Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Havel at 80: Remembering Václav Havel's legacy of truth telling and freedom

"I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you." - Václav Havel, New Year's Message, 1990

Václav Havel was that rarest of statesmen, a great and good man. Today, we observe the 80th anniversary of his birth. In Washington D.C. the National Endowment for Democracy has spent the day reflecting on the Czech play write, who became a dissident, a prisoner of conscience, president of Czechoslovakia, resigned in protest over the velvet divorce, then president of the Czech republic and finally citizen and play write once again. All the while he demonstrated his solidarity with victims of repression in his own country and around the world.

The fruits of his legacy can be seen in the work of Forum 2000, an annual gathering of politicians, philosophers, artists, scientists, and the public to reflect on important issues challenging civilization. The topic on the twentieth gathering of Forum 2000 is "The Courage to take Responsibility."

When some Cuban democrats falsely claim that they are alone in the world confronting the Castro dictatorship, one need only remind them of Václav Havel who exchanged letters with Cuban opposition democrats Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Oscar Elías Bicet. The same Havel that on his last trip as president of the Czech Republic traveled to Florida International University and addressed the Cuban people in 2002. Havel invited Cuban dissidents and exiles to the Forum 2000 in Prague a practice that has continued until the present.

These are difficult times with the passing of moral exemplars, such as Elie Wiesel earlier this year. All the more reason to remember the words and deeds of individuals such as Václav Havel.

In 1968, after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, an effort by Czechoslovak communist reformers to build socialism with a human face, Havel wrote the following to the Czechoslovak President Alexander Dubcek who had been one of the reformers later purged: "Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance." 

Havel believed that moral actions, no matter how small or futile they may appear at the time can have profound consequences for both freedom and a just society. It is because the world is not a puzzle to be solved but incredibly much more complex that decisions of right and wrong made by each person have such great importance.

In 2009, President Barack Obama had backed out of meeting with the Dalai Lama due to an upcoming trip to China, Havel offered the following reflection on October 12, 2009 at the Forum 2000 conference:
I believe that when the new Laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize postpones receiving the Dalai Lama until after he has accomplished his visit to China, he makes a small compromise, a compromise which actually has some logic to it. However, there arises a question as to whether those large, serious compromises do not have their origin and roots in precisely these tiny and very often more or less logical compromises.
It is also important to remember that Havel had a great sense of humor especially about the absurd. This is another legacy that is observed on December 18th of each year the Short Trousers for Václav Havel” initiative started in 2012.
Short Trousers is a reference to Havel stepping into political life in 1989 and his inauguration to the presidency in visibly short trousers. He explained vainly that rather than a tailor’s mistake it was his habit to pull his pants up at every dramatic situation. To this, one might say global mythology of his short trousers, he added with a smile: "I must say that I am glad of it, more or less. From my point of view it’s a pretty gentle way of mocking myself."
Let us remember and honor this man passing on his ideas and what he did to new generations while at the same time heeding his prophetic warnings for our civilization. On February 21, 1990 in an address to the U.S. Congress he warned of catastrophe if there was not profound change:
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, whether it be 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 definite victory. 

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