Imprimis

Between Democracy and Despotism

Sidney Hook
Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace


Sidney HookSidney Hook, currently Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, is also Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and former head of the All-University Department at New York University. Recently honored by the White House and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dr. Hook has also been designated Thomas Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest appointment in the social sciences. His published works include: Education and the Taming of Power (1973); Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life (1975); Revolution, Reform and Social Justice (1976); Philosophy and Public Policy (1980); and Marxism and Beyond (1983).



Editor's Preview: This issue of Imprimis is the second in a series on "moral equivalence," a doctrine which seeks to equate the foreign policies of the United States and the Soviet Union. Last month, former Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick's remarks focused on "The Myth of Moral Equivalence." Now, the well-known philosopher, Sidney Hook, offers his explanation for the largely uncritical acceptance of the "moral equivalence" argument in America.

Dr. Hook originally delivered this address at a Shavano Institute conference last May in which forty-five scholars, journalists, and government representatives participated. Selected essays from this meeting will appear in Scorpions in a Bottle: Dangerous Ideas About the United States and the Soviet Union, available from the Hillsdale College Press.


Those of us who for decades have been contesting the doctrine of the moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States—the protagonists of the free open societies of the world—have invariably been accused by neutralists, New Leftists, and ritualistic liberals, of glorifying the status quo. This retort is invariably made despite the long and public record of our criticism of American domestic and foreign policy. The strategy behind this retort is to throw us on the defensive and to transform the discussion into a competition to establish who has criticized American evils most. Were the rejoinder to us made in good faith, it would be sufficient to point out that, strictly speaking, in our world of rapid social and technological change, there is no such thing as the status quo, that the implementation of any human policy, including the policy of inaction, always affects the status quo. Any objective assessment of this record, told in part by a book like Ben Wattenberg’s The Real America, shows, on the whole, an encouraging advance both in the standards of life and in freedom of thought in American society.

With respect to domestic life in the United States, any attempt to insinuate that its defects and insufficiencies revealed by our criticisms—makes our indictment of communist repression and Soviet imperialism morally invalid is made in bad faith. For even if one were to grant legitimacy to the litany of criticisms of American domestic and foreign policy, and many of the policies are highly questionable, the very fact that the exercise of the right to criticize is institutionalized in our democratic system by a whole cluster of other rights makes all the difference in the world between the free society and one in which serious criticism is proscribed. Dissent is integral to every system of government based on the consent of the governed. No communist regime anywhere in the world is based on the freely given consent of the peoples imprisoned within its borders. The failure to recognize this crucial difference between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. exposes the real animus behind the doctrine of moral equivalence. For there are no evils in our domestic policy that cannot be redressed, no directives in our foreign policy that cannot be altered through the democratic process. This is true of the most difficult and stubborn of our domestic problems. And although there is certainly no ground for complacency in the record of our past failures, there is even less ground for despair.

Ambassador Kirkpatrick, in her address before the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London in April of 1984, dealt with the bizarre judgments of some of our European allies who drew a moral equation between the standards of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in international affairs. In their case, it seems evident that fear and proximity to the Soviet Union account for distorted judgment. But it is astonishing to find these same sentiments expressed by American citizens. We have heard the Reverend William Sloane Coffin proclaim, “The most powerful ideology in the world is not communism but anti-communism, which keeps us from seeing that among the nations of the world we are as imperialistic as the Soviets.” One wonders in what kind of world the Reverend Coffin has been living since World War II, a period that spans most of his life. What acts of American imperialism and aggression equal the destruction of the national existence of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and the forcible deportation of millions of their citizens to the Siberian wastelands? What in American policy matches the forcible suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968? Compare the American treatment of Puerto Rico, which freely adopted the status of commonwealth rather than statehood or independence, and the Soviet occupation of Poland and the buttressing of its minority communist regime. Can anyone in good faith equate the presence of 55 unarmed advisers in El Salvador with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan spearheaded by 110,000 heavily armed troops and an air force which attack the local population with “yellow rain” chemical weapons in direct violation of international treaties, and whose terroristic practices have driven more than two million Afghans into exile? Is there no difference between the Soviet and Cuban aid to the Nicaraguan communist junta trying to fasten a permanent dictatorship on its people and the half-hearted Amercian aid to those resisting them? These questions Reverend Coffin and others leave unanswered. And if we turn from foreign to domestic policies, can any clergyman with good faith equate the state of religious freedom in the U.S. with the religious persecutions in the U.S.S.R.?

