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Journal of Democracy 16.3 (2005) 170-174



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The Quintessential Dissident

The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. By Natan Sharansky. Public Affairs, 2004. 303 pp.

In the debate about freedom and democracy, the voice of Natan Sharansky is loud and clear. Drawing upon his experiences as a Soviet dissident and labor-camp inmate, a veteran Israeli political insider, and an internationally renowned thinker, he addresses complex issues and makes contentious points about world politics. In this book, he brings passion, eloquence, analytical depth, and plain-speaking to the task of making the case that the world's leading democratic countries should actively promote democracy around the globe.

The controversial stands that Sharansky has taken as an Israeli politician and sometime cabinet minister—to say nothing of the praise that his book has received from the Bush administration and some of its supporters—are probably enough to ensure that many readers worldwide will treat the work with suspicion, if not apprehension or even contempt. But as always, the former prisoner of conscience makes no apologies. Sharansky knows better than anyone the difference between a politician and a dissident—the former wants to be liked, while the latter says what he thinks is true and does what he thinks is right without counting the cost. The Case for Democracy is a quintessential dissident's book.

Sharansky's argument turns on the distinction between "free societies" and "fear societies." A polity's degree of internal commitment to freedom, he says, will define its conduct on the world stage. Free societies seek peace; fear societies seek war and spread terror. Hence, spreading [End Page 170] freedom amounts to fighting war and terror. The Arab world is no exception: Indeed, the West should make the effort to promote democracy there a primary concern.

On the question of whether any given society is fit for democracy, Sharansky offers no quarter. "Given the choice," he claims, "the vast majority of all people will prefer to live in a free society over a fear society." Based on his experiences under Soviet rule, he insists that the apparent rejection of democracy in dictatorial societies is an illusion created by the "mechanics of tyranny" and its project of mandating hatred and intolerance. Public expressions of organized hatred contrast sharply with less publicized stories of yearning for a life without fear. This yearning is walled away from the outside world, but the silence that the walls create is deceptive.

There is also the fear-bred custom of doublespeak, a concept familiar to North Korean refugees or Iranian dissenters no less than to Sharansky. He still recalls the shock he felt when, on a March day in 1953, his father told him the truth about the just-deceased tyrant Josef Stalin while strictly warning the five-year-old Sharansky that it must not be repeated outside the household. In public, only the appearance of a loyal Soviet kid would do. Doublespeak appears again when an anonymous Palestinian businessman places a secret call to Sharansky at his Israeli government office to voice his agreement with Sharansky's view that the answer to the conflict lies in democratizing Palestine.

The Arab world today, no less than the Soviet Union yesterday, is a place where the hope for freedom subsists even in the shadow of fear and doublespeak. If the latter could change, there is no reason why the former cannot change as well, most likely under the dual pressure of people inside who yearn for freedom and people outside who are willing and able to help them. Those who think otherwise are in danger of finding themselves as badly deceived as the German novelist Leon Feuchtwanger, who toured the Soviet Union in the 1930s and returned to the West ready to paint Stalin's state-socialist Potemkin village as a new-model "workers' paradise."

Sharansky insists that the link between democracy and peace should receive recognition in international politics. Warning against underestimating the power of Western ideas to transform fear societies, he disputes the notion that democracy can only arise from...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 170-174
Launched on MUSE
2005-07-27
Open Access
No
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