Culture > Books

Whither them? Us?

Books | Both ex-communists and Americans must face moral issues

Issue: "Social Security," Jan. 11, 1997

Whither Russia? The transition away from totalitarian communism has, not surprisingly, been a difficult one. How the transition became possible is covered by Oxford's Archie Brown. Mr. Brown calls Mikhail Gorbachev the most important statesman of the second half of the 20th century. Despite his obvious faults, Mr. Gorbachev was key to the refusal of the Soviet Union to use force to preserve communism. Mr. Gorbachev's goal was to humanize rather than to dismantle the Evil Empire-as if that were possible-but history will probably treat him kindly for recognizing at least a few human values, even as he was rising to the top of the Soviet hierarchy.

Will we end up with a friendly Russia? Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and John Parker of the Economist are optimistic. In their view, &quotthe market system has taken rapid root; there is a functioning democracy; and the Soviet empire has been dismantled with minimal conflict."

More pessimistic is the analysis by Anatoly Khazanov, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. He reviews the dominant role of nationalism in Russia and the former Soviet republics, warning that &quotthe liberal democratic direction of the ongoing transformation in the ex-Soviet Union, as well as in some East-Central European countries should by no means be taken for granted." At best he hopes that Western-style liberal democracy will be able to civilize nationalism.

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Also dealing with serious subjects is Bioethics. If you thought abortion was the only challenging &quotmedical" issue to confront a Christian, think again. There are also euthanasia, assisted suicide, organ transplants, prenatal screening, and more. Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender has written a thoughtful book that upholds the value of life. He concludes that &quotin becoming people who give thanks for medical progress but do not worship it or place our trust in it, we may bear a different kind of life-giving witness to our world."

In the Classroom is delightful. Mark Gerson, a culturally conservative Jew now attending Yale law school, chronicles his year teaching history at an inner-city Catholic high school. Despite some silly policy proposals, like mandatory national service, the book is simultaneously entertaining and sobering, and well worth reading.


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