14 June 2004

Winning the Cold War

The American Prospect argues against the assumption that American conservatism won the Cold War, in service of the claim that it won't do us well against Islamist terror either. It's a long, strange, fascinating, and not entirely convincing argument. I'm not prepared to blame conservatives for the limits and frustrations of a containment policy, as the article does. (Indeed, when I get around to it, I'm going to post an entry about how containment would have been a good answer to Saddam Hussein.) But it makes a strong point that it was lefty anarchists who caught on first that the Soviet state was a lousy idea.

The whole article's worth a read, even though it's long. But if you don't have the time, just bask in this paragraph about how liberal values were the real winners in the Eastern Bloc.

Liberals should take pride in the end of the Cold War. [The conservative magazine] Commentary was reluctant to acknowledge the Eastern European forces of freedom that courageously took to the streets to overthrow communism, in part because the surprising phenomenon represented the three great antagonists of conservatism: the youth culture, the intellectuals of the ’60s generation and the laboring classes that still favored Solidarity over individualism. American neoconservatives like William J. Bennett are haunted by the crisis of authority at home and see knowledge threatened by skepticism everywhere. In Why We Fight, Bennett claims that we are in Iraq to take a stand for truth and to rescue “moral clarity” from the quicksand of liberal “pseudosophisticated relativism.” But in Eastern Europe, intellectuals took a stand for courage without certainty. “For my generation, the road to freedom began in 1968,” recalls the historian Adam Michnik, who wrote of the members of the Solidarity union movement in his Letters From Prison. The playwright Vaclav Havel, associated with Charter 77 and the Prague Spring, took his bearings from the metaphysical anxieties of Martin Heidegger and the existential meditations of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Against totalitarianism such writers stood for skepticism, irony, uncertainty, and a refusal to believe in and yield to an authority that prefers to possess truth rather than pursue it. Soviet communism ended the way American liberalism began: “Resist much; obey little,” as Walt Whitman wrote.

Or, as I would say, moral certainty is the enemy.

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