s all right to think that — that they are not bad, repressive people.
I have a friend who works for a celebrity. The celebrity often mouths left-wing views. Has all the left-wing attitudes and poses. My friend says, “It’s not that he has come to these views on his own. They were not formed from years of study, thinking, and experience. He’s just impressionable. If it were cool in his circles to be right-wing, that’s what he’d be.”
Shortly after the election, I was talking to my colleague David Pryce-Jones. He was talking about the need to press on — to resist defeatism, to stick with politics, and do your best. For one thing, he said, the world will crowd in on you. You may want to leave politics alone; but politics may not necessarily leave you alone. You may have to fight for your space.
He said he had recently been contacted by a man from the BBC — out of the blue. David had never heard of him. The man said, “I want to talk to you. You’re the only person I’ve ever come across who has the same ideas I do. I dare not open my mouth, where I work.”
Well, said David, there’s one BBC man — and maybe there will be others. And maybe, as their numbers grow, they will feel bolder.
Many of us have had people from “mainstream” organizations “come out” to us. A nice experience.
David also talked about the little magazines that sprouted after the war, when Communism was making strides in the democratic world. These were humane, anti-Communist magazines: Encounter in Britain; Preuves in France; Der Monat in West Germany; Quadrant down in Australia. They made a difference. They were eventually damned as CIA creations, but they still made a difference — they told the truth.
And “think of George Orwell,” said David. Orwell was dying of tuberculosis, but he used the last of his strength to write 1984. That made a difference. It struck a blow, a blow from which Communism and the Left reeled for a long time.
We don’t all have the talent of Orwell (or David Pryce-Jones). But we can do what we can, in our myriad ways. Here a little, there a little, chipping away, defending, advancing where possible. Setting an example. Providing an alternative. Reminding people of the better angels of their nature. Standing for what we regard as true, whether it’s popular or not.
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