Havel: Everyone’s Common Ground

It?s interesting that American conservative bloggers like Glenn Reynolds and Jonah Goldberg are touting the idea of making Vaclav Havel the UN Secretary General. I like the idea ? but for what I suspect are completely different reasons than the Instapundit crowd.

Let?s look at a few of Havel?s points in this recent column, which Reynolds quotes approvingly:

1. The same mindset that supported communism is still prevalent in the world today — for instance, in blind faith in ?various laws of the market and other invisible hands that direct our lives.? Such a focus on ?manifestations of inevitability? over ?individual responsibility and action? is undermining democracy.
2. Political apathy is rife. And that?s undermining democracy.
3. Global corporations are undermining democracy.
4. Media cartels are undermining democracy.
5. Powerful bureaucracies are undermining democracy.
6. Lobbyists and special interests are undermining democracy.
7. Mass conformism is undermining democracy.
8. Economic globalization has escaped political control and is causing economic havoc and ecological devastation (and, presumably, undermining democracy).
9. We should reform the United Nations to reflect the influence of new regional powers and reduce the power of non-democratic states.
10. The rest of the world should look to a unified, integrated Europe as a role model.
11. Europeans should stop ?cheaply blaming America? for the world?s problems.

Hm. Which of these laudable goals do you think Instapundit picked up on?

I think maybe Matt Welch was more right than he knew when he compared Vaclav Havel to George Orwell last year. Like Orwell, everybody claims Havel as their own; the relationship of the pundit to Havel is a bit like that of the critic to Hamlet, as described by T.S. Eliot: “These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization.”

I recently lamented the fact that we don?t hear more from Havel these days. Since then, Havel?s actually become a lot more vocal. I?ll chalk it up to coincidence as I suspect he’s not a reader of my blog. Here?s Havel on the Ukrainian elections; here he is in Taiwan; the Vaclav Havel library, meanwhile, just opened in Prague. The author of North Sea Diaries suggested I post something to AFOE along the lines of ?what should a public intellectual be talking and thinking about today?” Well, here’s a good start.

Let?s be clear: When Havel talks about European integration, he?s talking about a federal Europe with a bi-cameral legislature and a constitution with a “lofty preamble.” It?s all laid out, and much more, in a speech he gave to the French Senate in 1999. Joschka Fischer picked up on the idea of a bi-cameral federal Europe in his famous ?Thoughts on the Finality of European Integration? speech (you know, the one with the bit about the Peace of Westphalia). But give credit where it?s due. Havel didn?t come up with the idea, but he was the first European statesman to articulate it clearly. This approach to European integration (that is, shared sovereignity between nation states and supra-national institutions) is the example he wants the world to follow. Frankly, it all sounds suspiciously like a post-national super-state to me ? an idea decried by right-wingers on both sides of the Atlantic. The problem? None, as far as I?m concerned.

The question is, do American conservatives really want this guy shaping the new and improved UN? Beats me. But if they do ? and Goldberg wants to ?get the ball rolling? — then let?s find some common ground.

12 thoughts on “Havel: Everyone’s Common Ground

  1. It sounds to me like he would actually be one of the few figures I can think of with the gravitas and popular appeal to succeed as UN Secretary General. That speech in France clearly shows how he is a bridge-builder and a believer in common solutions. The more I read about Havel the more respect I have for him. I know I’d have a lot more faith in the UN with a figure like him running the show.

  2. Yes, I think the people you identify as conservatives are serious. There is support on the right for honorable men. Why be so snarky?

  3. Bear in mind, Instapundit isn’t really a conservative, more a libertarian.

    And really, what Mr. Havel wrote was “But perhaps the problem is deeper: global corporations, media cartels and powerful bureaucracies are transforming political parties into organizations whose main task is no longer public service, but the protection of specific clienteles and interests. Politics is becoming a battleground for lobbyists; media trivialize serious problems; democracy often looks like a virtual game for consumers, rather than a serious business for serious citizens.”

