Monday, December 19, 2011
The Intellectual & Politics & Václav Havel’s Life in Truth
By Václav Havel
Václav Havel, who died on December 18, was that rare intellectual who, rather than forcing his way into politics, had politics forced upon him. In 1998, while serving as President of the Czech Republic, he offered the following reflection on the benefits and dangers of his career path.
PRAGUE – Does an intellectual – by virtue of his efforts to get beneath the surface of things, to grasp relations, causes, and effects, to recognize individual items as part of larger entities, and thus to derive a deeper awareness of and responsibility for the world – belong in politics?
Put that way, an impression is created that I consider it every intellectual’s duty to engage in politics. But that is nonsense. Politics also involves a number of special requirements that are relevant only to it. Some people meet these requirements; others don’t, regardless of whether they are intellectuals.
It is my profound conviction that the world requires – today more than ever – enlightened, thoughtful politicians who are bold and broad-minded enough to consider things that lie beyond the scope of their immediate influence in both space and time. We need politicians willing and able to rise above their own power interests, or the particular interests of their parties or states, and act in accordance with the fundamental interests of humanity today – that is, to behave the way everyone should behave, even though most may fail to do so.
Never before has politics been so dependent on the moment, on the fleeting moods of the public or the media. Never before have politicians been so impelled to pursue the short-lived and short-sighted. It often seems to me that the life of many politicians proceeds from the evening news on television one night, to the public-opinion poll the next morning, to their image on television the following evening. I am not sure whether the current era of mass media encourages the emergence and growth of politicians of the stature of, say, a Winston Churchill; I rather doubt it, though there can always be exceptions.
To sum up: the less our time favors politicians who engage in long-term thinking, the more such politicians are needed, and thus the more intellectuals – at least those meeting my definition – should be welcomed in politics. Such support could come from, among others, those who – for whatever reason – never enter politics themselves, but who agree with such politicians, or at least share the ethos underlying their actions.
I hear objections: politicians must be elected; people vote for those who think the way they do. If someone wants to make progress in politics, he must pay attention to the general condition of the human mind; he must respect the so-called “ordinary” voter’s point of view. A politician must, like it or not, be a mirror. He dare not be a herald of unpopular truths, acknowledgement of which, though perhaps in humanity’s interest, is not regarded by most of the electorate as being in its immediate interest, or may even be regarded as antagonistic to those interests.
I am convinced that the purpose of politics does not consist in fulfilling short-term wishes. A politician should also seek to win people over to his own ideas, even when unpopular. Politics must entail convincing voters that the politician recognizes or comprehends some things better than they do, and that it is for this reason that they should vote for him. People can thus delegate to a politician certain issues that – for a variety of reasons – they do not sense themselves, or do not want to worry about, but which someone has to address on their behalf.
Of course, all seducers of the masses, potential tyrants, or fanatics, have used this argument to make their case; the communists did the same when they declared themselves the most enlightened segment of the population, and, by virtue of this alleged enlightenment, arrogated to themselves the right to rule arbitrarily.
The true art of politics is the art of winning people’s support for a good cause, even when the pursuit of that cause may interfere with their particular momentary interests. This should happen without impeding any of the many ways in which we can check that the objective is a good cause, thereby ensuring that trusting citizens are not led to serve a lie and suffer disaster as a consequence, in an illusory search for future prosperity.
It must be said that there are intellectuals who possess a very special ability for committing this evil. They elevate their intellect above everyone else’s, and themselves above all human beings. They tell their fellow citizens that if they do not understand the brilliance of the intellectual project offered to them, it is because they are of dull mind, and have not yet risen to the heights inhabited by the project’s proponents. After all that we have gone through in the twentieth century, it is not very difficult to recognize how dangerous this intellectual – or, rather, quasi-intellectual – attitude can be. Let us remember how many intellectuals helped to create the various modern dictatorships!
A good politician should be able to explain without seeking to seduce; he should humbly look for the truth of this world without claiming to be its professional owner; and he should alert people to the good qualities in themselves, including a sense of the values and interests that transcend the personal, without taking on an air of superiority and imposing anything on his fellow humans. He should not yield to the dictate of public moods or of the mass media, while never hindering constant scrutiny of his actions.
In the realm of such politics, intellectuals should make their presence felt in one of two possible ways. They could – without finding it shameful or demeaning – accept a political office and use that position to do what they deem right, not just to hold on to power. Or they could be the ones who hold up a mirror to those in authority, making sure that the latter serve a good cause, and that they do not begin to use fine words as a cloak for evil deeds, as happened to so many intellectuals in politics in past centuries.
*Václav Havel was President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003), the last President of Czechoslovakia (1989-1993), and the author of 21 plays, including Largo Desolato and The Garden Party, and the essays The Power of the Powerless, Living in Truth, and The Art of the Impossible.
**Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011. www.project-syndicate.org
Václav Havel’s Life in Truth
- Jiří Pehe
Jiří Pehe was Vaclav Havel’s political adviser from September 1997 to May 1999. He is currently Director of New York University in Prague.
PRAGUE – Long before Czechoslovakia’s communist regime collapsed in 1989, Václav Havel was one of the most remarkable figures in Czech history – already a successful playwright when he became the unofficial leader of the opposition movement. Though he hoped to return to writing, the revolution catapulted him to the presidency of Czechoslovakia, and, after the country split in 1993, he was elected President of the new Czech Republic, serving until 2003.
A political career rooted in historical coincidence made Havel an unusual politician. Not only did he bring to post-1989 politics a certain distrust of political parties; as a former dissident, he considered it essential to emphasize the moral dimension of politics – a stance that steered him onto a collision course with the pragmatists and technologists of power, whose main representative, Václav Klaus, succeeded him as President.
