I go over to S’s house once a week to help her with English composition. It’s a gig left over from a more intensive bout of tutoring I was doing last year: S is my only student now, a fifth grader, full of energy, with the confidence of a child who is deeply loved, deeply cared for.
Her father owns a little grocery, like a bodega but not quite, in a neighborhood in Queens, New York where half of the shop signs are in Polish, and there is a Romanian Orthodox church just up the block. The family lives in the same building as the grocery, and her parents send her to piano lessons and ballet lessons, and hire an English tutor because their own English is not perfect. Going there, I always feel like I’m traveling in time, to my own great-grandparents’ immigrant experience; I feel like in that neighborhood, that slice of Mitteleuropa in southern Queens, it’s always 1910.
This illusion is only sustained by S’s and my work together. Her English teacher at school is very traditional, from what I can tell; has them using the Zaner-Bloser books that Susan Wise Bauer recommends in The Well-Trained Mind. The test I was helping prepare her for (I mean, “for which I was helping her to prepare”) this past weekend was on sentence structure; the teacher came very close to wanting them to be able to diagram sentences. I thoroughly approve, even though it meant that I needed to do some emergency studying of my own. S is a brilliant little girl, and I love watching her figure out exactly how it is that you translate thoughts into words on a page; I love it when she chooses the right conjunction when she’s trying to join two sentences into one. When she selects “however” rather than “and,” she shows that she understands the relationship between the two ideas she’s joining.
But this past weekend a mystery was nagging at me. I had, a couple of weeks ago, while instant messaging with my friend Kristen, carelessly described S as “Yugoslavian.” “No one who is small enough for you to tutor them could possibly be Yugoslavian,” she wrote back.
“That’s what her MOM told me!” I said defensively. What her mother had actually said was that they, S’s parents, had come “from Yugoslavia” before S was born. Maybe, I speculated, they’d come when it still was Yugoslavia, although my impression was that they’d arrived more recently than 1991. But Kristen saw a deeper mystery. Why, she wanted to know, would anyone from that part of the world want to describe their country of origin as Yugoslavia? Wouldn’t they say Slovenia, or Croatia; wouldn’t they want to forget that part of the region’s history, with an artificially imposed unity and a dictator who had been a Soviet partisan, and who, even after his falling-out with the USSR, took a number of leaves from their manual of statecraft?
So this weekend I sidled into the mystery, and asked S’s mom where in Yugoslavia they were from. She was Montenegran, she said; her husband is Serbian. (That was one mystery solved: I realize now that they must have come over when the union between those two was still, as it was until 2003, a much-reduced entity called Yugoslavia.) But, she said, Serbian, Croatian, Montenegran, Slovenian—it shouldn’t make a difference. The way things are now doesn’t make sense. The language thing, for instance: it’s all just separate dialects of one language, (“except for Macedonian,” she allowed) only now you have to pretend that there are separate languages called Serbian and Montenegran.
I’m trying to remember exactly what she said next—it was a commonplace, “I don’t like violence,” something like that. But there was an unusual intensity behind the words. The television was on faintly in the background; S was sitting on the couch not really watching it, finishing her dinner as her mother and I talked. I think her mother made some kind of gesture towards the TV as she continued: “—don’t even like to see it on the news. We came here when, you know, when everything was going on, to get away… Things were better when we had Tito.” He had kept the peace, at least, she said.
With my instinctive love of small nationalities, and my reasoned dislike of Communist dictators, it was not a position I would have been willing to consider. Except that she was feeding me green tea, and later on her husband (subj.) brought S. and me (ind. obj.) out a plate of little nut and jam filled things (dir. obj.), which were delicious, although it is difficult for a fifth grader to discuss the distinction between the direct object and the indirect object with a mouthful of pastry. (It is difficult for a tutor to do this, as well).
The pastries and the conversation were not enough to make me a Tito partisan. Although he broke with the USSR and although his score of, for example, priests put to death and students imprisoned is not as high as those of other Communist dictators, this does not make him a leader to admire. The Times obit noted that “[u]nlike others who rose to power on the communist wave after World War II, Tito did not long demand that his people suffer for a distant vision of a better life.” In other words, he tortured them with utopia less enthusiastically than others of his ilk. This obit captures the “well, he’s not Stalin” flavor of most assessments of the man.
What my conversation with S’s mom did do, however, was to make me realize once again how much of a fragile blessing civil peace is. Tito was wicked—not as bad as Stalin, but bad. What makes him seem better is what came after. The Balkan Wars—in S’s mom’s life, in historical assessments—are, I think, a kind of distorting lens. And maybe that’s one of the things that war does: it distorts the memory of peace.
