Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

The Cold War didn’t have to end the way it did. The Communists could have won. Or it could have ended with a lot of big explosions. Instead it ended when a lot of people who had lived under Communist lies, oppression, stupidity, waste, pollution, hypocrisy, squalor and corruption stood up, risked getting their heads kicked in by the cops, and pushed the whole stinking pile of junk onto the ash heap of history.

Vaclav Havel was one of the guys who did the pushing.

A Velvet Revolution, where as few people get killed as possible, is a great achievement.

Havel is one of the guys who made that happen.

1989 and the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe already seems like something from ancient history to many people.

To me it seems like last week.

An entire disgraceful and brutal episode in our past is being sanitized and tossed down the memory hole.

Please do not forget the Soviet Union, do not forget the Cold War, do not forget Communism, do not forget the people who suffered under it, do not forget the people who opposed it, do not forget the people who wanted to give in to it, and who lied about it, do not forget the people who brought it all to an end.

Vaclav Havel, rest in peace.

The Power of the Powerless (1978)

(I just re-read this one, and it is a pretty good fit for our current situation in America. It is also in the book Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990 — cheap used copies available.)

[BTW, I cannot find the link to the extremely funny and insightful essay Havel wrote about how being President of Czechoslovakia, with someone always doing his laundry and cooking and driving him places, was making him infantile and out of touch. Anyone who has that, please put the link in the comments and I will update this post.]

22 thoughts on “Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011”

  1. RIP.

    It has faded for me, the feeling I once had about that era, and I’m not sure why? I don’t mean that I don’t agree with you about Communism and its brutality. I just mean that it feels long ago? It must feel to young people the way WWII felt to us Gen Xers. Something very important but very far away.

    – Madhu

  2. Part of the foregetting and the memory hole problem will have to deal with how some people feel today because of the Eurocentric American foreign policy of that era and the blame anti-Communists get for some of our problems in the Mideast, and relations with China, and the grand rhetoric of that era matched against those used as pawns within the greater game.

    That doesn’t mean the suffering and the vile nature of the system should be forgotten. Never, never, never. But it won’t be remembered properly if some attempt to balance all these things out are not made. Some people will just tune out.

    – Madhu

  3. It is still relevant because the stupidity and malice that led to Communism oppressing hundreds of millions of people for the better part of a century is still alive and well. Nazism is dead and gone. No one wants it back. Communism, which killed more people, is different. An oppressive form of socialism, a destructive and deadly dream, is still the fantasy of many who are either in power or who would like to be, and it is a cynical gimmick for many more who want to justify more state power simply to enrich themselves.

    Read Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” which I linked to, and you will see that what Havel calls post-totalitarianism is very much like what we call political correctness. Post-totalitarianism in Eastern Europe was Marxism as is decayed in power. Political correctness in the West today is Marxism refashioned by people like Herbert Marcuse to undermine and destroy liberal democracy and a market economy from within. Different variants of the same illness.

  4. I don’t disagree with what you say but a lot of people just tune out to that stuff. So my point was how to make it real and make it relevant and how not to forget. Because I know just what comments some people will make, “Oh you cared so much about oppression except when you didn’t. Why should I believe you now?” I am anticipating a counter argument that has traction for a lot of reasons, some stupid, some reasonable.

    – Madhu

  5. “…you cared so much about oppression except when you didn’t …”

    Oppression with thousands of ballistic missiles, thousands of tanks, and millions of supporters and fellow travelers in the West.

    If you have to pick your battles, that was the one to pick.

  6. But that was my point. We picked our battles. This does not match some of the grand rhetoric of the era. It is this space some leftist historians exploit.

    – Madhu

  7. Those Leftist historians were working that tired Leftist gimmick that the USA should abandon anyone who was less perfect, including some who were downright evil, to annexation to the Soviet Union and the Communist side in the Cold War, who were always worse. Our principles were not and are not a suicide pact if we are engaged in a deadly struggle with a poetful and relentless enemy. People who raise these issues either wanted the USA and it’s allies to lose, or they were naive useful idiots for the Leninists. Fortunately the USA focused on defeating the main adversary. It is a lot easier to insist on good behavior now.

  8. Lex, you are not getting my point. Here is an old joke that gets at my point:

    Nato math =

    1 Western European = 1 Easter European = 1.2 American soldiers = 5 Chinese = 5 Pakistanis = 10 Vietnamese = 10 Afghans, etc., etc., etc.

    I think we made the right choice. I just think the way we need to talk about it, twenty years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, needs to evolve. We made the right choice. But the price paid by some was very heavy and some never asked to be involved in the first place.

    – Madhu

  9. Also, I am talking about rhetoric. We were in a battle against an adversary. That is the main point. We were in a battle. Which meant things got dirty. Why is that so difficult to admit?

    – Madhu

  10. “You cared so much except when you didn’t” is a variant of tu quoque; they are saying your argument is invalid because you were inconsistent. This is a logical fallacy, the argument stands on its merits. You could point this out but people who tune out discussions because they aren’t “relevant” may not be interested enough to listen. BTDT.

  11. “People who raise these issues either wanted the USA and it’s allies to lose, or they were naive useful idiots for the Leninists.” Nope, not everyone. Some people just want to talk honestly about costs, even if they were worth it.

    – Madhu

  12. I think I am beginning to understand why the contemporary Right is being outmanuevered by the Left.

    – Madhu

  13. The costs were never out of the discussion.

    There were protests from the beginning about the costs. After about 1968 there was little discussion of anything else.

    What was in short supply was a recognition of the risks and the stakes in the struggle with the Communists, a struggle they were winning by the late 1970s.

