Vaclav Havel always interested me. Not too many writers become President of their country and then go back to writing. Havel wrote plays that were produced around the world, was arrested by the government of Communist Czechoslovakia, became leader of a non-violent revolution that toppled that government in the late 80’s and then became the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first of the Czech Republic once the country broke up.
Havel’s mantra in his writer days was ‘living in truth’ and his fellow citizens came to expect that of him. That adherence to simple truth eventually brought down the government that had imprisoned him.
He then became a politician and, predictably, things got more complicated. Harder to ‘live in truth’ when you’re constantly dealing with politicians. Shockingly, his reputation returned pretty quickly once he went back to being a writer after 14 years in power.
Anyway, I wanted to write something about his death but I’d rather simply quote the man. This is an excerpt of an article written for Foreign Affairs magazine in 1994, just four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. If it doesn’t describe the predicament in Europe and Washington today, I’ve missed the boat:
‘Many years of living under communism gave us certain experiences that the non-communist West fortunately did not have to go through. We came to understand… that the only genuine values are those for which one is capable, if necessary, of sacrificing something…
‘The traditional values of Western civilization such as democracy, respect for human rights and for the order of nature, the freedom of the individual and the inviolability of his property, the feeling of co-responsibility for the world, which means the awareness that if freedom is threatened anywhere, it is threatened everywhere – all of these things became values with moral…underpinnings…
‘I have the impression that precisely this awareness is sadly lacking in the present-day West…Naturally, all of us continue to pay lip service to democracy, human rights, the order of nature and responsibility for the world, but apparently only insofar as it does not require any sacrifice…a willingness to sacrifice for the common interest something of one’s own particular interests, including even the quest for larger and larger domestic production and consumption.
‘The pragmatism of politicians who want to win the next elections, for whom the highest authority is therefore the will and the mood of a rather spoiled consumer society, makes it impossible for those people to be aware of the moral, metaphysical and tragic dimensions of their own programme.’
What’s worth asking ourselves, individually and collectively, is: What am I willing to give up to have a fairer, more just society for all? It feels like a huge mass of people worldwide have already given up plenty to benefit a very small group. You can make that same statement about the sacrifice of working people to benefit the rich in this country and of the sacrifices of Third World people to feather the nests of all of us who live in the West. Nonetheless, if we all asked ourselves that question – and had to own up to what it meant – maybe we’d have a better chance of bridging those gaps.
At least, like Havel, we’d be attempting to figure out the prickly unpleasant truth.