Kim and Havel

Okay, my last word clouds for 2011 — I promise!

Kim Jong Il obituary word cloudVaclav Havel obituary word cloudIt’s probably obvious that the first has to do with Kim Jong-il and the second with Vaclav Havel. While the North Korean dictator was reported to have died on Saturday and the Czech playwright-president passed away on Sunday, their obituaries happened to appear side by side on many newspaper websites on Monday. The two word clouds are the result of inputting those obituaries from the New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC on WordItOut, then removing redundant and non-distinctive words.

Most amusingly, each obituary described Kim’s hairstyle as “bouffant” and mentioned Havel’s admiration of musician Frank Zappa.

Aside from the fact that they governed their countries in the wake of the collapse of Czechoslovakia’s and North Korea’s neighbor, the Soviet Union, it would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar men.

Well, they did share a surprising affinity for actresses: Havel married two; Kim had a long affair with — and possibly married — one, reportedly had another kidnapped, and was supposedly obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor.

Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il (1941?-2011) - Presidency of the Russian Federation

Havel came to international attention for resisting a Communist dictatorship, Kim for running the most brutal and strange regime of that type for years after Havel and others seemed to have confined it to obsolescence. (“Communist” is the most frequently used word in Havel’s obituaries, but as an object of loathing and an inspiration for protest.)

But while one of these men is widely viewed as a heroic figure — while the other wielded the starvation of his own people and the renewed threat of nuclear war as political instruments, both struggled to chart a course in the post-Communist era. Kim – well, it took a special kind of insanity or iniquity to govern such an anachronistically Stalinist system in a manner that made Stalin seem both cuddly and cosmopolitan. As for Havel after 1989…

As the Times obituary notes, he viewed the presidency of Czechoslovakia as “more duty than aspiration,” and his legacy in his own homeland might surprise Westerners who know him only as the face of the Velvet Revolution:

While many in the West worshiped Mr. Havel, in his native country he was regarded with deep affection but also ambivalence, and even scorn. His slogan during the revolution that truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred was mocked by foes, who accused him of naïveté. But he never lost his childlike idealism and would sign his name with a small heart.

Mr. Havel’s standing with Czechs faltered somewhat in 1997, after his surprise marriage to Dagmar Veskrnova — a flamboyant and outspoken actress who had once played a topless vampire in a film — only a year after the death of his much-admired first wife of 31 years, Olga. In January 1998 Parliament, resentful of what was seen as Mr. Havel’s arrogant behavior with his new wife and his meddling in political affairs, elected him to a second presidential term by only one vote.

Vaclav Havel
Václav Havel (1936-2011) - Portrait by Martin Kozák (Wikimedia)

But as the same obit notes, Havel incurred “ambivalence, and even scorn” because his “childlike idealism” was not confined to his signature. He continued to speak truth to power even when he was in the halls of power, championing, for example, the rights of ethnic minorities like the Roma and even daring to set up a commission that investigated the expulsion of ethnic Germans after 1945. And while he presided over a transition to a market economy, he was critical of the “untrammeled capitalism” associated with his successor, Vaclav Klaus:

Expressing disdain for what had happened to Czech society under Mr. Klaus — an ally of convenience in the days of the 1989 revolution — Mr. Havel told Parliament that a “post-Communist morass” had allowed “the most immoral people” to achieve financial success at the expense of others.

At the same time, he did not fit comfortably into the old or new Left, as he supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and “continued to worry about what he called ‘the old European disease’ — ‘the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one’s eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement.'”


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