Remembering Havel, and how he and Mandela made us think

In the space of a few months in late 1989 and early 1990, two events occurred that made it seem anything evil in the world’s political order, no matter how entrenched, might be definitively ended, and two inspirational figures embodied this new sense of radical possibility.

First came the peaceful uprising in Prague in November 1989, which overthrew the Soviet-backed dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, and then came Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990, which announced that the end of South Africa’s racist regime was at hand.

These developments happened a long way from Canada. It’s parochial, I know, but on hearing today of the death of Vaclav Havel, the leader of Prague’s Velvet Revolution, I’m reminded of his visit to Ottawa in 1999, and of the contrast between that stirring moment and Mandela’s uplifting  trip to the Canadian capital in 1990.

The adulation Mandela inspired is unlike anything I’ve witnessed. His address to Parliament touched anyone who listened to it in a way that I don’t think can be rivaled: here was human dignity incarnate.

Havel was a different sort of presence. Inspiring as a model of political courage, of course, but where Mandela reminded us that some values are beyond debate, Havel made us think harder about matters that are endlessly open to argument.

In his April 29, 1999, speech to a joint meeting of the House and Senate, Havel offered the bare minimum of platitudes, the better to dive deep into questions about the necessity of placing the human individual, rather than the nation-state, at the apex of the international order.

He spoke of NATO’s intervention that year in Kosovo in terms that are freshly relevant again today, as we contemplate what has just transpired in Libya, and likely to remain so, since the concept of humanitarian interventionism shows no sign of disappearing from any serious discussion of world affairs:

“It is fighting in the name of human interest for the fate of other human beings. It is fighting because decent people cannot sit back and watch systematic, state-directed massacres of other people. Decent people simply cannot tolerate this, and cannot fail to come to the rescue if a rescue action is within their power. This war gives human rights precedence over the rights of states.”

This is high principle being applied to actual foreign policy. How should we behave in the world? It always seemed to me that Havel’s political writings were directly relevant to practical decision-making. As a Canadian, for example, I took note when he wrote insightfully against separatism and in favour of federalism in 1993’s Summer Meditations (although he ultimately failed to win the battle to keep Czechoslovia from dividing into separate Czech and Slovak states).

Mandela made us face basic, incontestable questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Havel made us think about infinitely contestable questions of how best to apply our principles—once we figured out what they were—to practical problems. In this, there was no one like him.


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