Playwrite and Politician Vaclav Havel (Photo by Miroslav Zajc/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What would Václav Havel have made of gender wars?

The former Czech president and playwright would have invited JK Rowling over for a beer

On a summer’s day in the bloody year of 1991, when the promise of a free and democratic Eastern bloc had descended into the nightmare of Yugoslav dissolution, I returned to Prague from a month of (undistinguished and deeply depressing) war corresponding and was immediately invited, along with the rest of the resident foreign press corps, to President Václav Havel’s enchanting country residence at Chateau Lány.

Unwashed, probably malodorous and very casually dressed, I was a figure of interest. Here was a man from the front. What was it like? What could I say? Nasty, pointless and extremely frightening (“Can you imagine dying in a village no one can even pronounce?” a colleague had asked me in Croatia).

But the real revelation of that blessed sunny afternoon on Lány’s groomed lawns, studded with increasingly intoxicated gaggles of hacks and presidential staff, feasting on spicy klobásy and bottles of Czech lager, was the message from his advisers.

Rowling did not suggest she was using Havel to draw a parallel to the fractious issue of trans ideology

What, I asked, if it happens here? They laughed. Yes, Czechoslovakia is like Yugoslavia in that it’s another Slavic union created at the end of the First World War, and yes it’s possible the Slovaks will want to leave (which they did 18 months later). But there is no way Václav Havel will order tanks onto the streets of Bratislava. No chance. Never.

At a time when Yugoslavs were butchering one another with some vigour, their leaders stoking hate among peoples who had lived together for decades, this high-level assertion of Czech liberalism was a beautiful thing. 

I’ve thought about all this again in recent days, after JK Rowling published a series of tweets quoting Havel’s 1978 essay, The Power of the Powerless. The then-dissident playwright described an imaginary greengrocer pasting mind-numbing communist slogans in his shop window, not because he believed a word of it (he didn’t) but because he was signalling a willingness to conform. “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” 

At no point did Ms Rowling suggest she was using Havel to draw a parallel to the fractious issue of trans ideology, which holds that men can become women, and vice versa, through a quasi-religious act of will. At no point did she say that the mindlessness of “actually existing socialism” in late 20th century communist states and the gender extremism of the early 21st century have troubling parallels (though my Czech wife, Anastazie, says exactly this). Then again, Ms Rowling did not need to explain herself. We all knew what she meant.

The tweets did not whip up quite the usual storm of Rowling hate that her comments usually provoke (most recently because she was pictured lunching with a group of similarly minded friends, with not a man in sight). That may have been because her detractors were awed by the simple majesty of Havel’s words, or because they have no idea who he is — one critic accused her of tweeting “someone or other”).

Communist Czechoslovakia promoted the stupid and the cynical. They either believed the lies they were fed, or played along with an absurd ideology for career advancement. The more intelligent communists, some 300,000 in number, were expelled for criticising the 1968 Russian invasion. Once gone, the idiocy multiplied.

In 1989, when the crowds gathered in Wenceslas Square to overthrow their masters, we listened to a Polish student speaking from the Svobodné Slovo balcony, bringing greetings from the Solidarity movement. He apologised to the half-million strong crowd for his poor Czech. “Not as bad as Jakeš,” they chanted, in reference to the notoriously dim General Secretary of the Communist party. There was wit and laughter, a real joy in this new freedom. It was inspirational and elevating, and if you didn’t cry when everyone sang their national anthem, Kde domov můj (Where is my home) at the end of the rally, you had no soul.

As the new leader of this unforecast liberal triumph, Havel was perfect. Many Czechs and Slovaks were happy enough to go along with this, even though most had not resisted, and there was always a sense that he and his small group of intellectual friends thought they were better than everyone else (“Well, that’s because we are,” one of his senior lieutenants told me just before the first free election in 1990. “And please, for God’s sake, don’t print that.”)

Most were proud to have a world-recognized intellectual as their leader. And no one could honestly question Havel’s assessment on New Year’s Eve 1989 that the communists had created a “House of Ruin”.

In the pub, the absurdist playwright would ask if we’d all gone stark raving mad

Rationality had triumphed. Tolerance was extended to all. Most Czechs were notably more relaxed about gay people than the Britain of the era and the new classified ad papers were filled with gay dating; there were to be no arrests and trials, not even for the traitors of 1968 who invited in the Russian tanks. The liberals were true to Havel’s revolutionary slogan — by and large, truth and love did triumph over lies and hate.

Havel wrote in The Power of the Powerless that the party had created: “A world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalised language deprived of semantic contact with reality, and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.”

I was no intimate of Václav Havel. I met him seven or eight times, normally in formal settings. But I was able to speak to him, I knew his friends and colleagues, and like most Prague-based foreign correspondents, I loved him.

Trans extremism would simply have baffled him. A tolerant man, he would have wanted unhappy people to live their lives according to their own truth. It is not the business of the state to interfere with how people dress, who they love and how they describe themselves.

But no true liberal can accept the demand to believe an untruth. We can be polite, but we cannot swallow a lie, especially when that lie is used — knowingly or otherwise — to dilute or destroy the rights of humanity’s less-privileged sex. If we embrace a fantasy, make it public policy and insist on popular acceptance under threat of criminal sanction, we have taken a path as morally arid as any communist. 

Václav Havel had a beguiling habit. Surrounded by a small army of (perfectly amiable) flunkies in Prague’s fairy-tale castle, he would send two messages to the news reporter. One came from his lips — generally a litany of carefully phrased, disappointingly banal political utterances — and the other from his eyes. He’d smile at you, as he stepped lightly around the artless journalistic heffalump traps. More than that — his eyes laughed, in a comradely sort of way. 

We’re locked into a silly game, he was saying. I’m sorry. I’d much rather be talking in a pub, and speaking honestly. But I must play President. 

In the castle, Havel would be polite about the West’s toilet wars and the large penis people appearing in women’s sporting competitions. In the pub, the absurdist playwright would ask if we’d all gone stark raving mad (and then he’d invite JK Rowling over for some beers).

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