November 14, 2005


Europe's Time Bomb: The French riots should be a wake-up call for all Europe. What's long been considered 'normal' is no longer socially or politically sustainable. (Christopher Dickey, 11/21/05, Newsweek International)

The shock of the conflagrations has raised questions not only about France but about the shaky status quo in cities throughout Europe. If most were spared for the moment (there were only minor incidents in Berlin, Brussels and Athens), few governments could rest easy. In Italy, opposition leader Romano Prodi told reporters, "We have the worst suburbs in Europe. I don't think things are so different from Paris. It's only a matter of time." Similar refrains were echoed by social workers in Spain and Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany.

The core of the time bomb is demography, and the detonator is racism. The native populations of Europe—let's say it, the white populations—are reproducing slowly and aging fast. Without continued immigration, according to the European Union and United Nations statistics, by 2050 the number of Germans will have shrunk from 83 million to 63 million, Italians will go from 57 million to 44 million. In the same period, among the North African and Middle Eastern countries surrounding Europe, the population will double. [...]

Europe's demographic deficit demands them: for Spain alone to keep its economy growing at the robust rate it has seen for the past decade, it has to have 1 million new immigrant workers per year.

There's only one way out and no sign they'll take it, Forgetting We Are Not God (Vaclav Havel, a slightly revised version of a speech given at Stanford University on September 29, 1994)
[D]emocracy in its present Western form arouses skepticism and mistrust in many parts of the world.

I admit that I, too, am not entirely satisfied with this recipe for saving the world, at least not in the form offered today. Not because it is bad, or because I would give preference to other values. It does not satisfy me because it is hopelessly half-baked. In fact, it is really only half a recipe. I am convinced that if this were not the case, it would not evoke the great mistrust that it does.

The reason for this mistrust does not, I think, lie in some kind of fundamental opposition in most of the world to democracy as such and to the values it has made possible. It lies in something else: the limited ability of today's democratic world to step beyond its own shadow, or rather the limits of its own present spiritual and intellectual condition and direction, and thus its limited ability to address humanity in a genuinely universal way. As a consequence, democracy is seen less and less as an open system best able to respond to people's basic needs, that is, as a set of possibilities that continually must be sought, redefined, and brought into being. Instead, democracy is seen as something given, finished, and complete as is, something that the more enlightened purchase and the less enlightened do not.

In other words, it seems to me that the mistake lies not only in the backward receivers of exported democratic values, but in the present form or understanding of those values, in the climate of the civilization with which they are directly connected, or seem to be connected in the eyes of a large part of the world. And that means, of course, that the mistake also lies in the way those values are exported, which often betrays an attitude of superiority and contempt for all those who hesitate automatically to accept the offered goods.

What then is that other, missing side of the democratic solution? What is lacking in the only meaningful way of dealing with future conflicts between cultures? Wherein lies that forgotten dimension of democracy that could give it universal resonance?

I am convinced that it lies in what I have already tried to suggest-in that spiritual dimension that connects all cultures and in fact all humanity. If democracy is not only to survive but to expand and resolve those conflicts of cultures, then in my opinion it must rediscover and renew its own transcendental origins. It must renew its respect for that nonmaterial order which is not only above us but also in us and among us, and which is the only possible and reliable source of man's respect for himself, for others, for the order of nature, for the order of humanity, and thus for secular authority as well.

The loss of this respect always leads to loss of respect for everything else-from the laws people have made for themselves, to the lives of their neighbors and of our living planet. The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences-the very things Western democracy is most criticized for-do not originate in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect. It is because of this loss that democracy is losing much of its credibility.

The separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, the universal right to vote, the rule of law, freedom of expression, the inviolability of private ownership, and all the other aspects of democracy as a system that ought to be the least unjust and the least capable of violence-these are merely technical instruments that enable man to live in dignity, freedom, and responsibility. But in and of themselves, they cannot guarantee human dignity, freedom, and responsibility. The source of these basic human potentialities lies elsewhere: in man's relationship to that which transcends him. I think the fathers of American democracy knew this very well.

