Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel is dead

It is reported that the first post-Communist president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, has died at the age of 75. He and his colleagues in ‘Charter 77’ pointed the way to freedom and brought Czechoslovakia to its rightful place as one of the free and democratic nations of Europe. With Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, he helped to usher in a new era of human rights and freedom in Eastern Europe and throughout the Soviet Union. It was, as the Great Lady said, a campaign conducted against tremendous, sometimes overwhelming odds; it demanded courage and conviction of the highest order.

His Grace was fortunate enough to meet this great man in 1990. We talked of much, but the enduring impression has been of the man’s faith and his politico-philosophical conviction. There was an excellent article a year ago in The Catholic Herald on Mr Havel’s address to a conference in Prague entitled ‘The world we want to live in’. It dealt with ‘different spheres from politics, economics, sociology and political philosophy to aesthetics and religion’.

At the opening of the conference Mr Havel, an acclaimed playwright and essayist, gave a speech in which he deplored the global society, describing it as the 'first atheistic civilisation'. This society, he said, preferred short term profit over long term profit, but its most dangerous aspect was its pride.

He described the pride as: 'The pride of someone who is driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contribution of nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential source of profit.' Mr Havel continued:
I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilisation, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it. We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful, or that is simply a source of measurable profit, anything that induces growth and more growth and still more growth, including the growth of agglomerations.

But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.

We have totally forgotten what all previous civilisations knew: that nothing is self-evident.
The former president described the current financial and economic crisis as a very edifying sign to the contemporary world and a call to humilty:
Most economists relied directly or indirectly on the idea that the world, including human conduct, is more or less understandable, scientifically describable and hence predictable. Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on our knowing who man is and what aims he pursues, what was the logic behind the actions of banks or firms, what the shareholding public does and what one may expect from some particular individual or community.

And all of a sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from all the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who – having intimate access to the truth – were convinced with unshakeable assurance that the invisible hand of the market knew what it was doing, had suddenly to admit that they had been taken by surprise.

I hope and trust that the elites of today’s world will realise what this signal is telling us.

In fact it is nothing extraordinary, nothing that a perceptive person did not know long ago. It is a warning against the disproportionate self-assurance and pride of modern civilisation. Human behaviour is not totally explicable as many inventors of economic theories and concepts believe; and the behaviour of firms or institutions or entire communities is even less so.
This call to humility, he said, was: 'A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well.' He continued:
Wonder at the non-self-evidence of everything that creates our world is, after all, the first impulse to the question: what purpose does it all have? Why does it all exist? Why does anything exist at all? We don’t know and we will never find it out. It is quite possible that everything is here in order for us to have something to wonder at. And that we are here simply so that there is someone to wonder. But what is the point of having someone wonder at something? And what alternative is there to being? After all if there were nothing, there would also be no one to observe it. And if there were no one to observe it, then the big question is whether non-being would be at all possible.

Perhaps someone, just a few hundred light years away from our planet, is looking at us through a perfect telescope. What do they see? They see the Thirty Years War. For that reason alone it holds true that everything is here all the time, that nothing that has happened can unhappen, and that with our every word or movement we are making the cosmos different – forever – from what it was before.

In all events, I am certain that our civilisation is heading for catastrophe unless present-day humankind comes to its senses. And it can only come to its senses if it grapples with its short-sightedness, its stupid conviction of its omniscience and its swollen pride, which have been so deeply anchored in its thinking and actions.
Amen and amen.

There have been throughout millennia numerous religious movements which prophesy the imminent destruction of the present order and the establishment of a new one, usually reversing the relative status of the oppressed and the oppressor. Vaclav Havel lived through such an oppression: he saw in a revolution and arose to lead his people to a promised land. He was a political visionary, a symbol of all that is finest in the human spirit, and we mourn his passing. God rest his soul.


Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Europe just lost one of its greatest. I'm proud to say that my Dad knew him and that once, in the "epicentre" at Charles' University, back in the days when even hope seemed hopeless, worked briefly with him. Vaclav (pron. Vaatslav), we will miss you. Thank you, Your Grace, for honouring this rare soul.

18 December 2011 at 12:23  
Blogger need more statesmen said...

The world needs more statesmen like Pierre Trudeau and Vaclav Havel... Too bad we must go through turmoil first before we could get leaders like there.

