Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Empire of Lies

I remember those days, now more than fifteen years ago, when I and half the world watched openmouthed as the Berlin Wall dissolved more or less before our eyes. We had grown up believing that the Iron Curtain was a permanent feature of Europe, no more changeable than the Alps. What hope we might have was hope for reform, for someone like a Khrushchev or a Gorbachev to find a way to loosen the system a little and turn the nuclear clock a few minutes back from midnight. The problem of the USSR and its empire was simply intractable. It could be managed, but it could not be solved.

For myself, I never thought the Communists were right. I thought their rule was a brutal and dehumanising episode of history. Marxist doctrine was junk, and anyway the Soviets had abandoned orthodox Marxism decades ago. But it was almost as if I did not really believe in my own beliefs. I thought that the Soviet variety of Communism was hateful to human nature, but I had no faith that the people in that part of the world would really realize this. Most would accept the propaganda their government fed them, and the few who dared to think otherwise would be shipped to the Gulag.

So change was not in the cards. The best that could be hoped for was an extended armed truce, a Cold War, during which some on-the-margin reformers like Gorbachev might somehow tweak the machine and fend off the hard-line crazies in the Politburo. And Gorbachev himself? I had no illusions about him. He seemed to be less corrupt than the usual apparatchik, but I did not forget that he had been a protege of ex-KGB head Andropov, during the latter's short-lived leadership of the USSR.

But none of us really understood. People like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov were not aberrations. People like Natan Sharansky and Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II and Vaclav Havel -- and oh my goodness there were a lot of them -- were not aberrations. They were the heroes; but just beneath the surface, throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, millions more longed to be free of the vast deceit. I say deceit; for the "Evil Empire" was, above all, the Empire of Lies.

Then came that late autumn night when we saw German teenagers standing atop that evil concrete wall, waving down to their friends, while the border guards watched it all in confusion. Later on, when the hard-liners tried to oust Gorbachev, we sat up night after night to watch the dispatches from Moscow. Yeltsin climbed onto a tank in front of the Russian Parliament and we all held our breath. And then the whole USSR just came apart. The Empire of Lies folded in on itself so quickly that everyone could see how rotten it had been.

The Middle East has also been the Empire of Lies. For decades it has been ruled by despots who kept themselves in power by sowing hate and falsehood. It has masked a dismal dearth of actual economic development with huge inflows of oil money. It has seen fit to harbor, and to export to the rest of the world, a violent and intolerant ideology.

But the news reports these days, from Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Israel and Palestine -- and, most especially now, from Syria and Lebanon -- make me think that the Empire of Lies may be buckling again. We must be cautious, prudent, sober and patient. We must not lose our judgment just because things seem promising. But there is something in the air that smells like 1989. May it be even so.


Blogger Joe said...

I remember being positive that Soviet tanks were going to roll into East Germany in '89. In August of 1991, I remember being relatively concerned that either a hurricane or a Russian nuke was going to really mess up my beach week.

I remember really thinking that the Tiannanmen Square demonstrations were going to democratize China.

(A) This is why I rarely dig in my heels in an international politics debate.

(B) This is also why cross-cultural comparison is dangerous. I'd love to think you're right, but at least Marxism (even in its perverted practical forms) is rooted in Western values. Any buckling in the Empire of Lies is a good thing, but the East and the West may not even agree on what a lie is.

9:38 AM  

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