Roundup: Central Europe edition

This week I noted how Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum got me to thinking about my own experience with the eastern borderlands of Europe; followed that up with some cogent remarks about recent history from Mr. Snyder; and remembered one of the most significant political figures and moral exemplars of the late 20th century.

To end the week, I want to warn the Library of America to prepare for a rush on their Reinhold Niebuhr anthology. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership hits bookstores next week; it’s already making headlines at CNN and prodding Donald Trump into a frothing rage. Today the New York Times posted Michiko Kakutani’s review of the book, in which she writes:

A Higher Loyalty is the first big memoir by a key player in the alarming melodrama that is the Trump administration. Comey, who was abruptly fired by President Trump on May 9, 2017, has worked in three administrations, and his book underscores just how outside presidential norms Trump’s behavior has been — how ignorant he is about his basic duties as president, and how willfully he has flouted the checks and balances that safeguard our democracy, including the essential independence of the judiciary and law enforcement. Comey’s book fleshes out the testimony he gave before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017 with considerable emotional detail, and it showcases its author’s gift for narrative — a skill he clearly honed during his days as United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Kakutani notes that a major figure hovering over the book is Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian popular in the 1950s; Niebuhr is also featured in a sidebar interview that accompanies the review. Per Kakutani:

[Comey wrote] his college thesis on religion and politics, embracing Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument that “the Christian must enter the political realm in some way” in order to pursue justice, which keeps “the strong from consuming the weak.”

I paged through Niebuhr’s work a few years ago; clearly I’m in good company. His argument is duly noted, and I will ruminate further. And I lift a glass to his memory this afternoon.

Remembering Havel

Václav Havel.

We may all be feeling a bit powerless these days. But let’s not end it there. Instead, to combat this feeling, let’s turn to history (if anybody still cares about that) and a dead Czech.

Václav Havel was one of the more peculiar figures to emerge from the Central European dissident community in the 1970s. A chain-smoking, beer-swilling absurdist playwright, Havel was imprisoned several times for his political activities only to emerge during the Velvet Revolution to become president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, a post which he held until 2003 (though following the country’s division in 1992, he became the president of the Czech Republic alone). From then until his death in 2011, Havel served as the exemplar of a philosopher-president: dedicated to democratic ideals, but always ambivalent about the use and abuse of political power wielded through ideology alone, including a democratic ideology. When he left office in 2003, he was succeeded by Václav Klaus, a bit of a piece of work himself: a “Euroskeptic” (which Havel certainly was not) and admirer of Vladimir Putin (ditto), Klaus described scientists who warned against global warming as  Communists at a National Press Club luncheon.

Below is an excerpt from Havel’s 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” here translated by Paul Wilson and an essay that landed him in prison the following year. Most of the essay is a consideration of what happens when ordinary citizens thoughtlessly acquiesce to an authoritarian government, whether out of fear or anything else. Back in 1978, of course, Havel could not have foreseen a “technological civilization” that included cultures like Facebook (he couldn’t have had such things in mind), and it’s clear that the health of “traditional parliamentary democracies” is not quite as robust as it used to be. His words ring eerily relevant today.

It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it. People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies. But this static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy, and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analyzed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself. In his June 1978 Harvard lecture, Solzhenitsyn describes the illusory nature of freedoms not based on personal responsibility and the chronic inability of the traditional democracies, as a result, to oppose violence and totalitarianism. In a democracy, human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us, but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims of the same automatism, and are incapable of defending their concerns about their own identity or preventing their superficialization or transcending concerns about their own personal survival to become proud and responsible members of the polis, making a genuine contribution to the creation of its destiny.

Because all our prospects for a significant change for the better are very long range indeed, we are obliged to take note of this deep crisis of traditional democracy. Certainly, if conditions were to be created for democracy in some countries in the Soviet bloc (although this is becoming increasingly improbable), it might be an appropriate transitional solution that would help to restore the devastated sense of civic awareness, to renew democratic discussion, to allow for the crystallization of an elementary political plurality, an essential expression of the aims of life. But to cling to the notion of traditional parliamentary democracy as one’s political ideal and to succumb to the illusion that only this tried and true form is capable of guaranteeing human beings enduring dignity and an independent role in society would, in my opinion, be at the very least shortsighted. …

Above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the “human order,” which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community — these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.

