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Friday, June 06, 2008

We Need More Leaders Like Vaclav Havel


Vaclav Havel was a Czech writer and dramatist who became so angered by the oppression of the Communist government of the UUSR that his anger and sense of drove him all the way to the Presidency of his country.
Vaclav Havel was no career politician. He was a man shaken but not bowed by the events of his time. He was a man in whom anger lit a sense of purpose. He was a man driven by the righteous idea that every individual on the Earth was born endowed with the unalienable right to freedom.



In these decadent times when powerful people in the West cannot conceive of
any response to totalitarian jihad other than rank appeasement, and when the
name of Che Guevara, a bloodthirsty Stalinist and enemy of freedom, is
synonymous with heroism, it is vital that free people be familiar with — and
honor — the examples of those valiant few who, living under totalitarianism,
have stood up to it with a courage that today’s appeasers of Islam could hardly
imagine.

Among the greatest of these heroes is Vaclav Havel.

Born in 1936, Havel spent his early years under the two major
twentieth-century varieties of totalitarianism — first Nazism, then Communism.
When the Communists took over Czechoslovakia after World War II, instituting a
system under which, as Havel biographer Edá Kriseová writes, “[e]veryone was
afraid of his neighbor” and “[p]eople disappeared without a trace,” they
confiscated the Havel family’s money and the theater they owned.

In 1949, Havel’s father was imprisoned and interrogated for several weeks;
three years later, the Havels’ home and possessions were taken from them as part
of a new policy under which class enemies were to be removed from Prague. News
of the latter development gave Havel’s maternal grandfather a stroke from which
he died; meanwhile Havel’s uncle Miloš, after spending two years in prison and
labor camp as punishment for having run a movie studio, escaped to West Germany
with the help of American troops — whereupon his name, according to Kriseová,
was “erased from the history of Czech film.”

Prohibited from being a full-time university student because he was the
son of bourgeois parents, Havel cobbled together an education by working as a
chem lab apprentice, attending night classes, and studying economics and, later,
drama. In 1952, when Havel was sixteen, the Czechoslovak government tried
thirteen people on trumped-up charges of conspiracy to overthrow the Communist
regime. The questions and answers were scripted, the defendants found guilty
(the verdict, of course, having been preordained), and all but two of the
convicts executed, their ashes, as Kriseová writes, “shoveled into sacks and
scattered on an icy side road in the outskirts of Prague.”

This was only one of many “crazed experiment[s] in the arts of legalized
terror” that took place in Czechoslovakia at the time, the purpose of which was
not to punish real criminals or dissidents but to maintain an atmosphere of
terror and reaffirm the state’s power to do what it pleased. Such “experiments”
had the desired effect: most people in Czechoslovakia kept a low profile. But
not Havel: determined to work in the theater, he continued to write plays —
mostly critiques of Communist utopianism and dogmatism — even though their
production and publication were banned.

Then, in 1968, something remarkable happened: the “Prague Spring,”
during which Alexander Dubček’s government lifted censorship and travel
restrictions and granted freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. But not for
long: Russian tanks moved in, and Dubček was handcuffed and shipped to Moscow,
where he was interrogated, isolated, threatened, bullied, and humiliated. After
he finally agreed to sign a document capitulating entirely to the Kremlin, he
was allowed to fly back to Prague, where he sobbed his way through a radio
speech announcing his capitulation. The Communists then proceeded to whip
Czechoslovakia back into line by (among other things) purging most government
ministers, top diplomats, and company officials; firing thousands of teachers,
school principals, and professors; persecuting actors and artists; forcing
almost half of the country’s journalists to resign and replacing everybody at
the management level of news organizations; dismissing the great majority of
writers from the Writers’ Union, imprisoning or exiling many of them, and
removing books by scores of them (including Havel) from libraries.

The lesson was clear: in the words of Havel biographer John Keane, the
people of Czechoslovakia
were expected to join what Havel’s friend Ivan Klíma
called the “community of the defeated,” and to abide by its basic rules: that
there would only ever be one governing party, to which everything, including
truth itself, belonged; that the world was divided into enemies and friends of
the Party and, accordingly, that compliance with Party policies was rewarded,
dissent penalized; and, finally, that the Party no longer required the complete
devotion of its subjects, only the quiet acceptance of its dictates.

It is a mark of Havel’s character that when
Czechoslovak officials, eager to be rid of him (one of the country’s leading
troublemakers), actually offered to let him move to the West and take a dream
job he had been offered with the New York Shakespeare Festival, Havel, who at
the time was working in a brewery, refused. “The solution to this human
situation,” he wrote, “does not lie in leaving it.”


Years passed. Organized dissent in Czechoslovakia disappeared. Then, in 1976, a rock group called the Plastic People of the Universe was
arrested. The musicians were not dissidents, or even politically
inclined
; but in the eyes of the Communist leaders, their music was, in
and of itself, subordinate. The group’s arrest underlined the fact that
what was at issue in Communist Eastern Europe was not simply the right to
political dissent — it was the right simply to be oneself, to spread one’s
wings, to do one’s thing.