Were I to compare democracy to life-giving radiation, I would say that while from the political point of view it is the only hope for humanity, it can only have a beneficial impact on us if it resonates with our deepest inner nature. And if part of that nature is the experience of transcendence in the broadest sense of the word, that is, the respect of man for that which transcends him, without which he would not be and of which he is an integral part, then democracy must be imbued with the spirit of that respect if it is to have a chance of success.

In other words, if democracy is to spread successfully throughout the world and if civic coexistence and peace are to spread with it, then this must happen as part of an endeavor to find a new and genuinely universal articulation of that global human experience which even we, Western intellectuals, are once more beginning to recollect, one that connects us with the mythologies and religions of all cultures and opens for us a way to understand their values. It must expand simply as an environment in which we may all engage in a common quest for the general good.

That of course presupposes that first, our own democracies will once more become places for quest and creation, for creative dialogue, for realizing the common will, and for responsibility, and that they will cease to be mere battlegrounds of particular interests. Planetary democracy does not yet exist, but our global civilization is already preparing a place for it: It is the very Earth we inhabit, linked with Heaven above us. Only in this setting can the mutuality and the commonality of the human race be newly created, with reverence and gratitude for that which transcends each of us singly and all of us together. The authority of a world democratic order simply cannot be built on anything other than the revitalized authority of the universe.

The effective expansion of democracy therefore presupposes a critical self-examination, a process that will lead to its internalization. More than that, this seems to be the key to saving today's global civilization as a whole, not only from the danger of a conflict of cultures but from the many other dangers that threaten it.

Obviously, this is easy to say but hard to bring about. Unlike many ideological utopians, fanatics, and dogmatists, and a thousand more or less suspect prophets and messiahs who wander about this world as a sad symptom of its helplessness, I do not possess any special recipe to awaken the mind of man to his responsibility to the world and for the world.

Two things, however, appear to me to be certain.

First, this internalization of democracy today can scarcely take the form of some new doctrine, that is, a collection of dogmas and rituals. Such a thing would probably have exactly the opposite effect: To all the mutually distrustful cultural currents there would only be added others, ones that would be very artificial because they would not have grown out of the nourishing soil of mythmaking eras. If a renaissance of spirituality does occur, it will far more likely be a multileveled and multicultural reflection, with a new political ethos, spirit, or style, and will ultimately give rise to a new civic behavior.

And second: Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 14, 2005 3:19 PM

They are going down with their gods.

Posted by: Luciferous at November 14, 2005 4:32 PM

Havel will be one of the mythological heroes of our era. They will speak of him on Mars.

Posted by: Genecis at November 14, 2005 5:26 PM

Mr. Von Drehle's article is particularly interesting. If the MSM and the Left are forced to put modern-day Europe into their 'bad white people oppressing virtous brown people' template of looking at the world, how will they be able to continue their decades-long love affair with everything European?

Posted by: Patrick Phillips at November 14, 2005 5:37 PM

Wanting to become God is the world's oldest sin, and we pay for it every time.

Posted by: Gideon at November 14, 2005 5:45 PM

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Plus Peter Pan.

What a croc.

Posted by: ghostcat at November 14, 2005 6:03 PM

ghostcat. Thank you.

I tried reading the whole thing, but it's too tedious. Why go on and on paragraph after paragraph dancing around the subject. Why not just come out with it.

Democracy doesn't work because it isn't Socialism. There see how simple.

Posted by: erp at November 14, 2005 6:22 PM

The messianic impulse is a constant throughout history, driven by the familiar vanity of those who feel enlightened in an ignorant world. It alights on various causes; Christianity, colonialism, Marxism, democracy, and then proceeds to wreak global havoc as its evangelicals attempt to distort human nature into the contours of whatever design they have become zealots of. Perhaps if we could simply recognize the impulse as the mass intoxicant that it is and apply a little humility, we can then begin to practice the necessary patience, allowing the less advanced societies of the world to make their way on their own in peace, sparing ourselves as well. This missionary impulse threatens to destroy our nation, and with no little irony, thereby thwart the cause of democracy.

