Sunday, December 18, 2011
I was somewhat surprised to see that Vaclav Havel died. I saw the picture, and, yeah, he looked near death. I guess it was end stage cigarette disease of some sort.
Next month, I am going to try and teach my Comp Gov students about communism and its fall. Communism, as a student put it, is a sign that existing political alternatives have failed. When Communism came to Russia in 1917 and China in 1949, it came because centuries of repression and autocracy had squeezed away any possible democratic transition.
But Communism came to eastern Europe at the point of a bayonet and was maintained by the brute force of a Soviet tank. How it ended is one of the miracles of my time.
Men like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel and Miklos Nemeth put themselves at the head of a movement that spoke for millions. And what seemed permanent and brutal fell in a matter of months, with the only real bloodshed occurring in Romania.
A lot of people are wondering if we sit at a similar moment, with the Arab Spring. The similarities are that what seemed permanent and brutal is collapsing before our eyes.
But it's not bloodless.
And it does not have those prominent figures to stand and say, "Enough." These are curiously leaderless movements, or rather they are fractious with many different voices. If anything, that is the similarity between the Arab Spring and OWS.
The transition from autocracy to democracy in eastern Europe was not easy. The "shock therapy" mode of forcing rapid marketization was very, very painful - and in some places remains painful. But the eastern Europeans were aided by a few charismatic figures who focused the public interest. The Arab Spring has no one, at least not yet. If they fail, it will be because they fall into factional disputes before they can institutionalize democracy.
Here in America, we see massive dysfunction in our governmental structures, but we also have over 200 years of tradition and institutional inertia that insures that any change that comes will not be radical or traumatic (or even, perhaps, effective). We can live with dysfunction, even as we decry it.
But Czechoslovakia benefitted from having a man like Vaclev Havel. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are not yet so lucky.
Rest in peace, Mr. Havel.