You Don't Have To Be a Hippie To Believe in Peace

In 1990, I was living in Prague as part of the first wave of Americans officially sponsored by an organization called Charter 77 to reacquaint the Eastern Bloc with the West by teaching them English. In the late great nation of Czechoslovakia, it had become obvious by 1989 that you can’t contain an unwilling population indefinitely. Despite a security apparatus that had half the country spying on the other half and each other, like every other nation in the bloc, its totalitarian regime tumbled at the first signs of weakness.
 
In 1989, the twin phenomena of Gorbachev’s declaration to the Poles that there would be no invasion to suppress Solidarity, and the opening, immediately thereafter, of the Hungarian border to Austria acted like an open valve in a blow-up device. With no impermeable membrane to contain totalitarianism, it quickly deflated.
 
The interim government of Vaclav Havel that succeeded Communism in the Velvet Revolution owed its existence to rock and roll. This hard-drinking playwright from a rich family was no hero to the average Czech; his fame was greatest in the West where he was known mostly as a political essayist. His path to power was straight out of a Peter Sellers movie circa I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.
 
The Plastic People of the Universe were a ragtag bunch of musicians and artists who revered the irreverence of Frank Zappa and the hippie-trippy sounds of the Doors and the Velvet Underground. When the apolitical Plastics, who had nonetheless become a rally point for political activism, got sentenced to long prison terms for “disturbing the peace” in 1976, Havel, a state-licensed writer, finally got religion and decided to openly oppose “the totality,” as Czechs called the totalitarian regime in English. The resulting petition, Charter 77, got nearly all its signers thrown in prison, sanctifying the movement.
 
The signers held fast and Charter 77 became a political membership organization. In 1989, it was the single dissident outfit in Czechoslovakia and, renamed Civic Forum, was handed the keys to the government. The freely elected Parliament re-elected him to the presidency in 1990, and he was elected the first president of the new Czech Republic in 1993.

An object lesson in doing the right thing at great short-term risk.
 
********
 
Joe Jackson played the Delacorte Theater Tuesday night in Central Park as part of a new musical series. His hold on the crowd was tenuous until he launched into his hopeful tune written in 1990, “Obvious Song”:
 
And the walls are coming down
Between the West and the East
You don’t have to be a hippie to believe in peace
It’s obvious
 
The stirrings in the crowd were manifest: whistling, applause, singing along with the raised chins and eyebrows of believers in church.
 
Joe Jackson’s crowing tribute to that blossoming of freedom may have been a bit over optimistic. A generation now alive that never experienced the vivid nightmare of war can delude itself on triumphalist fantasies and actually convince itself that commencing wars of aggression will turn out dandy for America and its victims. What was obvious in 1990 — that lasting governmental change in the current era comes best from deflation of the arrogant rather than bombs and wars — is now portrayed as naive by the Right even as their own wars fail to deliver on any of their grander promises.
 
I’m just old enough to remember how the acceptable social tone over the Vietnam War shifted, over several years, from unthinking support to rabid opposition. The current wars were solidly opposed by citizens from before their commencement, which has to be some kind of record. Now that a national referendum on the presidency is just ten weeks away, what’s obvious is that a peaceful regime change is the only way to stop a promised blizzard of wars around the world.
 
If Joe Jackson’s tour can remind independent radio programmers what an inspirational tune “Obvious Song” is, it could have an effect on this country similar to how 1960s rock and roll influenced Czechoslovakia: a reminder that joyfulness isn’t a naive threat to social order, but the mature wisdom of the peaceful to neutralize the irrationally hostile.



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