The arrival of amplified rock music performed by free-spirited longhairs was not, to put it mildly, greeted with enthusiasm by the Cold Warriors of the West. Nearly a decade after Elvis’s pelvis dislocated social mores and Frank Sinatra denounced rock as “the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the Earth,” rock ’n’ roll refuseniks were still crying bloody murder. In September 1964, National Review founder and tireless anticommunist William F. Buckley reacted to pop music’s British Invasion with a spasm of Victorian disgust: “Let me say it, as evidence of my final measure of devotion to the truth,” Buckley huffed. “The Beatles are not merely awful, I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of antimusic, even as the imposter popes went down in history as ‘anti-popes.’”
Twenty years later, the then wife of Democratic senator and Cold War hawk Al Gore cofounded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in reaction to the heavy metal and early rap genres that, Tipper Gore claimed, were “infecting the youth of the world with messages they cannot handle.” Musicians from John Denver to Frank Zappa were hauled to Washington to argue under oath (futilely) against a warning-sticker censorship regime. Gangsta rappers like Ice-T stood accused of increasing violence against cops, danceclub bonbons like Cyndi Lauper and Sheena Easton glorified sex, and metal acts from Kiss to Iron Maiden were transmitting secret backwards paeans to Satan himself. In her 1987 book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated World, Gore fretted over the demonic import of the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and argued that listening to acts such as Ozzy Osbourne was “playing with fire” and all too often led to death and damnation. “Many kids experiment with the deadly satanic game,” she warned, “and get hooked.” She claimed to be against censorship but instructed her readers to “file petitions with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington to request inquiries into the license renewals of television and radio stations that violate the public interest.”
Though such outbursts always look comical in retrospect—Buckley ended up befriending John Lennon in the 1970s, and Tipper Gore attempted to rehabilitate her uptight image by insisting during her husband’s 2000 campaign that she’d been a reliable Deadhead all along—the gag reflex that produced them is alive and well. Radical Islam has replaced communism as the existential bogeyman requiring eternal vigilance, and some vigilantes have drawn a link between the vulgar pop culture of the West and the murderous religious radicalism of the Middle East, most notoriously in conservative Dinesh D’Souza’s obscene 2007 book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. “Conservatives,” D’Souza wrote, “must stop promoting American popular culture because it is producing a blowback of Muslim rage. With a few exceptions, the right should not bother to defend American movies, music, and television. From the point of view of traditional values, they are indefensible. Moreover, why should the right stand up for the left’s debased values? Why should our people defend their America? Rather, American conservatives should join the Muslims and others in condemning the global moral degeneracy that is produced by liberal values.”
If music has become ever-more morally degenerate—and one need only look at the PMRC’s now-pedestrian “Filthy Fifteen” list from 1985 to see the long tumble from Twisted Sister (whose “We’re Not Going to Take It,” a by-the-numbers rave up, supposedly promoted violence) and Cyndi Lauper (whose forgotten hit “She Bop” promoted masturbation) to GWAR (whose albums include This Toilet Earth and We Kill Everything) and Slipknot (who wear scary masks and subtitled one album The Subliminal Verses)—then it would stand to reason that the era of globalized hip-hop, video game violence, and pornography would have set back the cause of human freedom by generations. In fact, the exact opposite has happened.
Freedom House, a U.S. government–funded international nonprofit founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, has been conducting “Freedom of the World” surveys since 1973, measuring by a set of stable, if subjective, criteria whether countries are “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.” The group’s initial analysis of 151 countries found that nearly half (46 percent) were not free, compared to 29 percent free and 25 percent partly free. The collapse of totalitarian communism beginning in 1989 resulted in free countries outnumbering the unfree for the first time, and by 2010, with 194 countries to choose from (itself an indication of increased freedom), the numbers from 1973 had almost exactly reversed: 46 percent free, 30 percent partly free, and 24 percent unfree.
