Today's question: What can America offer the world that might make us a bit more appealing?
My puzzle—which I will ask you, dear reader, to help solve at the end of this column—is inspired in part by Karen Hughes' recent departure as the State Department's "public diplomat" (a job that she recently realized is impossible), but still more by Tom Stoppard's new play Rock 'n' Roll.
The play, which I saw the other night, is a brisk, moving, sometimes-enthralling piece of theater about a lot of things—romance, revolution, power, protest, ideology, the clash of individuals and systems (in short, the usual heady Stoppard brew)—but it's mainly about what the title suggests: rock 'n' roll.
It centers on a rock-loving, record-collecting Czech intellectual in the years between 1968 and 1990, a span of historic tumult: '68 was the year of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet crackdown; '90 was the first full year of the Velvet Revolution—Vaclav Havel's rise to the presidency, Mikhail Gorbachev's withdrawal of troops, and the Rolling Stones' first-ever concert in Prague.
The play ends with our hero and his friends cheering wildly at the Stones concert, as if it—and not the crash of communism—marked the real revolution, and Stoppard's point is that, in a way, it did or that, anyway, the two were much the same thing.
Havel—celebrated playwright and essayist, leader of the Czech dissident movement in the '70s, one of the authors of the Charter 77 petition, jailed for many years as a result—was deeply affected by rock 'n' roll. (One of his first acts as president was to appoint Frank Zappa as an adviser on trade and tourism.)
A turning point in the dissidents' movement, and in Havel's own thinking, was the arrest in 1976 of a grungy Czech rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe (named after a Zappa song). Havel embraced the Plastics as spiritual brethren and denounced their arrest as "an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and integrity." Many of Havel's colleagues were initially puzzled; the Plastics weren't dissidents or even political—they were unruly, long-haired, and not very talented rockers.
There's a scene in Rock 'n' Roll where the protagonist, Jan (here personifying Havel's views), tells a skeptical dissident friend that the Plastics will have a deeper impact than any dissident, including Havel himself. Jan explains:
The policeman isn't frightened by dissidents. Why should he be? Policemen love dissidents, like the Inquisition loved heretics. Heretics give meaning to the defenders of the faith. Nobody cares more than a heretic. … It means they're playing on the same board. So [Gustav] Husak [the Communist Czech president] can relax; he's made the rules, it's his game. The population plays the other way, by agreeing to be bribed by places at university or an easy ride at work. They care enough to keep their thoughts to themselves; their haircuts give nothing away. But the Plastics don't care at all. They're unbribable. They're coming from somewhere else, from where the Muses come from. They're not heretics. They're pagans.
That was—and, at its best, still is—the appeal of rock 'n' roll. It comes "from somewhere else." It's impervious to the power structure. It's playing on another game board.
In the West, the point might seem obvious, even clichéd. But in the totalitarian societies behind the Iron Curtain, such notions—and the music they reflected—were truly radical. There was no individual space. The clearest proof of this was the arrest of the Plastic People of the Universe, who posed no explicit threat to the regime other than choosing to ignore it. And the most thrilling thing about the collapse of the regime wasn't the exchange of one political system for another; it was the exuberance—the release from politics—that was allowed as a result of that change; it was, for example, the Rolling Stones playing a raucous concert on the Communists' former parade ground in Prague.
What inspired many of the Eastern bloc dissidents during the Cold War—what they found so alluring about the West—was not so much our market capitalism or parliamentary democracy; still less was it our government's policies. It was the insouciant freedom of our culture. It was our rock 'n' roll.