Velvet President: Why Vaclav Havel is our era’s George Orwell and more. (Matt Welch, May 2003, Reason)
Last fall, as the United States rumbled toward war against Saddam Hussein, literary reviews and higher-brow magazines wrestled with an intriguing if unlikely hypothetical: What would George Orwell say if he were here today?
Christopher Hitchens, the fire-breathing British journalist who kick-started the discussion with his book Why Orwell Matters, suggested that a contemporary Eric Blair "would have seen straight through the characters who chant ‘No War On Iraq’" and helped the rest of us to "develop the fiber to call Al-Qaeda what it actually is." Washington Post book reviewer George Scialabba stated confidently that "Orwell would associate himself with the unsexy democratic left, notably Dissent and the American Prospect," and that "he might, in particular, have wondered aloud why the heinous terrorist murder of 3,000 Americans was a turning point in history." Commentary tried yet again to claim Orwell as a neocon, and The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks argued that the great man’s mantle and relevance had actually passed onto a new contrarian’s shoulders: "At this moment, oddly enough, Hitchens matters more than Orwell."
At exactly the same time, the one man in the world of the living who could justifiably claim to be Orwell’s heir was expounding almost daily on Saddam Hussein and international terrorism — even while rushing through one of the most frenetic periods of a famously accomplished life. Vaclav Havel, the 66-year-old former Czech president who was term-limited out of office on February 2, built his reputation in the 1970s by being to eyewitness fact what George Orwell was to dystopian fiction. In other words, he used common sense to deconstruct rhetorical falsehoods, pulling apart the suffocating mesh of collectivist lies one carefully observed thread at a time.
Like Orwell, Havel was a fiction writer whose engagement with the world led him to master the nonfiction political essay. Both men, in self-described sentiment, were of "the left," yet both men infuriated the left with their stinging criticism and ornery independence. Both were haunted by the Death of God, delighted by the idiosyncratic habits of their countrymen, and physically diminished as a direct result of their confrontation with totalitarians (not to mention their love of tobacco). As essentially neurotic men with weak mustaches, both have given generations of normal citizens hope that, with discipline and effort, they too can shake propaganda from everyday language and stand up to the foulest dictatorships.
Unlike Orwell, Havel lived long enough to enjoy a robust third act, and his last six months in office demonstrated the same kind of restless, iconoclastic activism that has made him an enemy of ideologues and ally of freedom lovers for nearly five decades. […]
The first targets of Havel’s considerable wrath and sarcasm were the poor fools making "halfhearted" efforts at creating "Socialism with a humanface." One of his first essays, 1965?s "On Evasive Thinking" (collected in the English-language volume Open Letters) makes cruel sport of a newspaper essayist who — not unlike his modern American counterparts — attempted to assess and then dismiss the broader significance of a temporal tragedy, in this case, a building ledge falling and killing a passerby. "The public," Havel wrote, "again showed more intelligence and humanity than the writer, for it had understood that the so-called prospects of mankind are nothing but an empty platitude if they distract us from our particular worry about who might be killed by [another] window ledge, and what will happen should it fall on a group of nursery-school children out for a walk."
Here, in Havel’s earliest essay to be translated into English, you can already find the four main themes that have animated his adult nonfiction writing ever since. One is the responsibility to make the world a better place. Another is that the slightest bit of personal dishonesty warps the soul. ("The minute we begin turning a blind eye to what we don’t like in each other?s writing, the minute we begin to back away from our own inner norms, to accommodate ourselves to each other, cut deals with each other over poetics, we will in fact set ourselves against each other…until one day we will disappear in a general fog of mutual admiration.")
A third theme is that ideology-driven governance is practically doomed to fail. ("It prevents whoever has it in his power to solve the problem of the Prague facades from understanding that he bears responsibility for something and that he can’t lie his way out of that responsibility.") Finally, there is his belief in the revolutionary potency of individuals speaking freely and "living in truth."
The last of these phenomena became nearly extinct after the tanks of 1968 rolled in from Russia. The new rulers ushered in the "normalization" period, during which tens of thousands emigrated and most "nonconformist" writers (including Havel) were inconvenienced, banned, or sometimes just locked away. In April 1975, facing an utterly demoralized country and an understandable case of writer’s block, Havel committed an act of such sheer ballsiness that the shock waves are still being felt in repressive countries 30 years later. He simply sat down and, knowing that he’d likely be imprisoned for his efforts, wrote an open letter to his dictator, Gustav Husak, explaining in painstaking detail just why and how totalitarianism wasruining Czechoslovakia.
"So far," Havel scolded Husak, "you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power."
It was the Big Bang that set off the dissident movement in Central Europe. For those lucky enough to read an illegally retyped copy or hear it broadcast over Radio Free Europe, the effect was not unlike what happened to the 5,000 people who bought the Velvet Underground’s first record: After the shock and initial pleasure wore off, many said, "Wait a minute, I can do this too!" By standing up to a system that had forced every citizen to make a thousand daily compromises, Havel was suggesting a novel new tactic: Have the self-respect to tell the truth, never mind the consequences, and maybe you’ll put the bastards on the defensive.
We like Matt Welch anyway, but note the diabolically clever conceit of this essay: first he dismisses the attempts of others to claim the mantle of George Orwell’s approval for their position on the war, then grants the rightful mantle to Havel, who just happens to be pro-war. That’s how you get to be a professional pundit.