Readers of Law and Liberty have heard—and perhaps even used—the famous phrase about free speech that is often misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” One wonders, though, whether this formulation actually makes much sense.
Comes now the great Daniel J. Mahoney, author of penetrating intellectual biographies of Bertrand de Jouvenel, Raymond Aron, and Charles de Gaulle, among other books, to discuss his latest work, The Other Solzhenitsyn. Mahoney, coeditor of The Solzhenitsyn Reader, offers in this discussion a tremendous introduction to the Russian dissident writer’s oeuvre and a rebuttal to his many critics.
We might say that some Western writers who, from their position of faux outrage, frequently critique their governments, societies, and cultures have Solzhenitsyn envy, earnestly wishing their work had even a fraction of the impact of the Russian anticommunist’s corpus of writings. Not that they admire Solzhenitsyn’s political or moral philosophy, or his belief that freedom is ultimately born of spiritual commitment. They only yearn to have it said that their words put a “sliver in the throat of power.” Such was the praise given Solzhenitsyn in 1962 after the publication of One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich.
Being human, politicians lie. Even in the best regimes. The distinguishing feature of totalitarian regimes however, is that they are built on words that the rulers know to be false, and on somehow constraining the people to speak and act as if the lies were true. Thus the people hold up the regime by partnering in its lies. Thus, when we use language that is “politically correct” – when we speak words acceptable to the regime even if unfaithful to reality – or when we don’t call out politicians who lie to our faces, we take part in degrading America.