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Two Narratives

I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two recent articles, one in the New York Times and one in the Washington Post.

The Post article describes how Vladimir Putin’s acolytes are rewriting history textbooks used in Russian schools to give them a more nationalist flavor. One of the manuals issued to Russian teachers declares in its last chapter: “We see that practically every significant deed is connected with the name and activity of President V.V. Putin.” Another manual paints the United States as an empire that may be near “final collapse,” because “America can no longer integrate into a single unit or unite into a nation of ‘whites,’ ‘blacks,’ (they are called African-Americans in the language of political correctness) ‘Latinos’ (Latin Americans), and others.” Russia’s own history is whitewashed, with Stalin described as brutal but also “the most successful leader of the USSR.

The ethos of these textbooks was summed up by Putin, who told a meeting of educators that “we must not allow others to impose a feeling of guilt on us.”

The Times piece describes the new history textbooks in a very different kind of country—Israel. There, the Education Ministry is issuing texts to Arabic-speaking students that describe the foundation of Israel as a “catastrophe” for the Palestinians. (Emanuele Ottolenghi noted this development on contentions.)

In other words, a liberal democracy is incorporating in its curriculum the views of its enemies, while an authoritarian country is pushing a hard nationalist line in its own textbooks. Nothing surprising there, but what lesson does one draw from this disparity?

You could argue that this reveals a suicidal level of self-doubt in the West that puts us at a severe disadvantage in confronting our illiberal and often fanatical enemies. Or, you could argue that this capacity to question ourselves is actually an advantage in the competition with illiberal societies, and that dictators’ attempts to brainwash their populaces produce stunted societies incapable of competing with more dynamic ones.

Which of these “narratives” is right? At the risk of sounding like a typical, conflicted, namby-pamby, post-modern Westerner, I have to confess I’m not sure.



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