The Case Against John Lennon

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Wed, 06/11/2008 - 3:34pm.

[The Case Against John Lennon]

John Lennon - AP

This month is the 20th anniversary of the founding of Sajudis, one of the most consequential national liberation movements of the 20th century. Here's betting that you've either never heard of it or, if you have, that you've long since forgotten what it was about.

Sajudis was the Reform Movement of Lithuania, organized by the Baltic state's leading intellectuals just days after Ronald Reagan met publicly with Soviet religious figures and dissidents in Moscow. In a speech to Russian university students that May, Reagan spoke of the moment "when the accumulated spiritual energies of a long silence yearn to break free."

Within weeks, 100,000 Sajudis activists took to the streets to demand greater liberalization. Within months, a quarter-million poured out in protest of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which secretly consigned the Baltic states to Stalinist rule. A year later, two million linked hands in a human chain 300 miles long. In March 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare (or affirm) its independence. Fourteen other "republics" soon followed, bringing the evil empire to an abrupt end.

The Sajudis anniversary came to mind after a meeting in New York last week with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician turned political theorist. Mr. Sharansky has a new book, titled "Defending Identity." It would be equally accurate to call it "The Case Against John Lennon."

Or, more specifically, the case against "Imagine," Lennon's anthem to a world with "no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too." For Mr. Sharansky, a nine-year resident of the Perm 35 prison camp, that's a vision that smacks too much of the professed beliefs of the ex-Beatle's near namesake, Vladimir Ilyich.

Mr. Sharansky's argument is that man's quest for identity - for the human and communal particulars that set him apart from others - cannot be separated from his quest for freedom - the universal set of values to which he and everyone else lay an equal claim. He argues that a freedom that "does not include the freedom to be significantly different" is no freedom at all. And he believes that while a politics that expresses itself purely through identity is bound to be tyrannical, a democracy that ignores its own identity - or attempts to suppress the various identities within it - betrays its deepest principles and puts its long-term survival at risk.

Is this true? Woodrow Wilson championed the idea of "national self-determination," as if it were a synonym for human liberty. Yet too many liberation movements have merely replaced the despotism of empires with whatever tinpot dictator - Yasser Arafat, Robert Mugabe - happened to assert the right to speak for "the people." We've also learned that not all cultures are created equal; that identities that make a fetish of masculine "honor," for instance, don't lend themselves easily to the practices of a free society.

Mr. Sharansky knows all this, and insists that the claims of identity must, when there is no other option, yield to those of democracy. Case in point: Mormon polygamists at the Texas ranch.

But he also knows that the cause of freedom cannot easily be sustained without calling on a set of moral and communal resources that go beyond the needs of individual liberty. "All the people living for today," as Lennon put it, means, of course, nobody living for tomorrow.

If there is one place where all the people are living for today, it is the European Union. The EU has deliberately set about trying to smother the identities of its 27 member states (including Lithuania) in a set of common laws, common regulations, common ethics, a common approach to problem solving, a common view of the rest of the world. It has sought to suppress the identities of its component parts in the name of a higher identity - Europe - which turns out to be no identity at all.

No surprise, then, that Europe today increasingly finds itself troubled by a Muslim minority within its midst - now perhaps 50 million strong - that draws confidence and growing power from the sureness of its identity. Does Europe, like America, offer a higher identity to which this minority might adapt itself - even die for? It does not.

Instead, it either pretends that no problem exists, or it attacks outward manifestations of identity, like Muslim headscarves, without making any real effort to integrate Muslims into a genuine European identity that means something more than the absence of identity. Meanwhile, frank discussions of the identity issue are pushed to the neo-fascistic fringe.

It needn't be this way. Twenty years ago, millions of men and women understood that their freedom lay in their identity, and vice versa. Just Imagine what they may yet accomplish.

Bret Stevens - June 10, 2008 - posted at

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Submitted by SadInAmerica on Wed, 06/11/2008 - 3:34pm.