It’s not only war that does this, though: Wednesday’s New York Times carried an article about the nomination of Gennadi Zyuganov as the Russian Communist Party’s candidate for the 2012 presidential elections. The reporter described the party’s platform as “largely built on nostalgia,” but the quotes from supporters in their twenties and thirties tell a slightly different story. A 34-year-old teacher, Aleksandr Golikov, said that while “many mistakes were made during the Soviet period which had to be corrected,” nevertheless “that did not mean that the great country had to be destroyed…There is no other country where the natural resources belong to a handful of oligarchs.” This kind of reaction is what people like Leonid Dobrokhotov are counting on. Dobrokhatov, an adviser to Zyuganov, hopes that as peoples’ dissatisfaction with the Tsarist regime opened a way for the communists in 1917, dissatisfaction with Putin’s oligarchy would lead people to look with greater favor at the Soviet past. The oligarchy of the present is, here, the distorting lens that reshapes the tyrrany of the past into something more attractive.
It’s difficult to get a sense of just how attractive that tyrrany is. The Communist party has placed second in every presidential election since its relegalization, but it does not seem to be gathering huge crowds at rallies. The coalition anti-Putin movement of which the Communist party is a part, however, contains other rhetoric with a definite revolutionary flavor: Aleksei Navalny, the dissident blogger recently released after a 15-day prison term,
“What will happen [in the upcoming elections], if it will happen, will be an illegal succession to the throne,” said Navalny, according to another Times article. He called for a “seizure of the Bastille scenario: what becomes attractive, when compared to a present plutocracy, is not just tyranny, but terror.
After the tutoring session I went a couple of doors down to one of the Polish delis on the street—I was too self-conscious, somehow, to go into S’s father’s grocery and spend some of the money that he had just paid me—and bought a bag of iced gingerbread stars: slightly stale, delicious, with the nutritional information on the label in Polish. I brought them to a friend’s Christmas party, where there was caroling and real eggnog and mulled cider and good conversation. The carols included a rousing rendition of “Rudolphus Naso Rubro,” because the host is an erstwhile classicist who thinks these things are good ideas. We also, though, sang “Good King Wenceslas,” with its picture of what leadership is: the page is discouraged and frightened, he’s about to pack it in, and the king tells him to walk behind, so that the king’s body will shield the page’s from the worst of the wind, and so that the king’s footsteps will make an easier path.
Wenceslas was a duke in Medieval Bohemia, promoted posthumously to King, murdered (probably) by his brother in the middle of the 9th century. His life is not incredibly well-attested, but the carol’s not made up out of whole cloth, either: tales of his generosity were common fare, and the chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in 1119, tells his readers that “his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for… rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”
It was the next day, of course, that we all heard that Vaclav Havel had died. When his parents named him after the patron saint of the Czech state whose name in Latin is Wenceslas, did they imagine that he would end up as the kind of leader who would spend decades trying to shelter his people from the blasts of both Communist totalitarianism and the unrestrained market? There is a legend in Prague that when Bohemia is in a time of great danger, the equestrian statue of the King in Wenceslas Square will come to life and ride to raise an army sleeping under a nearby mountain, leading them to save the land. Did Havel think about that legend when, in 1989, he presided over the demonstrations in the Square?
Those who now, in Russia, want to look to Communism as a way out of their plutocracy would do well to listen to Havel’s words from his 1990 New Year’s address to the nation which had just elected him: as a result of decades of Communist rule, he said, “We have become morally ill because we have become accustomed to saying one thing and doing another. We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about one another and only to look after ourselves. Notions such as love, friendship, compassion, humility and forgiveness have lost their depth and dimension.” Attention to such testimonies as Havel’s will not permit us to yearn after Communism, either in its Balkan or in its Russian forms.
But those in the libertarian-triumphalist branch of the conservative movement who might now, in the wake of his death, hope to see in Havel an anticommunist of their kind, a spouter of individualist rhetoric, glorying in the wisdom of the market, will be disappointed. In his book Summer Meditations, written in the middle of 1991, just after his election to a second two-year term as President of a country that would not for very much longer be called Czechoslovakia, he reflects on the social changes he had watched play out since the Velvet Revolution two years earlier. “The return of freedom to a society that was morally unhinged,” he writes, “has produced … an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice. A wide range of…human tendencies … have suddenly been liberated, as it were, from their straitjacket and given freedom at last… [A] new order that would limit rather than exploit these vices, an order based on freely accepted responsibility to and for the whole of society, has not yet been built.” The free market does not, he has seen, automatically produce free men, as much as the libertarians of his time and ours would like it to do so. He saw in the new order which had swept in to take the place of Communism a danger on parallel with Communism itself. “Many a once-feared Communist,” he wrote, “is now an unscrupulous capitalist, shamelessly and unequivocally laughing in the face of the same worker whose interests he once allegedly defended.”
