August 3, 2008


Reagan, 'hero in history' (Arnold Beichman, 5/31/02, Washington Times)
Mr. Reagan fits perfectly a definition of what Sidney Hook called the "hero in history." That phrase was the title of a book in which the philosopher dealt with the role of personality in history and the impact of that force on mankind:

"The great man or woman in history is someone of whom we can say on the basis of the available evidence that if they had not lived when they did, or acted as they did, the history of their countries and of the world, to the extent that they are intertwined, would have been profoundly different. Their presence, in other words, must have made a substantial difference with respect to some event or movement deemed important by those who attribute historical greatness to them."

An immediate test of that definition is to consider how different a world it would be today had Jimmy Carter defeated Mr. Reagan and won a second term in 1980. For it was Mr. Carter's stupendous misjudgment of Soviet history and ambitions that led him early in his term to exult that, "we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear."

It would be one thing if only Jimmy Carter had misunderstood the USSR this profoundly, but such misjudgments were commonplace at the time. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are justifiably reviled for their personal abuse of power, but inexplicably hailed as master statesmen. Both were certain, even into the 1980s, that communism was a permanent and formidable system with which the West would have to come to reach an accommodation.

Then came Ronald Reagan, who, in his speech at Westminster in 1982, which Mr. Beichman cites, declared :

The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.

This is not cultural imperialism; it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy. Who would voluntarily choose not to have the right to vote, decide to purchase government propaganda handouts instead of independent newspapers, prefer government to worker-controlled unions, opt for land to be owned by the state instead of those who till it, want government repression of religious liberty, a single political party instead of a free choice, a rigid cultural orthodoxy instead of democratic tolerance and diversity.

Since 1917 the Soviet Union has given covert political training and assistance to Marxist-Leninists in many countries. Of course, it also has promoted the use of violence and subversion by these same forces. Over the past several decades, West European and other social democrats, Christian democrats, and leaders have offered open assistance to fraternal, political, and social institutions to bring about peaceful and democratic progress. Appropriately, for a vigorous new democracy, the Federal Republic of Germany's political foundations have become a major force in this effort.

We in America now intend to take additional steps, as many of our allies have already done, toward realizing this same goal. The chairmen and other leaders of the national Republican and Democratic party organizations are initiating a study with the bipartisan American Political Foundation to determine how the United States can best contribute as a nation to the global campaign for democracy now gathering force. They will have the cooperation of congressional leaders of both parties, along with representatives of business, labor, and other major institutions in our society. I look forward to receiving their recommendations and to working with these institutions and the Congress in the common task of strengthening democracy throughout the world.

It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation -- in both the public and private sectors -- to assisting democratic development....

What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.

Within a decade his goal had been made a reality. That he achieved his world altering vision mostly peacefully--with a minimal amount of bloodshed in Central America, Afghanistan, and a few other hot spots--only makes it all the more remarkable. Alone among world leaders and nearly alone among Western elites (Robert Kaplan gives credit to Richard Pipes and George F. Kennan--I'd add Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), Reagan looked at the seemingly mighty and intractable Soviet Union and saw a society teetering on the brink of collapse, needing only a determined push from the West to come toppling down.

One wonders if what is required right now is not a similar vision of the Islamic world transformed by a secularization of politics and economics. The received wisdom is that Islam is simply incapable of this kind of Reformation, that because of the unique circumstances of its birth and its resulting totalitarian nature it can not be redeemed as a mere religion. But what if, once again, conventional wisdom is wrong? What if a hero of history, maybe it will even be George W. Bush, were to give this same type speech and pursue the same type program, applying steady rhetorical and infrastructural pressure to replace the current repressive regimes of Islam with freer, more democratic, more protestant, more capitalist governments and cultures? Mightn't we say that we still harbor : " a hope for the long term--the march of freedom and democracy which will leave totalitarian Islam on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people"?

[originally posted: 2002-05-31] Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2008 4:48 PM
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