Yesterday evening while I was at dinner, a longtime friend of mine sent me a story about a BBC writer who had been unceremoniously kicked out of Russia after having asked obvious but uncomfortable questions to the pro-Russian ruler of Belarus. One of the most obvious aspects of authoritarian governments is that they are weak and so they project strength. This is something that is not always easy to understand. It takes a great deal of strength and self-control to deal with unjust criticism–and a great deal of just criticism that is expressed tactlessly enough that it feels unjust even when there is a grain of truth to be found. The less tolerant a regime is to criticism, the weaker that regime’s sense of security happens to be. It is one of the telling and unfortunate aspects of our contemporary age that we want to be free to criticize but are growing increasingly tolerant of being criticized, and that is true whether we are bloggers or reporters, a type I am familiar with, or leaders of large and powerful states.
The willow knows something that the oak does not, and that is the fact that there are some winds that one cannot fight against but must bend with. This is a fact that is not well understood by a great deal of the political discourse that we see among us. Reporters fancy themselves to be the brave defenders of free institutions and that the venerable newspapers or other media companies that they belong to are strong enough to overcome any resistant government. This is not always the case. The contemporary media of many countries in the West is sufficiently affected by groupthink that it too is more brittle and inflexible and unresponsive to reality. Likewise, many states are themselves too brittle to be able to properly handle the real stresses that are going on. We tend to think in the West that democracy is always a good thing and that the behavior of governments should always reflect the will of their people.
This is definitely not always the case though. If one is a firm reader of statistics, one will see that huge majorities in the Muslim world, for example, are intractably hostile against their nations calming relationships with Israel, but the general well-being of the world requires a certain amount of peace in areas like the Middle East, even if anti-Israeli hostility is the nearly universal opinion of many people on the street in that area. If this is an extreme example, it is emblematic of a truth that while the elites of many parts of the world may fancy themselves to be part of one world, ordinary people tend to be far more attached to their own local identities and far more hostile to those on the other side of important lines. This fact is something that must be admitted and addressed, even if one addresses it by dealing with cosmopolitan elites and ignoring prejudiced provincials, as appears to be the common way that elites behave in general. Even if one seeks to overcome difficult and unpleasant realities, it is important to recognize them as realities, or else one will be led into potentially fatal overconfidence about one’s own ability to master the world as it is which afflicts governments from time to time.
The willow knows that there are some winds that are too strong for one to fight, but that one must bend to them to survive the coming storms. The oak fancies itself strong enough to handle anything and so it blows down and destroys anything in its path when the strong winds come. If we live in a time where we know there are coming storms–and I think it is fair to say that we live in such times, where hurricane warnings are being given and if one is unable to evacuate that one has to batten the hatches and prepare to ride it out–then we had better prepare to endure. Those who are students of history can easily discover both the severity and length of dark times. Periods of freedom and general prosperity are not common in history, and periods of transition and crisis are very dangerous for those who fancy themselves to be elites. Those who know the signs of the times can prepare themselves in a way that both dictators and reporters in our contemporary age seem unable or unwilling to do.