Impeccable anti-Communist credentials still pack a lot of punch at the National Review, but they will find him an uncomfortable patron. He knew even in 1991 that many would find him an insufficiently pure free-market capitalist, because of his insistence on the validity of equity and distributive justice as well as legal equality and procedural justice. “Perhaps,” he wrote,
we can all agree that we want a state based on the rule of law, one that is democratic … peaceful, and with a prospering market economy. Some insist that this state should also be socially just. Others sense in that phrase a hangover from socialism and argue against it. They object to the notion of ‘social justice’ as vague, claiming that it can mean anything at all, and that a functioning market economy can never guarantee any genuine social justice. They point out that people have, and always will have, different degrees of industriousness, talent, and last but not least, luck. Obviously, social justice in the sense of social equality is something the market system cannot, by its very nature, deliver. Moreover, to compel the marketplace to do so would be deeply immoral … I do not see, however, why a democratic state, armed with a legislature and the power to draw up a budget, cannot strive for a certain fairness in, for example, pension policies or tax policies, or support for the unemployed … or assistance to the elderly living alone … or those who, for various reasons, find themselves at the bottom of society.
He believed that the state had a role in sponsoring the arts and in the upkeep of cultural institutions and even of church buildings. These are not ideas that have great resonance among free marketeers of any era: members of the Ludwig von Mises institute would certainly call him a statist, if not worse.
He believed that politics was natural to humans—an expression and fulfillment of their natures, not, as modern libertarians would have it, essentially a distortion of them. He believed that the state, even a centralized state, could be an instrument of good—although to do so it must promote, rather than subvert, loyalty to what he pictured as the smaller concentric circles of what humans experience as their home: their national or ethnic identity, their city, their family. “Genuine politics,” he wrote,
—politics worthy of the name, and the only politics I am willing to devote myself to—is simply a matter of serving those around us, serving the community, and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility, expressed through action, to and for the whole, a responsibility … [with] a metaphysical grounding … a certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is being recorded and evaluated somewhere else … [by that which] believers call God and to whose judgment everything is subject.
Most of those reading this do not live in a world where the kind of violence that S’s family experienced during the Balkan Wars creates nostalgic appeal for an authoritarian like Tito. But we do live in something like a plutocracy—a chronic plutocracy, if not one as acute as that which now exists in Russia, or into which Havel saw his country sliding after the end of the Soviet regime.
One attractive way out of the plutocracy, one response to the loneliness created by living in poverty in a world that seems made for the rich, is to do what the supporters of Zyuganov are doing and look to destructive fantasies of utopia. The other way, though, is to find and follow leaders such as Havel, under whose leadership the post-Communist Czech Republic did not disintegrate, as Russia disintegrated, into a kind of Lord of the Flies scenario. In Prague, freer markets were not—or at least not to the same degree—experienced as jungles full of neo-tsarist capitalists ready to pounce. Although Havel was not able to hold together the federation of Czechoslovakia, as he had hoped to do, he did what he could towards mitigating the crassness and greed which threatened to smother the nascent Czech public sphere in its cradle. He did what he could to promote a genuine and non-coerced solidarity among the citizens of the Czech Republic. This was a word with resonance for him, and one that was not in the least vague, but as pointed as a spear: “In the part of the world which I inhabit,” he said in his 1989 speech to the German Booksellers’ Association, “the word ‘Solidarity’ was capable of shaking an entire power bloc.”
In various of his writings he gives hints about the necessary source of such social solidarity, as well as the necessary origin of all good political leadership. “The Declaration of Independence,” said Havel in a 4th of July speech at Independence Hall in 1994, “states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”
His relationship with that One was—to the observer only beginning an exploration of Havel, although not presumably at this point to either of the principals—ambiguous. He studied the Bible, admitted to an “affinity for the Christian sentiment,” but was cagey, or Kantian, or both, in his religious expression. We are told, however, that he spent his last moments of life in the company of his wife and a Roman Catholic nun; in his German Booksellers’ Association speech he located the source of all ethical action (and thus, for him, all political action) in “that realm wherein dwells the Word that was in the beginning and is not the word of man.”
As, this year, I celebrate the birth of Christ, I want to remember to thank Him for good leaders, and to remember that it’s in His kingdom that we will find our perfect polity, that it’s in Him that we’ll find a ruler whose love for his people doesn’t fail, whose justice and wisdom are complete, whose mercy can’t be bought because it’s freely given.
There are two ideas in the sentence I just wrote, and I find that I am in difficulty about which conjunction to use, because I’m not sure how they are connected. Do I thank God for good leaders although only He is a perfect leader? Or do I thank God for good leaders because he is a perfect leader, and in his love for us gives us, when the time is right, leaders who, while they are imperfect, can nevertheless embody something of the qualities of godly rule? Whichever conjunction is correct, I want, as I celebrate, to remember what it means that, finally, it’s only through His reign that we’ll be able to see history without the distorting lens of war and present injustice, greed and partisanship and self-justification and fear. May it be soon, and may we, leaders and followers alike, be ready.