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The Shape of the New

Dear Friends,

Petr Pavel was sworn in today as Czech president. After the announcement that Pavel had won the election, there were chants of “Pavel na Hrad” (Pavel to the Castle), reminiscent of the chants of “Havel na Hrad” that filled the streets and squares of Czechoslovakia during the November 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Pavel’s arrival represents a new opening. The former NATO general who defeated populist Andrej Babiš — a former prime minister — succeeds the Beijing-friendly, pro-Russian Miloš Zeman. The Czech Republic’s new president is a staunch supporter of Ukraine and Taiwan. In the homestretch of the campaign, candidate Pavel was forced to deny rumors of his own death circulated by Russian disinformation. He has the attention of Chinese Communist officials. Two days after being elected, Pavel took a call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-we.

When I was in Prague last month, I heard the impressive Pavel speak at a rally marking the first-year anniversary of Russia’s war on Ukraine. You can read here (Opens in a new window) in The Bulwark and here (Opens in a new window) in American Purpose impressions from Bill Kristol and me. American Purpose just hosted roundtables in Prague and Berlin (with partner Renew Democracy Initiative) that included — beyond Czechs and Germans — colleagues from Poland, the Baltic countries, Nordic states, and others in the vicinity of Ukraine. There’s a new generation of leaders stepping up; there’s a sense of urgency in the region that Ukrainians must finally get the weapons they need to defeat revanchist Russia.

Eric Edelman and Frank Miller argue (Opens in a new window) that it’s time we take the war to Russia. Battlefield defeat will end aggression, they observe. But it may well also start a process leading to political change in Moscow, which in turn would at least open the possibility of lasting peace.

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel raises awareness of Russian threats to the West. The German member of the European Parliament for Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance has worked with her team in assembling a list of attacks, physical and cyber, on German infrastructure over the past year. We’ll publish her chart next week with details of suspected Russian attacks and the stage of ongoing investigations. The pattern is alarming.

Carolyn Stewart, our managing editor, writes about Russia’s war on Ukrainian culture and identity. The exhibit Women at War (Opens in a new window) at the Stanford in Washington Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., brings together the work of leading contemporary women artists in Ukraine with striking pieces related to the ongoing war (American Purpose supported the project). Read Carolyn’s commentary on the exhibition here (Opens in a new window).

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Our culture war debates are not exactly given to subtlety and nuance. On Monday, we held a salon discussion on how to walk the transgender movement back from extremists with Jonathan Rauch, Giselle Donnelly, and Deirdre McCloskey. Yesterday, we convened a salon-style discussion at the West End Neighborhood Library on James Baldwin, featuring Iranian-American author Azar Nafisi and young Black librarian Nolan Harris, Jr. Thanks to Rob Schneider and his team at West End — this is the first in a series on politics and culture. We’re working to shed light and lower temperatures. Thanks to actress Jazmyn Ja’net for reading from Baldwin’s work. And thanks to our arts and culture editor Syd Lipset for curating this program.

We have remarkable writers tackling important problems. Read (Opens in a new window) Frank Fukuyama this week on how to tame destructive forces in social media. Read (Opens in a new window) Nicole Penn on the gender and sexuality debates. Nicole has reviewed (Opens in a new window) Richard Reeves’ Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It and Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. “Instead of looking to solutions that encourage mutual support,” writes Nicole, we too often err “by either denying that men and women face different challenges or by grounding their diagnoses in outdated stereotypes—all while relations between the sexes appear to be rapidly deteriorating.”

We have a number of essays in the pipeline I’m confident you’ll be interested in, including Marc Plattner on Bob Kagan’s new book on the collapse of world order between 1900 and 1941; Seth Cropsey on how U.S. policymakers can support the protest movement in Iran; and Mariam Memarsadeghi on the role today of Reza Pahlavi. Ariane Gottlieb is writing about new threats in the disinformation space. Don Bishop is reviewing Josh Kurlantzick’s book on Beijing’s global media offensive.

We have in hand a formidable piece of work by editorial board member Kate Epstein on America’s tortured history with debt. Read anything the Rutgers historian writes for American Purpose. Her most recent essay was “A Dispatch from the Exhausted Majority (Opens in a new window).” Kate argues that both the woke Left and MAGA Right are failing to understand that most people are fed up with vicious, demonizing, winner-takes-all politics.

Music and Politics

Václav Havel dreamt of a liberal, democratic society. He was passionate about the arts and found himself attached to the music of Frank Zappa and the Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe. In his biography of the dissident-playwright turned president-statesman, Michael Žantovský writes that Havel was actually less interested in the music than he was in freedom and integrity, and in rebellious, non-conformist challenges posed to a totalitarian system. For Havel, it was an epiphany when the secret police rounded up the Plastics and other musicians on March 16, 1976, for the crime of playing music.

I’m reading about Havel and Frank Zappa, and listening this week to Samuel Barber. Barber was born on March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Barber had his own Czech links. In 1946, he was enlisted by the State Department as a member of the American delegation to the first Prague Spring International Music Festival (Opens in a new window). His music was showcased alongside Leonard Bernstein and other leading American composers. Two years later, on February 25, 1948, Soviet-backed Communists took full control of the Czechoslovak government.

Everyone knows Barber’s gorgeous, reflective Adagio for Strings (Opens in a new window). Even if you think you don’t know it, you might have heard it in soundtracks for the movies Platoon, Elephant Man, or Lorenzo’s Oil. It has popped up in comedic fashion in Seinfeld and The Simpsons. It was played over the radio when Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, at the funeral of Albert Einstein in 1955, and after the funeral of John F. Kennedy in a national broadcast on November 25, 1963.

But there’s other work by Barber that gets overlooked. (The same applies to Pachelbel, who wrote more than his Canon (Opens in a new window) in D major.) Here’s (Opens in a new window) a string quartet by Barber. You can try his first symphony here (Opens in a new window).

I like Barber because he wasn’t afraid to experiment. He didn’t run in horror from dissonance. Yet Barber was also convinced that music must be accessible. He saw himself as a bit of an outsider, and genuinely American in spirit. He never belonged to the Stravinsky inner circle, he once mused, or was written about in The New Year Review of Books. Comfortable in his own skin would be an apt way to describe Samuel Barber.



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