Awesome Men Throughout History: Vaclav Havel
Oh man, I feel bad about this week’s column. I’d planned on writing about Vaclav Havel eventually, but then he died and I feel responsible in some roundabout karmic way. See, this is why I try to focus on people who’ve been dead for a while. The guilt is too much for me.
But Havel is totally worth Awesome Man designation, because he was seriously one of the coolest people ever born. A dissident artist who led the Czech Republic to multi-party democracy through non-violent opposition to Czech Stalinism? And he was a Frank Zappa fan? Sign me up.
Vaclav Havel was born in Prague in 1936, and was heavily involved in theatre as a young man, winning international acclaim with absurdist plays like The Garden Party (also the name of a Boondocks episode) and The Memoradum, which was produced in New York. Havel’s plays were banned in his home country after the Soviet Union cracked down on local reforms in 1968, and he himself was banned from theatre. His response was to become a vocal supporter of Czech opposition to the Soviets, and he endured surveillance and multiple prison terms, including a five-year bid where he almost died from an untreated fever.
After his release from prison, Havel joined the Velvet Revolution, which opposed Soviet rule through demonstrations, street protests of up to 500,000 people, and nationwide strikes. Havel helped organize an official civic forum to articulate the mass demand for reforms and got the theatrical community involved, essentially becoming a movement leader in the process. Once the Communist Party relinquished power to a newly-independent Czechoslovakia, Havel was elected president.
He was a rock ‘n roll president too, and not in that fake Bill Clinton way (Bill likes Kenny G., whose music is the first thing people hear upon plummeting into Hell). Havel was a lifelong Zappa fan, as previously noted, and he loved the Velvet Underground and notable Czech psychedelic band The Plastic People of the Universe. He also kept active in theatre, and continued to write plays after his political career ended.
Havel is (well, was) living proof of how much impact the arts have on society and how much they really do actually matter in a way that can’t be measured by profit margins or ticket/concession sales. He also interacted with culture in a way that would be nigh unthinkable for politicians in America, most of whom bitterly compete over who can be the most disengaged and lame. It’s worth wondering whether or not America could generate leaders this dynamic and interesting, and effective, if being a genuine intellectual didn’t subject you to ridicule and widespread shaming and basically disqualify you from public life altogether.
If nothing else, it’s necessary for me to write about him now because his name is all over Facebook and I wager a lot of people have no idea who he was or what he accomplished. That should change, because really. Dude was awesome.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.