Two world leaders died last weekend, and the two visions of human potential revealed in their obituaries could not have been more different — one inspiring, the other evoking only horror.
Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia was not a warrior; he was a small, unfailingly polite man, and a playwright. Kim Jong Il of North Korea was an evil collectivist tyrant. The fruits of their philosophies offer a stark reminder that ideas matter.
In the dying days of the Soviet puppet state of Czechoslovakia, the authorities didn’t like the playwright Havel’s views, so they locked him up. But he never lost his defiance. The government’s attempts to crush his spirit only ended up expanding his influence.
In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, Vaclav Havel went from prison inmate to the nation’s first democratically elected president.
In later years, his political opponents would condemn the "flower child" roots of his enduring optimism — he and his cohorts were big fans of Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones — but in November 1989, the accidental hero of "The Velvet Revolution" was the right man in the right place. On Nov. 17 of that year, communist police broke up an officially sanctioned student demonstration, beating many and arresting others. But this time, unlike in 1968, the Soviet tanks didn’t come.
By Nov. 20 some 200,000 people were in the streets of Prague, demanding an end to the Red reign.
Meeting with other dissidents in the smoke-filled rooms of a Prague theater, Havel called for the resignation of leading communists and the release of all political prisoners.
"It was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved around this one man," writes historian Timothy Garton Ash, who was there. "In almost all the forum’s major decisions and statements, he was the final arbiter, the one person who could somehow balance the very different tendencies and interests in the movement."
Freedom was born, not of guns and terror, but of courage and hope. "His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon," President Barack Obama said Sunday.
The free world mourns Vaclav Havel, dead Sunday at 75.
Also last weekend, the hermit kingdom of North Korea, full of starving communists but keeping an army 1.2 million strong, lost it’s own "great leader," as Kim Jong Il died at 69.
Anyone who thinks prosperity or even long-term human survival can be enhanced by top-down central planning along the lines envisioned by the United Nations’ current "sustainable development" schemes — eliminating capitalism, personal liberties, private property, mining and even effective agriculture — should review what’s been going on in North Korea over the past 20 years.
In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union ended massive direct food transfusions, throwing communist North Korea onto its own resources. Where the end of Soviet hegemony led to a rebirth of freedom and prosperity in Mr. Havel’s Czech Republic and most of Eastern Europe upon adoption of more free-market systems, what was the result in the "People’s Republic" of North Korea?
Between 900,000 and 3.5 million of the nation’s 22 million human inhabitants starved to death.
Last year, former President Jimmy Carter visited the isolationists and reported one-third of children were stunted from the lack of food. He also said the North Korean state had reduced daily food intake from 1,400 calories to 700 calories.
A study by South Korean anthropologists of North Korean children who had defected to China found that 18-year-old males were 5 inches shorter than South Koreans their age. Roughly 45 percent of North Korean children under the age of 5 are stunted. Most people eat meat only on public holidays, namely the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
North Koreans wouldn’t know how to access the Internet, even if it were allowed. About 1 percent of the population finally have a telephone — invented in 1876 — but are not allowed to speak with anyone outside the country.
How fortunate for the entire world to have a working model of how top-down socialism works, in case we should ever be tempted to abandon personal liberty, capitalism and private property on the grounds they create income disparities and unfairness in nations such as the United States.