Havel, Kim and the Ideas That Live On

Daily Mail (London), December 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

Havel, Kim and the Ideas That Live On


Byline: Dr Mark Dooley

BOB DYLAN might deem it a 'simple twist of fate'. Still, the fact that the former Czech president Vaclav Havel died on the same weekend as North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il, contains more than a dash of divine irony.

For it reminds us that death is not discriminatory, that 'sceptre and crown must tumble down, and in the dust be equal made with poor crooked scythe and spade'.

Kim Jong-Il represented all that Vaclav Havel spent his life opposing. For it was he, along with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the horrors of Soviet socialism. But even now, more than 20 years after the collapse of that 'evil empire', those horrors are still plaguing the poor souls of North Korea.

Havel is my political hero because he showed how it is possible to resist such evil through thought. He demonstrated that the best way to conquer tyranny is through 'politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans'.

Those words are taken from an address to the University of Toulouse, which granted Havel an honorary doctorate in 1984. As Czechoslovakia's most renowned dissident, he was denied a passport to attend the conferring.

But this did not prevent my friend, the philosopher Roger Scruton, from smuggling the speech out of Czechoslovakia and publishing it in his journal The Salisbury Review.

Providing such assistance to the anti-Communist underground ensured that Scruton was 'observed' whenever he entered Czechoslovakia. In 1987, after one mission too many, he was trailed by the secret police, assaulted and expelled from the country.

By then, however, the power of Havel's message was too potent for the Communist authorities to contain.

In his University of Toulouse speech entitled Politics And Conscience, Havel writes that, as a boy, he used to stroll through the fields to school. In the distance, he could see 'a huge smokestack of some hurriedly built factory' which 'spewed dense smoke and scattered it across the sky'.

For the young Havel, this smoke symbolised a 'soiling of the heavens'. It was 'a symbol of an epoch which denies the binding importance of personal experience - including the experience of mystery and the Absolute'.

Such is what he perceived as the 'arrogance of mankind in the age of science', an age in which we relegate 'personal conscience and consciousness to the bathroom, as something so private that it is no one's business'.

Nothing characterised this 'bathroom morality' more than the Communist system and its commissars.

For behind the 'judicious mask' of the Soviet apparatchik, there is not 'a trace of a human being rooted in the natural order by his loves, passions, interests, personal opinions, hatred, courage or cruelty'. …

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