President Bush is off to Beijing for the Olympics. In doing so, the White House has made it clear that while there, his purpose will primarily be to "show respect" to the Chinese people.
He will demonstrate this "respect" by avoiding dissidents and by not attending any worship services by faith denominations that suffer persecution by that country's Communist government. Rather than use his time to spotlight those struggling for freedom, he will be allowing himself to be part of a propaganda show.
Like many other tourists, he will be there to watch the athletes and to lend the good name of the American republic to the whitewashing of a despotic regime — still the world's largest tyranny — whose innumerable crimes have become a footnote to its successful pursuit of Western cash.
His behavior is proof that support for a belief that the cause of human rights ought to trump the conventional wisdom of the day about realpolitik and commerce is at a new low.
Bush once seemed to base the entire foreign policy of his presidency on the notion of democracy promotion. But, as he kowtows to the Beijing regime, he is revisiting a role once played with gusto by two other Republican presidents a generation ago, when Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford embraced detente with the Soviet Union in the 1970s and similarly avoided meetings with that evil empire's internal critics.
While the two situations are not completely analogous, the death this past weekend of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian literary giant and symbol of resistance to communism, makes such comparisons unavoidable.
Nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, few young people had even heard of the 89-year-old writer. And for those that do, the image that many retain is that of the cranky old man who raged against the materialism of the West, as well as that of the Russia that emerged from the nightmare of communism. His books, while famous, are, with one exception, largely unread.
As Norman Podhoretz wrote in Commentary magazine in 1985, when Solzhenitsyn's anti-communism was still deeply relevant to contemporary politics, "The Gulag Archipelago is one of the most famous books ever written," but said few had actually read it. He allowed that A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was widely read, but that the readership of Solzhenitsyn's works were, he said, generally "more reviewed than read."
His courage ought to inform the behavior of decent persons in the 21st and all those centuries that will follow.
And yet, Solzhenitsyn remains one of the most important persons of the 20th century. His courage ought to inform the behavior of decent persons in the 21st and all those centuries that will follow. His books did as much to bring down the most murderous regime of the modern age as the work of any other person or nation.
The publication of Ivan Denisovich made the suffering of the tens of millions imprisoned in Soviet slave labor camps real for a world that had denied they existed. The Gulag Archipelago documented in his unique style one of the greatest crimes in history and gave a voice to its hitherto silenced victims.
Even more dangerously, it pinned the blame for this evil not just on one man — Josef Stalin — as many liberals and Soviet sympathizers tried to do, but on his predecessor Vladimir Lenin and the entire belief system of socialism.
Having survived a long sentence in such a camp himself, Solzhenitsyn wrote Ivan Denisovich from his own memories, and then gathered the testimony of others to write Gulag and other important works.
Despite the constant threat of imprisonment and a return to the torture of the camps, he defied the Kremlin and the KGB, and spoke out against censorship. When he won the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, his acceptance address (delivered in absentia) warned an indifferent world that the duty of the artist was "not to participate in lies," and that even more, they had the power "to defeat the lie!"
Though it may not have seemed likely at the time, that is exactly what he, along with a generation of fellow dissidents and refuseniks that he helped inspire, did. Without his books, it is simply impossible to imagine that the struggle against the Communists, both inside and outside the country, would have succeeded as it eventually did. As much as any man ever has, Solzhenitsyn changed the world.
As with many great individuals, the writer had his faults. He did not understand the United States and made no attempt to do so in two decades on our shores after being forced into exile in 1974. While rightly calling for Americans to reject the moral relativism of the left and to resist the "spirit of Munich" that urged appeasement of Moscow, his cultural isolation also led him to denounce rock music and Western culture with as much bitterness as he did the gulag.
He morphed into a proponent of the values of tsarist Russia, authoritarian Russian nationalism and Orthodoxy, a stance that led him into indefensible stands on Serbian atrocities.
In exile, he also faced charges of anti-Semitism. Some critics rightly discerned an indifference and a lack of understanding of Jewish concerns, and a tendency to reflect the unpleasant traditions of Slavophile Russia, in which Jews were unfairly blamed for the rise of the Bolsheviks.
Yet, on the charge of Jew-hatred, most scholars and commentators have declared him not guilty, not least because he spent his whole life actively denying the accusation and was a steadfast supporter of the State of Israel. This question must also not be taken out of the context of the triumph of a movement for freedom for Soviet Jewry that his books and activism influenced and aided in an era when detente with the masters of the gulag was considered the most prudent course for the West.
The point here is not just to honor him for his role in bringing down the Soviet Union, but to understand that his example must influence our attitude toward other human-rights abusers
Those who look away when confronted with the truth about places such as China, Tibet, Sudan and Iran cannot be allowed to do so without shame.
Despite the Olympics and the growth of capitalism in that nation, the laogai, the Chinese version of the Gulag Archipelago, still exists. Its prisoners — political dissidents, religious believers and others who earned the disfavor of Beijing — continue to suffer even as President Bush and other Americans spend their time there cheering at basketball games. The laogai has been documented, but sadly, it has yet to enter the lexicon or the conscience of the West the way Solzhenitsyn did with the gulag.
The legacy of the author of The Gulag Archipelago is that Bush and others who look away when confronted with the truth about places such as China, Tibet, Sudan and Iran cannot be allowed to do so without shame.
As Podhoretz wrote in 1985, the Russian forced everyone to confront "the terrible question" of our apathy in the face of evil by his example of being a lone, powerless man who stood up to the totalitarians and faced them down. So long as there are tyrants among us, that is an example we will need to honor and remember.