Belmont Club

The Last of the Old

Michael Gerson writes that Havel’s passing reminds us that we are losing the giants:

As the heroes of the Cold War walk off into the mist — Ronald Reagan, then John Paul II, now Vaclav Havel — each departure makes that world more distant and foreign.


Make way for a different breed — the self-acknowledged bystanders, the perpetually surprised:

Kim Jong-il, the enigmatic North Korean leader, died on a train at 8:30 a.m. Saturday in his country. Forty-eight hours later, officials in South Korea still did not know anything about it — to say nothing of Washington, where the State Department acknowledged “press reporting” of Mr. Kim’s death well after North Korean state media had already announced it.


On Monday, the Obama administration held urgent consultations with allies but said little publicly about Mr. Kim’s death. Senior officials acknowledged they were largely bystanders, watching the drama unfold in the North and hoping that it does not lead to acts of aggression against South Korea.

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.


Today the dominant mantra is one of “leading from behind,” advancing cautiously behind a screen of multilateral action and international allies. It springs from a fear by a more “enlightened leadership” of any idea they can call their own. Any worthy policy must be a reflected slogan from the Arab street or condemned as triumphalistic, racist, or ethnocentric.  They are alienated from their roots; indoctrinated in the supreme virtue of not knowing what they want. So they react, react, and react:

The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il finds the United States with little knowledge of and virtually no leverage over what is to come in a country whose nuclear arsenal and belligerent foreign policy have long made it a leading threat to the West.

In a year when dictators elsewhere have fallen like dominoes and the Obama administration has pressured strongmen still standing in places such as Iran and Syria, North Korea remains opaque and as unyielding as ever to outside influence.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon each contacted their South Korean counterparts on Monday to “synchronize watches” and reaffirm U.S. support, a senior administration official said.

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.


With characteristic predictability, the diplomats are now hoping for an “opening” with North Korea: “European countries spoke of the opportunity for change.” But as ever, they are waiting on events and may content themselves to offer gifts (confidence-building measures) in the meantime: “Many experts believe the Kim dynasty would collapse without support from its main ally China. There was initially a yawning four-hour silence from Beijing before it praised Kim Jong-il.” And that opening might indeed ensue. But if it does, it will be by the grace of good fortune or China. Today’s leaders would never dare hope it was on their account.

Now we see that the men of Havel’s generation are well and truly gone. Gone are Reagan, John Paul, Thatcher, and Havel. In their stead stand Barack Obama and Herman van Rompuy. What has vanished along with the greats?

In the aftermath of the Great War, John Buchan, who had served in a senior intelligence position, was similarly oppressed by the feeling that apparent victory had disarmed the allies into a kind of “de-civilization.” It was as if every aspiration had been consumed in the cauldron of the Great War. What was left was a determination never to strive again. He wrote that it was the triumph not of “barbarism, which is civilization submerged or not yet born, but de-civilization, which is civilization gone rotten.”

Civilization gone rotten.

The heirs of victory had confused its fruits with its causes. To them the law by which they ruled was not the outcome, but the cause of their power. The finding of such a stupendous, unearned inheritance was a dangerous drug, because it made freedom seem a thing found, a birthright obtained without effort. It is a corroding belief. Though Buchan wrote between the Wars, he might have been describing the globalized world of today, which can think back no further than last year’s Oscars, when he described how it has forgotten the stones upon which it was truly built. It is the world of “perpetual holiday” — a phrase which the current president may have adopted quite literally. Buchan wrote:


New inventions and a perfecting of transport had caused the whole earth to huddle together. There was no corner of the globe left unexplored and unexploited, no geographical mysteries to fire the imagination. Broad highways crowded with automobiles threaded the remotest lands, and overhead great air-liners carried week-end tourists to the wilds of Africa and Asia. Everywhere there were guesthouses and luxury hotels and wayside camps and filling-stations. What once were the savage tribes of Equatoria and Polynesia were now in reserves as an attraction for trippers, who bought from them curios and holiday mementoes. The globe, too, was full of pleasure-cities where people could escape the rigour of their own climate and enjoy perpetual holiday.

In such a world everyone would have leisure. But everyone would be restless, for there would be no spiritual discipline in life. … Everybody would be comfortable, but since there would be no great demand for intellectual exertion everybody would be also slightly idiotic. Their shallow minds would be easily bored, and therefore unstable. Their life would be largely a quest for amusement. The raffish existence led to-day by certain groups would have become the normal existence of large sections of society. It would be a feverish, bustling world, self-satisfied and yet malcontent, and under the mask of riotous life there would be death at the heart. Men would go anywhere and live nowhere; know everything and understand nothing. In the perpetual hurry of life there would be no chance of quiet for the soul. … In such a bagman’s paradise, where life would be rationalised and padded with every material comfort, there would be little satisfaction for the immortal part of man. It would be a new Vanity Fair with Mr. Talkative as the chief figure on the town council. The essence of civilization lies in man’s defiance of an impersonal universe. It makes no difference that a mechanical universe may be his own creation if he allows his handiwork to enslave him.


Today all we have left is the new “Vanity Fair with Mr. Talkative as the chief figure on the town council.” Chomsky is as happy as a child who thinks the world owes him a living can be happy; grand in his conceit, invincible in his ignorance; incorrigible in his malice. Reality will cure that, but too bad it has to be that way.

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