December 21, 2011

R.I.P. Václav Havel

Candles illuminate a portrait of former Czech President Vaclav Havel
Prague - December 19, 2011 (
AFP PHOTO/ STR)
The strange coincidence of December 18 will be remembered for a long time: the deaths of both Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s totalitarian “Dear Leader,” and Václav Havel, the Czech dissident playwright who stood firm against Communism and led his people to freedom in 1989 and turned president. In other words and in brief, respectively, the bad and the good. Of course, with all due respect for “our Sister Bodily Death,” as St. Francis of Assisi called it, we mourn the latter, not the former.

Here is a video showing how how Czechs bid goodbye to Havel (the clip ends on a humorous note, with an excerpt from a film directed by Havel himself, in which he emerges from below the surface of a pond, wearing a suit and tie, to say: “Thank you for turning off your cellphones. Truth and love must win over lies and hatred. You can now turn your cellphones back on.” Soon after, with both arms extended in a wave, he descends back into the pond. (Via NYT)


But, as not many may know, Havel was also a thoughtful observer of western democracies. In a series of speeches given in the 1990s, he saw “similar absolutist trends” in government structures that strive toward uniformity and ultimate solutions: an analysis that, if truth be told, seems even more relevant today. Read this piece in The Atlantic to dig deeper into this. Here is an excerpt:

Western governments, he said, are organized on a flawed premise not far removed from the Soviet system that had just collapsed. "The modern era has been dominated by the culminating belief," he said, "that the world ... is a wholly knowable system governed by finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and rationally direct ... objectively describing, explaining, and controlling everything."

These bureaucratic structures are profoundly dehumanizing, Havel believed, striving to control choices that should be left to human judgment and values. This "era of systems, institutions, mechanisms and statistical averages" is doomed to failure because "there is too much to know" and it cannot "be fully grasped." The drive towards standardization is fatally flawed, Havel believed: "life is nonstandard."



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