I don’t often refer to the deaths of public figures in this blog. But some critical comments about Vaclav Havel in this discussion thread – did inspire me to make my own contribution - "Of course there are, for those with a radical turn of mind, blemishes on Havel’s record – such as his support for the Iraq war and for NATO. But why do we expect perfection from those who are suddenly elevated to such positions of leadership – particularly when that position was so bereft of real powers? Looked at any way, the man was a tower of moral strength and courage – as can be seen by the uncompromising way he addressed the Czech politicians in 1997. In November 1997, the Czech government, led by Prime Minister Václav Klaus, was forced to resign in the wake of allegations that, among other things, the Civic Democratic Party, led by Klaus, had access to a slush fund held in an unauthorized Swiss bank account. In the period between those resignations and the appointment of an interim government, President Havel, who had recently been released from hospital and was recuperating from pneumonia, delivered what is, in effect, a state of the union speech to the Parliament and Senate of the Czech Republic -
It seems to me that our main fault was vanity. We behaved like arrogant students at the top of their class or spoiled only children who feel superior to others and think they have the right to tell others what to do. …We were hypnotized by our own macroeconomic indicators, heedless of the fact that sooner or later these indicators would also reveal what lay beyond the horizon of the economic or technocratic world view: that there are factors whose weight or significance no accountant can calculate, but which nevertheless create the only thinkable environment for any economic development—I mean the rules of the game, the rule of law, the moral order from which every system of governance derives and without which it cannot function, a climate of social concord.You can read the entire address at pages 39-47 of a paper on my website. And another (earlier) powerful address he made in 1995 about more global issues to an American audience) can be found here.
The declared ideal of success and profit was defiled because we permitted a state of affairs in which the most immoral became the most successful and the greatest profits were made by thieves who stole with impunity. Under the cloak of an unqualified liberalism, which regarded any kind of economic controls or regulations as left-wing aberrations….. morality, decency, humility before the order of nature, solidarity, concern for future generations, respect for the law, the culture of interpersonal relationships—all these and many similar things were trivialised as "superstructure," as icing on the cake, until at last we realised that there was nothing left to put the icing on: the forces of economic production themselves had been undermined. They were undermined because—with apologies to the atheists among you—they were not cultivated in the strict spirit of the divine commandments. Drunk with power and success, and spellbound by what a wonderful career move a political party was, many began—in an environment that made light of the law—to turn a blind eye to one thing and another, until at last they were confronted with scandals that brought into question one of our greatest reason for pride—the privatisation process.
At a time when our politicians are so puny, I find it difficult to understand why there are so many people incapable of recognising courage and honesty when it is staring them in the face - particularly on the person's death? We are, indeed, pathetic and ungenerous individuals.
This extended article is a good introduction to Havel's life and work.
John Keane’s Vaclav Havel – a political tragedy in six acts (2000) was one attempt to put the man in historical context (by a prominent british political scientist) - although at least one highly critical review felt the large and well-documented book was rather light in its intellectual (particularly Czech) foundations. For example, there is apparently no mention of the great Thomas Masaryk, in 1919 the first Czechoslovak President, in Keane's book. The review is so savage that its rejoinder from the author is only appropriate. The renowned sociologist Ernest Gellner - who spent the last five years of his life teaching at the Central European University in Prague - supplied, as possibly his last paper, the comparison of the 2 intellectual Presidents and their times.
At the end of November I confessed to some “ennui” – the pall had gone off reading and blogging. Particularly relating to my professional interests. Was it the lack of wine? I have been pretty disciplined in the past month in resisting the blandishments of the tasty Bulgarian whites. But that has been more than compensated for by the tastiness of the vegetarian dishes I have been creating – eg this morning a very succulent grated beetroot, apple and carrot dish – seasoned with small dabs of olive oil, apple vinegar and salt. Probably it is just the combination of end-of-year blues and the general sense of gloom which pervades much of the (European) world. An article today on this has a quote from the political philospher John Gray which captures things very well-
We've moved from the delusional optimism of the 1990s to a sense of intractable difficulties: resource scarcity and enormous debts; the erosion of bourgeois life; the inability of politicians to solve big problems; the realisation that the economic problems of the 70s weren't really solved; the realisation that the window for doing something about climate change – the next five years – will be entirely occupied with trying to restart economic growth.
Meanwhile, for westerners who instinctively look to other countries or big political ideas for inspiration, the possibilities seem to be withering. The US appears economically declining and politically dysfunctional. The EU is damaged and possibly disintegrating. The social democracy of Europe's postwar golden decades seems unable to modernise itself.
In early 2012 a review appeared in Osteuropa and, in English, on Eurozine which is perhaps the best assessment of Havel's life