Archive for December, 2011
With the death of the playwright, dissident and former president Vaclav Havel on Sunday the Czech Republic has lost its philosopher king and Europe one of the few figures who can comfortably be compared to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela in terms of intellectual clarity, personal bravery and mule-like stubbornness in the face of oppression.
Many people played their part in helping bring down communism and piece together a divided continent. But few did it with the consistency of purpose as Havel, whose 1978 essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of authoritarian regimes across eastern Europe.
In one of the most memorable passages in the essay, Havel ponders why a greengrocer feels compelled to place a “workers of the world unite!” slogan in his shop window among the onions and carrots on display. Not through any sense of conviction, he concludes, but because the shopkeeper wants to declare: “I am obedient and loyal – leave me alone and I’ll leave you.” It is nothing more than political window-dressing in a system where meaningless rituals have replaced meaningful thought.
Having witnessed the devastating effects of fascist and then communist ideology on his native Czechoslovakia, Havel was deeply suspicious of all closed thought systems. “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” he wrote. “It offers human beings the illusion of identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”
Havel accepted that most people would publicly hide behind the facade of ideology and “live within a lie.” But he was also aware from the example set by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union that just one person “living within the truth” would pose an existential threat to the regime and the hollow ideology it was based on. “Every free expression of life indirectly threatens the post-totalitarian world politically, including forms of expression to which, in other social systems, no one would attribute any potential political significance.”
Havel refused to live the lie – and paid the price. After the Prague Spring of 1968 his plays were banned, his appartment was bugged and his name was tarnished. He suffered countless arrests and interrogations and was imprisoned for three years – during which he was hospitalized with pneumonia. But Havel refused to be silenced, continuing to harangue the communist regime in essays, articles and open letters to the president.
In his 1975 ‘Letter to Gustav Husak’ – the then president of Czechoslovakia – Havel compared the outward calm imposed on his country after the crushing of the Prague Spring as “calm as a grave or morgue.” When I visited Prague for the first time in September 1989 the city was still gripped by fear. Troops patrolled the streets and badly disguised secret policemen lurked in hotel lobbies. There was little to suggest that the communist system was on the verge of collapse, although Havel – as he observed in ‘The Power of the Powerless’ – would have recognised the scene as a “world of appearances trying to pass for reality.”
Two months later, the whole hollow edifice came crashing down in the ‘Velvet Revolution’ that Havel played such an instrumental role in fermenting. By the end of the year the chain-smoking writer of absurdist plays was installed as president in Prague castle.
Havel, a man with a shuffling gait and mumbling, monotonous speech, represented a radical break from the ossified politics and personalities of the past. In addition to books and beer – he worked in a brewery for nine months in 1974 – the man who paved the way for the Czech Republic’s entry into the EU and NATO loved rock music.
He founded the Charter 77 movement in protest against the arrest of members of the rock group Plastic People of the Universe. He appointed Frank Zappa as a special ambassador shortly after his election as president. And when the Rolling Stones rolled into Prague in August 1990 he welcomed the group on stage. So when a jean-clad man tapped me on the shoulder and asked for a cigarette at a punk-rock concert in Prague that summer I wasn’t entirely surprised it was Vaclav Havel. “Sorry, Mr President but I don’t smoke” I replied. For once in my life I wished I did.
The euro meltdown would make a great Hollywood blockbuster. It involves big money, features colourful, conflicting characters and evokes an atmosphere of looming menace that fits neatly into the disaster movie genre.
The movie would, of course, be directed by Roland Emmerich – who has previously made films about aliens invading earth (‘Independence Day,’) seas swamping the planet (‘The Day After Tomorrow’) and a global cataclysm that brings an end to the world (‘2012.’)
Hiring a scriptwriter for the film would be easy. Given their recent pronouncements on the fate of the euro, leading EU politicians appear to have a very vivid imagination and are perfectly capable of drafting a scenario where the currency’s collapse would trigger a disaster of apocalyptic proportions.
Former European Commission president Jacques Delors, one of the architects of the euro, has talked about Europe being on the “edge of an abyss,” while French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently warned: “Allowing the destruction of the euro is to risk the destruction of Europe. Those who destroy Europe and the euro will bear responsibility for the resurgence of conflict and division on our continent.”
In the British sitcom ‘Fawlty Towers,’ the hotel manager played by John Cleese famously advises his waitress “Don’t mention the war” when serving German guests. Nowadays, it seems like a reference to Europe’s darkest hour is almost obligatory for politicians warning of the euro’s disintegration.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that Europe is facing its “biggest crisis since World War II” and that that the collapse of the euro would spell the end of the EU. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe cautions: “The dissolution of the eurozone is not acceptable, because it would also be the dissolution of Europe. If that happens, then everything is possible. Young people seem to believe that peace is guaranteed for all time.”
Even journalists are at it. A front-page teaser for a Roger Cohen op-ed in the International Herald Tribune ahead of the crunch euro crisis summit in late October asked: “What’s saving Europe from Hell? The E.U.”
All this apocalyptic talk reminds me of reading ‘Leviathan’ as a student in the late 1980’s. In his classic treatise on power, Thomas Hobbes claimed that without a strong sovereign power man is reduced to a state of nature in which life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Or as indy-rock group ‘The Smiths’ sang at about the same time: “If it’s not love then it’s the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb that will bring us together.”
Nobody doubts the euro is facing a serious, possibly terminal, crisis. But to make a causal link between the end of the euro, the demise of the EU and war on the continent is both an insult to the public’s intelligence and terrible PR for a bloc desperately struggling to calm jittery markets.
There was no fighting between EU members before the euro and there will not be if we return to national currencies. Liberal free market democracies tend not go to war with each other and the ties that bind EU nations together are unlikely to be unravelled if the euro disappears. A customs union, the single market, progressive social and environmental legislation and the right of goods, people, capital and services to move freely across borders existed before the euro and there is no logical reason to suppose they would vanish after it.
A second reason why it is not sensible to indulge in doomsday scenarios is that dire predictions have a habit of becoming reality if they are repeated often enough – and no action is taken to counteract them. In any media training course participants are told on day one not to repeat negatives when answering questions. Use the word ‘collapse’ or ‘calamity’ often enough and the public – and the markets – will start to believe the euro is about to fall apart and that this would spell calamity for Europe.
In the epic disaster film ‘The Towering Inferno,’ firefighters repeatedly fail to put out the blaze until they plump for the ‘big bazooka’ option of detonating a one million gallon water tank at the top of the skyscraper. In contrast, instead of extinguishing the fire threatening to bring down their carefully-constructed edifice, EU leaders are acting more like firemen staring at a burning building and warning passers-by it is about to collapse while they debate what hose to use and how much water to spare.