Last fall, as the United States rumbled toward war against Saddam Hussein, literary reviews and higher-brow magazines wrestled with an intriguing if unlikely hypothetical: What would George Orwell say if he were here today?
Christopher Hitchens, the fire-breathing British journalist who kick-started the discussion with his book Why Orwell Matters, suggested that a contemporary Eric Blair "would have seen straight through the characters who chant 'No War On Iraq'" and helped the rest of us to "develop the fiber to call Al-Qaeda what it actually is." Washington Post book reviewer George Scialabba stated confidently that "Orwell would associate himself with the unsexy democratic left, notably Dissent and the American Prospect," and that "he might, in particular, have wondered aloud why the heinous terrorist murder of 3,000 Americans was a turning point in history." Commentary tried yet again to claim Orwell as a neocon, and The Weekly Standard's David Brooks argued that the great man's mantle and relevance had actually passed onto a new contrarian's shoulders: "At this moment, oddly enough, Hitchens matters more than Orwell."
At exactly the same time, the one man in the world of the living who could justifiably claim to be Orwell's heir was expounding almost daily on Saddam Hussein and international terrorism -- even while rushing through one of the most frenetic periods of a famously accomplished life. Vaclav Havel, the 66-year-old former Czech president who was term-limited out of office on February 2, built his reputation in the 1970s by being to eyewitness fact what George Orwell was to dystopian fiction. In other words, he used common sense to deconstruct rhetorical falsehoods, pulling apart the suffocating mesh of collectivist lies one carefully observed thread at a time.
Like Orwell, Havel was a fiction writer whose engagement with the world led him to master the nonfiction political essay. Both men, in self-described sentiment, were of "the left," yet both men infuriated the left with their stinging criticism and ornery independence. Both were haunted by the Death of God, delighted by the idiosyncratic habits of their countrymen, and physically diminished as a direct result of their confrontation with totalitarians (not to mention their love of tobacco). As essentially neurotic men with weak mustaches, both have given generations of normal citizens hope that, with discipline and effort, they too can shake propaganda from everyday language and stand up to the foulest dictatorships.
Unlike Orwell, Havel lived long enough to enjoy a robust third act, and his last six months in office demonstrated the same kind of restless, iconoclastic activism that has made him an enemy of ideologues and ally of freedom lovers for nearly five decades.
� Last September he delivered a rousing anti-communist speech over Radio Martí, a much-mocked station funded by Washington and beamed to Cuba. "When the internal crisis of the totalitarian system grows so deep that it becomes clear to everyone," he declared, "and when more and more people learn to speak their own language and reject the hollow, mendacious language of the powers that be, it means that freedom is remarkably close, if not directly within reach." He also nominated Oswald Paya Sardinas -- the Cuban spokesman for the Varela Project, an opposition group modeled directly on Havel's 1970s movement Charter 77 -- for the Nobel Peace Prize. The speech was virtually ignored by the American press.
� In the days preceding, he gave a series of speeches across America that existentially questioned his own fitness for higher office, while still tossing off backbone-stiffening zingers like, "Evil must be confronted in its womb and, if it can't be done otherwise, then it has to be dealt with by the use of force."
� In November he orchestrated and hosted a historic NATO summit in Prague, where the Western alliance formally accepted seven formerly communist countries for membership. Havel, who has long been the most influential advocate for expanding NATO eastward, marked the occasion by installing above the Prague Castle -- the Czech presidential residence -- a goofy neon heart, of the same design that he draws atop his signature. In his major speech at the event, with George W. Bush looking on, Havel analyzed Iraq through the prism of the 1938 Munich Agreement, when war-shy British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain notoriously sacrificed western Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the name of "peace with honor" and unknowingly gave generations of American interventionists a go-to example whenever it came time to attack another dictator. But before Paul Wolfowitz could high-five Condoleezza Rice, Havel warned that eerily similar high-sounding rhetoric was used to justify the Warsaw Pact's indefensible 1968 invasion of Prague.
� In January, in one of his last official acts as president, he joined seven other European political leaders in signing an open letter supporting Bush's policy toward Iraq. The act drove a wedge between what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gleefully called the "Old Europe" and "New Europe," and led French President Jacques Chirac to threaten to bar the Czech Republic and any other war-supporting Central European country from joining the European Union.
Most normal politicians, after nearly 13 years in power (including two and a half years as president of a unified Czechoslovakia), would lament the end of their special treatment and cling to whatever bureaucratic influence they could grasp. But most normal politicians don't make a life's work out of analyzing the inextricable link between personal freedom and a society's overall health. Though the Czech Republic is exponentially more free than it was when Havel first made his fairy tale ascent from gulag to castle, the former playwright has suffered personally under the constraints imposed by official decorum.
"What I really long for is that I shall be free of duties dictated by protocol," he told London's Sunday Times earlier this year. "Naturally, I have had to express myself in a more cautious and diplomatic manner and I have not been very happy about it."
The Right to Rock
Like Bill Clinton, Vaclav Havel is a product of the 1960s. Unlike Clinton, he inhaled. "That was an extraordinarily interesting, fertile, and inspiring period, not only here, but in the culture of the entire world," he told interviewer Jiri Lederer in 1975. "Personally, too, it was a relatively happy time: 1968 [the year of the 'Prague Spring'] was, for me, just a natural climax of that whole period."
From 1964 until August 21, 1968, Bohemia rediscovered bohemia, producing arguably the most dynamic artistic flowering communism ever tolerated, highlighted by Milos Forman and the Czech New Wave of cinema, novelist Bohumil Hrabal's Slavic take on magical realism, and the madcap theatrical rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. Havel spent this period at the influential and radical Theatre of the Balustrade, where he gobbled speed and pushed the free expression envelope with absurdist topical plays such as The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.