18 December 2011 at 13:05  
Blogger Office of Inspector General said...

Your Grace. A fine statesman indeed. Your eulogy included many aspects of thought the Inspector had as a young man. Your atheist following would do well to heed his words....

18 December 2011 at 14:03  
Blogger Ariadne said...

A good, brave, wise and gifted man. RIP.

18 December 2011 at 14:54  
Blogger Ariadne said...

Chanukah Sameach, Avi!

18 December 2011 at 14:55  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Toda rabbah, Ariadne! Not sure whether to wish you the same or a joyful Christmas, so kindly accept both.

18 December 2011 at 14:59  
Blogger Dreadnaught said...

Your atheist following would do well to heed his words....

Inspector - puleeze!

If anything, the quote repeated here from HG text seems to me to suggest that the religionists simplistic account for the existence of anything is woefully lacking

"Why does anything exist at all? We don’t know and we will never find it out. It is quite possible that everything is here in order for us to have something to wonder at."

As a person who rejects the certainties professed by any religion I can only agree with Mr Havel in this insightful assessment which seems to be at odds with the core of your religious doctrine.

Havel was not a mystic or missionary - he was a realist possessing much of the individual goodness that is inherent in any decent human being - atheist or theist. Above all else he identified human kind with it's intrinsic responsibility for, and with Nature in the here and now, rather than as a chosen species engaged in a preparation role for some kind of afterlife.

This is the problem of the religions of the various “tribes” of mankind, and their various and differing doctrinal traditions and claims as to the “Truth” of man, world, “God”, reality, etc. The heads of the various “tribal” religions of course represent their own various religious systems of “Truth”..

Vaclav Havel - Philadelphia 1994

18 December 2011 at 15:08  
Blogger Office of Inspector General said...

Dreadnaught. "Why does anything exist at all? We don’t know and we will never find it out. It is quite possible that everything is here in order for us to have something to wonder at.". is THE question. The Inspector smiles when he sees the likes of Tingey close his mind to the possibility of God. Indeed, he didn’t have much to say about Higgs bosun existing. The Inspector’s view – open minded, we never know what’s round the corner, and religion has more going for it than against...

18 December 2011 at 15:37  
Blogger Span Ows said...

RIP, indeed, we need more like he was but unfortunately there are none: no statesmen anywhere, career politicians and corrupt spivs everywhere.

18 December 2011 at 16:35  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Vaclav Havel participated in the 1968 Prague Spring, as an announcer in the secret, ever relocating, Radio Free Czechoslovakia. This is where my Dad met him, as my Dad was one of the announcers addressing the troops of two Warsaw Pact countries in their own language, an activity that prompted our speedy "departure" a year later to the West, with three suitcases containing mostly valued books (and my raggedy teddy bear and a Matchbox replica of a grey Mercedes Benz) once the pincers started to close.

Eventhough I was a child time, I recall the Prague Spring, its ideals, non-violence and the moral clarity. The "Spring" permeated everything, every adult conversation, every children's game, every school class. It was bigger to us than Woodstock, which seemed to occupy the West more than any event in '68.

Now, I want to heave when I hear the latest version of Arab rioting and Islamist take-overs cheer on as the "Arab Spring." The Czechs got little support in the end, and rightly felt abandoned by their Eastern European Slavic "brothers" who hated them for being spoiled "Westernizers" and selfish "counter-revolutionaries." They also felt betrayed by the West and its political and moral whores like Kissinger and the "peace" movements with their policy of abject appeasement to the USSR. There was no Pope John Paul, no Ronald Raegan, no Churchill for us.

18 December 2011 at 17:09  
Blogger Office of Inspector General said...

Avi. Looking back to that time, we were in the middle of the cold war. 4 minute warnings and all that. As a child the Inspector remembers the WWII air raid siren sounding off once a week on a Wednesday evening. It had been maintained in good working order by the civil defence people. This danger actually didn’t seem to affect us young people, having grown up with it...

18 December 2011 at 17:29  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Inspector, it was different for Europe. Visions of Eastern hordes streaming through the Fulda Gap and terror of Soviet rockets. Everyone knew that only the Americans were in position to help. If only the Western public cared about basic freedoms as much as about music and bell bottoms, perhaps the US might have been able to do something, at least something symbolic. The invasion should have shown the West that in many ways the Russians were a paper tiger, with old, faulty equipment, undisciplined troops, broken supply lines and poor coordination (with highway and street signs torn down by us kids, their columns and units wandered around lost for days, and in some parts, for weeks). It was only years later that the West realized how strained and impoverished the scary Russian bear was.

