Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Will Western Civilization Triumph?

At the heart of American Exceptionalism is the belief that America is different and somehow better than the rest of the world (thanks, Jonathon Winthrop!).

We worried that perhaps America would be eclipsed by communism during the Cold War (remember the analogy that was made between the Witch Trials and McCarthyism?). Some Americans believe that our capitalist and democratic system will be eclipsed by socialism or totalitarian ideologies. Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe disagrees - and makes his argument by making - wait for it - historical analogies. Read the article and then assess the strength of Jacoby's argument in the comments. Did Jacoby convince you that democracy, capitalism, and freedom can, in the words of Lincoln, "long endure?" Why or why not?

Article reprinted below for educational purposes.

The Year The Dominoes Fell

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist | October 21, 2009

IT WAS getting late one evening in Prague, a few months after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and as we walked along Wenceslas Square, my companion began to weep. When I asked what was wrong, he composed himself and gestured at the streetscape around us. To my eye, it was a perfectly commonplace scene - a few couples out for a walk or sitting together and talking, some tourists window-shopping or looking into the stores that were still open, a cluster of passersby listening to street musicians playing jazz.

But for my friend, who had grown up in Prague, such agreeable normality was still anything but commonplace. Under the Communists, he told me, no one would have strolled along Wenceslas Square after dark. In a society in which police and informers were everywhere, people avoided calling attention to themselves, and at night Prague’s most famous public space was usually a cheerless no man’s land.

“To see it now like this - it makes me a little emotional,’’ he explained.

He was older than I was, a Czech physician in his 40s who had opposed the old regime and paid a steep professional price for his dissent. Like most people, he had come to see the Iron Curtain as a permanent fact of life. Over the years there had been attempts to dislodge the Communist governments Moscow maintained across Eastern Europe - the East Germans had tried it in 1953, the Hungarians in 1956, the Czechoslovaks in 1968 - but each uprising had failed, crushed beneath Soviet tanks.

“If you want a picture of the future,’’ says an official of the totalitarian government in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,’’ which was published soon after the Stalinist night had fallen on Eastern Europe, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.’’ Communism was forever, or so it had seemed through much of the 20th century, as tyrannies calling themselves “people’s republics’’ scrupled at nothing - not tanks, not secret police, not torture, not relentless propaganda - to perpetuate their dictatorial rule and repress those who opposed it.

Early on, Lenin had characterized Communist governance as “power that is limited by nothing, by no laws, that is restrained by absolutely no rules, that rests directly on coercion.’’ Against such ideological ruthlessness, what chance did freedom and democracy have? Whittaker Chambers, a one-time Soviet spy, famously repudiated the Communist Party he had served and became one of its most eloquent opponents, but as he did so, he testified in 1948, he knew he was “leaving the winning side for the losing side.’’ Decades later the French thinker Jean-Francois Revel published “How Democracies Perish,’’ in which he explained sadly that democracy was simply not structured to defend itself against an enemy as implacable and deceitful as communism. “Perhaps in history democracy will have been an accident,’’ wrote Revel, “a brief parenthesis which comes to a close before our very eyes.’’

And yet, against all odds and to the astonishment of the world, it was communism that came to a close before our very eyes. Twenty years ago this season, Moscow’s Eastern European satellites threw off their chains. In a matter of months, the communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania were consigned - as Ronald Reagan had foretold - to the ash heap of history. But not even Reagan had imagined that the dominoes would fall so quickly, or that Moscow would stand aside and let them fall.

“I learned in prison that everything is possible, so perhaps I should not be amazed,’’ said Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who became Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist president. “But I am.’’

We all were. And some of us still are. The collapse of the Iron Curtain was the most remarkable political development of my lifetime. Even now, the images from those days can take the breath away: East German youths dancing and drinking atop the hated Berlin Wall. The reappearance of Alexander Dubcek, 21 years after he was exiled for flirting with reform during the Prague Spring. Romanians flooding the streets of Bucharest, waving flags with the Communist emblem torn out of the center.

1989 exemplified with rare power the resilience of Western civilization. In our time, too, there are brutal despots who imagine that their power is unassailable: that their tanks and torturers can keep them in power forever. But the message of 1989 is that tyranny is not forever - and that the downfall of tyrants end can come with world-changing speed.


  1. Before reading this article, I needed no convincing that democracy, capitalism, and freedom will last. This I already believed. But I do think that Jacoby makes a good point. Looking at history, the spread of Communism was probably the most trying moment for democracies throughout the world in the history of democracy. A few other trying times for the free world come to mind, namely Hitler and the Third Reich and the French Empire under Napoleon. So if Democracy was able to withstand the test of Communism, it should be able to resist any trial, providing that Communism was the ultimate challenge to Democracy (I don't know whether it was).

    So why did Communism, the Third Reich, and Napoleon's Empire fail? A common answer lies in overextension. A major reason why certain Empires throughout history have lost power is overextension. Even the great British Empire lost its American colonies through the Revolution, partially due to an inability to control the colonies from a great distance.

    Why, then, have democracies withstood many challenges throughout history? They don't overextend themselves. Once a democracy begins to expand, it becomes less and less of a democracy and more of an empire. Rule changes from democratic to authoritarian. Take, for example, the U.S. We have taken over some parts of the world, like the Philippines, but not overextended ourselves. A democracy has an enormously higher chance of surviving if it does not overextend itself.

    For this reason, I think Jacoby makes a good point. "Tyranny is not forever" and because of this, democracy will prevail. A parallel made to the rise of Communism makes perfect sense and shows how, in once instance, democracy was able to make it through extremely tough times against incredible odds.

