The Velvet Underground and the Velvet Revolution
Lou Reed, RIP: Listen to the Czech Dissident Band that Covered "Sweet Jane," Inspired Vaclav Havel, and Helped Upend Communism
In April 2007, Czech artist David Hons replaced the human silhouettes in 48 Prague crosswalk signals with figures engaged in decidedly less pedestrian activities. One signal depicted a man urinating; another had a bottle raised to his mouth. A man squatted to defecate; another appeared to be falling down drunk. “I wanted to show people, they don’t have to walk or stand when the system says so,” Hons wrote on his website. A Prague municipal court found Hons guilty of vandalism, fined him $3,750, and ordered that he come up with an additional $5,000 to repair the signals.
One of the consistent features of the gay rights movement over the past five decades has been a belief in progress: Members of the gay community and their allies have insisted that, over time, attitudes about homosexuality will only change for the better. In part, this conviction is based on the power of moral suasion, but it also relies on sheer demographics: Younger people tend to be more supportive of gay rights.
The wave of popular unrest that has spread across the Arab world in recent weeks, toppling the regime in Tunisia, creating the mass protests in Egypt, and leading other governments in the region to scramble to choke off similar eruptions, has evoked images of 1989, when Communist governments fell like dominoes in Eastern Europe. Like today, those earlier events unfolded with surprising speed, catching the West (as well as the oppressive regimes) off guard. But President George H.W.
Thomas Omestad covered the Velvet Revolution in Prague for the December 25, 1989, issue of TNR. Read his piece here. The opening moments of what became known as Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” did not feel so velvety. Nor did the outcome of those events--a largely peaceful triumph of the people over a stifling authoritarian system--seem certain. For those on the streets of Prague on the evening of Friday, November 17, 1989, it was easy to imagine a tragedy-in-the-making and perhaps a reprieve, of sorts, for a dying regime.
Madame Chancellor, Mr. President, Nearly 20 years ago, we enthusiastically witnessed the most extraordinary event of the end of the 20th century: the fall of the Berlin Wall. A reunified Germany opened the way to the resurrection of the European continent. Then a wave of "velvet revolutions" brought down the communist dictatorships, one by one. We who have been unrelenting opponents of these iniquitous regimes since the long-ago days of the "New Philosophy," were thrilled by this magnificent celebration of freedom.
Politics is the art of achieving political goals — of achieving what is possible in a given situation, that is, in a situation that has its conditions and its limits. In this respect, the ethical point of view, the consideration of what is good and what is bad, what is fair and what is unfair, what is honest and what is dishonest, is external to politics. An ethical action, like an unethical action, is usually analyzed by politicians purely in pragmatic terms. Does it lead toward the goal or does it lead away from it? Montaigne observed, in his famous polemic against Machiavelli, that if a pol
PRAGUE The enormous mass movement that has essentially overthrown Czechoslovak communism rose up with amazing speed. By the last week in November millions of people had participated in demonstrations across the country. Yet as recently as October 28--Czechoslovakia’s independence day--dissidents could bring only 10,000 people into the streets. These brave souls had scarcely unfurled their pro-democracy banners before truncheon-wielding police were chasing them through Prague's winding Gothic lanes. Three weeks later throngs of hundreds of thousands of people were routine in Wenceslas Square.