April 24, 2003

Velvet President: Why Vaclav Havel is our era’s George Orwell and more. (Matt Welch, May 2003, Reason)

Last fall, as the United States rumbled toward war against Saddam Hussein, literary reviews and higher-brow magazines wrestled with an intriguing if unlikely hypothetical: What would George Orwell say if he were here today?

Christopher Hitchens, the fire-breathing British journalist who kick-started the discussion with his book Why Orwell Matters, suggested that a contemporary Eric Blair "would have seen straight through the characters who chant ‘No War On Iraq’" and helped the rest of us to "develop the fiber to call Al-Qaeda what it actually is." Washington Post book reviewer George Scialabba stated confidently that "Orwell would associate himself with the unsexy democratic left, notably Dissent and the American Prospect," and that "he might, in particular, have wondered aloud why the heinous terrorist murder of 3,000 Americans was a turning point in history." Commentary tried yet again to claim Orwell as a neocon, and The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks argued that the great man’s mantle and relevance had actually passed onto a new contrarian’s shoulders: "At this moment, oddly enough, Hitchens matters more than Orwell."

At exactly the same time, the one man in the world of the living who could justifiably claim to be Orwell’s heir was expounding almost daily on Saddam Hussein and international terrorism — even while rushing through one of the most frenetic periods of a famously accomplished life. Vaclav Havel, the 66-year-old former Czech president who was term-limited out of office on February 2, built his reputation in the 1970s by being to eyewitness fact what George Orwell was to dystopian fiction. In other words, he used common sense to deconstruct rhetorical falsehoods, pulling apart the suffocating mesh of collectivist lies one carefully observed thread at a time.

Like Orwell, Havel was a fiction writer whose engagement with the world led him to master the nonfiction political essay. Both men, in self-described sentiment, were of "the left," yet both men infuriated the left with their stinging criticism and ornery independence. Both were haunted by the Death of God, delighted by the idiosyncratic habits of their countrymen, and physically diminished as a direct result of their confrontation with totalitarians (not to mention their love of tobacco). As essentially neurotic men with weak mustaches, both have given generations of normal citizens hope that, with discipline and effort, they too can shake propaganda from everyday language and stand up to the foulest dictatorships.

Unlike Orwell, Havel lived long enough to enjoy a robust third act, and his last six months in office demonstrated the same kind of restless, iconoclastic activism that has made him an enemy of ideologues and ally of freedom lovers for nearly five decades. […]

The first targets of Havel’s considerable wrath and sarcasm were the poor fools making "halfhearted" efforts at creating "Socialism with a humanface." One of his first essays, 1965?s "On Evasive Thinking" (collected in the English-language volume Open Letters) makes cruel sport of a newspaper essayist who — not unlike his modern American counterparts — attempted to assess and then dismiss the broader significance of a temporal tragedy, in this case, a building ledge falling and killing a passerby. "The public," Havel wrote, "again showed more intelligence and humanity than the writer, for it had understood that the so-called prospects of mankind are nothing but an empty platitude if they distract us from our particular worry about who might be killed by [another] window ledge, and what will happen should it fall on a group of nursery-school children out for a walk."

Here, in Havel’s earliest essay to be translated into English, you can already find the four main themes that have animated his adult nonfiction writing ever since. One is the responsibility to make the world a better place. Another is that the slightest bit of personal dishonesty warps the soul. ("The minute we begin turning a blind eye to what we don’t like in each other?s writing, the minute we begin to back away from our own inner norms, to accommodate ourselves to each other, cut deals with each other over poetics, we will in fact set ourselves against each other…until one day we will disappear in a general fog of mutual admiration.")

A third theme is that ideology-driven governance is practically doomed to fail. ("It prevents whoever has it in his power to solve the problem of the Prague facades from understanding that he bears responsibility for something and that he can’t lie his way out of that responsibility.") Finally, there is his belief in the revolutionary potency of individuals speaking freely and "living in truth."

The last of these phenomena became nearly extinct after the tanks of 1968 rolled in from Russia. The new rulers ushered in the "normalization" period, during which tens of thousands emigrated and most "nonconformist" writers (including Havel) were inconvenienced, banned, or sometimes just locked away. In April 1975, facing an utterly demoralized country and an understandable case of writer’s block, Havel committed an act of such sheer ballsiness that the shock waves are still being felt in repressive countries 30 years later. He simply sat down and, knowing that he’d likely be imprisoned for his efforts, wrote an open letter to his dictator, Gustav Husak, explaining in painstaking detail just why and how totalitarianism wasruining Czechoslovakia.

"So far," Havel scolded Husak, "you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power."

It was the Big Bang that set off the dissident movement in Central Europe. For those lucky enough to read an illegally retyped copy or hear it broadcast over Radio Free Europe, the effect was not unlike what happened to the 5,000 people who bought the Velvet Underground’s first record: After the shock and initial pleasure wore off, many said, "Wait a minute, I can do this too!" By standing up to a system that had forced every citizen to make a thousand daily compromises, Havel was suggesting a novel new tactic: Have the self-respect to tell the truth, never mind the consequences, and maybe you’ll put the bastards on the defensive.

