Velvet President: Why Vaclav Havel Is Our Era's George Orwell and More

By Welch, Matt | Reason, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Velvet President: Why Vaclav Havel Is Our Era's George Orwell and More


Welch, Matt, 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. Consider:

* Last September he delivered a rousing anti-communist speech over Radio Marti, 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. …

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