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Velvet President Why Vaclav Havel is our era’s George Orwell and more.
Reason ^ | May 2003 | Matt Welch

Posted on 04/23/2003 5:45:25 AM PDT by Valin

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.


• Last September he delivered a rousing anti-communist speech over Radio Martí, a much-mocked station funded by Washington and beamed to Cuba. "When the internal crisis of the totalitarian system grows so deep that it becomes clear to everyone," he declared, "and when more and more people learn to speak their own language and reject the hollow, mendacious language of the powers that be, it means that freedom is remarkably close, if not directly within reach." He also nominated Oswald Paya Sardinas -- the Cuban spokesman for the Varela Project, an opposition group modeled directly on Havel’s 1970s movement Charter 77 -- for the Nobel Peace Prize. The speech was virtually ignored by the American press.

• In the days preceding, he gave a series of speeches across America that existentially questioned his own fitness for higher office, while still tossing off backbone-stiffening zingers like, "Evil must be confronted in its womb and, if it can’t be done otherwise, then it has to be dealt with by the use of force."

• In November he orchestrated and hosted a historic NATO summit in Prague, where the Western alliance formally accepted seven formerly communist countries for membership. Havel, who has long been the most influential advocate for expanding NATO eastward, marked the occasion by installing above the Prague Castle -- the Czech presidential residence -- a goofy neon heart, of the same design that he draws atop his signature. In his major speech at the event, with George W. Bush looking on, Havel analyzed Iraq through the prism of the 1938 Munich Agreement, when war-shy British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain notoriously sacrificed western Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the name of "peace with honor" and unknowingly gave generations of American interventionists a go-to example whenever it came time to attack another dictator. But before Paul Wolfowitz could high-five Condoleezza Rice, Havel warned that eerily similar high-sounding rhetoric was used to justify the Warsaw Pact’s indefensible 1968 invasion of Prague.

• In January, in one of his last official acts as president, he joined seven other European political leaders in signing an open letter supporting Bush’s policy toward Iraq. The act drove a wedge between what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gleefully called the "Old Europe" and "New Europe," and led French President Jacques Chirac to threaten to bar the Czech Republic and any other war-supporting Central European country from joining the European Union.

(Excerpt) Read more at ...

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Extended News; Foreign Affairs
KEYWORDS: alqaeda; christopherhitchens; cuba; davidbrooks; georgeorwell; iraqifreedom; mattwelch; nato; neweurope; noamchomsky; oldeurope; orwell; prague; vaclavhavel; warsawpact

1 posted on 04/23/2003 5:45:25 AM PDT by Valin
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To: Valin
The fact is that Orwell was consistently an advocate of the welfare state at home and an opponent of tyranny abroad.

If he were transplanted to modern-day America he would probably be a staunch supporter of government-funded job training, unionism, taxes on estates and taxes on dividends, and 'living wage' laws. He would be a strong critic of corporate corruption and an advocate of a modified form of affirmative action.

At the same time, he would strongly support the war on terrorism and dictatorships which support it, would oppose abortion and the death penalty and oppose the 'gay rights' movement.

I base all this on things he actually wrote.

2 posted on 04/23/2003 6:00:27 AM PDT by wideawake (Support our troops and their Commander-in-Chief)
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To: wideawake
Orwell was an important, if not great, writer. He was right on some of the most important questions of his time.

He was wrong on socialism at home, thinking Britain rich enough to do it, and people sufficiently maleable (which is strange considering his understanding of the Soviet and fascist dangers) that it could work. That was silly.

His sympathy for the colonial peoples came from his contact with them and his dislike of some of the British attitudes he encountered. I cannot fault him for those sympathies, even if he was quite wrong on the solution, in my view.

3 posted on 04/23/2003 6:27:10 AM PDT by CatoRenasci (Mesopotamia Delenda Est)
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To: Valin
Havel spent this period at the influential and radical Theatre of the Balustrade, where he gobbled speed and pushed the free expression envelope with absurdist topical plays such as The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.

Yeah, if I did lots of speed I'd have trouble concentrating too.

Reading his comments in the article, I am struck byt what the west has become, including the United States. Democracy is no longer working to achieve what one supports, but a struggle to defeat what one opposes. The various groups always use terms to sound positive (peace movement, pro-life, pro-choice), but each is working towards eliminating what they disagree with.

Recent elections bear this out. Clinton did not win 2 terms because people voted for him. He won because people voted against Bush and Dole. Al Gore lost because voters registered their votes against him by voting for Nader. Even we conservatives were most concerned with keeping Gore out of office. For most, GW Bush being the candidate was incidental.

4 posted on 04/23/2003 8:44:52 AM PDT by sharktrager
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To: Valin
A great article by Welch!!

There must be something great about a country that can export music that sustains the dream of freedom in a totalitarian state. An intuitive insight which Havel has never forgotten. First it was jazz, then it was rock n' roll.

The only dark cloud, as usual, is Noam Chomsky. The Noam has spent the better part of 40 years heaping lies, bile and venom upon the nation within which he resides, but has never been arrested for his thoughts. The fact that he can do this emboldens him. I wonder if he would have the courage to do the same if he had found himself living in a totalitarian system? Does he wrestle with that possibility? That Havel passed the test that Chomsky will never, ever have to endure. Envy maybe?

The Chomsky letter can be found at

Really quite a horrible man.

5 posted on 04/24/2003 11:02:48 PM PDT by moni kerr (Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way)
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To: Valin
Havel is one of the great men of the 20th Century, from the rest of the article:

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 was ruining 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.

He and Orwell did more to defeat Communism than anyone besides Reagan. We owe them very much.

6 posted on 04/25/2003 8:26:54 PM PDT by gore3000
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To: moni kerr
The problem with Chomsky and his ilk is they still think it's 1978.
7 posted on 04/25/2003 8:55:49 PM PDT by Valin (Age and deceit beat youth and skill)
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To: gore3000
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 was ruining Czechoslovakia.

It was the Big Bang that set off the dissident movement in Central Europe.

So much for the vast impersonal forces theory. One person can make a difference, or in this case a few people. All it takes is a clear eye, and passion.
8 posted on 04/25/2003 8:59:50 PM PDT by Valin (Age and deceit beat youth and skill)
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