If anti-communism were a more powerful ideology than communism in America, the Reverend Coffin would long since have been laughed out of his strategic, well-paid post from which, with all his energies, he seeks to disarm the U.S. and the West and paralyze the will to resist the extension of the Soviet gulag. Occasionally there are genuine violations of our own guarantee of human rights in American society that justifiably call for public protest. But there are those who seek to equate these episodic violations with the systematic violations of human rights in communist countries. When a democratic community, in order to protect its constellation of human freedoms, sometimes moves legally to suspend or even temporarily limit one of its customary freedoms, we are sure to hear from some quarters that this is morally indistinguishable from the pattern of repression endemic to communist countries. Illustrations abound. During the illegal air-controllers’ strike a few years ago when the American government refused to capitulate, those who walked off their jobs in defiance of their pledge not to strike were given a grace period in which to return. When they did not, an action was brought to decertify the union and replace the illegal strikers by other workers. A special commentator, called in by National Public Radio as a labor expert, a Dr. Foner, denounced the action as comparable to the ruthless repression of Solidarity by the Polish dictatorial regime. A few years later when the Supreme Court took a minor step to correct a mechanical interpretation of the Miranda doctrine that would have ruled out an uncoerced confession after a belated warning had been given, Mr. Leonard Boudin, again on National Public Radio, denounced the Burger Court for undermining the Bill of Rights. Apparently Mr. Boudin was making a moral equation between professionals sworn to uphold our constitutional Bill of Rights and those dedicated to destroying it. In passing, one notes that Mr. Boudin’s silence about the suppression of human rights in communist countries has been deafening.

The Coffins, the Foners, Boudins, and others of their ilk are guilty of bad faith, but what of those who in good faith espouse the doctrine of moral equivalence in comparing Soviet and American policies at home and abroad? I suggest that most of these individuals do not fully understand the American democratic process. Their misconceptions result largely from the failures of our civic education, in both the public and private sector, to communicate an understanding of, and a commitment to, the basic values of the American self-governing community. In the long run, this failure constitutes a major danger to the survival of free society.

It is certainly true that most American citizens, both young and old, sincerely regard themselves as democratic. But what should concern us are the defects in the understanding of many of our fellow citizens of what genuine commitment to the democratic ethos entails—defects expressed both in periodic violations of the democratic process and the rationalizations offered for his behavior. These constitute our problem. Consider, for example, the growth of a self-righteous lawlessness on many different levels. Starting from the axiomatic premise that law and order is not enough, that they can be present without justice, some of our fellow citizens, in their quest for what they consider justice, overlook the even more elementary truth that no system of justice can exist without law and order, and that the integrity of the democratic process is more important in a self-governing republic than any specific result we seek to reach by that process.

A case in point is the extent and ramifications of the massive illegal immigration into the U.S., which could hardly succeed without a powerful domestic support infrastructure. Or the brazenly self-righteous defiance of the leaders of the sanctuary movement for Central American illegal immigrants, posing as political refugees, most of them coming from Mexico where they already enjoyed political asylum. Or another case in point: the refusal of a half million young men, the products of our educational system in which they supposedly learn something about democracy, to register for the draft, thus repudiating their responsibilities and duties of citizenship to a country whose privileges they enjoy. Even more pervasive and protracted has been the persistent resort of small minorities and special interest groups to continual disobedience of duly constituted laws by illegal, sometimes violent, trespass of military installations and civilian nuclear energy plants. It has been claimed that the cumulative effects of these mass disruptions, abetted by multitudes of nuisance legal suits, funded sometimes with federal money diverted from its legislated use, have in effect helped bankrupt our nuclear energy industry. Time and time again one reads about measures proposed and adopted in local assemblies on all sorts of questions varying from the location of garbage disposal facilities to the distribution of budget funds that are frustrated or abandoned because of the disruption of proceedings by a determined minority.

Our educational institutions have failed to instill a realization of how fragile a self-governing democratic society is, not only historically but structurally, especially when its existence is threatened by a totalitarian enemy. For its very own rationale encourages a constant critical approach that its enemies can exploit to weaken it. The moral here is not to abandon the critical approach—we could not do that without becoming like our enemies—but to employ it intelligently.

This lack of intelligence in understanding the rationale of a self-governing democracy such as ours is reflected in a whole series of misconceptions, the most notable of which is a false and simplistic view of the nature of rights. We are living in an age that has been called the Rights Revolution. Every other day, new rights are being discovered, indeed whole complexes of rights—rights of children, welfare rights, rights of the unborn, the right to know—most of which, like the right of privacy, are fathered by the First Amendment. But however rights are defined, it is an elementary fact that every serious moral and political problem is experienced as a conflict between right and right, between good and good. It follows that, despite the claims of protagonists that their right is absolute or unconditionally valid under all circumstances, we cannot intelligibly or intelligently hold that rights are absolute if we believe there is more than one right in the world. Even crusading journalists who proclaim the allegedly absolute right of the public to know, regardless of its impact on national security, draw the line on our absolute right to know their sources. In the constellation of rights defining our self-governing democracy, there is not a single one that may not reasonably be temporarily abridged in the interest of defending and upholding other rights or in order to safeguard the security of the system of rights as a whole.

