Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In memoriam: Vaclav Havel

For maybe an hour the big news Sunday was of the passing of the Czech playwright, dissident, and President Vaclav Havel.  Then Kim Jong Il died, and Havel's passing slipped out of the news and into the margins.

That is a shame, for Havel's life and work teach two important lessons that we will never get from the death of the North Korean dictator.

Havel was a humanist who retained his humanism as President. While it is increasingly rare for people with humanities backgrounds to ascend to political leadership (unless one retains a romantic view of the law as a humanistic discipline), it is almost unheard-of for them to keep the perspectives of the humanities while in office.  Consider, for example, Newt Gingrich, who though once a historian, eschews all of the tentativeness, contingency, and love for questions that makes history a discipline that matters for humanity.  In its place he inserts the vague, laudatory references to a few leaders of the past that suggest only that he has read more than we have, so we best shut up. Havel, though, never allowed his political power to eclipse his commitment to the humanities.  Perhaps this was because the humanities had cost him so much, getting him imprisoned and leading to scorn during Czechoslovakia's communist period.  Or perhaps it is because the humanities are so easy to come by in America today--mandated in schools and less challenging than science--that we have forgotten how valuable they are in leaders.

Havel was also a politician who remembered that there are things more important than politics.  In this, his background as a playwright and essayist served him well, and while the rigors of political leadership pressed him he continued to call for space and time in public life to assert the importance of non-political things.  In the US we rarely hear this sort of thing from anywhere in public life.  One is either encouraged to believe that politics are the most important thing out there, or that much of the rest of life is essentially political anyway, and distinguishable from electoral politics only in the way that power is allocated.  For Havel, though, and for   a few conservatives and people dedicated to the notion of a good life that extends beyond the political, human life and social relations are much bigger an more satisfying than politics.

We would be wise to recall this fact, and to demand it. When communism flourished people in the West could suggest that it was the only political system that threatened to consume all of public space. But in the aftermath of its fall, it is clear that organized politics, regardless of their ilk, look to seep into those parts of life that are best kept apart from politics--the home, the civic organization, the church, the book club, and the other third places that develop the perspective, patience, discipline, joy, and maturity to keep people free.

My favorite non-fiction works from Havel are Disturbing the Peace and Summer Meditations,  the latter written while he was President, but calling for citizens to recall the importance of morality and civility even in the face of political systems that threaten those virtues, either by destroying them or by claiming them as the realm of politics.

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