An essay focuses on the possibility that some version of love can conquer the nation’s profound political divisions.
Havel (The Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill, 2019, etc.) begins his work with a now familiar observation, at once a diagnosis and an expression of concern: America is cleaved into two deeply divergent political groups, a “conflicted duopoly” more than a cohesive whole. He describes that split in terms of the ideological contest between conservatism (or capitalism—he routinely conflates the two) and socialism and frets that the U.S. is on the precipice of devolving into an extreme version of one of these dogmas, a development that could lead to violent revolt. He phrases the issue with a vague alarmism that typifies the book as a whole: “If we do not compromise and cooperate at this time, and if this cooperation is somehow veiled or hidden from a blood-thirsty public, then this condition will worsen and lead to our nation’s demise, maybe not right away, but definitely in the near future.” In order to find the resources for a future détente, the author investigates the nature of love, which is, among other things, “the responsible ability to compromise.” Havel surveys three historical expressions of love—eros, philia, and agape—and the possibility of their emergence within different political systems. He concludes that agape, a general love for humankind, expressed as a faith in a transcendent force or being, is both possible and necessary for the country to collectively forge common ground.
Havel’s account is philosophically searching—he even attempts to pin down a sense of what “rumination” means. It also has the virtue of being unencumbered by politically partisan commitments—while calls for compromise are often thinly veiled demands for surrender, the author’s plea for détente seems entirely sincere. But his ambition is unfortunately not matched with intellectual rigor—the book is rife with assumptions that are presented as obviously true but lack any empirical evidence. For example, he asserts without substantiation that “fear and paranoia” are the chief motivations for those within “extreme capitalist societies” while those in socialist societies experience a “deeper more intrinsic love.” Havel also has a fondness for vague generalities, managing to discuss the operation of grand economic systems without a whiff of empirical evidence. Even his ultimate solution to the crisis of division is remarkably underdeveloped and reads like a hopeful homily more than a reasoned conclusion: “What it can do, however, is to find the least bit of love in both political systems, and should that love exist in both, it is highly possible, then, that this application of love to the militant separation of ideas and two opposing streams of ideas that continues in current politics can make a difference to bring wholeness and a completeness to our conflicted.” Finally, the essay reads like a hastily executed first draft—the argument shiftlessly meanders from one disconnected topic to another.
A messy pastiche of reflections that lacks philosophical rigor, conceptual specificity, and empirical substantiation.