We like Matt Welch anyway, but note the diabolically clever conceit of this essay: first he dismisses the attempts of others to claim the mantle of George Orwell’s approval for their position on the war, then grants the rightful mantle to Havel, who just happens to be pro-war. That’s how you get to be a professional pundit.



April 12, 2003

The left has lost the plot: By defending sovereignty in the name of anti-imperialism, opponents of war undermine their claim to champion the oppressed (John Lloyd, April 11, 2003, The Guardian)

(This is an edited extract of an article from this week’s New Statesman, explaining ex-editor John Lloyd’s reasons for resigning as a columnist.) […]

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, UN leaders have spread the message that their organisation could now enter into its own – as a protector of the downtrodden who, most often, are trodden on by their own rulers. This movement culminated, less than two years ago, in a Canadian-sponsored report, A Responsibility to Protect – a brilliant summation of the arguments for stripping tyrants of sovereign inviolability. Of the major government leaders, only Blair has embraced the report, as the logical extension of the ethical dimension in foreign policy that Labour promulgated when it came to office.

Most of the left refused to follow this line. For some, it has been enough to declare all ethical dimensions phoney, since states such as Britain continued to shake hands with tyrants. For others, state sovereignty seems a necessary protection against what they see as the largest threat to the world: US imperialism.

US imperialism, in this view of a now resurgent part of the left, is composed of a mixture of things: efforts to control energy resources, principally oil; the repression of the Palestinians to ensure the security of the US “client state” Israel; a US refusal to tolerate any power that counterbalances its own; a hatred of all cultures other than its own, and a determination to destroy such cultures to make the world passively receptive to American values and merchandise.

Will the end of the war and the effort to rebuild decent government in Iraq change the view of the left? It would seem unlikely: the anti-US reflex is too ingrained, the dislike of Blair too great.

Yet the left’s programme now should be to argue in favour of committing resources to those multilateral agencies that work, and to seek agreement from those forces everywhere in the world that are committed to democratic (or at least more responsive) government and to an observation of human and civil rights. The aim, as the US political scientist Michael Walzer has put it, should be a “strong international system, organised and designed to defeat aggression, to stop massacres and ethnic cleansing, to control weapons of mass destruction and to guarantee the physical security of all the world’s peoples”.

The issue of sovereignty would seem to be the key to the questuion of whether the Free World can act to liberate oppressed peoples. The once honorable Left and establishment Churches seem to have settled into a position that holds national sovereignty inviolable. This has the great advantage of discrediting all wars, but the enormous disadvantage of sanctioning all kinds of evil acts by regimes, apparently up to and including genocide. This turn of events, which has placed two segments of Western society that have long and proud traditions of resisting State authority on the side of homicidal totalitarian dictatorship is genuinely sad–in no case more so than that of the Pope–but for anyone who loves liberty must be a clarion call to treat doctrinairely “anti-war” clerical authorities and liberal activists as what they are become, enemies of human freedom.


April 6, 2003

World War IV Begins Here (James Woolsey, April 6, 2003, Boston Herald)

Today, 120 of 192 countries in the world are democracies. These 120 countries all have some popularly contested elections and some beginnings, at least, of the rule of law.

That is an amazing change in the lifetime of many individuals now still living. Nothing like that has ever happened in world history. Needless to say, American had something to do with this, both in helping to win World War I, in prevailing, along with Britain, in World War II, and eventually prevailing in the Cold War.

Along the way, a lot of people said very cynically at various times that the Germans, Japanese, Russians or those with a Chinese Confucian background would never be able to run democracies. It took some help, but the Germans, Japanese and now even the Russians and Taiwanese seem to have figured it out.

In the Muslim world, outside the 22 Arab states, which have no democracies, there are some reasonably well-governed states that are moderating and changing, such as Bahrain.

Of the 24 Muslim-predominant non-Arab states, about half are democracies. They include some of the poorest countries in the world, such as Bangladesh and Mali. Nearly 200 million Muslims live in a democracy in India. Outside of one province, they are generally at peace with their Hindu neighbors.

There is a special problem in the Middle East, however. Outside of Israel and Turkey, there are essentially no democracies. Rather, there are two types of governments: pathological predators and vulnerable autocrats. This is not a good mix. […]

Clearly, the terror war is never going to go away until we change the face of the Middle East, which is what we are beginning to do in Iraq. That is a tall order. But it’s not as tall an order as what we already have accomplished in the previous world wars.

Change remains to be undertaken in that one part of the world that historically has not had democracy, which has reacted angrily against intrusions from the outside – the Arab Middle East. […]

This war, like the world wars of the past, is not a war of us against them. It is not a war between countries. It is a war of freedom against tyranny.

America has to convince the people of the Middle East that we are on their side, just as we convinced Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov that we were on their side. This will take time. It will be difficult.

We understand we are making the terrorists, dictators and autocrats nervous. We want them to be nervous. We want them to realize that America is on the march, and we are on the side of those whom they most fear – their own people.


April 1, 2003