I have long been intrigued by the distance between principle and practice, how people respond to the distance, and what the consequences are, of the distance and the response. This was my major concern in The Cynical Society. It is central to “the civil society as if” strategy of the democratic opposition that developed around the old Soviet bloc, which I explored in Beyond Glasnost and After the Fall. And it is also central to how I think about the politics of small things and reinventing political culture, including many of my own public engagements: from my support of Barack Obama, to my understanding of my place of work, The New School for Social Research and my understanding of this experiment in publication, Deliberately Considered. I will explain in a series of posts. Today a bit more about Obama and his Nobel Lecture, and the alternative to cynicism.
I think principle is every bit as real as practice. Therefore, in my last post, I interpreted Obama’s lecture as I did. But I fear my position may not be fully understood. A friend on Facebook objected to the fact that I took the lecture seriously. “The Nobel Address marked the Great Turn Downward, back to Cold War policies a la Arthur Schlesinger Jr. et al. A big depressing moment for many of us.”
He sees many of the problems I see in Obama’s foreign policy, I assume, though he wasn’t specific. He is probably quite critical of the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued, critical of the drone policy, disappointed by the fact that Guantanamo prison is still open, and by Obama’s record on transparency and the way he has allowed concern for national security take priority over human and civil rights, at home and abroad. The clear line between Bush’s foreign policy and Obama’s, which both my friend and I sought, has not been forthcoming. And . . .
Read more: Between Principle and Practice (Part I): Obama and Cynical Reasoning
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo on this year’s International Human Rights Day, December 10,2010, reminded me of a Human Rights Day past, on December 10 1984, when the Polish dissident, Adam Michnik, received his honorary doctorate from the New School for Social Research in a clandestine ceremony in a private apartment in Warsaw. Such ceremonies not only honor achievements of the past, they also have possible practical promising consequences. Something I observed as an eyewitness then; something that may be in China’s future now.
As China revealed its repressive nature in its response to the prize, the dignity and critical insight of the dissident was revealed in Liu’s own words, as Liv Ullmann read his “I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement to the Court.”
The same pattern occurred in awarding Michnik’s doctorate, though in his case it was a two part story.
Part One: Michnik was scheduled to receive his degree in a university ceremony in New York on April 25, 1984, commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the University in Exile (what would become the New School’s social science graduate school in which I am a professor) by honoring human rights activists from around the world. Because Michnik was imprisoned as part of a martial law crackdown on independent thinkers and political and labor activists, Czeslaw Milosz accepted the honorary degree on his behalf and read from his “Letter for General Kiszczak”, in which Michnik declined an offer of exile as the condition for release from prison.
The Polish Nobel Laureate for Literature read the democratic activist’s passionate denunciation of his interior minister jailer and Michnik’s justification of his commitment to human rights: “the value of our struggle lies not in its chances for victory but rather in the values of its cause.” He explained in the letter how his refusal of a comfortable exile was an affirmation of these values, keeping them alive in Poland.
Part Two of the story actually occurred on International Human Rights Day of 1984. It suggested and led to much more.
I was in Warsaw for the unofficial ceremony presenting Adam . . .
Read more: Human Rights Day
Elzbieta Matynia is an expert on democratic movements, and here, reflects on the recent Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiabo and the chance for Chinese democracy. -Jeff
The air in Johannesburg (Joburg to the locals) is full of discussions on this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. When I heard about Liu Xiaobo, I thought about events that took place in Poland 30 years ago, and about a message written by workers on strike in the Gdansk Shipyard in August 1980.
One of their most prominent graffiti, written in huge, uneven letters on cardboard and mounted high up on a shipyard crane, was the statement, uncontroversial elsewhere, “A Man is Born and Lives Free.” This year’s Nobel Peace Prize given to a Chinese political prisoner brings the spirit of this graffiti to China, re-inserting it in a landscape “freely” filled with billboards advertising Western luxury brands like Lancôme or Mercedes Benz. Will the Chinese notice the message?
There are those moments in history when the Nobel Prizes turn out to be truly performative.
When Czeslaw Milosz, whose poetry was forbidden in communist Poland, received the Nobel Prize in Literature in October 1980, it seemed to lend further legitimacy to the democratic aspirations of the workers as articulated in the Gdansk shipyard. The poems of Milosz had only been published underground and the workers had come to know them through their strike bulletins. And now the workers, who had demanded a constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, press, and publication, won their strike, and the poems — arrested till then in the Office of Censorship — became widely available. I have no doubt that the award given to the poet who wrote about freedom and captivity further encouraged the human rights agenda of the Solidarity movement, and contributed – even if only for the 16 months of Solidarity’s legal existence — to the unprecedented sense of emancipation in the country.
Those 16 months of Solidarity were a time when Poles experienced the dignity of personal freedom. They were months of intensive learning that paid off in 1989 when the society launched . . .
Read more: From Liu Xiabo: A Seed of Strength for Chinese Political Protesters
The way you oppose a wrong determines whether you will succeed in doing a right. I know this not only through my readings, particularly of my favorite political thinker, Hannah Arendt, but also from my experiences around the old Soviet bloc. The political landscape in the post Communist countries has been shaped by the way the old regimes were or were not opposed. The existence of pluralism in the opposition, the nature of the pluralism, the quality of political life, the degree of respect for opponents, the authoritarian nature of political elites and the citizenry, and much more, has been shaped by the political culture of the recent past, for better and for worse.
I am thinking about this today because of an article I read in The New York Times this morning on the opposition to the possible awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a heroic advocate of the a democratic reforms in China. Predictably the Chinese government has warned the Nobel committee that the awarding of the prize to Liu would damage governmental relations between China and Norway.
Surprisingly, there is a petition of exiled dissidents opposing the award.
According to a group of strong anti- regime exiles, Liu maligned fellow dissidents, abandoned members of the Falun Gong and was soft on Chinese leaders. “His open praise in the last 20 years for the Chinese Communist Party, which has never stopped trampling on human rights, has been extremely misleading and influential.”
The vehemence of their opposition to Liu despite the fact that at this moment he is serving an eleven year sentence for advocating democratic reforms, reveals that they view him not as an opponent, who has a more moderate pragmatic approach to democratic reforms than they, but as an enemy.
It suggests that if they were in power, they might not be that different from the regime which they so passionately oppose. In politics, as Arendt observes in one of her most beautiful books, Between Past and Future, the means are ends.