Ed Driscoll

Tyranny and Indifference

Richard Fernandez on the recently deceased Vaclev Havel:

What Havel had — and which seems to have been forgotten — was the self-possession that comes with an abiding faith in individual man. He did not live in a position of moral inferiority vis-a-vis the bullies of the world. Not Kim Jong Il; not the Soviet Union itself:

In the company of John Paul II and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Havel believed that political renewal starts in moral and personal renewal. In one letter from prison he wrote, “But who should begin? Who should break this vicious circle? The only possible place to begin is with myself. … Whether all is really lost or not depends entirely on whether or not I am lost.”

And Havel was not lost; he was not, as so many are today, scornful of right and wrong. At a time when the Soviet Union was regarded as a permanent reality by public policy analysts; when the Berlin Wall was seen as a fixture as immutable as the Himalayas; when the Cold War was going to be forever — Havel knew it was not so because these things were wrong. The shock of the Soviets at seeing their empire crumble was as nothing to the shock of the pundits who believed in it even more than the Politburo.

In contrast, as Richard notes, today’s “lead from behind” bureaucrats with their Chamberlain-esque umbrellas and David Brooks-approved striped trousers are effectively blind to the world around them:

The men of the hour synchronize their exquisitely accurate watches without having learned to tell the time. They scrutinize the compass, while declaring that East and West are all the same to them.

Is it 3:00 a.m. yet? And if the phone rings what should be said? Since Noam Chomsky once likened Havel’s aspirations to an “embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon,” one would guess the answer is “anything.” To open the door but never to step through it; to notice the modern Berlin Wall but never to challenge it; to observe the fact of the slavery and never once mention it since that would be judgmental — that is the hallmark of today’s post-Sunday School Man.

That’s a topic that Bret Stephens discusses in the Wall Street Journal, in an essay titled “Tyranny and Indifference:”

What does it take to “tell the truth,” as Havel saw it? In his case, a great deal of courage, including a willingness to spend years of his life in prison or working the menial jobs to which the regime sentenced him. The real mystery is why, in free societies where few journalists and politicians are ever at serious risk of reprisal, truth-telling seems to be in relatively short supply. North Korea is a vast modern-day Auschwitz. Yet when George W. Bush named Pyongyang to the Axis of Evil, it was Mr. Bush who was roundly mocked. Note the balance of contempt in the New York Times’ write-up of Kim’s death from Sunday night:

“President George W. Bush called [Kim] a ‘pygmy.’ . . . Yet those who met him were surprised by his serious demeanor and his knowledge of events beyond the hermit kingdom he controlled.” O, misunderstood Dear Leader, if only we had known you better.

It says something about the force of Havel’s personality and ideas that his life did, in the end, have a fairy-tale ending. That is a triumph for the West. It is a triumph for the West, too, that for all the opposition to the Iraq War, a noose was put around Saddam’s neck.

But it also says something that Kim died in his proverbial bed, thanks in part to global acquiescence in, and considerable tangible support for, his rule. That’s a testament to what our indifference continues to achieve for tyranny, and a poor way of honoring the memory of Václav Havel.

You can see that at work in the video we linked to yesterday from CNN, featuring breathless “reporter” Alina Cho, who sounds nearly as orgasmic about Kim Jong Il as his official North Korean newsreaders. CNN’s Anderson Cooper has been scoring cheap emotional points this fall focusing on “bullying in America,” yet when confronted with real tyranny, CNN as long been eager to cheer the (literally) goose-stepping troops along, and praise their leaders, whether it’s Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, “the Hezbollah giants,” or Kim Jong Il and his son. Similarly, the New York Times has expressed their own love of Big Brother since the days of Walter Duranty in the 1930s.

We all had fun at first, when Kim Jong Il’s permanent vacation in Hell was announced on Sunday night, linking to images from Team America: World Police, and videos that highlighted just how silly North Korea’s old-fashioned totalitarian regime looks. In his mid-1960s book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan pointed out how television has that effect on blowhards and totalitarians:

It was no accident that Senator McCarthy lasted such a very short time when he switched to TV. Soon the press decided, “He isn’t news any more.” Neither McCarthy nor the press ever knew what had happened. TV is a cool medium. It rejects hot figures and hot issues and people from the hot press media. Fred Allen was a casualty of TV. Was Marilyn Monroe? Had TV occurred on a large scale during Hitler’s reign he would have vanished quickly. Had TV come first there would have been no Hitler at all. When Khrushchev appeared on American TV he was more acceptable than Nixon, as a clown and a lovable sort of old boy. His appearance is rendered by TV as a comic cartoon. Radio, however, is a hot medium and takes cartoon characters seriously. Mr. K. on radio would be a different proposition.

Certainly Kim Jong Il and his apparatchiks deserve our scorn — and will be lucky to get even that from our current feckless administration. But how much does our mockery and satire add to the west’s indifference to North Korea’s plight?