Prague is lovely in springtime when a cloud-burst clears the air and sun lights up the bright green slopes above the river and the pastel facades of the Old Town. The narrow streets fill with folk; there is music in the air. Barely eighteen months after the all-powerful State withered away, the long-depressed, threadbare city has come vibrantly alive. In the declining years of the old regime, dissident intellectuals, then working as stokers and window washers, earnestly debated the virtues of a “third way,” a vaguely visualized strategy for the post-communist future that would break out of the stifling shabbiness of ideological totality without succumbing to the one-dimensional consumerism of the West. Today that talk is all but forgotten. When prominent visitors, above suspicion of communist leanings and so free to speak, such as John Paul II, recall it, they provoke an awkward silence. The erstwhile dissidents, now occupying high offices, have been thoroughly coopted by affluence. Their talk now is of the “historic triumph of liberalism,” a local code name for the Gospel According to Reagan and Thatcher. Nothing less than the first way will do.
Superficially, the results are impressive. Restitut...
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