We’re not just talking about correlation between the spread of pop culture and international freedom: There is direct, observable causation. The remarkable two weeks of Egyptian street protests that led to the resignation of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak were populated mostly by leaderless young people who could no longer tolerate being censored (Mubarak’s attempts to shut down Facebook may well have been his fatal mistake). For more than a decade, the Egyptian regime had waged a brutal and eventually losing battle against a burgeoning homegrown heavy metal movement in a crackdown known as the “Satanic Panic.” As Cairo’s unofficial metal historian Sameh “Slacker” Sabry told journalist Richard Poplak in 2009, “My question to you is: Would you stop listening to the music you loved if someone was going to throw you in jail for it? If the answer is yes, then you don’t love the music enough. I have been charged for Satanism; I have been called a devil worshipper. Many times. My name has been in print—with my age, my school—I was waiting for them to come for me. I did not change. I did not hide. You want a piece of me—come get it.”
Poplak, writing in a book on pop culture and Islam that came out six months before the historic events in Cairo, concluded on a prescient note:
What I had seen that night was on some small level a revolution—or at least a concentrated act of defiance—played out to the fuzz and wail of heavy metal music. I had seen kids assert their right to rock. There is this expectation, a shared if unarticulated belief that these bands—like the legendary [Czech band] Plastic People of the Universe, who carried the ethos of revolution inside the psych-swirl of their avant-rock—herald some hope for future freedoms. Regardless of lyrical content, simply by existing, merely by banging head, [the Egyptian bands] Wyvern, Deathless Anguish and company are harbingers of change.
What sort of change? Some of the architecture of that change was spelled out in the Alexandria Declaration, a March 2004 statement from Middle Eastern intellectuals advocating a series of liberal reforms, above all “guaranteed freedom of expression in all its forms, topmost among which is freedom of the press, and audio-visual and electronic media.” The Alexandra Declaration, as the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported in February 2011, is a “‘Charter 77’ for reform in the Arab world.”
Charter 77, just like the Plastic People of the Universe, is a relatively obscure reference in twenty-first-century America. Yet, its 1970s-era call for freedom of expression in communist Europe is at the very center of the single-most foundational story of how supposed Western cultural decadence combined with dissident aspirations in the unfree world to produce not just unprecedented liberation but a useable blueprint for oppressed people everywhere to cast off the shackles of their masters. Standing at the center of that story is the literal author of the blueprint, a rumpled star child of the 1960s whose love and understanding of rock music helped free his country and inspire freedom in so many others: Václav Havel, the late leader of what came to be known as the “Velvet Revolution.”
That story begins with another story, that of the Velvet Underground, a band whose best-known member, Lou Reed, chafed not under the oppression of Russian tanks but the strictures of postwar Long Island suburbia. A hippie-hating countercultural figure, the teenaged Reed had been given electroshock treatments to “cure” his homosexual tendencies. Reed would later find a mentor in the legendarily alcoholic and writer’s blocked poet Delmore Schwartz, before gaining fame for singing about drug abuse and cross-dressing and fronting a band that openly sang about soul-sapping heroin rather than consciousness-raising LSD during 1967’s Summer of Love.
No one is exactly sure how a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico found its way to Czechoslovakia before Soviet tanks crushed the cultural opening of the Prague Spring in August 1968. After all, the March 1967 debut album by Andy Warhol’s nihilistic house band barely sold in America, peaking at just #171 on the Billboard charts before quickly disappearing. Rock critics would not come around to declaring it one of the best albums ever made until decades later. There is that famous line, variously attributed to superproducer Brian Eno or R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, that “only a thousand people bought the record, but every one of them started a band.” And though Czechs were starting bands right and left, as part of an all-too-brief cultural reemergence that saw artists such as filmmaker Miloš Forman and novelist Milan Kundera gain international prominence, there was a lot of catching up to do in 1967 and 1968 for a country that had recently outlawed William F. Buckley’s least favorite band. “It is so strange,” the singer of a Czech Velvet Underground cover band would muse a few years after communism’s demise, “that Prague was so up-to-date.”
Whatever the source, this influential piece of dissonant, drug-saturated, hyperurban yet occasionally gentle music, with the flat everyman vocals of Lou Reed alternating with the morose German female baritone of supermodel Nico, wound up in the hands of a teenage butcher’s apprentice and budding rock bassist named Milan “Meijla” Hlavsa. “The Velvet Underground was something very different, very new, very real,” Hlavsa recalled a quarter century later, “because their music was a part of their life. . . . It brought us America in a real way. It was good to see that in the States there were normal people who had problems like us.” One month after the 1968 Soviet invasion, Hlavsa and some buddies started a band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Named after the song “Plastic People” by future Tipper Gore foil Frank Zappa (though perhaps also influenced by the Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” multimedia extravaganzas that the band would go on to emulate), Plastic People was mostly a cover band at first, singing versions in heavily accented English of Zappa, the Doors, the Fugs, and the Velvets. “The base of our music was the Velvet Underground,” Hlavsa said.