    You sort of parsed that into a check list of your own bogeyman.

    What Mr. Havel is getting at is individualism and morality is the key force for democracy (and good). That’s about as right wing (ie, Libertarian) as a statement gets.

    And really, most conservatives don’t have a problem with a united Europe, so much as a united Europe run by the French/Germans.

  4. We “conservative” Americans aren’t unhappy with the current leadership of the E.U. or the U.N. because we all want the rest of the world to be in Hobbesian paralysis, but because the current leadership of those organizations appears unable to fitly represent the interests of Europe or the human race as a whole.

    We Americans could cope with the worst, most psychotic things Europe tried to throw at us in the 20th century. We can easily cope with good Europeans trying to realize their world view in a serious and honorable way!

  5. How’s Havel’s health?

    Being at death’s door, as he was a couple of times during his presidency, is good for the moral standing, rather less so for running or even reforming an organization like the UN. SecGen is closer to PM than to Czech president; has he still got the stamina?

  6. Don’t believe the Havel hype. He may have been an admirable dissident pre-1989, but since then, he’s toed the right-wing party line. As Czech president, Havel stood idly by while the country’s industry was sold off at bargain basement prices, or stolen outright, and did precious little about the virulent racism against Romany and other minorities. More recently, he has signed on to the reincarnation of the Committee on the Present Danger. If he does become Secretary General, his right-wing backers will likely be very pleased with their purchase.

  7. Svejk,

    Here’s a nice little site where you might spend some pleasant hours perusing all kinds of reassuring articles about any Vast Right Wing Conspiracy you care to mention.


    You may even find a mention or two of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy’s front man, Vaclav Havel. Enjoy yourself.

    To everyone else back on earth: although Havel’s health is mentioned as a possible barrier from time to time, there is another issue which may prove sticky – Havel no speak English too good. If at all.

  8. Why be so snarky?

    As Peter O’Toole said in Lawrence of Arabia: “It’s my manner, sir.”

    Bear in mind, Instapundit isn’t really a conservative, more a libertarian.

    Fair enough. But what about this:

    “Instead, we witness a process of economic globalization that has escaped political control and, as such, is causing economic havoc as well as ecological devastation in many parts of the world.”

    Yes, perhaps I’m cherry-picking, but that actually sounds about as un-libertarian as you can get. Look, if anybody — right wing, left wing, libertarian, socialist — wants to champion Havel, I’m all for it. But I think it’s fair to question whether it’s Havel they like or simply their idea of Havel. If everybody really loves Havel, let’s toast to that.

    As Czech president, Havel stood idly by while the country’s industry was sold off at bargain basement prices, or stolen outright…

    You’re way off on this, Svejk. If you’re talking about foreign investors — well, I’d hate to think how Skoda would be doing now if VW hadn’t bought it for a “bargain basement price.” If you’re talking about local captains of industry taking easy loans from banks controlled by their political cronies and using the cash to buy controlling stakes in local companies, lining their own pockets in the meantime… I’m afraid Havel’s not the man to blame. That’d be the current president and former PM, Vaclav Klaus — a man castigated for it at the time by Havel, and a man who is still the darling of many voices on the Anglo-American right.

    And yes, this is a rather fanciful discussion. But interesting and fun.

    As for Havel’s health, he’s been on the verge of death several times and keeps coming back. Most recently, he seems to have hurt his leg. That’s about as much as I know.

  9. Scott — of course you’re right that Klaus was more directly responsible for the looting that passed for “privatization”. But my point was simply that Havel — however much he may have “castigated” the criminals — didn’t really do anything to stop them (and ditto with the verbal and physical attacks on Romany, etc.). Granted, his formal powers as president were limited. But that’s not much of an excuse for a man who didn’t allow the lack of formal powers to stop him from taking on a dictatorship.