    People who focused solely on the defects of the USA and its allies without that recognition were either intentional allies of the Soviet Union or culpably ignorant, with no excuse for that ignorance.

    I remember those days very clearly. Influential voices in the West uniformly condemned the USA and its allies and ignored or made excuses for our Cold War enemies. Reagan asserting that there wa not moral equivalence was greeted with derision and contempt.

    The brutality of the Soviet Union compelled us to use brutal means in response. Defeat was possible and would have been worse.

    None of this is terribly complicated.

    To bring this back on point, Havel didn’t think it was complicated either. His scathing comments about the Western anti war movement merit re-reading.

  14. No, I think on the Right some of the cost was out of the discussion. Because the Left discounted the unique evil of the Communist system and its dangers and focused entirely on the West, there was a reactive tendency to underplay some of the human cost and suffering of the “wrong” sort of victims on the Right.

    You are better read than I am. Is there a fierce Cold Warrior who discusses the sadness and terribleness at these choices and trade offs in his or her writing? I am sure there are many and it is my ignorance that is at fault.

    But I might be wrong about this and perhaps today is not the best day to talk about these issues.

    Instead, we should honor a great man in his passing. I’d like to return to this conversation at a more appropriate date.

    – Madhu

  15. The strong do what they can while the weak do what they must. The strength is there, if you can take it. The weakness is there, if you accept it.

    Inscrutable Providence decreed that the course of the last six centuries of the world’s history would be held hostage to the course of the obscure struggles of obscure peoples fighting over the north European plain. If the course of those centuries was dictated by European strength, the course of following centuries may be dictated by European weakness. Having had European relevance thrust upon them, the rest of the world will now bear the fury of European irrelevance.

    Such is the fate of all as they pass through this vail of tears. President Havel has been released. The rest of us struggle on.

  16. Lex,
    I’m sorry I put up my post – sent it in as going to lunch and it clearly wasn’t necessary. Lex, yours is moving and clear.

    You and Madhu may be talking at cross purposes, but I was reminded, today, of Havel’s legacy – and that his voice is still needed. This week’s MLA Newsletter notes its Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Frederic Jameson “a renowned cultural theorist and literary critic, acclaimed for his contibutions to Marxism, inportation of Contenintal literary theory, and his articulation of the concept postmodernism.” Important, yes. But not, perhaps, a tradition that respects the legacy of the many dead. Nor the many who are dying because such policies continue.

    And if we think we don’t still need Havel’s voice, we might note the editorials in our local newspaper observing the 9/11 anniversary. One discusses the alienation of gays in modern academia by the gay Provost; one about how the school is too parochial for the new diversity by a faculty member who chaired the women’s studies group; one about the marginalization of Blacks in the English department. These did not face the actual attack of 9/11 (nor note in passing that a gay, let alone a woman, would hardly be Provost in institutions in a country those who attacked us would rule; that the diversity in religious beliefs and ethnicities in this research environment is extraordinarily broad; nor that slavery continues and its slavemasters are not American southern whites but people, again, not unlike those that attack our country. America’s reaction to 9/11 might be celebrated: our first and human and self-preservative thought was to attack those who attack us. The second was the flurry of books on Islam that flew off the book store shelves.

    Havel’s argument that the rot of communism is a moral rot and that it comes when words no longer communicate facts –that has been forgotten – at least in academia, whose purpose is to keep such ideas alive. And every day we don’t face the truth, a bit of us rots. That Havel understood.

  17. Ginny, he merits two posts. None of has a monopoly around here, as you know.

    The intellectual and moral rot of Communism continues, despite the end of the Soviet Union.

  18. That is beautiful, Joseph Fouche.

    You know, I think I am really asking a spiritual question and not one that can be answered by history books.

    “God, why does one man have to suffer so that another man doesn’t have to suffer? God, by what right am I or people like me to decide which man suffers and which man is saved?”

    I would prefer those that take the moral rot of communism seriously to attempt answers because otherwise you get Chomskyite junk that completely perverts everything. Polemics without spirituality. But because humans are very sensitive to notions of unfairness and justice (is it neurobiological?), this junk has appeal.

    I don’t know where I am going with this. Anyway, RIP sir.

    – Madhu

  19. And every day we don’t face the truth, a bit of us rots Also beautiful, Ginny.

    I guess I want truth however hard it is.

    – Madhu

  20. Great post!

    Lex wrote:

    “do not forget the people who wanted to give in to it, and who lied about it”

    How can we forget them? Largely they have prospered:

    Former Senator Chris Dodd, who once said that the US was “on the wrong side of history” in opposing Communism in Central America went on to a career stained with corruption and a finance bill that initially attempted to close out venture capital investment to 99 % of Americans ( that provision was removed in an otherwise still awful bill)

    Joseph Biden, who as a freshmen senator worked to block the Ford administration from helping our South Vietnamese allies, by then reduced to helpless refugees and boat people, thus condemning most of them to Communist Gulags, is now Vice-President.

    Former Representative Ron “Red” Dellums, a socialist radical whose chief of staff was the lover of a communist official in the Marxist regime of Grenada, supported Castro in Africa, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua,the Soviets in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Kuwait became the Mayor of Oakland and a wealthy lobbyist on capitol hill with issues of not paying his taxes.

    Ex- Weathermen terrorists and friends of Obama Bernadine, Dohrn and Bill Ayers are influential administrators and professors at Northwestern university and U. of I at Chicago.

    The list is literally endless

  21. I’m inclined to think that Onparkstreet has a point. Might be a good idea to take a closer look at his comments.


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