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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 38-41

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[The Disregardable "Second World"
Essays on the Inconstancy of the West: Editorial Introduction]

The text of Péter Nádas's introduction to this symposium was published in Hungarian some years ago; he has consented to its translation and use in this context because its relevance has in the interim deepened. Contending that the "new democracies" of the former Soviet bloc have not been offered "genuine integration" with the West, he writes that Central and East Europeans are "left in no doubt about who is in charge, who controls, who has a say." In May 2004, seven nations of the old Second World are set to join the European Union—an integration seemingly genuine. Yet President Chirac pronounced a reprimand and issued warnings when some of those countries dared differ with the French and German position on the war in Iraq. The indifference and paternalism that Nádas sensed in the body language of the 1990s was by 2003 the proud, explicit stance of leading Western governments.

My own concern is less with integration of the political than of the intellectual communities of Europe. But the processes are analogous. As the euphoria of 1989 subsided, journals in the West that had lionized Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, and György Konrád noticed (with a condescension that appeared to [End Page 38] mask alarm) the independence of the dissidents from Western, as much as Soviet, prearrangements. Opponents of the old regime now opposed the defenestration of communists and expressed misgivings about the free market and consumer culture. The dissidents implied that politics should be subordinate to ethics, politicians to deliberative thinkers, and the military to humanitarian imperatives. They played spoilsport and heckled both solemnity and eagerness in party politics.

Idealistic became the word of choice for modifying such behaviors, and by that adjective the Western press meant: bothersomely unclassifiable, sentimentally concerned with decency and bravery, inexplicably forgiving, too reflective and self-critical and ascetic, noncompetitive, original, and enigmatically both out-of-it and avant-garde. The dissidents' criticism of the distinction between Left and Right no longer inspired journalists or academics (it is a distinction without which automatic writing is impossible). Idealistic as an accusation implied that the dissidents had not adjusted to a context that they (if you include Karol Wojtyla among them) had done more than anyone to produce—and thus that they, like nonconformists anywhere and always, were not responsible grown-ups who understand the way the world works.

Common Knowledge had meanwhile been set up as an agency of integration (integration of various kinds), and dissidents from Central Europe and Russia were prominent among its founders and contributors. Vladimir Tismaneanu, in the spring 1994 issue, characterized the sudden disregard in the West for dissident ideas as a "velvet counterrevolution." That was a defining moment and expressed a commitment that the journal has upheld: to learn from the dissidents' experience. "Ideological war," we learned from Konrád, is "only a game." That lesson absorbed, the hierarchy of self and other could be revised: "The more enemies I have," President Havel said as he left office, "the more I side with them in my own mind." In the symposium "Peace and Mind," which completed its sixth installment in our last issue, Common Knowledge has sought to understand this perspective, style, or wisdom. The disinclination to have enemies—or even to regard enmity as real—has, as Jonathan Schell observes, "as yet no adequate name." In The Unconquerable World, Schell tries out various names ("cooperative power," "revolution against violence"), then falls back on Gandhi and admits defeat:

The word, when it appears, will refer to the power of action without violence, whether in revolution, the civil state, or the international order. I have followed convention in referring to this thing as nonviolence, but the word is highly imperfect for its purpose. "Nonviolence" is a word of negative construction, as if the most important thing that could be said about nonviolent action was that it was not something else...


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