Building the “Parallel Polis”

Charter 77, the human rights group in the former Czechoslovakia dedicated to recognizing and protesting the lawlessness and abuses of the communist regime, turned 40 last month, and the milestone was marked by a panel discussion in Washington sponsored by the Czech Embassy and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

“The Enduring Significance of Charter 77” featured leading scholars and also Martin Palouš, one of the original 241 signatories of the Charter, who became his country’s ambassador to the United States a decade after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Palouš called the Charter movement “a candle in the middle of the night”—the night having fallen over Czechoslovakia with the thunderous Soviet invasion of 1968. The movement emerged quietly during the dark days of what the communists called “normalization”—the restoration of “really existing socialism” after the 1968 invasion quashed the experiment in liberalization known as the Prague Spring.

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Beer Street, Gin Lane, and Blurred (Moral) Vision

gin lane

We like to consider totalitarianism a thing of the past, at least in Western countries, but its temptations are permanent and its justifications never very far away. Since no man is an island, no human action concerns only the actor himself. John Stuart Mill’s famous principle in On Liberty (1859) that the only good reason to interfere with someone’s freedom is to prevent him from doing harm to others is therefore as effective a barrier against totalitarianism as tissue paper against a tsunami. Potential harm to others can be alleged in practically any human action.

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Guilty Because Charged

Even the most thoroughgoing of penological liberals, I have noticed, has a category of crime – a favourite of sorts, I suppose – that he thinks ought to be severely punished. However much he may deny that punishment is justified, morally or practically, for other crimes, the crime he has selected as being of special heinousness deserves only the most condign punishment. All other crimes may in his opinion merit, and be susceptible only to, explanation and understanding, but this crime must, for moral reasons, be treated with exemplary harshness. At present in Britain the crime selected by penological liberals for…

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Herbert Marcuse’s Revenge

MarcuseHerbert Marcuse, a man who managed somehow to reconcile revolutionary romanticism and opposition to all that exists with the cushy lifestyle of the high-profile academic, once enthused the spoiled brats of the whole Western world with his turgid prose, Teutonic pedantry, vacuous utopian abstractions, and destructive paradoxes. All that endures of his work, I suspect, is a familiar two-word phrase: repressive tolerance.

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Bitten by Socialism

No doubt marketing is an exact science but I doubt that it can fully account for the choices made by people in second hand bookshops. Purchases there depend much on chance and whim; for example, I was in a bookshop in Dublin recently and I found myself irresistibly drawn to a book with a photographic plate of some children, sitting on fences in a wilderness, looking very happy, with the caption ‘Under Socialism the barefooted children ran terrible risks from venemous snakes.’

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Kim Jong-Il in Photographs

Kim Jong-ILNo tourist, I think, ever said ‘If it’s Tuesday, this must be North Korea;’ for whatever else might be said about that country, it is certainly distinctive. Whoever has been there, as I have, is unlikely ever to forget it; indeed he is also likely, from a combination of continued horror and fascination, to buy books about it whenever they appear. Fortunately this is not a great call on anyone’s income.

Recently in Paris I came across a volume entitled (in English, though the book was published in France) Kim Jong Il Looking at Things. It consists of a series of photographs, taken from the official North Korean news agency, of the late Dear Leader on his tours of inspection of his country, examining close-up its agricultural produce and its industrial products. The pictures come with lapidary captions, always in the form of ‘Kim Jong Il looking at x’ or ‘Kim Jong Il looking at y.’

The idea to put these photographs together was that of an art director of a Portuguese advertising company, João Rocha. He put them first on a website that is said in the book, in that inelegant but expressive phrase, to have ‘gone viral.’ It was a clever and original idea, and well worth consecration in book form.

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Finding Liberty among the Despots

Previously I looked at Bertrand de Jouvenel’s theory of political entrepreneurship.  Now I’m going to explore it further by looking at what he says about the relationship between liberty and authority.

In The Pure Theory of Politics, Jouvenel quotes David Hume’s “Of the First Principles of Government” and comments that Hume’s statement below is “perhaps the most important of all political science”:

As FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.  ‘Tis therefore on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and military governments, as all as the most free and popular.  The soldan of Egypt, or the emperor of Rome, might drive his harmless subjects like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: but he must at least have led his mamalukes or praetorian bands like men, by their opinion.

For many lovers of liberty, authority tends to take on a negative connotation; it is seen as something which chafes me and against which my liberty must strain.  But what Hume and Jouvenel recognize is that authority is not mere force and can never be mere force.  The greatest human authority, if it ceases to obtain what Jouvenel calls “response,” goes out like a candle.  What is required for lasting rule, according to Hume and Jouvenel, is not coercion but rather the opinion of right.

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