Though the passage of time has dulled the shock value, the Velvet Underground in its time was like a needle in the eye even to seasoned Western rock audiences. One of the only music magazines to take contemporary note of The Velvet Underground & Nico called it “a full-fledged attack on the ears and on the brain.” Legendary Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs in 1969 called the band a “bunch of junkiefaggot-sadomasochist-speed-freaks who roared their anger and their pain in storms of screaming feedback and words spat out like strings of epithets.” And he liked them. The songs were about heroin, hitting your girlfriend, scoring drugs, and the pathos of planning for the next Manhattan party. The drummer was a girl (no normal occurrence in those days), who played standing up, with mallets. “The real question is what this music is about—smack, meth, deviate sex and drugdreams, or something deeper?” wondered Bangs. “The most important lesson [about] the Velvet Underground,” he concluded, was “the power of the human soul to transcend its darker levels.” This was not the sort of material that either Dinesh D’Souza or Tipper Gore could bop along to.
Now, imagine how it might have gone over in a totalitarian country where longhairs like Hlavsa were arrested, literally, for having long hair, as well as for the crime of possessing unapproved music. Rock bands in Czechoslovakia required a license from the government, and in those days of communist “normalization,” the Plastic People’s was soon revoked. The band continued to play, but only at weddings (one of the few activities beyond the government’s control) and at secret, one-time shows advertised through paranoid word of mouth. The Plastics acquired a Warholesque “artistic director,” the crazed alcoholic imp Ivan Martin Jirous, and eventually replaced its English-language repertoire with a bunch of Czech originals derived from the poetry of various banned authors. The songs weren’t political in any conventional sense, but when the state dictates culture, all unapproved acts become political, like it or not.
The actual Velvet Underground back in the United States was being used as a cautionary tale for parents about their drug-addicted teens. “The light show, the intensity of the sound, the wild dress and appearance of the musicians has turned many adults away from listening to the lyrics,” the Utah Deseret News quoted one cultawareness seminar leader as saying in 1974. “But if heeded, the words vividly convey a message of confusion, searching, longing, destruction, and morbidity.” At the same time, the band’s Czech apprentices were being portrayed on propagandistic communist television shows as dangerously nihilistic longhairs who might just convince wayward teens to hijack an airplane. Forced underground by the censors, the Plastics and their followers christened their own artistic movement as “the underground” (in English), or druhá kultura (“second culture”). It was alternative before there was Alternative. As Hlavsa would tell an interviewer in 1997, “Our community, which was, probably imprecisely, referred to as ‘underground,’ was a pocket of normal life. . . . People with feelings similar to ours were coming to our concerts. Their music preferences were not necessarily similar, but music wasn’t as important there as meeting people and being together in a normal environment for a while. I don’t know if anything like that would be possible had the Plastic People of the Universe not existed then.”
By 1976, the regime could stand it no more. At a festival celebrating druhá kultura, four members of the Plastic People, along with many other festival attendees, were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace, no small offense in communist Czechoslovakia. It was a move that would not only backfire on communist authorities but help create source code for citizens of any lousy country to stand up to their oppressors. Dissent itself was about to be democratized, planting seeds that would eventually free hundreds of millions of people. Václav Havel, by this time, was not your typical rock ‘n’ roller. At age thirty-nine, this disheveled, chain-smoking playwright with the awkward stammer, son of one of the richest families in modern Czech history, spent much his time with his regal wife futzing about the garden of their vacation cottage outside of Prague, under the perpetual surveillance of the police. As an enthusiastic participant of the 1960s—“That was an extraordinarily interesting, fertile, and inspiring period, not only here, but in the culture of the entire world,” he told an interviewer in 1975—Havel was a rock guy. He preferred the Stones to the Beatles and took from amplified music “a temperament, a nonconformist state of the spirit, an anti-establishment orientation, an aversion to philistines, and an interest in the wretched and humiliated,” he would later write. This may help explain why, the year before, after more than a half decade of depressed indolence brought on by normalization and the experience of being banned in his own country, Havel had uncorked a piece of literary and political punk rock whose ramifications are still being felt.
