American Ignorance and Indifference


The recent death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ought to be an occasion for some soul-searching in the United States, and indeed throughout the West. Solzhenitsyn was acclaimed for bringing the horrors of the Soviet regime before the eyes of the Western world. But how many Americans still remember the lessons he helped to teach? How well will the crimes Solzhenitsyn showed to the world be remembered?

Around 2003 or so, I had a class where everyone gave a class presentation based on a historical research paper they had done. Most of my fellow students were freshmen or sophomores. For my own topic, I chose the artificial famine that Josef Stalin unleashed to destroy the resistance of the Ukrainian people to his campaign of collectivization and cultural destruction.

A number of other students had given presentations on historical crimes and tragedies. And yet, despite my poor public-speaking skills, people seemed enthralled. When I was done, everyone seemed to have questions. Why were they so fascinated by what I had told them? Simple: None of them had ever heard of it before.

Now, the school wasn't exactly Harvard, but it was a respected Catholic university. My fellow students were not idiots or ignoramuses. And yet, the millions who had died agonized deaths in one of human history's greatest crimes were unknown to them. Further probing on my part revealed a similar degree of ignorance about other Communist regimes. Everyone, of course, knew of the twelve million victims of Adolf Hitler. Several even knew about the three thousand people killed by Augusto Pinochet. On Communism, however, they were almost totally ignorant. The word "Auschwitz" was instantly understood by everyone; words like "Kolyma" and "Great Leap Forward" were mysterious.

I knew that the horrors of Communism did not get as much attention as the crimes of the Nazis, but the degree of ignorance stunned me. These were bright, curious kids; how could they not know? How could they get all the way to college without learning about it?

Then I thought back to my own education. How had I learned about it? I spent a lot of time with my grandfather when I was growing up, and he encouraged my interest in history and science; I probably learned more from him and the books he gave me or told me about than I ever did in school. It was from him that I learned about writers like Robert Conquest, author of such books on Communism as The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow. In high school, I was good friends with a Ukrainian exchange student who had grown up in the last days of the Soviet regime, which gave me a more personal curiosity about Soviet history.

I certainly didn't learn it from public school. We were taught at considerable length about the crimes of Hitler and Mussolini, and also learned about such figures as Pinochet, the Mendozas, and Fulgenico Batista. We were taught about the existence of Communist dictators, and told that they weren't nice guys, but the information was limited and selective.

We were told that Communist countries didn't have democratic elections and often put people in prison for criticizing the government, but we were never told that Communists had engaged in mass murder. We knew that Soviet prisoners were sent to gulags, but we weren't told just how many prisoners there were, or that huge numbers of the gulag's prisoners died there. We certainly weren't told that Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong each had a list of victims that rivaled or exceeded Hitler's, or that Pol Pot had slaughtered a fourth of his own country in less than half a decade.

The mass media was no better. If I had never gone to school or opened a book, I still would have picked up on what the Nazis were like through movies, television, or newspapers. I might be lacking in details of the regime's history, but I would still know that they had killed millions. Failing that, I would pick it up from other people; the crimes of Hitler occupy so large a portion of the American consciousness that it would be impossible not to pick up on it. Of the true extent of Communist crimes, I would know very little; my education would be as deficient as that provided by school.

I suppose I shouldn't have been so shocked. The American media and intelligentsia have a long and shameful history of concealing, minimizing, or ignoring Communist atrocities that continues to this day. I don't think my school teachers were willfully trying to deceive me; most of them were probably as ignorant as my classmates. There was a time when ignorance was maintained by conscious propagandists like Walter Duranty, but that is largely unnecessary today. Once established, ignorance and falsehood become self-perpetuating, as the deception's own victims pass the lie down to the next generation.

There are plenty of people who would be eager to learn the truth, if only they knew it was out there; the response of my classmates convinced me of that. Sadly, most of those who dominate the dissemination of information and opinion in America still have little incentive to correct the situation; they are, after all, the ideological kinsmen of the leftist Western intellectuals who worked so hard to create the problem in the first place. Meanwhile, thousands if not millions of perfectly honest people serve as unwitting accomplices in the perpetuation of ignorance. Despite the efforts of men like Solzhenitsyn, despite the tens of millions of corpses, despite historical records available for anyone to see if only they know where to look, despite whole nations turned into charnel houses, American ignorance and indifference endures.

August 21, 2008