WITHIN THE space of days a bottomless media appetite will undertake the task of digesting 2011. A year of surprises, rebellion, and upheaval, its closing weeks now deliver the news that Václac Havel and Kim Jong Il have died. It is an offense against taste to fadge these two men in a final recollection, but it happens that mere chance has given us an occasion to ruminate on the just-maybes of 2012.
I couldn’t invent a starker contrast than Václac Havel and Kim Jong Il. On the one side, a man who led the way in kicking over an ossified and enervating regime which could not withstand the irony and humour and imaginative vitality of poets and playrights and novelists and musicians; on the other a pursy and overfed sadistic mediocrity whose chance inheritance was a captive nation. It is as if everything I love and everything I detest has this week been summarized in headlines. Here I do not mean to suggest that the Czech Republic is a utopia, set against a North Korean dystopia. No, a good deal of discontent and apathy and bitterness may be found in the former socialist republic. But even these would constitute an advancement of the ruler-worshipping slave state which takes captive every North Korean from the moment of birth.
If you were alive at the time, you’ll recall the disorienting thrill of the years 1989-1991. This period comprised the Velvet Revolution as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall, which of course was also the demise of the twentieth century’s longstanding world-system dialectic between Capitalism and Communism. For those of us with artistic aspirations and leftist convictions, Václav Havel was a rare and irresistible figure, a man who brought down totalitarianism with his pen. That may seem overly simple, and perhaps it is: but the fact that artists were inspired by Havel’s example of cultured and humane dissidence to refute successfully the Kafkaesque state is beyond dispute. It isn’t often that art conquers life. Today we look backward to that time of promise and note the familiar and depressing authoritarianism of (for example) Putin’s kleptocratic crime state. It isn’t correct to say nothing has changed in the past twenty years within the authoritarian states of the former eastern bloc, but neither is it the case that the revolution has been fulfilled as advertised. Havel has died exactly at the moment when the world is revisiting 1989 in Libya and Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere. For reasons I need not list, this time around there is no one even suggesting that history has ended and that we are entering a new age. We know better.
While acknowledging fully the failures and disappointments of the recent past, it is still possible and necessary to put some stakes into the ground. There is no good reason I can unearth to think North Korea will deviate from its present course, which means an indefinite future of concentration camps, mass starvation, exorbitant militarism, and provocation of neighbours. Perhaps nothing done by the United States and Europe, or even China, will make a difference, now or in the foreseeable future. The North Koreans have been too much infantilised, too much starved and humiliated, to deliver the payback. The regime and its hangers-on, who despite the mass misery and the inevitable collapse are having a good enough time of it, are too much invested in the failure to try something else. One day the parasites will eat the dust, and I wish there were a Havel in Pyongyang right now to hurry things along. This is only however to underscore the fact that North Korea is not Czechoslovakia, and that totalitarianism and fascism are not yet finished with our species, whether or not we wish to be finished with them. And so, a doubter and a skeptic, I nonetheless continue to hold out, and will forever hold out, for the bloodless velvet revolutions wherever they are needed.