A postscript to the trial of the Chinese dissident Xu Zhiyong comes from a likely source. Xu is Leon Wieseltier's new hero. The New Republic's literary editor loves anyone who stands up for democracy against tyranny, and right now he's been unhappy because the President of the United States doesn't stand up for it enough. "Having deceived the country into believing that almost everything may be accomplished, [Obama] is deceiving it into believing that almost nothing may be accomplished," Wieseltier laments in the February 17 issue, "He is not raising the country up, he is tutoring it in ruefulness and futility." By comparison, the jailbound Xu has delivered "a repudiation of the forgetfulness about the reasons for democracy that now mars our democracy" in a statement, released clandestinely, that he was not allowed to read in court. In it, Xu says nothing new, at least to western ears. He affirms the universality of "modern democratic values" and exhorts Chinese citizens "not to act as feudal subjects" of their leaders. But some people always thrill to these sounds; they remind Wieseltier of the words of Russian dissidents from Soviet times. For him, the sensation of reading or hearing such rhetoric is "the feeling of being morally refined and historically educated and politically catalyzed, the thrill of being pointed in the direction of what really counts." Under Obama, he fears, the thrill is gone. "In America now I hear too much about transfats and not enough about tyranny," he complains.
What America does Leon Wieseltier live in? Does he live in an ivory tower without Internet access, without a TV or radio? Only under such circumstances could someone say that he hears "not enough about tyranny." If Americans seem demoralized about the global prospects for democracy, it's more likely because they've heard too much, far too much about tyranny, and to an extent that trivializes the concept and, to attempt an explanation of what Wieseltier actually perceives, desensitizes them to the plight of people under actual tyranny. In this country people routinely call Barack Obama a tyrant. They regard regulations as a form of tyrannical oppression. And the left, too, exaggerates the tyrannical potential of its opposites. Who in America doesn't feel oppressed? Even the billionaires do. How, then, can Wieseltier expect any American to thrill to, or even take seriously, the idea that American-style "liberal" democracy should be adopted everywhere on Earth? What would that mean to Americans? That every country on Earth gets saddled with an equivalent of the Republican party? Or, as reactionaries abroad fear, the gay lobby? If the U.S. suffers, as Wieseltier suspects, from an atrophy of the "moral imagination" that makes possible "our solidarity with our fellows," and is "abandoning the world to its chaos and its cruelty," wouldn't that be because of an overuse (or overdose) of the thrilling rhetoric of freedom and tyranny? I don't doubt that Wieseltier still gets a legitimate thrill from the words of authentic dissidents against actual tyranny, but I don't think he actually understands what thrills him, or why American rhetoric on the subject, directed inward or outward, can't have the same thrill. As an intellectual of some sort, he probably knew enough about conditions in the USSR, and maybe even knows enough about conditions in China today, to recognize that the words of their dissidents aren't bullshit. Americans familiar only with domestic familiar rhetoric may be more likely to dismiss all protest against tyranny as bullshit, unless they're hardcore reactionaries or paranoids who think that tyranny is already here -- and they, I suspect, wouldn't see actual tyranny coming until it came down literally with a boot to their faces. That's only speculation, of course, but it's a more plain fact that the age of liberal triumphalism is over, no matter how the likes of Wieseltier pine for it. Liberalism had a moment after the Cold War to prove its appeal and its superiority. That moment is over, and only someone as apparently isolated from the emotional reality of our time as Wieseltier can be surprised -- though he remains entitled to his disappointment -- that few of us seem interested in selling liberalism anywhere today.