Monday, May 01, 2006

The Difference Between "Dissident" and "Stupid"

"Dissident President" is the title of an article in "Opinion Journal" by Natan Sharansky, who was himself a well-known dissident in the Soviet Union.

According to Sharansky, Bush is to be considered a rare case of being a political leader and at the same time a dissident - because he has "deep belief in the universal appeal of freedom" and also practically applies it in his capacity as the president of the USA. And he stands his ground no matter all the criticism. In other words, a true believer, truly practising what he preaches, a saint-like figure.

I find Sharansky's definition of "dissident" slightly unorthodox, to put it mildly. According to Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary "dissident" means "a person who publicly disagrees with and criticizes their government". Most often the word is used when refering to political dissidents who show their disagreement with policies of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes - Sharansky being a perfect example of such a dissident. But how does Bush fit into this description? The chief of the world's mightiest military superpower, dissenting against what? If a simple fact of disagreeing with certain ideas qualifies one to be a dissident, then Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden & Co are also eligible to the glorious title of dissident.

Of course, one could try to argue that the above mentioned persons are the bad guys, that they are against freedom while Bush is for it. Still, we know that believing in the need of freedom is something fairly uncontroversial, something that majority of the world's population would subscribe to. There are certainly some mad people (like the above mentioned terrorist tandem) who would disagree. People in their countries or under their control who oppose the insanity of such leaders are certainly to be regarded as dissidents, not foreign presidents.

And then we know what Bush's "dissident activities" have meant for the whole discourse of international law and human rights. Fighting for freedom? Sure, for their own freedom to act as they want, no matter what. Sharansky calls this hardline stance "a dogged determination that any dissident can appreciate". I would rather call it extreme stubborness. And, yes, even stupidity. American anthropologist David Graeber explains Bush's stupidity as follows:

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem once tried to imagine the stupidest computer ever constructed. This is what he came up with: a giant computer that could do only one problem, 2+2, thought the answer was 5, and when anyone tried to tell it otherwise, it grew outraged and tried to kill them. It is in this sense that we can call Bush stupid. He is a man used to deciding what he thinks is right, and then sticking to his guns no matter how insane, disastrous or simply incorrect his premises turn out to have been. But of course this is precisely the core of what his supporters like about him. He's firm, they say. Decisive. A strong leader. Not like those over-intellectual flip-floppers who are always changing their minds or going on about how many sides there are to a problem.
There is one peculiar similarity between what Sharansky calls "dissident", and what Graeber defines as "stupid". Both paint picture of a person that is completely unwilling to exert any kind of self-reflection. Graeber argues that it is an essentially anti-intellectual quality, mark of a genuinely stupid person. Sharansky presents a black & white understanding of the world where dissident is somebody who fights against the evil. Staying true to ones ideals is crucial, since otherwise dissident would commit "the greatest of moral failures". Self-reflection? Never! "No matter the consequences," argues Sharansky. Wait a second, did I get it right? I thought it was about the armageddon-style battle between the good and the evil, where the good will prevail in the end! Perhaps Sharansky understands very well that there is no great battle between good and evil powers, and there will never be any final victory to present. Still, for the sake of argument, he claims that "we are in the midst of a great struggle between the forces of terror and the forces of freedom". Accordingly, we have to choose our side. And there are only two sides. That will say, in the world as seen by Sharansky. The world of pure ideas, or more precisely ideologies (which are clashing, of course).

It is not hard to understand that there is no way out of such argumentation, since whatever criticism of certain activities of Bush in the international arena, he is still representing "the forces of freedom". Hence, criticizing is being on the wrong side. And even more so, it is abusing the possibility to criticize. We are able to criticize only because "
there is a democracy agenda in the first place", says Sharansky. What he forgets is that democracy, or democracy agenda, was not created by Bush. The democracy agenda itself is fueled by discussions and constructive criticism of public policies. Cutting off this possibility would mean - and this is the bizzare point - oppression against eventual dissidents.

Of course, Sharansky doesn't need the dissidents anymore. He needs to obey his master, otherwise his master (and it's not very hard to figure out who that master is) might stop promoting his b
ook "The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror". And since Sharansky has resigned from his post in Israeli government - to protest plans to withdraw Israeli settlers from the contested Gaza Strip - he might need that extra cash from selling his book to potential freedom fighters. Naturally, the article "Dissident President" ends with sales link for Sharansky's book.


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