Havel’s public life could be divided into three distinct periods: artist (1956-1969), dissident (1969-1989), and politician (1989-2003) – except that he always combined all three sensibilities in his public activities. As a promising playwright in the 1960s, he was certainly very “political,” focusing on the absurdity of the regime. He was also one of the most vocal critics of censorship and other human-rights violations, which made him a dissident even during the liberal “Prague Spring” of 1968.
Havel was blacklisted and openly persecuted after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year, but he continued to write anti-totalitarian plays. In 1977, he and more than 200 other dissidents founded the human-rights movement Charter 77, which quickly established itself as a leading opposition force. Havel was one of the movement’s first three spokesmen.
The following year, he wrote a seminal essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” in which he described Czechoslovakia’s post-1968 “normalization” regime as a morally bankrupt system based on all-pervasive lying. In 1979, he was sentenced to a five-year prison term for his activities in the Committee of the Unjustly Prosecuted, an offshoot of Charter 77 that monitored human-rights abuses and persecution in Czechoslovakia. He was released near the end of his term after contracting pneumonia (a source of serious health problems for the rest of his life). His Letters to Olga, philosophical essays written from prison and addressed to his wife, quickly became a classic of anti-totalitarian literature.
As President of Czechoslovakia, Havel continued to combine his political, dissident, and artistic sensibilities. He insisted on writing his own speeches, conceiving many of them as philosophical and literary works, in which he not only criticized the dehumanized technology of modern politics, but also repeatedly appealed to Czechs not to fall prey to consumerism and mindless party politics.
His was a conception of democracy based on a strong civil society and morality. That distinguished him from Klaus, the other leading figure of the post-communist transformation, who advocated a quick transition, stripped, if possible, of inconvenient moral scruples and impediments posed by the rule of law. Their conflict came to a head in 1997, when the Klaus-led government fell after a series of scandals. Havel described the economic system created by Klaus’s post-communist reforms as “mafioso capitalism.”
Although Klaus never returned as Prime Minister, his “pragmatic” approach gained the upper hand in Czech politics, especially after Havel’s departure from presidency in 2003. Indeed, Havel’s greatest defeat may be that most Czechs now view their country as a place where political parties serve as agents of powerful economic groups (many of them created by the often-corrupt privatization process overseen by Klaus).
In the last years of his presidency, Havel’s political opponents ridiculed him as a naïve moralist. Many ordinary Czechs, on the other hand, had come to dislike him not only for what seemed like relentless moralizing, but also because he reflected back to them their own lack of courage during the communist regime. While he continued to enjoy respect and admiration abroad, if only for continuing his fight against human-right abuses around the world, his popularity at home was shaken.
But not anymore. Czechs, given heir growing dissatisfaction with the current political system’s omnipresent corruption and other failings, have increasingly come to appreciate the importance of Havel’s moral appeals. In fact, now, after his death, he is well on the way to being lionized as someone who foresaw many current problems, and not only at home: while still President, he repeatedly called attention to the self-destructive forces of industrial civilization and global capitalism.
Many will ask what made Havel exceptional. The answer is simple: decency. He was a decent, principled man. He did not fight against communism because of some hidden personal agenda, but simply because it was, in his view, an indecent, immoral system. When, as president, he supported the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 or the coming invasion of Iraq in 2003, he did not talk about geo-political or strategic objectives but about the need to stop human-rights abuses by brutal dictators.
Acting on such beliefs in his political career made him a politician of the kind that the contemporary world no longer sees. Perhaps that is why, as the world – and Europe in particular – faces a period of profound crisis, the clarity and courageous language that would bring about meaningful change is missing.
The death of Havel, a great believer in European integration, is thus highly symbolic: he was one of the last of a now-extinct breed of politicians who could lead effectively in extraordinary times, because their first commitment was to common decency and the common good, not to holding power. If the world is to make it through its various crises successfully, his legacy must remain alive.
*Jiří Pehe was Vaclav Havel’s political adviser from September 1997 to May 1999. He is currently Director of New York University in Prague.
**Cultural Allusions and Interests
Havel was a major supporter of The Plastic People of the Universe, becoming a close friend of its members, such as its leader Milan Hlavsa, its manager Ivan Martin Jirous and guitarist/vocalist Paul Wilson (who later became Havel's English translator and biographer) and a great fan of the rock band The Velvet Underground, sharing mutual respect with the principal singer-songwriter Lou Reed, and was also a lifelong Frank Zappa fan.
Havel was also a great supporter and fan of jazz and frequented such Prague clubs as Radost FX and the Reduta Jazz Club, where President Bill Clinton played the saxophone when Havel brought him there.
The period involving Havel's role in the Velvet Revolution and his ascendancy to the presidency is dramatized in part in the play Rock 'n' Roll, by Czech-born English playwright Tom Stoppard. One of the characters in the play is called Ferdinand, in honor of Ferdinand Vaněk, the protagonist of three of Havel's plays and a Havel stand-in.
In 1996, due to his contributions to the arts, he was honorably mentioned in the rock opera Rent during the song La Vie Boheme, though his name was mispronounced on the original soundtrack.
Samuel Beckett's 1982 short play "Catastrophe" was dedicated to Havel while he was held as a political prisoner in Czecho-Slovakia.
In David Weber's Honor Harrington series, a genetic slave turned freedom fighter (and later Prime Minister of a planet of freed slaves) names himself "W. E. B. du Havel" in honor of his two favorite ancient activist writers on the subject of freedom, W. E. B. du Bois and Václav Havel.
**Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.