Some Lessons about Cancel Culture from a Former Refusenik

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.

Read more at Tablet

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


Iran’s Program of Subversion and Propaganda in the Caucasus

In the past week, Iranian proxies and clients have attacked Israel from the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran also has substantial military assets in Iraq and Syria—countries over which it exercises a great deal of control—which could launch significant attacks on Israel as well. Tehran, in addition, has stretched its influence northward into both Azerbaijan and Armenia. While Israel has diplomatic relations with both of these rival nations, its relationship with Baku is closer and involves significant military and security collaboration, some of which is directed against Iran. Alexander Grinberg writes:

Iran exploits ethnic and religious factors in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to further its interests. . . . In Armenia, Iran attempts to tarnish the legitimacy of the elected government and exploit the church’s nationalist position and tensions between it and the Armenian government; in Azerbaijan, the Iranian regime employs outright terrorist methods similar to its support for terrorist proxies in the Middle East [in order to] undermine the regime.

Huseyniyyun (Islamic Resistance Movement of Azerbaijan) is a terrorist militia made up of ethnic Azeris and designed to fight against Azerbaijan. It was established by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps . . . in the image of other pro-Iranian militias. . . . Currently, Huseyniyyun is not actively engaged in terrorist activities as Iran prefers more subtle methods of subversion. The organization serves as a mouthpiece of the Iranian regime on various Telegram channels in the Azeri language. The main impact of Huseyniyyun is that it helps spread Iranian propaganda in Azerbaijan.

The Iranian regime fears the end of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan because this would limit its options for disruption. Iranian outlets are replete with anti-Semitic paranoia against Azerbaijan, accusing the country of awarding its territory to Zionists and NATO. . . . Likewise, it is noteworthy that Armenian nationalists reiterate hideous anti-Semitic tropes that are identical to those spouted by the Iranians and Palestinians. Moreover, leading Iranian analysts have no qualms about openly praising [sympathetic] Armenian clergy together with terrorist Iran-funded Azeri movements for working toward Iranian goals.

Read more at Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

More about: Azerbaijan, Iran, Israeli Security