Posted on January 16, 2018

Independent exercise of judgement is a key virtue in democratic societies. It is what we expect of ourselves and of our politicians. The lofty ideal of politics in a free society is to have a place where judgements about the res publica are expressed in a free and independent fashion, where these opinions are all freely debated and dispassionately weighed, and where from this free exchange reasonable state policies are finally distilled. Reality falls far short of this ideal, but this is at least a picture that we should bear in mind of how things ought to be.

Politicians in democracies take great care to avoid the impression that they are in the pocket of some interest group. Still, lobbyists try to influence the judgement and undermine the independence of our policy makers all the time. Of course, they have to hide their efforts. The fiction that what they advocate is in the common interest should be maintained at all cost. It is a strange thing that so little care is taken to keep the lobbyists out of the affairs of state. Lobbying is pernicious to our democracy.

In democracies independent judgement is proclaimed as an ideal but often secretly undermined. Independent exercise of judgement presents a danger for those with vested interests. It is considered a downright threat by authoritarian regimes and by the ruling elites in totalitarian societies such as the countries of the former Soviet Union, or present day China.

In China this is demonstrated by the harsh suppression of the Falun Gong movement. This suppression started in 1999, when representatives of the movement had the audacity to demand of the Chinese authorities that their movement be recognized as a legitimate organisation. As a result, Falun Gong was banned, and thousands of practitioners were sent to labor camps for “re-education”. According to Falun Gong itself, thousands have been killed in the suppression that followed. You can read up on this in Benjamin Penny, The Religion of Falun Gong. According to Penny’s book, Falun Gong is entirely comparable to New Age movements in the West, with a similar body of beliefs. Falun Gong is an invitation to spiritual practice consisting of breathing and bio-energy work, Qigong and meditation. Notably, Falun Gong does not express or promote political views at all.

Wikipedia is a good source on persecution of Falun Gong. The most gruesome are the reports on organ harvesting from Falun Gong prisoners. I first learnt about this last Summer, when Falun Gong members were handing out leaflets on Dam Square in Amsterdam. So why do the Chinese authorities feel the need to suppress this entirely peaceful movement? Because Falun Gong teaches people to think and feel and experience for themselves, Falun Gong invites people to become autonomous human beings. In a totalitarian state this is precisely what cannot be tolerated.

The fate of people with independent beliefs in Stalin’s Soviet Union is well known to readers of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. But suppression of independent thought did not stop when Stalin died. Right until the fall of the Soviet Union, each Soviet city had a psychiatric ward. And inside each ward there was a closed section for the political dissidents. Publicly expressing something that the regime considered outrageous, something preposterous such as belief in God, could get you locked up as a madman. This system was exposed in the 1980’s by Soviet dissident Irina Grivnina. See this New York Times article from 1985. Irina Grivnina is an indomitable lady. I have encountered her only once, and she surely stood out from the crowd. Even though the occasion was a concert where the focus was not at all on her, she commanded everyone’s attention, and her behaviour even struck me as slightly maladaptive. But this is what having the spirit of a dissident is like.

Dissent is willingness to take on anyone for the sake of truth, whatever the cost for one’s personal life. People with the courage and the willingness to do this are rare, very rare. After all, if willingness to take on anyone for the sake of truth was the norm, totalitarian societies could not exist. The question that is posed by Solzhenitsyn, again and again, is “Why did we not resist?” Collective resistance would have brought the regime on its knees in no time. There were many more people arrested and marched off to the labor camps than police to arrest them. But collective resistance didn’t happen. It almost never happens.

Elisabeth Haich was a yoga teacher who ran a school together with Selvarajan Yesudian, in Hungary, right after the Second World War. In 1948 they had to close their school because the communists had come to power. What does yoga have to do with politics? A member of the secret police explains this to Haich: “Your school is very popular. People who come here listen to you more than they listen to the authorities. And you teach them things that are at variance with what we believe. And that is a thing that we cannot tolerate.” So they had to flee to Switserland where they founded a new yoga school that became very influential.

Vaclav Havel is another example of a dissenting voice in a totalitarian society, and he wrote extensively about the juxtaposition of lies and truths in totalitarian societies. Havel started out as a playwright, adopting an absurdist style appropriate for writing about the madness of communism in the totalitarian state. In his well-know essay The Power of the Powerless, from 1978, he describes what goes on in the mind of a greengrocer who suddenly decides he has had enough of all the lies. Something snaps in him, and he decides to no longer distribute silly leaflets with “Workers of the world, unite” with his vegetables. He decides to speak his mind in political meetings where everyone echoes what the regime wants. He decides he is through with it all. But this stepping out of the groupthink is a kind of miracle.

In my personal life I have often been in groupthink situations, and I am not particularly proud of how I stood up to the group pressure on some occasions. For sure, I did not display the indomitable spirit of Grivnina, of Haich, of Havel, of Solzhenitsyn. Much to learn here still, for me.