Posted by: Dennis at November 14, 2005 7:16 PM


Messianism is necessary to a society precisely so that it doesn't try to distort human nature.

Posted by: oj at November 14, 2005 8:32 PM

Dennis -- too bad that it took a guy like John Calvin to make our society into an "advanced" democratic and capitalist society, spread throughout the world by missionaries like John Knox and the Puritans.

Damn evangelicals.

Posted by: Randall Voth at November 14, 2005 9:49 PM

OJ, Randall: chastened, I concede your points. I still think we will find that rather than transforming Iraq (or any other MidEast state) into a democracy, Iraq will transform the democracy offered into theocracy or the same stongman rule it has produced throughout its history. We see what democracy in Iran has yielded thus far; Africa pretends to practice democracy while resorting to the strongman rule which has been a cultural cornerstone there for years (only now the despots are armed with greater weaponry and Western cash); advanced Asian countries, having their own formidable civic institutions to begin with, have taken from Western democratic capitalism that which suits them and practice a nominal sort of democracy if at all (with the possible exception of Japan). I don't mean to suggest that colonialism was an evil. I think it swept across the globe and did tremendous good in a very messy process that eventually exhausted its greatest champion, Britain. The world needs time to digest. Certain realities about the durability of culture are ignored at our peril, that's all I'm saying.

Posted by: Dennis at November 14, 2005 10:26 PM

Dennis - Iraq has already been transformed. How long did it take for America to become what it is today? Europe?

Christianity (the home-grown kind) will transform China -- today, there are more Christians than Communists in China -- and all because people like Jonathan Edwards felt the call. Africa is sending missionaries to Britain, for goodness sake.

Strongmen die. The Gospel never will.

Posted by: Randall Voth at November 15, 2005 3:33 AM

Yes, Iran is the worst case scenario and it is both a form of representative democracy now and evolving into a normal liberal one.

Posted by: oj at November 15, 2005 8:04 AM


When you write of Asia, are you thinking of South Korea and Taiwan? As I read the trends there since WWII, the overall drift is toward liberal democracy, not away from it.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at November 15, 2005 1:21 PM

I return to find my argument, so full of naive bluster when I sent him out, bloodied and cowering in the fetal postition on the ground. Annoying Old Guy (how true) points out my glaring omission of South Korea as an example of democracy making progress in Asia and I have to concede not only that but also that it stands as an example of where a violent protracted war did in fact turn back one ideology and install a democracy, which was originally that in name only yet now after making steady and sometimes bumpy progress since, is blossoming into a vibrant, authentic democracy, and perhaps most importantly, it's difficult to imagine them turning back. The cat's out of the bag. Coupled with the stark example of Stalinist atheism to the north, it's somewhat easier for me to understand how the promotion of democracy can take on messianic qualities. As for Iran, let's not forget that the promise of a reformist electoral victory in 2000 was later refuted with the fundamentalist backlash of 2005. I do think Iran will make that journey to enlightenment as well, maybe soon enough to see it in my lifetime, but I base that as much on my impression of Iran as having an intelligent, industrious population that the mullahs won't be able to hold in check forever. Still, Havel's insight into the spiritual failings of democracy doesn't lead me to the conclusion that the answer is to load it with religious zeal; or attempt to make it into something it isn't. Democracy is limited. That it leaves the spiritual sphere to the devices of its citizens is one of its strengths, and to attempt to make it something that it isn't threatens it. That's just good old fashioned conservative skepticism. A reactionary impulse is always laying in wait, should we stretch our beloved democratic ideals too far. Now I'll bundle up my shivering, weeping original argument and go away.

Posted by: Dennis at November 15, 2005 7:04 PM


If liberal democracy can provide a life that most find satisfactory but that dooms most states to oblivion in a rather short time, that is not a strength from anyone's perspective except ours.

Posted by: oj at November 15, 2005 7:30 PM