The trial led Havel and others to found Charter 77, a group that called on
the government to live up to its obligations under international human rights
agreements. It was a new tactic:

Czechoslovakia’s leaders, like the heads of other Communist countries, had
entered into a number of such agreements, of which their very system of
government was, of course, a violation; signing them was an act of pure cynicism
on which no one had ever challenged them.

At first the Plastics didn’t even know whether to align themselves with
Charter 77; but they eventually decided to stand up for themselves — and with
Havel.

“In this trial,” Kriseová would later write, “the human desire to lead
one’s life freely was in the dock. It was a trial in the name of sameness,
indifference, bureaucratization, total obedience, and conformity. Anything that
deviated from the norm in any way had to be liquidated.” Or, in Havel’s words: the trial was “an impassioned debate about the
meaning of human existence, an urgent questioning of what one should expect from
life, whether one should silently accept the world as it is presented to one and
slip obediently into one’s pre-arranged place in it, or whether one has the
strength to exercise free choice in the matter.”


Eventually over a thousand people signed Charter 77’s manifesto, and
many were punished severely for it. Havel — already under the watchful eye of
the Czechoslovak government — became a constant target of its attentions. The
secret police interrogated him regularly. “He received threatening letters and
anonymous telephone calls,” writes Keane.

His life began to feel as if it was one continuous round of threats,
bright lights, padded doors, wooden desks, sliding chairs, handcuffs,
truncheons. … When it became clear to the authorities that the man was not for
giving up … Havel was arrested, charged … with committing “serious crimes
against the basic principles of the Republic.” He was confined without trial “in
total isolation” for four and a half months in Ruzyně prison. After his release,
he and other Chartists were beaten brutally by police at a ball for railway
workers.

In all, Havel was imprisoned four times. “Prison hammered into Havel’s
hide the painful realization that responsibility is the key to human identity,”
Keane writes.

Courage did not come easily to Havel. It was a matter of will, of
resolve. In prison, swarming with worries about what prison would do to his
soul, his sense of humor, he struggled to keep up his spirits. … He was riddled
with guilt over having dragged other people into Charter 77. He was deeply
suspicious of utopians with their “radiant tomorrows”:

“What is a concentration camp but an attempt by Utopians to dispose of
those elements which don’t fit into their Utopia?”

After the Charter’s appeal was made public, the Czechoslovak government
put together a group of artists, musicians, journalists, and performers who
publicly declared their enthusiasm for the Communist system and who condemned
Havel and others as imperialist agents. To read their testimonies now is to be
reminded of today’s Western apologists for jihadism. (The difference, of course,
is that the latter, who are not yet living under the totalitarianism they so
reprehensibly defend, have less excuse for their cowardice.)

In 1978 Havel wrote a long essay that would have an extraordinary
impact and that should be required reading in Western schools. “The Power of the
Powerless” explained on a profound human level why Communist tyranny should be
resisted with all one’s heart and mind and soul.

It wasn’t a dry political treatise — it was a work of deep thought and
feeling that accomplished the apparently impossible: it enabled many Eastern
Europeans to look with fresh eyes at the oppression that they had long taken for
granted as the way of the world. And in doing so, it persuaded them to abandon
their meek passivity and stand up for their liberties.

Only on a very few occasions in history has a writer attained a unique
insight into his society and expressed it in words that moved mountains; Havel
is one such writer. His essay took Eastern Europe by storm. Solidarity member
Zbigniew Bujak later said that it came along at a time when he and many of his
fellow Polish activists felt dispirited and had decided that it was pointless to
challenge their Communist masters.

“The Power of the Powerless” changed that. It articulated, in words that
touched them to the core, the spiritual need to resist oppression.

“Reading it,” explained Bujak, “gave us the theoretical underpinnings for
our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later —
in August 1980 — it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory
management were afraid of us.” Of the spectacular successes of Solidarity in
Poland and of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Bujak said, “I see in them an
astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel’s
essay.”

In the essay, Havel imagined a man who runs a fruit and vegetable stand in
Communist Czechoslovakia (runs, not owns: in Communist Europe, of course, all
businesses were owned by the state). The man puts in his store window a sign
bearing a Communist slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why, Havel asked,
does he do this? The answer: he’s afraid. He wants to live “in harmony with
society,” and must prove he’s obedient. Havel noted that such a man might
hesitate, out of shame, to post a sign explicitly admitting his fear; but the
sign bearing the Communist slogan helps him conceal his cowardice from himself
by hiding it behind the façade of ideology — an ideology that offers people “the
illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for
them to part with them.”

Communist ideology, Havel pointed out, obliges
people to “live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for
them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact,
individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the
system.”


Moreover, while life in free societies “moves toward plurality,
diversity, independent self-constitution, and self-organization,” life under
Communism “demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline.”


People like Havel’s greengrocer, by going along with all this, become not
only victims of the system’s oppression but also collaborators in it — for the
sign in the window, in addition to testifying to the shopkeeper’s meek
compliance, increases pressure on other merchants to put signs in their windows
lest the authorities start asking why they haven’t.

So it is that ordinary people, by kowtowing to the system, become its
enforcers. (Thus are the subjects of Communism the equivalent of dhimmis under
Islam.)


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