Wednesday, December 21, 2011

History's curious juxtapositions

(One took Frost's Road Not Taken. That'd be the bloke on the left, in case you were confused.)

History sometimes has a sense of humour.

In one of those uncanny historical parallels, two children of war and communism who came to lead - and define - their countries died this past weekend. One will be remembered for entrenching a Cold War divide with an illicit nuclear programme, the other for presiding over the break up of the country he had done more than anyone else to liberate from the Cold War. By the end, in everything other than the temporal proximities of their deaths, the lives and reputations of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il could not be more different.

I celebrate Havel not just as the sometimes grumpy and irascible philosopher king of Czechoslovakia - though this would be more than enough - but also with a profound gratitude for changing the way I saw politics and the responsibility of the citizen when I read The Power of the Powerless at Middlebury. A good and madly moving book under any circumstances, it was a profoundly brave book to have edited in 1985 with the Czech secret police (StB) sniffing about for anti-communism. I'm looking forward to re-reading it over the Christmas break.

(Awesome. Go and read it.)

Kim Jong-il was just a tyrannical criminal who apparently ate lobster and drank cognac whilst 6% of his population starved to death in the 1990s, more than a million were political prisoners in labor camps, and the remainder of his population were real and mental prisoners in the collective punishment that is laughably called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. He was also the world's most accomplished golf cheat, it now turns out. Or just possibly like the rest of the Hermit Kingdom, it was merely lying to himself and the rest of us - in between kidnapping film-makers to make socialist remakes of Godzilla. Frankly, in an irony that Kim Jong-il as a film buff may have appreciated, he was such an egregious bad-guy, that if we'd have seen it scripted in a movie it would've completely lacked credibility. Kim did like looking at things, however; fortunately, so does his son.

So, this monstrous criminal dies in his private train without any judicial intervention. And just like that, history steps in and provides a beautiful juxtaposition of two forms of leadership and moral courage.

RIP, President Havel.

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