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Vaclav Havel: The leader Kim Jong-il could never have been

(More at What Would Jack Do?)

It would be difficult to overstate the odious nature of a despot willing- perhaps even eager- to allow his subjects to starve in order to maintain the world’s fifth-largest military. And a burgeoning nuclear weapons program. And his own gluttony, greed, and self-interest. I would under any other circumstance ignore the passing of Kim Jong-il, but for the untimely passing of Vaclav Havel. Havel, a strong proponent of non-violent resistance, was a gifted leader who helped guide Czechoslovakia from out under Soviet rule and through the Velvet Revolution. Unlike India and Pakistan’s bloody divorce, the Czech Republic and Slovakia split the sheets peacefully after the end of the Cold War. The transition was smooth and bloodless, due in large part to the force of Havel’s moral authority and inspired leadership. While Kim allowed his people to starve in order that he might eat lobster on overseas trips, Havel helped lead Czechs and Slovaks out of the darkness that was the Warsaw Pact and into the sunshine, chaos, and uncertainty of freedom and a capitalist economy. One could argue that his failing was in not being able to keep Czechoslovakia together, but the Velvet Divorce wasn’t a matter of if, but when. Havel’s calm demeanor and devotion to non-violence was exactly what Czechs and Slovaks needed exactly when they needed it.

Vaclav Havel was every bit the true leader and statesman that Kim Jong-il had no hope of becoming. Havel’s observations on Kim’s hellish rule should have goaded the world’s leading democracies into action. And it just might have…if North Korea had oil. But that’s another story best left for another time.

If you’ve been on Twitter over the past couple days, you’ve probably run across the theme that 2011 has been a VERY bad, nasty, horrible year to be a despot, dictator, or despotic mass murderer. The Arab Spring and burgeoning democracy movements around the world seem to have put the lie to the idea that totalitarianism can thrive and flourish if it’s willing to be as brutal and draconian as necessary to quell the restive hordes. The regime of Syria’s Bashir Assad is living on borrowed time, though it’s already killed more 5000 of their countrymen. Bahrain has brutally put down anti-government protests with the help of Saudi Arabia (not exactly a shining example for democracy in its own right. 2012 will likely see more brutal despots meeting untimely ends. Freedom is spreading, and the world owes a debt of gratitude for showing that non-violence can be an effective tool of resistance.

The truly sad thing about Havel’s passing is how little attention it’s received. Vaclav Havel was a writer, scholar, dissident, and leader of considerable skill and renown. His devotion to non-violence should have him mentioned in the same breath as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps history will be more kind to Havel than the contemporary media, who have largely treated his passing with the fleeting attention that can’t begin to do justice to his contributions.

We will not likely be gifted with a man of Vaclav Havel’s stature any time soon.

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Jack Cluth

Jack Cluth