The New Freedom: Living with Hope, Skepticism and Irony
One wonders about the extent to which we Americans were particularly naive in accepting U.S. propaganda about Soviet life at face value. Had we simply fallen victim more readily to the illusions of freedom and to ideological conflict, or were we more accepting of our government’s statements? Should we equate believing with being naive? Does a viable democracy require a high level of uncritical belief in what is being conveyed from the government? This is an especially important question to ask today (2019). As the warfare between the American media and government leadership escalates, is democracy being threatened at some core level?
Because the citizens of Hungary and Estonia were exposed for so many years to systematic lies, there was a lack of belief in any public statements when freedom came to both countries. These men and women knew that they had been lied to and were fully aware that information was often defined by those who had power (Berger and Luckmann, 1966). For many years, the public definition of reality in Eastern Europe had been at odds with privately held perspectives. How widespread has this alienation of information been over the past 30 years? We find a renewed attention to these dynamics about truth and reality in the research conducted by the behavioral economists–most notably Kahneman (2011), Ariely (2008. 2012) and Thaler (2015). Their research findings suggest that public “truth” can be quite pliable.
These psychologists (accounting for two Nobel prizes in Economics) write about the heuristics that simplify and often distort “reality”. They offer an extremely important question: who is sitting at the table when truth is being formulated? The Hungarians and Estonians (as well as the citizens of many other former Soviet satellites) seem to have been more aware of these epistemological dynamics then those living in the Unites States. What does it mean that both Kahneman and Ariely were raised in Israel? Is there a healthy skepticism about truth and reality to be found in Israeli culture that resembles that found in Hungary and Estonia?
The dynamics of epistemology as related to freedom might go even deeper. One of the discoveries we made while in Eastern Europe was that Communist party membership during the Soviet era was often unrelated to ideology or even political preference. While the rhetoric of the party was clearly ideological and political, men and women joined the party for many different reasons—only some of which related to sociopolitical issues. At a very basic level, membership in the Communist party could be considered a substitute for membership in institutions of a religious, spiritual, or cultural nature that were lost when Hungary and Estonia were first invaded. As Nicolas Berdyaev (1960, p. 158) notes in his remarkable analysis of the origins of Soviet communism, communism is inevitably opposed to any formal or informal religious institution because it is itself a religion. Berdyaev, a Russian Orthodox theologian, suggested that communism as a surrogate religion:
. . . .professes to answer the religious questions of the human soul and to give a meaning to life. Communism is integrated; it embraces the whole of life; its relations are with no special section of it. On this account its conflict with other religious faiths in inevitable. Intolerance and fanaticism always have a religious origin. No scientific, purely intellectual theory can be so intolerant and fanatical, and communism is exclusive as a religious faith is.