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Havel's Polluted Sunset

01.26.2003 | POLITICS

I first met Vaclav Havel over breakfast. It was early 1990, and my father handed me a jelly-stained Boston Globe article about the new Czechoslovak president. Like the awe-struck Washington press corps, he was gushing about Havel's speech to a joint session of Congress—"a real philosopher-king!"—and held its eloquence up to the drab clichés of Washington-speak.

And what a contrast it was. Havel's address to the American legislature was an inspired display of the trademarked Havel style, bursting with universal truths and grand, high-sounding platitudes.

It was also a lubricated hand job. Years later, studying Havel in a poli-sci class, his comments to Congress read like an extended apologia for American foreign policy. At the center of Havel's overwrought language, a picture emerged resembling the one painted by America's proudest Cold Warriors: the Soviet Union was a fanged evil empire and Washington the strong but fluttering angel of History, whom Havel and all of Eastern Europe could thank for their newfound freedom. The marginalization of others responsible for a peaceful denouement to the Cold War—including Mikhail Gorbachev and millions of Eastern Europeans—was a simplification that helps explain the extended standing ovation the speech received.

The dissident messenger from Prague told America just what it wanted to hear. When those Congressmen stood up to applaud Vaclav Havel, they were also applauding themselves. The speech was more than congratulation, it was absolution.

Vaclav Havel, leader of a nation hungry for aid and acceptance, knew what he was doing. He knew that the United States was responsible for terror and repression from Indochina to El Salvador to the West Bank, but he also knew in his bones the old Czech wisdom that says "people sing the song of whose cake they eat." Or as the Americans say, he knew where his bread was buttered. As Havel would soon realize and discuss with admirable frankness, he was no longer the brave dissident "living in truth." He was now an establishment-friendly ethical circus act, a globe trotting, script-reading symbol of oppression and resistance who had credibility with NATO brass and Amnesty International. His trust across the board was a priceless commodity for himself and his country—as well as those with something to gain by rubbing Havel's magic shoulders.

In reality, his hard-earned reputation for courage, dignity and standing up for the oppressed was fast becoming a hollow shell. Washington didn't want to hear about socialism with a human face, and the privatizers banging at the gate had little patience for Havel's former vision of a world where "poets might have as powerful a voice as bankers." As president, Havel learned to keep it very vague when talking about peace and social justice, ever mindful of powerful toes. By the time of the Velvet Divorce, Havel had settled into the same politician who would later cordially invite Henry Kissinger to the castle and justify the bombing of civilian targets in Belgrade.

What is commonly called Havel's "tragedy" is perhaps better described as a steady and pragmatic shift to the right. As his friend and admirer Timothy Garten Ash has written about at length, Havel embodies the crisis of the intellectual in high office, where ideals inevitably crunch and buckle against the realities of power. But how hard these ideals are rammed against power is up to the intellectual, in this case Vaclav Havel.

One of the earliest examples of this conflict was the choice to allow military trade shows on Czech soil. Havel the playwright-dissident was a pacifist; Havel the president bolstered the Czech arms industry in the name of jobs and national security. His softening opposition to Temelin and nuclear power represents another early instance of backpedaling.

Such compromises were inevitable. But the end of Havel's stint on the world stage begs a tallying of how Havel managed the conflicts between truth and power, ethics and expediency. As he packs his bags for Portugal, Vaclav Havel remains a potent symbol. But does he still deserve Ash's oft-quoted title of the "moral leader of Europe?"

As leader of the Czech nation, Havel will be remembered as an heir to Masaryk who brought the Czechs into NATO and to the door of the EU. Those who wished him to be a powerful voice for underdog politics, however, will not judge him so kindly. His prettifying salesmanship of American power abroad, his leaden foot-dragging on Roma rights issues at home, his ongoing failure to speak with clarity and courage on important issues of the day—all of this has made his reputation as a progressive force in the world something of a bad joke.

The last straw for many came in 2001, when Havel backed the billion crown purchase of Grippen fighters while Czech health and education systems were falling apart. Just as shocking was a friendly 2002 visit to the state of Florida, where Havel gave tacit support to the hard-right gubernatorial campaign of Jeb Bush, after meeting with anti-Castro extremists.

All of which is not to say that Havel is not a remarkable man, or his story not one of the most fascinating and admirable biographies in politics. His courage and suffering under communism command respect, as do his impassioned speeches in defense of human dignity and cross-cultural tolerance. His eloquence is unequaled among statesmen, and he alone can quote Heidegger without sparking curiosity about which speechwriter inserted the quote. What president but Havel would say the following, as he did to an audience in New York this September:

The moral order and its sources, human rights and [their] sources, human responsibility and its origins, human conscience and the penetrating view of that from which nothing can be hidden with a curtain of noble words—these are, in my deepest convictions and in all my experience, the most important political themes of our time.

I moved to the Czech Republic in 1997, and knowing that this guy lived in the castle, has been, for lack of a better word, cool. Crusty lefties can bitch about Havel's perceived sell-outs, but the fact is he'll be missed when his successor brings the stale air of a corporate office to the largely symbolic office. Part of Havel's "meaning" has always resided in the simple wonder that sitting up there is a man with the soul of an artist. The guy spent most of his life in the literal underground, writing absurdist plays, philosophical essays, and poetry. The image cult Havel cemented in the early '90s, when he hired female bodyguards and gave Frank Zappa a quasi-official position in his cabinet, has been hovering over the castle ever since. It's a beautiful ghost.

The closest I ever came to meeting the man was this year's annual castle party, Havel's last before stepping down. The president was sick and didn't make an appearance, but together with the suited VIP's were the old dissident set, lots of writers and musicians and little children running around.

Towards the end of the night I found myself near the marble-columned entrance smoking a spliff with a small group. A slow stream of party-goers and security passed us by, most of them not giving us a second look. As a thought experiment, I imagined doing the same at an official White House party hosted by George Bush.

"Only in the Czech Republic," I said, proud of my adopted home.

"Wrong," said the girl opposite me. "Only in Havel's Czech Republic."

Blowing a stream of smoke into the cold black night, it hit me how right she was.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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