Some memories of those times include Russian soldiers knocking at our door, while Dad was trying to hide his writings and cartoons, only to find two very young, scared and very dirty Russian infantry privates, speaking broken Czech, saying "prosim pane, ya hladne" (please sir, I'm hungry) and my Mom, shaking like a leaf, inviting them in as we watched them devouring a whole pot of mashed potatoes, while saying, "spasiba, spasiba" (thank you thank you). I had started Russian language classes at school the year before and was trying out my version of Russian as my parents sweated over what childish stupidity I might blurt out. Many young Russian soldiers, the fresh recruits in the first waves, were shocked, some to tears, to find a passive and many ways a friendly opposition to their presence, having been told they are coming to save the poor and backward Czechs and Slovaks from a CIA-run "counter-revolution" and found themselves treated as invaders of a wealthier, far more sophisticated people. Or, stone-faced Tadzhik troops roaring into the crowds with their tanks, while sitting student demonstrators peeled and rolled away from their tracks at the last second. Or, everyone walking around with a piece of square coal briquette and a length of wire, pretending to be holding transistor radios, so that those few who had them and who shared the announcement from the "black" radio station would not be easily found.

And if anyone wants to se what an 8 year-old Avi looked like in '68, there is a black and white 8mm film footage of President Dubcek addressing a huge crowd of students on St Wenceslaus Square. Right in front of him, standing on the shoulders of the only man with a beard is a swarthy boy with a Paul Macartney hairstyle taking a picture of Dubcek. Then, Dubcek smiles leans over and takes a picture of the kid. That was me, but we never brought out the photos or the film, which I think my Dad destroyed before we left.

We weren't there for the Velvet Revolution, of course, and I can only imagine the courage and determination behind those who stayed and faced tyranny al over again. My parents who were foreign students from another East European country at the time, had to leave with me, as Soviet and collaborating Czech intelligence units were rounding up the foreign Warsaw Pact nationals who refused orders to return, and were shipping them back and jailing them or worse. Hundreds of thousands escaped, but people like Dubcek, Havel and many other leaders stayed behind and tried again, succeeding at last. One day, when I take my family to Europe, our European tour will include only two countries, the UK and the Czech Republic.

Mr Havel, I'm raising a blessing and a glass in your memory. A part of my past is gone and the world is a different place without you. Rest in peace, old comrade.

18 December 2011 at 18:10  
Blogger Office of Inspector General said...

Avi. Now you know we didn’t know that much about what went on behind the Iron Curtain. And you missed out BAOR, The British Army on the Rhine, with it’s nuclear capability. RAF Vulcan bombers too then, that could have wiped invading soviet forces off the planet. We suspected the East bloc forces would crumble, including the East German forces mutinying against their Russian generals. But what a gamble – everything on red or maybe we’ll go for black.

18 December 2011 at 18:42  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Those were frightening times for sure, Inspector. Now, looking back, it all seems harmless and inevitable, this victory of the West over the East, but nasty Hell could've easily broken loose, especially if Moscow felt mortally threatened, as during moments of mass paranoia it often did. The funny thing is the Prague Spring happenned, from a kid's perspective, practically overnight. In school only earlier that year we learned Russian, belonged to Young Pioneers and trained with gas masks and air rifle in preparation for an invarion by the reactionary neo-fascist West. We were fed hubris about our technological, industrial, military and social superiority. Fear, instilled by nuclear emergency exercises and hubris from the space race. The one over who had the better German engineers.

Then, all of the sudden, early in the spring, all this "socialism with a human face" talk that didn't make sense to us kids, and a political dialogue into which even we were drawn and could natter about without understanding, as there was nothing else anyone thought or talked about. It was also the first time I began to learn that Zhid, Jew, wasn't just a swear-word, one that even I had used on the playground, but something I was supposed to be.

With the choices of countries our Prague Spring refugee wave was granted asylum in, most of us quickly chose the distant Anglosphere, the US, Canada or Australia and for a few, South Africa. As far away from Europe...and Russia and practicable. Interesting times indeed, Inspector...what!

