Avoiding False Idols

Avoiding False Idols

The 21st century, Czech president Vaclav Havel contends, will witness the end of “blind love for one's own state-a love that does not recognize anything above itself, finds excuses for any action of the state simply because it is one's own state, and rejects anything else simply because it is different.” He's right, and the evidence is all around us, even on the sports page. In August, the golfer Tiger Woods balked at accepting blindly a spot on the United States team that would play against European golfers for the tradition-laden Ryder Cup. When asked why he did not put country first, he responded, “You play for your teammates, your captain, your wives and girlfriends. [Then] flag.” Flag-country-was fifth.

The major religions of the 20th century have not been Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or whatever. They have been nationalism and Marxist internationalism. Millions have sacrificed their lives for one or the other. Neo-nationalists and neo-Marxists (often emphasizing race rather than class) will howl into the next century, but the “blind love” Havel speaks of-another name for it is idolatry-is dead.

Havel, however, is not so profound in describing what we will pledge alliance to once the flag is no longer the object of prime worship. That's because he does not get to the most important factor until the last sentence of his analysis: “Let me conclude my remarks on the state and on the role it will probably play in the future with the following statement: While the state is a human creation, humanity is a creation of God.” That sentence should be at the beginning, because in the beginning God created heaven and earth. Not so much later man forfeited the heaven on earth that the Garden of Eden represented and began trying to build heaven his own way. Nationalism and Marxism have been our century's attempts to build heaven, but just as the Tower of Babel came crashing down long ago, so national socialism fell in Berlin in 1945 and international socialism displayed its failure when the Berlin Wall became rubble in 1989.

Havel is right when he talks about the functions of the state going downward and upward. If we are to have liberty in the next century, we need decentralization, so the tasks the state now performs will devolve to the various organs of civil society. Families, civic associations, professions, businesses-these institutions need to gain more self-government, and the sooner the better. Sooner, however, is not the same as instantaneous. As in the children's game where rods are pulled from the base of a structure and piled on top until the structure becomes topheavy and topples, so worship of the state has led to atrophy of civil society in many countries. The challenge will be to pull the rods off the top and reinsert them down below, and that has to be done slowly and carefully.

But Havel's prescription for moving some national functions upward, toward international organizations, is dangerous. “We must make the entire vast structure of the United Nations less bureaucratic and more effective. We must deliberate on how to achieve real flexibility in the decision making of UN bodies.... [W]e should ensure that all the inhabitants of our earth regard the United Nations as an organization that is truly theirs . . . .” This is dangerous unless the acknowledgment of God at the end of Havel's essay, and some agreement on who God is, comes before any move toward internationalization.

Without such an understanding, we may trade national tyrannies for international tyranny-and such a tyranny would fight hard against the devolution of state power to civil society that Havel proposes. Universal declarations of rights can quickly turn into declarations that equality is god and that freedom (which often leads to inequality) must be fought. It's time to put away our idols. Havel has done so, but by opening the door to international princes he may inadvertently be threatening 21st century liberty.