Vaclav Havel helped to bring down a totalitarian regime; Kim Jong-Il ran one. One was imprisoned repeatedly for refusing to conform to even the smallest of the lies foisted upon him by communism—and in doing so, inspired his fellow citizens to join him in throwing it off. The other, delusional, starved his citizens of food and reality, and leaves them weaker, more desolate, and more in danger than when he found them. One, armed with only his sentences and his moral compass, was drafted to preside over the transition to democracy, an acting job that did not naturally suit the artist in him; despite that ill fit, he helped restore a small, literate, and highly educated country in the heart of Europe, a country that had been successively crushed by two of the 20th century’s most evil figures, Hitler and Stalin. The other was born into his destructive power and used it to expand the pantheon of smaller evil figures, joining such luminaries of darkness as Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Muammar Qaddafi, destroying his own citizens.
Thinking of the two of them together makes me think of comic books and children’s movies: the hero and the villain, good versus evil. Kim Jong-Il was evil to an almost cartoonish degree. But Havel was not an action hero, not Luke Skywalker or Superman; he was an artist hero, a moral hero, whose secret power was a rare combination of honesty and clarity, of both thought and expression.
Vaclav Havel was mitteleuropa’s Nelson Mandela. The fact that he actually presided over the Castle was Kafkaesque in reverse, with an absurdly happy ending rather than an absurdly hopeless one. The mainstream news will be dominated for days to come—and, perhaps, for years—by the dangerous instability left in Kim Jong-Il’s wake. The foreign policy experts will have to weigh in on how they envision North Korea’s nightmare can be dismantled without nuclear war. But Havel is, for me, the figure of absurd hope, a reminder that even the most hopeless regime of lies can result in truth.
There’s nothing funny about Dear Leader; he leaves his country and region in genuine crisis. But here’s this video anyway, mocking his propaganda. Let me excuse myself with David Remnick’s reminiscence of Havel:
Even surrounded by the pomp of his office, Havel retained to the end an impish smile, a constant acknowledgement that his power was both an immense responsibility and an equally immense cosmic joke.
I’m corny enough to believe in Vaclav Havel as an incarnation of the good (decidedly not the perfect, but the good)—and in the idea that over time, truth, art, and humor will win out against evil. I have to believe that somewhere in the North Korea, someone is getting ready to help them break out into hope and freedom. Not in the same way, of course; the situation is far more dire, and it's an entirely different culture. But dictators may be all alike, every incarnation of good is good in its own way.
Since this is a week rich with meaningful obituaries, here’s Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair devastating report on Dear Leader’s North Korea. And here’s a wonderful Havel remembrance, over at the Guardian—and an excerpt from his 1990 inaugural address to the post-Communist Czechoslovakia. Does this, by chance, make you think about our nation as well?
My dear fellow citizens,
For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.
I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.
Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers' state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available. A country that once could be proud of the educational level of its citizens spends so little on education that it ranks today as seventy-second in the world. We have polluted the soil, rivers and forests bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adults in our country die earlier than in most other European countries….
But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly that the powers that be should not be all-powerful and that the special farms, which produced ecologically pure and top-quality food just for them, should send their produce to schools, children's homes and hospitals if our agriculture was unable to offer them to all…
When I talk about the contaminated moral atmosphere … I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all—though naturally to differing extents—responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.
Why do I say this? It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly. Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.
If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this, hope will return to our hearts.
And in memory of the Velvet Revolution, here's a little of Havel's friend Lou Reed.