Democracy, Freedom, & Responsibility

On June 8,. 1978, heroic anti-Soviet intellectual Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave an address at Harvard that bears consideration on numerous grounds. The two paragraphs below offer some  remarks on Western freedom, addressing, first, the media, and, second, the population as a whole:

The press too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media). But what sort of use does it make of this freedom? Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance. “ “Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development.” One of Dostoyevsky’s characters [Brothers Karamazov, Signet Classic, p. 292], although developing the rather different concept of having the courage to admit one’s personal errors, makes a remark highly relevant to Solzhenitsyn’s warning: “ ’You are, I see, a man of great strength of character….You have dared to serve the truth, even when by doing so you risked incurring the contempt of all.’ ”

Rash Judgments a la Dostoyevsky

“Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of anyone. For no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime. When he understands that, he will be able to be a judge. Though that sounds absurd, it is true. If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me. If you can take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach.” [Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Tr. Constance Garrett), New York: Signet Classic, 1999, p.311.]