It is a perspective which doesn’t readily lend itself to a practical policy. But as Czech president, Havel tried. He achieved varying levels of success — no more and no less success, though, than presidents who weren’t prone to such metaphysical musings.

In 1993 Havel showed up in Philadelphia, appearing at Independence Hall to receive the sixth Liberty Medal, awarded annually by the National Constitution Center “to men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” (Seventy-five years earlier, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk had stood on the steps of the same building to proclaim the independence of the Czechs and other peoples of Central Europe.) I was there myself and heard him deliver his acceptance speech, which concluded:

The only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth and, at the same time, the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.

It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies or sympathies: it must be rooted in self-transcendence.

Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe; transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world. Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.

The Declaration of Independence, adopted two hundred and eighteen years ago in this building, states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.

Many of Havel’s most important essays and speeches can be found in Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990.

No smoking guns

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m in the midst of Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, his history of the past six or seven years in Russian, European, and American politics and a warning about the decay of the rule of law. I’ve still got about half of the book to go, but in the meantime, Snyder discussed the broad outlines of his research at a Politics and Prose event in Washington, DC, on April 7. As Snyder notes — and amply demonstrates — the very idea that there will be any “smoking gun” definitively linking Trump to Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign is quite nice to think about but quite unlikely; and, more to the point, that deliberate collusion in a legal sense may be impossible to prove. Which isn’t to say that Trump and his campaign were not guilty of it in a practical and especially moral and ethical sense. I’ll write more about the book shortly.

Snyder speaks tonight in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 7.00pm; he returns to New York for a presentation at the Ukrainian Museum on April 22. If you can’t make it, enjoy the below video from the April 7 event. And I recommend you have a glass of wine or beer nearby — and additional bottles at hand. It may be the most important and sobering video you watch for a while (hence that booze) .

Reading list

I’ve been in the midst of an unusual reading jag lately. Just the other day, I wrapped up Anne Applebaum‘s Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, a travel journal of her journey through Eastern Europe in 1991, first published in 1994 and recently reissued with a new introduction; I picked this up after finishing her most recent book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, and she’s become one of those writers whom I think I’ll be reading every word of. (Fortunately I won’t have to wait for her next book; she writes a weekly column for the Washington Post.) Next on my bedside table is Timothy Snyder‘s The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, this to follow up on Snyder’s monograph On Tyranny from last year, which I read in a quick afternoon recently. Like Applebaum, Snyder is a public intellectual and a historian of the same region; before the publication of On Tyranny, he was best known for Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and is a member of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience. Both writers are extraordinarily graceful and are possessed of incontrovertible expertise, indefatigable research skills, and an admirable dry wit. I’d have reviewed both Applebaum’s and Snyder’s recent books here, but in my haste to evangelize I loaned out my copies of these books to friends and family and therefore don’t have them readily to hand.

Applebaum and Snyder share a few affinities with myself which perhaps leave me open to a particularly personal admiration of their work. We are all of the same historical generation (I was born in 1962, Applebaum in 1964, and Snyder in 1969), and we each have two children. These seem rather trivial coincidences, but I’m not sure that they are. Apart from the Vietnam War — an outgrowth of the Cold War itself — the major historical event of our early lives was the failure of Soviet-style Communism and the opening of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This happened when I was 27. (And as it happens, the most recent film I’ve enjoyed was The Death of Stalin, directed by Armando Iannucci — born 1963.)

