Paul Greenberg

Such is the power of a single individual armed only with moral force. Meanwhile, those of us who are never discomfited by the spectacle of liberty in action, but only cheered, delighted and amused by turns at the discomfiture of the supposedly great and powerful, could only smile a quiet, Gandhian smile. One lone, blind dissenter had captured the imagination of free men everywhere. And illuminated once again what matters in the course of human events -- Freedom!

The vision of a single, only physically blind man would prove more trustworthy than all the statesmanlike press releases out of various embassies, high contracting parties, under-secretaries and elevated muckety-mucks. It was clear that all those functionaries of high and low estate thought of this jailhouse lawyer and general agitator mainly as a headache. Prophets do tend to strike those in supposed power that way.

This man is not going to just fade away. He has not come this far to fall silent. A great man from a country that has become one vast gulag, like a great writer whose words thrill with the electric touch of truth, is always a kind of second government -- a shadow cabinet all by himself.

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Such a man does not need a political office to rouse a whole country, a whole world. Martin Luther King Jr. never held political office, either, yet a whole nation hung on his every word, including the gumshoes who had to tap his phones and tail him. In the end, he would catch the ear and maybe even the conscience of those who had feared and despised the threat he represented to their comfortable way of life.

In the end, that black preacher would save the South from itself, and arouse its mind and spirit and truer, better self -- maybe even cleanse the soul of a nation. And he did it without the benefits and preferments of high office -- indeed, often in spite of those who held such offices. There is power in words, if they be the right ones, and if the speaker is willing to risk all to say them.

The Soviets discovered as much in the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another troublesome type who appealed to the conscience of both East and West. For he criticized both with equal insight, answering only to his own conscience.

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Now let us see how Chen Guangcheng, having challenged the authorities in Beijing, will challenge our own complacency. This could be interesting, even chastening, and in the end cleansing.

Hurried out of his own country, our guest left in haste, carrying little with him and yet everything: hope, conviction, courage. In that regard, he was something of an American even before he left China. He left with a message for those of his fellow freedom fighters he had to leave behind: He wasn't leaving the fight, he said, just asking for a leave of absence. They, and the world, will be hearing from him.

And his words may not always assure. A true prophet's seldom do. But they will challenge us, and in the end strengthen us. Which is what happens when others stick by our convictions, and articulate them when we ourselves have drifted away from them. The courageous Mr. Chen is not likely to let us forget our own ideals. That's why his arrival in this country last week was in the category of news that matters. And will matter.


In other news, the heads of the G-8 countries met again last week, this time at Camp David. As usual, they didn't so much address the economic crisis looming ever larger with each passing month as try to talk their way around it. Their statements were full of the usual platitudes, banalities and evasions. They seemed willing to do anything about their countries' ever-mounting debts but act. Barack Obama was among those having their picture taken, their empty words solemnly recorded. News it wasn't.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.