By Barry Rubin
Possibly the question I’m most often asked by readers is this: How can you remain optimistic (or can you help me be less pessimistic?) given all the problems you talk about, the bad news you cover, and the mistakes you expose and explain? How can you hold out hope when you document how the mass media is so clueless and Western leaders are so…well, clueless while the enemies of liberty are so energetic and determined?
Take the Middle East alone. There is every reason to believe that it will remain as controversial, tumultuous, and crisis-ridden in the future as it has in the past. All of the long-term problems remain: slow social and economic development; repressive dictatorships nowhere near becoming democracies; the Arab-Israeli conflict, though diminished; traditional ambitions for conquest and domination; militant ideologies; ethnic conflicts; and more.
On top of these factors are new problems. Revolutionary Islamism is confident and growing, seeking to overthrow every Arabic-speaking state as well as wiping Israel off the map. There are wars within Iraq and Afghanistan that are far from achieving stable governments. Iran is racing toward obtaining nuclear weapons.
Oops! Sorry! This is supposed to be about optimism. So why, despite all these things, am I optimistic?
There are several parts to the answer that apply for the whole world, one being the mistakes and shortcomings of our adversaries; another being the rightness of our cause; a third being fundamental faith in the peoples of the West, workings of democracy, and the courage of the dissidents in the world’s dictatorships. A fourth, more localized one, is that I live in a country, Israel, which is actually doing pretty well in many respects, with a strategic situation far improved in recent years.
But a fifth, which also applies everywhere in the globe and notably to North America and Europe, is historical precedent, which should never be used blindly but can be employed with care that the parallels are accurate.
So here is a case in point. In February 1968, an Italian professor friend wrote Bertram Wolfe, the ex-Communist who was now an anti-Communist expert on the USSR, in despair. More and more people were turning to the far left wrote the professor Bogdan Raditsa, and he was close to giving up.
“I have long shared your gloomy view of what we are accomplishing by our efforts to swim against the current. I too have been moved to something close to despair by the ignorance of our leaders, the softening of the brain in their advisers and counsellors, and the state of affairs….I can offer only crumbs of comfort….
“I have lived for many years now and done my work with three images from classic legend possessing my mind. The first image is that of Sisyphus. I struggle and toil to push the stone up the hill, and just as I reach the summit, [Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev smiles or [columnist] Walter Lippmann or whoever pronounces some idiocy and whang! the stone rolls down again.
“The second image is that of Cassandra who had the double misfortune of foreseeing and foretelling the truth, and not being believed by any one. The third image…is Tantalus….When he bends down to drink of the waters of peace, they recede leaving him as thirsty and tantalized as ever. Then we start pushing the stone again.
“In any case, history is always open, so keep…arguing with…Communists, teaching young history students, and writing what you have to write. Whatever happens the world will be somewhat less bad for our having striven to keep it from getting worse. In the meanwhile those of us who strive have each other.”
A little over two decades later, Communism collapsed.
May we not have to wait, toil, tell the truth, and brave the adversity for so long! But if necessary we will.
Quotations from Robert Hessen, Breaking with Communism: The Intellectual Odyssey of Bertram D. Wolfe (Stanford, Ca., 1990), pp. 179-180.