It’s hard to describe for those who are younger just what it felt like to live in an America in the midst of the Cold War, when the arms race was in full swing and TV movies like The Day After reminded us that the end was just around the corner. In the 1970s we also had the appearance in the West of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to reveal to us the depth of the horrors of the gulag under Stalin; the Soviet government’s treatment of the writer and that book was a reminder that such governments still existed among us and constituted a real threat. The shock of the quick and relatively non-violent collapse of the Soviet regime, both in the USSR and in the countries like Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of the Eastern Bloc, was a shock to the soul. I can’t speak for Applebaum and Snyder, but it had seemed until then that there’d be no end to the East/West conflict in my time, that I’d live most of my life with the same geopolitical angst.

In 1990 I decided it was time to see the region for myself, and for six weeks I traveled through Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, in those pre-EU days gingerly negotiating a welter of customs and border guards along the way. Partly I was drawn there by my own ethnic background; my grandparents had emigrated to the US in the early 20th century from Ukraine, Lithuania, and Slovakia (as we know them now; both Applebaum and Snyder amply demonstrate that the placenames of these nation-states have historically been arbitrary fictions). Otherwise, I’d been intrigued by Timothy Garton Ash‘s journalism about the region. It was astonishing to experience the sheer joy that you could still find in the streets of Prague and Budapest, the cheerful welcome that Americans and their dollars received in beer halls, cafes, restaurants, and hotels; it was in Prague that year that I attended my first and until now only Rolling Stones concert, and saw Vaclav Havel standing next to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on a balcony of the Prague Castle. Two years later — at about the same time Applebaum was travelling through regions somewhat further north and east — I spent nearly twelve months teaching English in a small Moravian town of 4,000 people.

I was in that town when Czechoslovakia split apart at midnight on January 1, 1993. Czechoslovakia, too, had been something of a national fiction as well, carved out of Central Europe at the end of World War I by the victorious powers, but in hindsight it may have been the first inkling of the extreme nationalism that is only now reaching full bloom in Hungary, Ukraine, and other states. The new Czech Republic/Slovakia border was only a few miles away, and there was little celebration on either side of the new border crossing, especially among my now-Czech, formerly-Czechoslovak acquaintances and friends. There were differences between the two states of course; they shared a common language, but of distinctly different dialects; Bratislava had its eyes set on the east, Prague and Brno on the west. Havel delivered a distinctly subdued, even mournful New Year’s Day address that day, almost as if he could foresee that this was the end of one world and the beginning of another, more angst-ridden geopolitics after the miracle of the Velvet Revolution.

It seems that Snyder and Applebaum recognize that as well. It may have been this peculiarly historical and personal perspective that has led to their ability to recognize the increasingly authoritarian, tyrannical nature of world politics, not least here in the US as well. Of course, today’s tyrants won’t resemble Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or Mao; they couldn’t. History doesn’t repeat itself, but we can learn from it about our present situation. As Snyder told Süddeutsche Zeitung in an interview last year, “The main advantage that we have is that we can learn from the 1930s. Again, it’s very important to stress that history does not repeat. But it does offer us examples and patterns, and thereby enlarges our imaginations and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance.”

These days I’ve also been drawn to early American history; as a native Philadelphian I was used to being reminded of the history of the United States, and the principles upon which it was founded, every time I walked around the city, in which history can be found on every streetcorner: in architecture and buildings, physical reminders of those principles and the people who fought for them. Not too long ago I introduced my daughters, aged nine and eight, to this same history, and of course their ancestral forebears are my own as well.

This is why I hear quite clearly Applebaum and Snyder’s call for resistance to Donald Trump and his administration, a president and administration seemingly dedicated to the destructions of those institutions — the free press, the judiciary, Congress, civic organizations — that are necessary to the rule of law as conceived by the founders of the United States. It’s also why I appear to be giving away so many of their books to my friends and family. In order to change or defend anything, you have to understand why you must change or defend it, and some of the reasons for this can be found in history. So I read Applebaum and Snyder; I supplement them with Richard Hofstadter and Susan Jacoby; I turn again to Havel and Timothy Garton Ash.

For quite some time I found it difficult to read books; I’m as susceptible to the charms of Facebook, iPhones, and the internet as anyone else; they’re bright, shiny things that move and make noise. We’re fascinated by them as children, as well we should be. But there comes a time when we have to grow up.