October 20, 2003

LIBERTY FOR ALL? (via Mike Daley):

The Soul of a Nation (Vaclav Havel, October 12, 2003, Washington Post)

There are many politicians in the free world who favor seemingly pragmatic cooperation with repressive regimes. During the time of communism, some Western politicians preferred to appease the Czechoslovak thugs propped up by Soviet tanks rather than sustain contacts with a bunch of dissidents. These status-quo Western leaders behaved, voluntarily, much like those unfortunate people who were forced to participate in the massive government rallies: They allowed a totalitarian regime to dictate to them whom to meet and what to say. At that time, people such as the French president, Francois Mitterrand, and the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, Max van der Stoel, saved the face of the Western democracies by speaking and acting clearly. By the same token, politicians such as Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Philippine Foreign Secretary Blas Ople redeem the Asian reputation by not hesitating to speak the truth. The regime in Burma is, as a matter of fact, the disgrace of Asia, just as Alexander Lukashenko's regime in Belarus is the disgrace of Europe and Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba of Latin America.

In Burma, thousands of human lives have been destroyed, scores of gifted people have been exiled or incarcerated and deep mistrust has been sown among the various ethnic groups. Human society is, however, a mysterious creature, and it serves no good to trust its public face at any one moment. Thousands of people welcomed Suu Kyi on her tours, proving that the Burmese nation is neither subjugated nor pessimistic and faithless. Hidden beneath the mask of apathy, there is an unsuspected energy and a great human, moral and spiritual charge. Detaining and repressing people cannot change the soul of a nation. It may dampen it and disguise the reality outwardly, but history has repeatedly taught us the lesson that change often arrives unexpectedly.

"To talk about change is not enough, change must happen," said Suu Kyi during a tour among her people. The Burmese do not require education for democracy; they are and have always been ready for it.

This is certainly what we on the Right believed of Eastern Europe all through the Cold War, but the docility, even resentment, of the post-war Iraqis has to shake your faith at least a little, doesn't it? Might people whose faith does not demand freedom in fact tend to become apathetic under tyranny? Or is the desire for freedom, as we'd like to believe, the birthright of all men? On the answer to these questions will turn the decision of whether we can just wait for the end of history to work itself out or whether it will be necessary to forcibly convert sufficiently divergent cultures to our Western faith in liberal values. That's a decision of awesome moment, so we'd do well to get it right.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 20, 2003 6:52 PM

Let's forcibly convert them anyhow, as insurance.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 21, 2003 12:05 AM

Seems like Havel probably has a pretty long list
(figurative or real) that keeps careful track
of who was naughty and who was nice during the
cold war. I imagine his talks could make
the appeasement left squirm (or perhaps they
don't really care).

Posted by: J.H. at October 21, 2003 9:04 AM

" This is certainly what we on the Right believed of Eastern Europe all through the Cold War, but the docility, even resentment, of the post-war Iraqis has to shake your faith at least a little, doesn't it?"

Not really. Those are two completely different situations. The cold war was resolved without forcible occupation of Eastern Europe by Western nations; throughout, the sole "occupier" was the Soviet Union. In Iraq, regardless of our intentions, we are an occupying power. The better contrast would be between Iraq and post-WWII Germany and Japan. It is possible that one could find something insulting to say about Arab culture or the Iraqi people in such a comparison, but it might be instructional in other respects, in terms of the nature of the conflict that preceded occupation, the scope of rebuilding efforts, the sorts of leaders installed afterward, etc. I'm not saying that I have these answers at hand, just that a more serious discussion would be asking these sorts of questions.

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 22, 2003 11:40 AM

Where was Iraq's Solzhenitsyn; its Vaclav Havel, its Pope John Paul?

Posted by: oj at October 22, 2003 11:48 AM

OJ: I'm not sure what you're asking. Are you saying that Iraq lacks public figures with the stature of a Solzhenitsyn or Vaclev Havel, and therefore its society is inferior to those in Russia or Czechoslovakia during the Communist years? That the lack of a (well-publicized) religious authority with the stature and record of humanitarian work of a Pope John Paul (II, I assume) reflects on the relative merit of Islam as a faith? (Never mind, I think I know what you think of Islam as a faith). There might be something to that, but some clarification is in order.

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 22, 2003 12:11 PM

Where is the evidence that the Iraqis--other than the Kurds--burn with the same desire to live in freedom and democracy that we understood the Eastern Europeans to feel during the Cold War? Is Havel right that those values are universal? Or are they a function of culture?

Posted by: oj at October 22, 2003 12:32 PM