    Steve — talk about snarky! I didn’t mention any conspiracy, Vast Right Wing or otherwise (and, if it matters, I am no Chomsky accolyte). I simply noted that the specific individuals who are promoting Havel’s candidacy as Secretary General — who are fairly described as “right wing” (just as I am fairly described as “left wing”) — have every reason to believe Havel is their man, as his membership in the Committee for the Present Danger (which I would not accuse of being a conspiracy, as they’re quite open about their membership and agenda) attests. Of course, someone who shares the neo-con world view will see this is a good thing. Fair enough. There’s no reason to attack me for pointing it out.

    My point was directed to Havel’s liberal admirers: don’t be so star-struck; hold him to his own standard of “living in truth”. Nothing more, nothing less.

  10. I like this discussion.
    I am least appealed by point 10 btw.
    It’s not just the 11 points Scott summed up: the confusion about which “party” or “wing” Havel belongs to, I appreciate even more.

    I am not suggesting that I know what to think of his relation with the committee on the present danger.
    I am really worried about some people in this committee. For what I know of them I am most worried by the likes of Lieberman.
    Remember what he said about Abu Graib?
    “”Mr. Secretary, the behavior by Americans at the prison in Iraq is, as we all acknowledge, immoral, intolerable and un-American. It deserves the apology that you have given today and that have been given by others in high positions in our government and our military.
    “I cannot help but say, however, that those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11th, 2001, never apologized. Those who have killed hundreds of Americans in uniform in Iraq working to liberate Iraq and protect our security have never apologized.
    “And those who murdered and burned and humiliated four Americans in Fallujah a while ago never received an apology from anybody.””
    It’s very strange to find a guy with the stature of Havel in his company. So I am confused, yes. Like many others i think / hope. But that makes it easier to look at how this develops in an open-minded way.

    As to Svejk’s critics: I think you it is not completely fair to blame Havel for what he did not achieve when you appreciate what he did accomplish. Except when you think he had his priorities all wrong.
    It sounds like a reproach I got in this discussion on the site of the Dutch site Risq:
    “Frans describes himself on his Blogsite as an Independent Politician. I think that, as such, he still needs to tell us what he is going to do after he has solved his immediate ‘walking timebomb’ problem.”

    In the end indeed it’s all about priorities and strategies here too. What are Havel’s priorities comparing his concerns about democracy and the committee…

    But wait: check the site of the committe itself. Much to my surprise Havel is not mentioned anywhere!
    Googling on Havel and the CPD seems to confirm his relation but does not give the impression he is a very active member.

  11. Frans, I just noticed that myself, too. It seems Havel and Jose Maria Aznar were recruited to stand on an “international wing” of the CPD. They seem like token members at best.

    I would not be so hard on Svejk. I don’t agree with him, but it’s a fair point: Havel’s not a leftist, period. He’s a classic 19-century liberal.

    Moreover, much as I admire Havel and much as he follows a tradition of speaking truth to power, he also sometimes has a habit of avoiding difficult subjects until events have already laid bare the unpleasant truth. Take the 1997 “spoiled child” speech (“It appears to me that our main fault was pride…”): Here, he spoke publically for the first time what many had quietly known for years — that Czech privatization was a crock because the entire country was owned by a few powerful state-owned banks. It was an amazing speech, but it also came 2-3 years too late, in my view; I believe Klaus accused him, using a Czech saying, of “being a general after the battle.” (The American idiom is “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”)

    Similarly, it seems to me that for a man like Havel — a man identified as a “public intellectual,” who commands such respect around the world, from so many quarters — the right thing to do at this moment would be to speak in broad strokes about what has gone wrong (or is in danger of going wrong) with the Global War On Terror.

    I have no way of knowing, but I suspect his answer is NOT simply that we’re not killing enough terrorists fast enough.

    To answer the original question — THAT is one thing a public intellectual should be talking about these days.

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