Article - Winter 2014

My Kingdom for a Wave

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If your life as a public intellectual takes you to the highest crests, be prepared for the troughs that follow

By Amitai Etzioni

Now that I am about to turn 85 and the hourglass is almost empty, I have come to understand better than ever before an odd meeting I once had with the late Czech president and playwright Václav Havel. I was part of a group he had assembled at the ornate presidential castle in Prague. The participants included Hillary Rodham Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Adam Michnik (a Polish historian and journalist, and a much-revered dissenter), Meir Lau (a chief rabbi from Israel), Ashis Nandy (an Indian political psychologist), and Bishop Jonas Jonson of the Church of Sweden. We were each invited to speculate about where we thought history was headed next. It took a private chat with Michnik and an exchange with Havel, mediated by an interpreter, for me to realize that Havel (like other leaders of the anti-Communist uprisings that drove the Soviet Union out of Eastern Europe) was desperately looking for another wave to ride. As a hero of the masses who rose up against their oppressors and prevailed, Havel had every right to feel that he had played a crucial historical role, after which all that followed paled in comparison. It was clear to me then and even more apparent now that Havel and his comrades would have given almost anything to move history just one more time.

In comparison, my wave was so small that it escaped the attention of most people.

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Amitai Etzioni is director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at the George Washington University, where he is University Professor. Among his more than three dozen books is a memoir, My Brother’s Keeper.

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