  2. Jacoby didn't really succeed in convincing me that democracy will survive the test of time. I already believed it would. I also believe that every other major form of government will stand the same test. People will always remember them. Right now, most, if not all other governments believe they're the best. While I personally believe that democracy is the best form of government, other countries may believe differently and impliment different forms.
    We can never be sure that democracy will last, but we can trust or at least hope that the idea of government by the people will last. As we can see with the French and Russian Revolutions, the majority will eventually overcomes the minority's. If we can judge the future by the past, then we can infer that tyranny doesn't last forever.

  3. I don't think Jacoby made a very good argument. After reading the article, I felt like it was written to try and be more of a heart warming story than an argument.... kind of like a "hooray we love democracy!" type of thing.

    Jacoby fails to give convincing evidence, but rather provides the reader with information about the hardships that every type of government faces. All that he says is that democracy has lasted longer than communism. While this may be true, I would need something more convincing to have an opinion.

  4. I think that totalitarian rulers will always fall. They may be replaced with more totalitarian rulers, but eventually that cycle will be broken and be replaced by another form of government. Also with the the UN, which promotes democracy, i think that democracy and capitalism will prevail. China, which is the most likely to rule next has had to adopt more capitalistic measures in order to avoid the fate of communist Soviet Union. I do not think that most forms of government will not perish. Somewhere somehow some one will choose to use one of these governments. totalitarianism will always exist because someone will always greedy for power, wealth, and empires.

  5. I hardly even saw an argument in this article. It's mostly an account of what happened, not how it happened and why. Jacoby is basically saying that people banded together and got capitalism, freedom, and democracy. Surely it's not that simple. People banded together to fight the tyrannies of Louis XVI's France and Czarist Russia and still ended up with tyranny. Jacoby doesn't give any insight as to why democracy has lasted so long in America either. Nor does he tell us why certain revolts succeeded while others failed. He simply asserts that communism and tyranny will eventually fall (with little actual insight), but what in this article convinces us that democracy won't eventually go down with it?

  6. I believed that democracy would survive for a long time before reading the article, and don't believe it any more than I did before after reading the article. Tueting seemed pretty excited that Jeff Jacoby uses historical analogies as arguements, but I saw no arguements or analogies. Reading this article was like reading a summarized AMSCO chapter with personal oppinions of the writer thrown in here and there. If Jacoby wants to make a more convincing arguement, he should throw in more relevant facts and actually make analogies instead of just saying, "the East Germans had tried it in 1953, the Hungarians in 1956, the Czechoslovakians in 1968 - but each uprising had failed, crushed beneath the Soviet tanks."

  7. As everyone else has already said, I don't think that Jacoby made a really good argument. If it wasn't for the introduction that Mr. Tueting gave, I wouldn't have known what Jacoby was trying to prove. I'm still not sure what he's trying to prove. He didn't really talk about democracy, just the rise and fall of communism. I guess the point he was trying to make was that democracy has lasted way longer and stronger than communism. Although I don't think that this proves that democracy will last forever, I do think a people based government will be the one that prevails throughout time. Jacoby didn't convince me that democracy will last through time, I just already think that.

  8. I don't feally know what his argument was? Was it that democracy tiumphs over tranny, or thatcommunism will always fail? Anyways, he didn't really do a great job in convincing anything. He sounded like he was trying to me a story; like we knew each other for a while.

  9. I think that Jacoby's argument wasn't convincing at all as it relied just on the fact that Communism failed despite previous beliefs that it would win. I don't think he takes into account the fact that there are common people that dislike or are apathetic towards democracy as described in here

  10. I really didn't see an arguement in this article. It didn't seem to talk that much about democracy.. more about the beginnings of cummunism and the end of communism. The point was unclear and to me the article just seemed to ramble. Jacoby didn't convince me of anything.

  11. Jacoby definitely isn't a good persuader. His facts are scrambled and doesn't provide a solid argument. I do not think anyone who reads this article will change their opinion because he fails to look at the people that communism affects. When people are involved ideas always change, no matter how good they look on paper.

  12. While Jacoby's arguments were weak, I still think that democracy is the best form of government. All that Jacoby talks about is the beginning and end of communism. He doesn't mention how strong democracy is. If I had believed communism was the best form of government before reading, Jacoby would not have changed my mind.

  13. I think Jeff persistently just points out the fact that communism came to an end in Europe in the 20th century, how is this supposed to convience me that a Democracy will always prevail? Jacoby is just too excited about the fact that communism came to a halt back then that he looses focus from things going on today. There are STILL communist contries today, and if he tells me a story about his friend crying and that once communism was stopped he's not convencing me that capitalism and Democracy will succeed in the end.

  14. This article is not much of an argument for anything. It seems to me more like a personal story, some somewhat related facts, and a final conclusion based on public oppinion and not reason. I personally would like to see a few more examples of Communism losing to democracy before I completely make up my mind, but by using some questionable social and philosophical reasoning, I think I could believe that "Freedom will prevail". On the other hand (Information paralysis), I did like the point he made about Communism being stronger than Democracy, and so the Communist power will probably win as long as it is around even if it does fall in the end. That is the way it seemed to have happened that the US could not defeat the Soviet Union directly, but had to wait until it fell from political reasons and then rush to the rescue of the people to prevent its reestablishment. This topic is a good one to debate, but this author did a pathetic job.

  15. I don't think that this was a convincing argument that democracy will last forever, or even for a little while. I'm not saying that i don't like this writing, because i thought that it was interesting and i liked the author's use of a narrative and real-life evidence, but he wasn't actually proving anything.

  16. Jacoby did not convince me that democracy will last forever, however i do think capitalism and demcracy will last for a very long time. I thought this story was interesting but it didnt persuade me one way or another.


Questions? Comments? Bueller? Bueller?