How does this differ from the totalitarians we oppose? Do not the constitutions of all the totalitarian powers nullify their paper declaration of citizens’ rights by providing for their limitation or abrogation in times of crisis or when the security or safety of the state is in danger? If, in a democracy, rights are only prima facie but not absolute, how do we distinguish ourselves from them? In many ways. We regard our Bill of Rights as strategic but not absolute, as having intrinsic value even when limited under compelling circumstances; and if limited, only temporarily not in perpetuity, and not in order to preserve the security of a party or an administration but to protect a society which is based upon the freely given consent of its citizens. The mere fact that no system of government, whether democratic or despotic, can regard any particular right, liberty, or privilege as absolute because of the plurality of values and goods involved in every decision does not establish a moral equivalence among them. It does not wipe out the distinction between democracy and despotism. It does reinforce the central importance of reason and intelligence in the moral economy of democracy which, in rejecting despotism, must safeguard itself against the dangers of anarchism implicit in the conflicting absolutisms of ultimate, inarbitrable ends.

There is another mistaken notion about democracy that affects much of contemporary thought and practice: the failure to take account of historical truths in our judgment and the abuse of historical context. This is not to imply that there can be only one brand of historical truth but, rather, that what has been abandoned is the necessary habit of looking at the past when anticipating the future. At any moment of time, the agenda for action is always posed as a conflict between what is and what should be, between the given and the more desirable. This is unavoidable; not all problems can be solved at once, and the resolution of one set of problems always gives rise to others. Superficially, we are always in revolt against the world as we find it, which is to say that we are in revolt against our own history. But without the historical perspective which enables us to see the distance we have covered, the advances won, the forward direction despite lapses and setbacks, we run the danger of succumbing to the permanent superficiality of impatient, infantile leftism which, in the absence of the best, rejects the better as compromise and betrayal, or refuses to accept the unsatisfactory even when the only other available alternatives are worse.

Not all references to history illustrate an intelligent historical perspective. Professor Chester Finn reports that there are some educational areas in this country in which American history is taught as a history of Indian oppression, as a history of the oppression of Blacks and Chicanos, as a history of the exploitation of immigrants, of the degradation of women and children. The whole history of America is sometimes presented to the minds of the young as a history of oppression which makes the present position of these oppressed groups incomprehensible. Much of what is said in this litany of horrors is, of course, true. But it only illustrates the fact that selected truths can be woven together to communicate a thunderously false tale. It is comparable to a survey of American social problems which, because of the indisputable presence of current problems, fails to mention that any has ever been adequately met.

Not infrequently when we protest misleading accounts, and even outright distortions, of American reality, we are accused of nationalism, of sacrificing the truth on the altar of a mindless patriotism. But there are many ways of sacrificing the truth. One way is to insist that some special truth is the only truth there is. Not long ago when I protested the unceasing propaganda in the classrooms of elementary schools about the horrors of a nuclear holocaust which was producing nightmares in sensitive children, I was taxed unfairly by some pacifists with denying that war is an evil. They were wrong. Not only do I believe that war is an evil, I believe it is always an evil. What is wrong is believing that war is the only evil, or that it is the worst. Were we to believe that, why would we have resisted Hitler or the Japanese warlords? Why would the Civil War have been fought? To the many truths that are relevant, here we must add the truth that often will and ability to fight in defense of our freedoms is the best insurance against war waged by an enemy that seeks to deprive us of those freedoms.

It is false to say that the calamities we prepare ourselves to avert become inevitable in virtue of our efforts to avert them. Just as scientific medicine can prevent plague from becoming universal, so there is hope that scientific intelligence in defense of the free and open society can prevent universal war and catastrophe. Our greatest opportunity to defend ourselves lies in the field of education and public enlightenment. It is of a twofold character. First, we must strengthen and reinforce the understanding of the ethos of American political institutions through upgrading the quality and orientation of American civic education. This should be done in conjunction with preparations for the bicentennial of the American Constitution. Second, we must intensify our efforts to counteract the global ignorance of true domestic American realities—an ignorance that contributes to the fantastic myth of the moral equivalence between the defenders of a free society and those who would destroy it.