Europe’s Bill Clintons

Za Chlebem do Polski” read the joke title of a front-page article in Zycie, a Warsaw newspaper, over the weekend. The literal translation of the phrase is “To Earn His Bread in Poland,” but the connotation is somewhat different. To go and “earn bread” abroad implies emigration to America, third-class steamer berths, Ellis Island. Nobody from America, of course, comes to “earn bread” in Poland. But the subhead then continued the joke: “Now even Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States, finds that it pays to do a bit of work in Poland.” For it is he: While it isn’t exactly a reverse immigration, the former president is scheduled to make a speech here the week after next, at a business conference. Nor is Zycie the only paper to have trumpeted details of his rumoured fee ($100,000) and the cost of tickets to the conference ($1,500), enormous amounts of money in a country where the average wage is a few hundred dollars a month, and most people, if you asked them, would probably prefer to pay retired politicians not to speak.

Curiously, news of Bill Clinton’s first unofficial trip to Warsaw has filtered out in the same week that another Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, is sponsoring another conference, this one dedicated to the “Generation of 1968.” Among those attending are Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the 1968 student revolt in Paris; Peter Uhl, Czech dissident and founder of the illegal Revolutionary Youth Movement in Prague; Sergei Kovalyov, Russian dissident of the same generation; Adam Michnik, Polish dissident and editor of Gazetza Wyborcza. Alas, the most famous American member of the club will not actually overlap with his European counterparts, but their proximity makes me think that the phenomenon of the generation of 1968, so much remarked upon over the past eight years in the United States, deserves another Pan-European look.

For what is immediately striking, looking over the list of participants—and counting a few who will not be in Warsaw over the next few weeks—is how similar their career patterns have been, which is strange, given what different societies they came from. The students of Berkeley were protesting against Vietnam and capitalism. The students of Paris were protesting against Algeria and capitalism. The young Joschka Fischer, now German foreign minister, threw rocks at police in protest against the wartime silence of his parents’ generation and against capitalism. Young Czechs and Poles, on the other hand, were organizing university riots against communism in Warsaw. Meanwhile, the Russian dissidents were barely able to unfurl a few banners in protest against the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 before they were rounded up and shipped off to prison camps.

Nevertheless, they did all have a few things in common. They all wore the uniform of their era: T-shirts, sneakers, blue jeans (the Russians had to buy them on the black market). Many of the East European dissidents were the children of Communists and were thus, like the Westerners, engaged in a recognizable form of generational rebellion. Many in both East and West were influenced by the ideas of the New Left and also spoke dreamily of a Third Way between communism and capitalism—although in the case of the Easterners, this was largely because actually calling for capitalism was considered too outrageous.

Just as the baby boomers have left their distinctive stamp on American politics, the same generation of European intellectuals also left their mark on their own countries. In Eastern Europe, the dissidents who came of age in 1968 became both the tacticians and the coordinators of the revolutions of 1989. They wrote and distributed the samizdat pamphlets, they helped organize the strikes and protests, they kept Western journalists informed. In the wake of the revolution, many moved from the world of shadow politics into public roles, and they had extremely high hopes. They were idealists poised to put their ideals into practice.

Unfortunately, a decade after 1989, the dissidents of the 1968 generation look less heroic—and more like their Western counterparts. A few, like Fischer and Vaclav Havel, have succeeded in mainstream democratic politics. Others, like Cohn-Bendit, exist on the political fringe. Some, like Kovalyov, are effectively still dissidents. Some dropped out altogether. Many others, like Michnik, became journalists, the profession to which the irresponsibly critical have always been attracted—and no wonder: As a rule, the generation that popularized the rhetoric of destruction hasn’t proved particularly good at working within political institutions, even democratic political institutions. It is striking, in fact, that the outstanding political successes of that generation are those who created their own. Fischer became a leader of the German Green Party; Havel invented the democratic Czech presidency. Both were condemned by their former comrades—the Germans who thought Fischer had sold out to the system, the Czechs who didn’t understand why their old friend Vaclav didn’t want to get drunk with them anymore.

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Apropos of the article I wrote last week about Afghanistan, I note that the French edition of Elle magazine has decided to forgo its usual supermodel and has put on its cover a photograph of an Afghan woman in a chador. Interviewed on television, the editor said she had decided to break with precedent after noting all the TV coverage of the destruction of the Buddhist statues. Why, she asked, was so much attention being paid to inanimate objects, and so little to the sufferings of real women? Slate, it seems, is in good company.