In April 1975, Havel sat down and, knowing that he’d likely be imprisoned for his efforts, wrote an open letter to his dictator, Gustáv Husák, explaining in fearless and painstaking detail just why and how totalitarianism was ruining Czechoslovakia. “So far,” Havel scolded Husák, “you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.”
It was the big bang that set off the dissident movement in Central Europe. For those lucky enough to read an illegally retyped copy or hear it broadcast over Radio Free Europe, the effect was not unlike what happened to, well, those few people who bought the Velvet Underground’s first record: After the shock and initial pleasure wore off, many said, “Wait a minute, I can do this too!” By standing up to a system that had forced every citizen to make a thousand daily compromises—indeed, by identifying those compromises and vowing to forego them in the future—Havel was suggesting a novel new tactic: Have the self-respect to call things by their proper names, never mind the consequences, and maybe you’ll put the bastards on the defensive. “In general, I believe it always makes sense to tell the truth, in all circumstances,” he told interviewer Ji í Lederer three weeks after issuing the letter. Besides, “I got tired of always wondering how to move in this situation, and I felt the need to stir things up, to confront others for a change and force them to deal with a situation that I myself had created.” A Czech, then Slovak, then Polish, then communist-bloc dissident movement sprang up around Havel’s letter, producing entire genres of literature within the confines of samizdat. Writers grew their hair out a bit, joked out loud about the secret police, and began looking for a cause célèbre. When the arty longhairs of the Plastic People got charged with disturbing the peace, it became a turning point both in Havel’s life and the future of the world.
“What Havel realized was that this represented something very dangerous,” said Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard, whose award-winning 2006 play Rock ’n’ Roll centered on a Plastic People fan becoming radicalized in communist Prague, in 2009. “Now the state could put you into jail simply for being the wrong sort of bloke.” As Havel would later recall, “Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life.”
Havel’s 1976 essay on the Plastic People trial—which he and his friends brazenly attended every day, shocking officials in the courtroom—has the rushed and liberated tone of someone who has just crossed a personal point of no return, or has just heard the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks for the first time. “It doesn’t often happen and when it does it usually happens when least expected,” the piece begins. “Somewhere, something slips out of joint and suddenly a particular event, because of an unforeseen interplay between its inner premises and more or less fortuitous external circumstances, crosses the threshold of its usual place in the everyday world, breaks through the shell of what it is supposed to be and what it seems, and reveals its innermost symbolic significance. And something originally quite ordinary suddenly casts a surprising light on the time and the world we live in, and dramatically highlights its fundamental questions.”
Ivan Martin Jirous and his compadres, Havel writes, may not have “had any other aim in mind than persuading the court of their innocence and defending their right to compose and sing the songs they wanted,” but through the absurd theatrics of totalitarianism they became “the unintentional personification of those forces in man that compel him to search for himself, to determine his own place in the world freely, and in his own way, not to make deals with his heart and not to cheat his conscience, to call things by their true names . . . and to do so at one’s own risk, aware that at any time one may come up against the disfavor of the ‘masters,’ the incomprehension of the dull-witted, or their own limitations.” Havel and his friends began to experience “the exciting realization that there are still people among us who assume the existential responsibility for their own truth and are willing to pay a high price for it.” Suddenly, “much of the wariness and caution that marks my behavior seemed petty to me. I felt an increased revulsion toward all forms of guile, all attempts at painlessly worming one’s way out of vital dilemmas. Suddenly, I discovered in myself more determination in one direction, and more independence in another. Suddenly, I felt disgusted with a whole world, in which—as I realized then—I still have one foot: the world of emergency exits.”
The essay ends with a classic description of Havel bumping into a film director who doesn’t understand his sudden enthusiasm for defending a bunch of derelict, possibly drug-addled rock musicians. “Perhaps I’m doing him an injustice,” Havel writes, “but at that moment, I was overwhelmed by an intense feeling that this dear man belonged to a world that I no longer wish to have anything to do with—and Mr. Public Prosecutor Kovarik, pay attention, because here comes a vulgar word—I mean the world of cunning shits.”
