Some Lessons about Cancel Culture from a Former Refusenik

Feb. 12 2021

Last week, a New York Times reporter resigned after it was found out that, in 2019, he employed a racial epithet not out of malice, but in the context of an abstract discussion of the term itself. His departure was accompanied by a public apology that put some in mind of the confessions elicited at Soviet show trials, and seemed to many the epitome of the censorious attitudes that have come to be known as “cancel culture.” The former refusenik and Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, writing with the historian Gil Troy, reflects on his own experience with the USSR’s suppression of thought and speech, and notes the parallels to the present climate. Although today saying the wrong thing can’t get a person executed or sent to the gulag, Sharansky nevertheless believes that both situations require people to live in constant tension between the ideas they believe and those they express:

The term “politically correct,” which is popular today, emerged in the late 1920s, to describe the need to correct certain deviants’ thought to fit the Communist party line. . . . As the party line you follow publicly becomes increasingly disconnected from what you believe or see or experience privately, your cynicism grows along with your mental agility—your skill in living and writing in two contradictory scripts at once. That’s how you become a doublethinker.

I started my own life as a doublethinker at the age of five in 1953, when Josef Stalin died. The seventy-four-year-old despot was at the peak of his anti-Semitic campaign—and Jews were increasingly nervous. On that March day, out of any neighbor’s earshot, my father told my seven-year-old older brother and me, “Today is a great day that you should always remember. This is good news for us Jews. This man was very dangerous to us.” But,” he added, “don’t tell this to anybody. Do what everybody else does.” The next day, in kindergarten, as we sang songs honoring Stalin, “the hope of all the people,” and mourned his death, I had no idea how many children were crying sincerely, and how many were only following their father’s instructions.

Sharansky recounts that for some time he tried to hide in the more certain realities of chess and the hard sciences, which seemed impenetrable to party manipulation. Thanks to his fellow dissident Andrei Sakharov, he realized they were not, and began his journey to open rebellion in the form of applying for permission to travel to Israel:

With that request, I formally ended my life as a doublethinker, playing their game by their rules. As I committed suicide within the Soviet system, I ended my double life.

Once I had done it, once I was no longer afraid, I realized what it was to be free. . . . I could live with real people and enjoy real friendships, not the cautious, constricted conversations of winks and nods among fellow doublethinkers. Most important, I could live without that permanent self-censorship, that constant checking of what you are going to say to make sure it’s not what you want to say. Only then do you realize what a burden you’ve been carrying, how exhausting it is to say the right thing, do the right thing, while always fighting the fear of being outed for an errant thought, a wrong reaction, an idiosyncratic impulse.

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More about: Natan Sharansky, Political correctness, Refuseniks, Soviet Union

The End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Rise of the Arab-Israeli Coalition

Nov. 30 2022

After analyzing the struggle between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors since 1949, Dan Schueftan explains the current geopolitical alignment and what it means for Jerusalem:

Using an outdated vocabulary of Middle Eastern affairs, recent relations between Israel and most Arab states are often discussed in terms of peace and normalization. What is happening recently is far more significant than the willingness to live together and overshadow old grievances and animosities. It is about strategic interdependence with a senior Israeli partner. The historic all-Arab coalition against Israel has been replaced by a de-facto Arab-Israeli coalition against the radical forces that threaten them both. Iran is the immediate and outstanding among those radicals, but Erdogan’s Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria—and, in a different way, its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood—are not very far behind.

For Israel, the result of these new alignments is a transformational change in its regional standing, as well as a major upgrade of its position on the global stage. In the Middle East, Israel can, for the first time, act as a full-fledged regional power. . . . On the international scene, global powers and other states no longer have to weigh the advantages of cooperation with Israel against its prohibitive costs in “the Arab World. . . . By far the most significant effect of this transformation is on the American strategic calculus of its relations with Israel.

In some important ways, then, the “New Middle East” has arrived. Not, of course, in the surreal Shimon Peres vision of regional democracy, peace, and prosperity, but in terms of a balance of power and hard strategic realities that can guardrail a somewhat less unstable and dangerous region, where the radicals are isolated and the others cooperate to keep them at bay.

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More about: Abraham Accords, Israel-Arab relations, Middle East, Shimon Peres, U.S.-Israel relationship