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By the time communism imploded in 1989, Havel and his comrades had been preparing for the moment for over a decade, through exhaustive debate, peer review, coalition building, and acts of enormous personal courage. It was no accident that Czechoslovakia’s liberation, as compared to the rest of the region, would be among the least violent and most poetic, that it would be called the “Velvet Revolution.” As then president Havel told a startled Lou Reed when he met the Velvet Underground’s former front man in 1990, “Did you know that I am president because of you?” Nine years later, during his last presidential visit to the Bill Clinton White House, Havel made two musical requests: Get Lou Reed to play a set, then bring over the Plastic People. To celebrate the last Soviet troop leaving Czechoslovak soil, the Czech president organized a star-studded concert featuring Paul Simon and Frank Zappa (it was the last live show by Zappa, who would die of prostate cancer). There is a reason why there’s a revolution named after the Velvet Underground, a pariah even in the Free World, and none after Van Cliburn, the classical pianist pushed endlessly on American audiences as the high-cultural equivalent of Russian piano masters. The Velvets represented a do-it-yourself culture, while Cliburn represented a straitjacketed approach to official recognition.
November 1989, with its Velvet Revolution and breaching of the Berlin Wall, was the most liberating month of arguably the most liberating year in human history. As preeminent modern Central European historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a 2008 essay, 1989 “ended communism in Europe, the Soviet empire, the division of Germany, and an ideological and geopolitical struggle . . . that had shaped world politics for half a century. It was, in its geopolitical results, as big as 1945 or 1914. By comparison, ’68 was a molehill.” Without the superpower conflict to animate and arm scores of proxy civil wars and brutal governments around the globe, authoritarians two decades ago quickly gave way to democrats in capitals from Johannesburg to Santiago. Endless war was replaced by enduring peace in Central America. Nations that had never enjoyed self-determination found themselves independent, prosperous, safe, and integrated into the West. More people now live in freedom, peace, and nonpoverty than at any time in human history.
Even these numbers only begin to capture the magnitude of the change. The abject failure of top-down central planning as an economic organizing model had a profound impact even on the few communist governments that survived the 1990s. Vietnam, while maintaining a one-party grip on power, launched radical market reforms in 1990, resulting in some of the world’s highest economic growth in the last two decades. Cuba, economically desperate after the Soviet spigot was cut off, legalized some foreign investment and private commerce. In perhaps the single-most dramatic geopolitical story between 1989 and 2011, the country that most symbolized state repression that year when it rolled tanks at peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square has used a version of capitalism to pull off history’s most successful antipoverty campaign. Although Chinese market reforms began in the late 1970s and were temporarily stalled by the Tiananmen Square massacre, China’s recognition after the collapse of the Soviet Union that private enterprise should trump the state sector has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, giving the Western world vapors about competing with a country where people had only recently starved to death in the tens of millions. While China has far to go in even approximating acceptable standards of political freedom and living, its citizens are unquestionably better off materially than they were a generation ago.
Perhaps the least appreciated benefits of the Cold War’s end were those enjoyed by the side that won. Up until 1989, mainstream Western European political thought included a large and unhealthy appetite for government ownership of the means of production. The original Marshall Plan was an almost desperate attempt to prevent the kind of domestically popular (if externally manipulated) communist takeover that would submerge Czechoslovakia in 1948. Upon taking office in 1981, socialist French president François Mitterand nationalized wide swaths of France’s economy. By the time the Berlin Wall was pulled down at decade’s end, it was the rule, not the exception, that Western European governments would own all their countries’ major airlines, phone companies, television stations, gas companies, and much more.
But this would not hold true for much longer. In the long battle of ideas between Karl Marx and Milton Friedman, even the democratic socialists of Europe had to admit that Friedman had won by a landslide. Although media attention was rightly focused on the dramatic economic changes transforming Asia and the former Eastern Bloc, fully half of the world’s privatization in the first dozen years after the Cold War, as measured by revenue, took place in Western Europe. Since then, European political and monetary integration has opened up the free movement of goods and people across once-militarized borders. London is crawling with Latvians, Paris with the Polish, and international marriages are increasing even faster than living standards in the former Warsaw Pact countries. And two decades of state sell-offs in the West have given even Scandinavians more basic respect for capitalism than their American counterparts. It was no accident that, in the midst of Washington’s recent bailout of U.S. automakers, Swedish enterprise minister Maud Olofsson, when asked about the fate of struggling Saab, tersely announced, “The Swedish state is not prepared to own car factories.”
