Havel's death comes as a surprise to me because I did not know he had finally become ill from the lifelong effects of his smoking and earlier physical abuse he underwent at the hands of Communist dictators.
Still, he leaves an ambiguous legacy because, while he stood very tall and brave against Communist dictators who used the most brutal physical methods of oppression, he strangely allowed Western bankers, led first by Secretary of State James Baker, to push him around using only threats of pressure.
Havel was one of the "willing" who supported the Iraq debacle, and his poetry and music left him defenseless in the face of an IMF-centric philosophy which his banker-picked economic advisers fed him.This
obituary in the NY Times talks about Havel's love for Frank Zappa, and it is someone ironic that Havel passed during Zappadan
But the story Paul Berman tells in one of his essays first printed in the Village Voice around 1990, and then reprinted in "A Tale of Two Utopias,"
remains compelling as to how Havel became so compromised as a leader as time went on.
The story is not easily found the Internet and so I summarize it here (this is all from memory, which can be faulty in parts): As the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was disintegrating, and the Velvet Revolution was underway, Havel somehow directly or indirectly contacted Frank Zappa, who Havel and his artist and musician friends long admired (see The Plastic People of the Universe
, a jazz-rock group in Czechoslovakia which took part of its name from the opening track
of Zappa's second album, Absolutely Free (1967)). Zappa, in one of those wild coincidences, arrived at the Prague airport just as the American ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Shirley Temple Black (yes, that Shirley Temple
!), was at the airport to leave due in part to the political chaos brewing.
When Ambassador Black arrived, she saw a massive throng of people at the airport and she supposedly said to several people with her, "Is this for me? To see me off?" Suddenly, a man nearby in the crowd who spoke some English said, "Isn't it great! Frank Zappa's coming! FRANK ZAPPA!"
The Ambassador was now confused, and had no next to no idea who Frank Zappa was. The man who was from the crowd reacted with confusion. How could Shirley Temple, a former Hollywood icon-actress, not know--let alone not admire--Frank Zappa?
Once it was explained who Frank Zappa was, the Ambassador, fearful of being seen with such a person, hurriedly went to her plane.
The story was later told to Zappa and Havel, and even Havel was confused by the Ambassador's reaction. To those behind the Iron Curtain, American culture was all of a piece, and folks like Havel could not see the fissures and dissension in American culture between high-brow, low-brow, avant garde, commercial, etc.
But now the story goes from funny to...not so funny. And here we leave Berman and listen to Zappa's retelling of the story some time later. It goes like this: Havel now meets Zappa, and says to Zappa, We want you, Frank Zappa, to be our liaison
to the American government and American business. We want you to be our economic adviser from America!
Zappa was shocked, and responded, and here I totally paraphrase, "Um, Vaclav, you may need to know a few things and expect some problems with that..." but still agreed to the position. Zappa then came up with ideas for redevelopment by saying, instead of re-wiring certain government buildings that are hundreds of years old, why not use the newly invented cell phones, and promote encryption to protect hacking? He also came up with other high-tech ideas for a nation that is frankly, intellectual and Bohemian (the original Bohemia was within Czechoslovakia's borders, by the way).
Suddenly, Havel received a previously unscheduled visit from James Baker, then Secretary of State under George Herbert Walker Bush (the later Bush's Dad). Baker, sounding both threatening and frustrated, said to Havel that if Havel knows what's good for him, Havel will immediately dismiss Frank Zappa and put in someone who is friendly to US companies and banks. Havel was shocked and now more confused. Why is the US Secretary of State so freaked out--pun intended, Zappa fans--over Zappa? Zappa, however, who knew how brutal American leaders can be to Third World nations in Latin America and Southeast Asia, said, "Vaclav, I will go. Don't fight these guys. They mean business, and it ain't pretty." (I totally paraphrase here for the fun of it, but the essence is true).
article from Jack Anderson, the old Washington insider but still somewhat independent journalist, which unfortunately only hints at the real pressure Baker brought to bear--and it was far more than simply Zappa having a fight with Baker's wife and other DC Villager wives over labels draped over records or CDs for "obscenity."
For us, as we look back, removing Zappa as Czechoslovakia's liaison for trade was the first step of a long series of compromises Havel undertook. I couldn't blame him, and neither did Zappa. However, one can blame Havel for pursuing pro-corporate economic policies and supporting the war against Iraq under Bush's son in 2003.
Nonetheless, Vaclav Havel was a towering figure in our literary world, and a truly heroic person who stood up to a more direct and physically oppressive power. It is striking, though, to consider how the people he most admired in the US were those who are ridiculed in our corporate media as "weird," starting with Frank Zappa.Final thoughts
: It is interesting that Havel and Hitchens have passed away around the same time, having each undermined their legacies with their support for the Iraq War II debacle. And they have died just as the American and Western part of that war is finally coming to an ignoble end. It is also ironic that I cite to Paul Berman, who I grew to despise for his mendacious attacks on the memory of I.F. Stone (long time readers of my blog know where to look for those links...:-)). Berman was, like Hitchens, one of those intellectuals of the "left" who wet their pants after the events of 9/11/2001 and hid their cowardice behind jingoistic bravado, which did make them more feted than before on the DC cocktail circuit. That they did not heed the warnings of Randolph Bourne
is so obvious, it's painful.