18 December 2011 at 19:23  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

PS: All which reminds me of that Monty Python skit where the old codgers are talking about ...when we were kids we lived in a shobox...yes, a shobox in the middle of the road...but you tell this to kids nowadays and they won't believe you", or something like that.

18 December 2011 at 19:31  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Ok, don't know what happened there; I do know how to spell shoebox. Or is it shoe box. Argh! This crazy language of yours.

18 December 2011 at 19:37  
Blogger Office of Inspector General said...

Avi. The sketch is ‘Four Yorkshiremen’. The original, with Marty Feldman and in monochrome is there on the net. Still raises a smile today.

18 December 2011 at 20:07  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Ha! With the title, was able to find the transcript. Hilarious stuff, that. The last lines:

THIRD YORKSHIREMAN: Well, of course, we had it tough. We used to 'ave to get up out of shoebox at twelve o'clock at night and lick road clean wit' tongue. We had two bits of cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at mill for sixpence every four years, and when we got home our Dad would slice us in two wit' bread knife.

FOURTH YORKSHIREMAN: Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.

FIRST YORKSHIREMAN: And you try and tell the young people of today that ..... they won't believe you.

ALL: They won't!


18 December 2011 at 21:21  
Blogger Office of Inspector General said...

Avi. Aye son, we had nothing then but we were happy...

18 December 2011 at 21:36  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

...and they won't believe us!

18 December 2011 at 21:54  
Blogger non mouse said...

In all events, I am certain that our civilisation is heading for catastrophe unless present-day humankind comes to its senses. And it can only come to its senses if it grapples with its short-sightedness, its stupid conviction of its omniscience and its swollen pride, which have been so deeply anchored in its thinking and actions.

[His Grace:] Amen and amen.

And Amen again.

19 December 2011 at 05:10  
Blogger DanJ0 said...

Inspector: "The Inspector’s view – open minded, we never know what’s round the corner, and religion has more going for it than against..."

We could wait to see what's around the corner, you know. It's almost certainly not what you are guessing at in all it's upside-down-pyramid of detail, obligations, bedroom rules, and so on.

19 December 2011 at 07:40  
Blogger G. Tingey said...

The Catholic church and the Communist party.
Equal and opposite identical twins in murder, lies, oppression, torture and slavery.

19 December 2011 at 08:11  
Blogger IanCad said...

This is fascinating stuff!
With your unique style and writing ability your experiences could make wonderful reading if you were to flesh it out.
Recent history always seems to be the first to be forgotten.
What's with you guys, trying to change your beaver into a polar bear?

19 December 2011 at 11:22  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Thank you, IanCad. Mr Havel's passing triggered a few memories of long-ago times and I'm glad I've recorded them and shared them.

Those were interesting times, for sure. However, I was a wee lad at the time, and stored only snippets of events clustered about a child's egocentric recollections and although I can make amusing stories which blend reality with a child's fantasy, there are others, older people like my Dad and his friends, who were once directly involved in the events and who have written authoritatively about the Prague Spring and later, the Velvet Revolution. In Canada we also have plenty of refugees from all over the world to whom the Prague Spring iwould be a tame, uneventful "walk in the park," given the horrors they lived through. Still, this is the first time I've actualy written about these events and the experience is quite interesting. Since my last post, I've been thinking about that time a lot and I'm remembering a lot more and even sharing with my kids. Throughout my talks with them, though, I can't shake Monty Python's "Four Yorkshiremen" skit. One of my girls has been mimicking me lately to her siblings, when she thinks I can't hear her, saying in baritone, "In MY day, we had to wait in line for everything..." and she's never even seen the skit! Can't get any respect, eh?

19 December 2011 at 15:56  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Mr Tingey, aaaah! Now you must feel better, yes? Shake it well first before you put it back in the trousers. Did you have to relieve yourself here, though?

19 December 2011 at 16:02  
Blogger Dodo the Katholikos Dude said...


Brother Avi captured my sentiments except I was thinking along the following lines:

"Defecation (from late Latin defecatio) is the final act of digestion by which organisms eliminate solid, semisolid or liquid waste material (feces) from the digestive tract via the anus."

19 December 2011 at 17:00  
Blogger David B said...

Is there a less self interested source for his 'atheist society' quote?

There is much that I would agree with in Havel's reported speech, but I'm unconvinced about his faith.

I gather that one of his major influnces was the atheist critic of cnsumerism Frank Zappa.