With this middle finger pointed at commie censors and other cunning shits, Václav Havel and his friends then launched Charter 77, arguably the most influential human rights organization in modern history. The charter of the organization’s name was an ingeniously clever petition: Like Martin Luther King Jr. asking for the “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence to be enshrined in official policy, the Czech and Slovak signatories of Charter 77 merely asked their government to abide by its own laws—specifically, the 1960 Czechoslovak Constitution, plus the human rights provisions in several international treaties that the country had signed onto to shore up its image, most critically the 1975 Helsinki Final Act of the major Cold War diplomatic effort the Helsinki Accords.
The Final Act, signed by President Gerald Ford, was roundly criticized at the time by American conservatives—and especially neoconservatives—as a “betrayal” since, among other things, it codified the existing postwar borders of Europe, which meant accepting in treaty form the imperial Soviet subjugation of the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. But the act also included important covenants on civil, political, and economic rights. Living up to Helsinki would have meant allowing free expression, “freedom from fear,” freedom of religious practice, and other rights then quashed by totalitarians and authoritarians everywhere. The narrow, legalistic tactic of petitioning the government to follow its own laws was a built-in defense against charges of political subversion and a clever way to attract the attention and support of international activists and governments. It started with Charter 77, spread to the Committee for the Defense of Workers in Poland, then the Moscow Helsinki Group, and on and on. In the West, Helsinki helped spawn Helsinki Watch, which would later become Human Rights Watch, which linked up with the fate of Eastern Bloc dissidents, and by the time Ronald Reagan was negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev about nuclear warheads and the Strategic Defense Initiative in the mid-1980s, the Final Act was a handy spotlight with which to expose communist hypocrisy. It acted as a crowbar wedged into the seams of the Iron Curtain.
Czechoslovak authorities initially responded to Charter 77 by trying to suppress the document and harass its authors, but the petition had gone global and was being beamed back into the country through Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Emboldened even in the face of a new round of arrests and show trials, the chartists launched the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted, and Havel even brought the just-back-from-prison Plastic People over to his country house to record their 1978 album Passion Play. The wind now in the anticommunists’ sails, Havel in October 1978 uncorked his most famous and influential essay of all, “The Power of the Powerless.” The lead essay in what was supposed to be a joint Polish-Czechoslovak dissident forum, Havel’s meditation on the meaning of dissent and the architecture of lies required by totalitarianism had a profound impact across the Eastern Bloc and beyond. It was a how-to guide for regular people to create daily acts of subversion just by choosing to live and act honestly and openly. Solidarity activist Zbygniew Bujak once told Havel’s Englishlanguage translator (and former coconspirator of the Plastic People), the great Canadian journalist Paul Wilson,
This essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. . . . Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later—in August 1980—it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement. When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel’s essay.
Havel spent most of the next five years in jail. But such arrests only served to make the plight of the dissidents more internationally famous and to drain what remaining sympathy there might have been among Western intellectuals for the projects of communism and Marxism. Like George Orwell, another self-described “man of the left” obsessed with the meaning of words and the endless search for truth, Havel became one of the twentieth century’s most effective anticommunists.
And, like Orwell, Havel saw political and ideological tribalism as the great impediment to that search. Personal independence, he has said for decades, is the prerequisite for living in truth. Havel’s Civic Forum movement, which rose up against and eventually took power from the Communist Party, was intentionally designed as a unified front against communism. In the first months of his presidency, which began in 1989, he championed “nonpolitical politics,” and even when that ideal disintegrated upon contact with modern democratic realities, Havel refused to ever join a political party. As he wrote in his 1991 book Summer Meditations,
All my adult life I was branded by officials as “an exponent of the right” who wanted to bring capitalism back to our country. Today—at a ripe old age—I am suspected by some of being left-wing, if not of harboring out-and-out socialist tendencies. What, then, is my real position? First and foremost, I have never espoused any ideology, dogma, or doctrine—left-wing, right-wing, or any other closed, ready-made system of presuppositions about the world. On the contrary, I have tried to think independently, using my own powers of reason, and I have always vigorously resisted attempts to pigeonhole me.
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.