Bye Vaclav, Hello Absurdistan
It always bothers me when people say “there is nothing new under the sun”. One of the things that i believe has only started happening with any frequency during my lifetime is that political prisoners have become heads of state*. Another important relatively recent novelty is the practice of governments and regimes collapsing without widespread violence, sometimes with names like the Velvet Revolution.
i never met Vaclav Havel who died yesterday though i saw him a couple of times during my years in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic when he was president. Havel spoke little English and i spoke virtually no Czech, it did not seem to be something i needed to go out of my way for.
There was no question that Havel was clever, as an absurdist playwrite he satires the Czech version of his totalitarian satellite nation called “Absurdistan”. But being a brilliant author and an effective dissident is not the same skill set as managing a small nation state. Havel literary critiques of then Czechoslovakia and his revolutionary organizing (thru his work with Charter 77 and leading the Velvet Revolution of 1989) were masterful. But once he was swept into power, he was neither able to keep his country unified, nor stop the technocrats beneath him for building reactors.
In a fall 2000 radio address Vaclav Havel said, “The single biggest mistake I made during my 10 years as president, it is the fact that I did not stand up against Temelin in 1990. I should have shouted loud at the time that Temelin should be abandoned. My position and influence at that time would probably have stopped it. But I believed that [energy experts] knew what they were doing.”
My relationship with Havel was a bit like that of mine with Al Gore. Both men, before they were in office were critical of nuclear power, then when they got elected they gave the nuclear industry everything it wanted. Then when they got out of power they regretted it and became anti-nuclear again. Both men flip flopped on the Temelin reactor, which i spent years trying to stop.
Havel, the revolutionary, was part of the popular movement which opposed Temelin and he signed on with thousands against it. Once in power he did not stop this money wasting and dangerous reactor, only to bemoan his mistake it after he was out of power.
Al Gore wrote that nuclear power was a “dead end technology” in his book “Earth in the Balance”, before he was elected Vice President. Then when he was elected he approved the US Export Import bank loan for these same Temelin reactors saying “If we dont build it the Germans or the French will”. Now as the spokes person for Repower America he ditches nuclear power as any part of the future of energy generation, siting especially the proliferation risks associated with it.
Both of these men, once in power, let the institutionalized corruption of their respective Absurdistans lead them to decisions they knew were wrong.
*Some political prisoners who have become heads of state include Nelson Mandela (South Africa), Vaclav Havel (Czechoslovakia), Lech Walesa (Poland), Vladimir Lenin (Soviet Union), Kim Dae-jung (South Korea), José Mujica (Uruguay), Michelle Bachelet (Chile) and perhaps soon Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar aka Burma).
For a more comprehensive look at Havel’s life and accomplishments and his relationship to the radicals in the Czech republic, please read the English translation, by Erik Piper of Jakub Patocka’s article here.
[Thx to Ian and Rob Loring for their additions to my list.]