Modern Society in Need of Social Moorings

June 1 st 1995

On July 4, patriotic Americans once again commemorated the immortal words of their great Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

No one more fervently championed this lofty statement than Abraham Lincoln. For him, it "set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."

Is this dream about to be fulfilled? Has the collapse of communism cleared the way for the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy throughout the world?

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to former president Jimmy Carter, doesn't think so. If anything, he is more concerned about the impending collapse of liberal democracy.

Brzezinski was born in Poland, emigrated to Canada with his parents in the 1930s, graduated from McGill University in 1949, and went on to gain a PhD from Harvard. For the past 40 years, he has been a leading expert on the Soviet Union—one of the few to foresee its imminent collapse.

Brzezinski's latest book bears the sombre title Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century. Among its darker thoughts is the prediction that Russia is not likely to succeed in making the transition from communism to a viable democracy and free market economy.

For Russians, the communist era was longer and far more devastating than for many of their neighbours in Eastern Europe. Unlike Poland, for example, no independent farmers survived in Russia. They were all wiped out during Stalin's collectivization drive in the 1930s.

Likewise, Russians have never learned to live with the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Few have developed the knack for compromise and conciliation—values essential to the effective functioning of any democracy.

In Brzezinski's judgment, Russia is at a fateful crossroads. While President Boris Yeltsin is trying to steer the nation toward a post-imperialist and democratic destiny, former Vice-President Alexandr Rutskoi wants to revive the old Russian empire. The latter has even called for the reunification of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.

Close to 25 million Russians live in the Ukraine and other former Russian satellites. About 40 million non-Russians reside in Russia. With ultra-nationalists like Rutskoi insisting upon the right and duty of the Russian government to side with "the undeservedly insulted and unjustly persecuted," the potential for ethnic cleansing in the region is appalling.

A vengeful Phoenix

Brzezinski fears that Russia could rise like a vengeful Phoenix out of the ashes of communism, transforming itself into a fascist state embroiled in perpetual conflict with its neighbours, several of them nuclear armed. Former Yugoslavia is a model of the nightmares haunting all the countries that straddle the fault lines of rival Islamic, Confucian, and Christian civilizations. "At some point," warns Brzezinski, "weapons of mass destruction are likely to be used, especially given the ethnic and religious passions involved in some of the possible conflicts."

Meanwhile, Americans are progressively abandoning the ideals of Jefferson and Lincoln. Brzezinski says the United States looks ever more like a permissive cornucopia: "a society in which the progressive decline in the centrality of moral criteria is matched by heightened preoccupation with material and sensual self-gratification."

Dallas and Dynasty have been shown on television in more than 100 countries. What kind of moral inspiration can such manifestations of U.S. culture project to the rest of the world?

Although most Western intellectuals scorn the Christian faith, they have failed to come up with any secular categorical imperative other than "do your own thing." For more Americans, the guiding rule of social conduct is not what is right, but what is legal. Anything they think they can legally get away with is permissible.

What about Canadians? Do we have reason for complacency about the moral state of our own nation? Or should we heed the warning Brzezinski applies to the United States—that the country, "clearly needs a period of philosophical introspection and of cultural self-critique.

"It must come to grips with the realization that a relativist hedonism as the basic guide to life offers no firm social moorings, that a community which partakes of no shared absolute certainties, but which instead puts a premium on individual self-satisfaction, is a community threatened by dissolution."

 

Rory Leishman is a national affairs columnist with the London Free Press.

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