'Zappa and Václav hit it off immediately. Zappa was appointed as "Special
Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism". Czechs treated
Zappa as a national hero, and he was even talking about applying for
citizenship. Meetings were held with Zappa, Havel, his finance ministers
and the Ministry of Culture and Trade. Frank had some ideas about
increasing their tourism viability by converting some old castles into
hotels and dealing with airlines to get more visitors into the country.
There was also talk about credit cards and television shopping networks,
both new concepts in Czechoslovakia. The main question was how to get
western goods and services into the country.

Two weeks later, US Secretary of State James Baker re-routed a trip
through Europe to visit Václav Havel. At the time, Czechoslovakia was
applying for badly needed aid from the US Government. Baker's message was
short and simple: Havel could either do business with the United States or
he could do business with Frank Zappa. It would seem Baker had a bit of
an axe to grind, since Zappa had insulted his wife, Susan Baker, before a
Senate Committee hearing in Washington DC back in 1985 regarding
censorship of rock albums and the PMRC. The PMRC, or "Parents Music
Resource Center", sought legislation for censorship of rock records.
In the Senate hearing, Zappa referred to Susan and the others in the PMRC
as "a group of bored Washington housewives", and it would seem James Baker
had not forgotten the insult. Zappa's career as an international trade
ambassador was over nearly as fast as it had begun.'

Bloody conservatives.

David B

21 December 2011 at 01:38  
Blogger David B said...

Dammit made a blunder, and posted an earlier link from an entirely different context in error.

The one I meant to post was

David B

21 December 2011 at 01:41  
Blogger Dodo the Katholikos Dude said...

David B said ...

"There is much that I would agree with in Havel's reported speech, but I'm unconvinced about his faith.

He doesn't appear to have been a Christian.

Havel did not regard himself as a Christian. He admitted to “an affinity for Christian sentiment,” and trying “to live in the spirit of Christian morality.” Yet, when queried about a rumor that he had become a Christian, he said: “It depends on how we understand conversion”, then said no. No, because “genuine conversion, as I understand it, would mean replacing an uncertain ‘something’ with a completely unambiguous personal God, and fully, inwardly, to accept Christ as the Son of God.… And I have not taken that step.”

He said he believed in
"the mystery of Being” and “the absolute horizon of Being” and " ... the certainty that the Universe, nature, existence, and our lives are the work of creation guided by a definite intention, that it has a definite meaning and follows a definite purpose.”

Whether he ever changed this position, who knows?

21 December 2011 at 15:49  
Blogger Gavin said...

Rest in Peace, Vaclav Havel.

I'm rather ashamed to admit that I knew virtually nothing about this man until his death this week. So, I went and read up about him, and about his life. From what I have read, Mr Havel was a decent and good man, who struggled and brought something genuinely good out of the situation he was living in. He made personal sacrifices in order to help bring freedom to his country, and to its citizens. I have a lot of respect for that.

Mr Avi Barzel, thank you for posting your memories and experiences of life in Czechosolvakia under Soviet occupation. Your comments helped me to understand what life was like under that awful tyranny.

I once had a girlfriend who came from one of the former Soviet-occupied satellite states, and one of the things I found baffling about her was that she acted almost like a spy, in some respects. Secrecy and distrust were sort of inbred into her very being. She would rip up restaurant receipts and train tickets, and act as if she needed to 'cover her tracks' in certain ways. What she said publicly wasn't always what she meant privately, and I didn't understand such behaviour at the time. Now I have a better understanding of how one's everyday life HAD to be conducted under the evil grip of Soviet rule.

Understanding this made me SO angry at reading that utter cretin's article in the Guardian the other day, defending the Soviet system (I've forgotten the name of the journalist). We really do not realise how lucky we are here in the UK.

23 December 2011 at 21:30  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

26 December 2011 at 02:48  
Blogger Avi Barzel said...

Hi Gavin,

Thank you. I'll have to talk to Dad and record things when I see him next...he's retired and spends most of the year in Europe. My memory of things back then is an impressionistic kaleidoscope from a kid's perspective.

Tried to look up The Guardian cretin's article, but it wasn't anywhere obvious and the search engine didn't seem to find it. The first item to come up was "European Union," which was good for a chuckle. The article seems to have slithered somewhere out of sight, which is just as well. It's not like there isn't enough stuff in the Giardian to bring up the bile.

26 December 2011 at 02:54  

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