Charter 77, meanwhile, has proven an inspiration to more than a dozen freedom movements in authoritarian countries the world over. Using the same blueprint of asking oppressive governments to abide by their own laws, the sons of Charter 77, often with the explicit assistance of Havel, have continued to shock consciences, trigger backlashes, and occasionally bring down bad governments. Liu Xiaobo of China’s Charter 08 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 after heavy lobbying from Havel. Over 10,000 Chinese have signed Charter 08’s call: that “freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance.” A similar Varela Project in Cuba has produced vicious crackdowns by the communist government there. Belarus’s Charter 97 was getting hammered by government goons at press time for this book. Nonviolent resistance movements openly modeled on Charter 77 and Civic Forum have changed governments in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Similar stirrings have attempted to dislodge authoritarians in Lebanon, Burma, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and seemingly everywhere else in the Middle East.
The Alexandria Declaration, like the original Charter 77, holds Arab-world governments accountable to international treaty obligations (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and so on) and goes further in listing other treaties countries should join if they haven’t already. It calls for free and regular elections, nondiscrimination against women, a transparent and independent judiciary, political term limits, and a host of other Free World artifacts largely unknown in the broader Middle East. Many of the declaration’s basic principles have already been adopted by the successful prodemocracy protesters in Tunisia and mouthed by the mostly young crowds massing against autocrats in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
It’s far too soon, as of press time for this book, to declare 2011 the most consequential year for global freedom since 1989. If that proves the case, however, we’ll have plenty of trashy Western culture to thank—not just for helping spark Václav Havel’s defiance and the replicable Charter 77 movement but also for exerting its specifically liberating influence on Arab and other still-closed societies themselves. Whether it’s post-Taliban Afghanis getting Leonardo DiCaprio haircuts and digging up banned VCRs once the mullahs were deposed, Iranian kids texting each other in English to set up trysts and/or protests, or Egyptian “Metaliens” braving possible arrest to see live sets by Hate Suffocation, citizens of unfree countries are using, adapting, and spitting back out the artifacts of surplus Western culture in ways that lead inexorably toward greater personal autonomy, outgroup bonding, reconsideration of stifling cultural traditions, and ultimately liberalization in the countries themselves. And it’s not just Western culture, either—India’s sexy/corny Bollywood industry (with its traditionalist tales and many Muslim stars) now counts the Middle East as its third-largest overseas market, with world premiers and even a proposed theme park taking shape in Dubai.
As Metalien historian “Slacker” Sabry tells author Richard Poplak in 2010’s The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World, “It is the same here in Egypt as it is everywhere, is it not? . . . A gathering of friends who love a small piece of culture beyond anything else. Here are young Egyptians and Saudis trying to find their identity. Through this, we assert some kind of difference from the crowd. This is the way of the Western childhood since the fifties, no? It can’t be a bad thing.”
No, it can’t, no matter how many times Republicans and Democrats or conservatives and liberals try to convince you otherwise. In the late 1950s, as his career was about to go into a decade-long eclipse before he came back as a nostalgia act, Frank Sinatra spoke for record-burning Bible Belters and Stalin-friendly folkies like Pete Seeger alike when he hissed, “Rock and roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons.” Such dismissive critiques of rock music and other American ephemera like comic books, movies, and video games (“Step away from the video games,” counsels Barack Obama, who admits to not having played one since the days of Pong) proceed apace. Whether driven by heartfelt concern, fears of political dissent, or bald moral panic (“More often than not,” wrote Tipper Gore in 1987, “when teens gather to indulge in the occult, heavy metal is there”), agony over popular culture actually pays tribute to its potential liberatory effects, which range far beyond any particular form of entertainment.
If the critics of pop culture typically lack perspective, its practitioners often lack a sense of irony. In October 1989, a month before Germans pulled down the Berlin Wall and six weeks before the Velvet Revolution unfolded in Czechoslovakia, Neil Young released an album called Freedom, which featured the sardonic song “Rockin’ in the Free World,” intended as a snarky attack on Ronald Reagan’s legacy and George H. W. Bush’s removal from brutal realities ranging from school violence to a thinning of the ozone layer. “We got a thousand points of light,” snarls Young, “for the homeless man / We got a kinder, gentler / Machine gun hand.” A minor hit in the United States, the song took on anthemic dimensions among the peaceful revolutionaries of Central Europe, who sang along with the chorus unironically while expressing themselves for the first time with something like unfettered abandon.
Nick Gillespie (email@example.com) is editor in chief of reason.com and reason.tv, and Matt Welch (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor in chief of reason. They are the co-authors of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (PublicAffairs), from which this essay was adapted.