Monday, December 19, 2011

Winter in Prague

"The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the "dissident" attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest "dissent" could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life."

Václav Havel, "Power of the Powerless"

The coincidence of the death of Václav Havel and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il could not have been more pleasing, despite his being dead, to Havel, who resisted totalitarianism for two-thirds of his life.

Before the so-called Arab Spring there was the Prague Spring in 1968. I remember watching on television as Russian tanks rolled into Prague on 21 August 1968. I was unaware, at the age of ten, of its wider implications, but I was very aware of its terrible aspect, which Walter Cronkite, or whomever it was I was watching that day, reinforced. On 8 December I wrote that the world during the Cold War "was a world in which the sun never shone, a spiritual ice age, a low intensity nightmare". Of course, it wasn't anything like that for me, living safely in the West.

For the people of Eastern Europe, however, it was that and much worse. For the people who resisted, like Václav Havel, it was either a time of imprisonment or the threat of imprisonment, since he refused to cooperate and play his part in the charade of a "people's republic". He was a celebrated playwright, for five years, before the tanks squashed the Prague Spring and the subsequent regime became, because of Czechoslovakia's brief flirtation with "communism with a human face" one of the most repressive in Eastern Europe. He practiced non-violence, which got him comparisons to Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

But it also got him imprisoned until, in 1989, with the reforms in the Soviet Union loosening its hold on the Warsaw Pact nations, a non-violent, Velvet, revolution swept Havel into power. He eventually became the first president of a free Czechoslovakia. Three years later, when his country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, he became the first president of the Czech Republic.

He was embarrassed by all the ceremony of office. He wasn't even comfortable wearing a suit. He was the son of privilege, who saw the injustice of that privilege and revolted against it. But he never forgot the feeling he first encountered as a child that he was an outsider. "I longed for equality with others," he wrote, "not because I was some kind of infant social revolutionary, but because I felt separate and excluded ... alone, inferior, ridiculed."

In 1990, he was invited to address the United States Congress. The speech (mostly in Czech) betrayed his genius with the written - and spoken - word:

"We playwrights, who have to cram a whole human life or an entire historical era in a two-hour play, can scarcely understand this rapidity ourselves. And if it gives us trouble, think of the trouble it must give to political scientists who spend their whole life studying the realm of the probable and have less experience with the realm of the improbable than us, the playwrights.

"Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed –be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization –will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war or by the danger that the absurd mountains of accumulated nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have definitively won. We are, in fact, far from the final victory.

"We are still a long way from that "family of man." In fact, we seem to be receding from the ideal rather than growing closer to it. Interests of all kinds–personal, selfish, state, nation, group, and, if you like, company interests–still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests. We are still under the sway of the destructive and vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation and not just a part of it and that therefore everything is permitted.

"There are still many who say they are concerned not for themselves but for the cause, while they are demonstrably out for themselves and not for the cause at all. We are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us and its environment. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic and cultural conflicts in the world. From time to time, we say that the anonymous mega-machinery we have created for ourselves no longer serves us but rather has enslaved us, yet we still fail to do anything about it.

"In other words, we still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility.

"Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success–responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.

"The interpreter or mediator between us and this higher authority is what is traditionally referred to as human conscience.

[speaking English]: "When Thomas Jefferson wrote that 'governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,' it was a simple and important act of the human spirit. What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that the author backed it up with his life. It was not just his words; it was his deeds as well."

It still amazes me that Czechs thought so highly of this great writer that they elected him president of their nation. But he was, as everything he said and did attests, a great man of conscience.

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