The Power of the Lone Dissent

Our first post painted a grim picture of the near future. Is there no hope?

There is always hope, friends. There must be hope; to abandon it gives a final victory to the enemy. That is why the ending of 1984 is so terrifying, because it shows what happens to the spirit of humanity crushed under the totalitarian jackboot and surrendering to despair. The book’s atmosphere is a sealed and airless nightmare, with no escape possible. In this, it probably reflects Orwell’s state of mind when he finished the book, just months before his death from tuberculosis. That same year, 1949, he wrote a brilliant essay considering Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent political action, which he doubted could do any good against a totalitarian regime like Stalin’s in the Soviet Union at that time: “Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing?”

With the benefit of historical hindsight, we know that dissenters did in fact exist in Stalin’s empire of darkness, even if their fate, like that of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was usually death in the Gulag or before a firing squad. But did that make their dissent pointless? Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda memorized his poetry, which was then published in the West and helped inspire a later generation of dissenters. The post-Stalin Soviet authorities did their best to stamp them out, but they did not succeed. The dissidents’ collective impact was fateful, with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, for example, helping to extinguish the last flickers of Western sympathy for the Soviet Union and undermining the regime’s moral authority at home.

It is our belief that every gesture of dissent strikes a moral blow against a tyrannical regime, no matter what the stage of its malignant development. When the circumstances are right, the cumulative impact of these blows brings down the entire structure with astonishing speed. That is the lesson that we who remember the sudden collapse of the entire Soviet empire beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 can bring to this new fight.

Thus, it was not futile for two Republican electors from Texas to cast their votes for someone other than the rising dictator in 2016. It was not futile for Senator Mitt Romney to stand alone against the entire Congressional Republican Party in voting to remove the dictator from office. It matters that Alexander Vindman sacrificed his military career to tell the country and the world about the dictator’s criminal behavior. It matters that lifelong Republican Olivia Troye resigned from the coronavirus task force and denounced the president for his depraved indifference to the lives lost in the plague. These people will always be remembered as patriots and heroes even if America itself does not survive. It simply is not true, as frustrated opponents sometimes say, that “nothing matters” and nothing “sticks” to him. Every time someone defies him, it tears another small hole in the myth of his infallibility and his limitless power. Dictators never sleep well, knowing that somewhere out there are dissenters who are not deceived and are not afraid. Were the defiance truly pointless, these regimes would not expend so much energy trying to discredit and destroy it. And in the end they are swept away, another sorry object lesson to students of history.

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