This essay by the great Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky (with Gil Troy) is as insightful and effective a takedown of the Soviet Union as can be written in a short-to-midlength essay. Sharansky’s father was a creative writer and journalist; Sharansky was a scientist. By describing how the totalitarian Soviet government oppressed artists, journalists, and scientists, Sharanksy paints a truly chilling picture.
The Soviets forced intelligent members of these professions and a great many other citizens to become what Sharansky calls “doublethinkers.”
As the Party Line you follow publicly becomes increasingly disconnected from what you believe or see or experience privately, your cynicism grows along with your mental agility—your skill in living and writing in two contradictory scripts at once. That’s how you become a doublethinker.
At the end of the essay, Sharansky applies the lessons he learned under Soviet communism to the United States. He writes:
The feeling of release from the fear and giddy relief when crossing the line from doublethink to democratic dissent is also universal across cultures. This understanding prompted the Town Square Test I use to distinguish between free societies and fear societies: Can you express your individual views loudly, in public, without fear of being punished legally, formally, in any way? If yes, you live in a free society; if not, you’re in a fear society.
In the West today, the pressure to conform doesn’t come from the totalitarian top — our political leaders are not Stalinist dictators. Instead, it comes from the fanatics around us, in our neighborhoods, at school, at work, often using the prospect of Twitter-shaming to bully people into silence—or a fake, politically-correct compliance.
Recent polls suggest that nearly two-thirds of Americans report self-censoring about politics at least occasionally, essentially becoming a nation of doublethinkers despite the magnificent constitutional protections for free thought and expression enshrined in the Bill of Rights
To preserve our integrity and our souls, the quality of our political debate and the creativity so essential to our cultural life, we need a Twitter Test challenging bottom-up cultural totalitarianism that is spreading throughout free societies. That test asks: In the democratic society in which you live, can you express your individual views loudly, in public and in private, on social media and at rallies, without fear of being shamed, excommunicated, or cancelled?
Ultimately, whether you will live as a democratic doublethinker doesn’t depend on the authorities or on the corporations that run social media platforms: it depends on you. Each of us individually decides whether we want to submit to the crippling indignity of doublethink, or break the chains that keep us from expressing our own thoughts, and becoming whole.
Increasingly and to alarming degree, America is failing the Twitter test.