“YOU DON’T WANT TO BECOME INVOLVED WITH THE DIRT THAT IS AROUND YOU AND ONE DAY, ALL OF A SUDDEN YOU WAKE UP AND REALIZE THAT YOU ARE A DISSIDENT, THAT YOU ARE A HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST.”
Vaclav Havel is one of democracy’s most principled voices. Armed with a moral compass that points true north, and an eloquence unsurpassed in the political arena, Havel speaks with the honesty of a dissident from the halls of the presidential palace in Prague. Czechoslovakia’s leading playwright and a perennial victim of state repression under Communist rule, he is celebrated for his absurdist plays including The Garden Party, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, The Memorandum, Largo Desolato, and Temptation. Havel, who was born in 1936, was a founder of Charter 77, a human rights and democracy organization that challenged the Soviet takeover. He wrote compelling texts on repression and dissent, and his 1978 work, The Power of the Powerless, is one of the best political essays ever written. In 1979, in retaliation for his human rights activism, Havel was sentenced to four and a half years at hard labor, during which he wrote Letters to Olga. As chief spokesperson of Civic Forum, which he cofounded in 1989, Havel, through his leadership, political savvy, and moral persuasion helped bring Communism to its knees, and negotiated a peaceful transition to democracy. Out of the ashes of Soviet control emerged a new state, based on free expression, political participation, civil society, and commitment to the rule of law. In 1989, Havel was elected the first non-Communist president of Czechoslovakia in over forty years. In 2002, he was the third recipient of the Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award presented by the Prague Society for International Cooperation. In 2003 he was awarded the International Gandhi Peace Prize, named after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by the government of India for his outstanding contribution towards world peace and upholding human rights in most difficult situations through Gandhian means. In 2003, Havel was the inaugural recipient of Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award for his work in promoting human rights. Also in 2003, he received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2008, the Europe-based A Different View cited Havel as one of the 15 Champions of World Democracy along with Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, and Corazon Aquino.
ON LEADERSHIP AND COURAGE
The crisis of authority is one of the causes for all the atrocities that we are seeing in the world today. The post-Communist world presented a chance for new moral leaders, because at that time of transition in these countries there were no professional or career politicians. This gave intellectuals an opportunity to enter into politics, and, by entering, to introduce a new spirit into the political process. But gradually people were suppressed-the mill ground them down-and much of that opportunity was lost. There are certain leaders that one can respect, and I do certainly respect, leaders like the Dalai Lama. I appreciate the fact that, although very often they have no hope, not even a glimpse of success on the horizon, they are still ready to sacrifice their lives, to sacrifice their freedom. They are ready to assume responsibility for the world, or at least for the part of the world they live in. I have always respected these people and appreciated what they do. Courage in the public sphere means that one is to go against majority opinion (at the same time risking losing one’s position) in the name of the truth. And I have always strongly admired historic personalities who have been capable of doing exactly this.
Becoming a dissident is not something that happens overnight. You do not simply decide to become one. It is a long chain of steps and acts. And very often during this process, you do not really reflect upon what is happening. You just know that you want to avoid any debt that would put a stain on your life. You don’t want to become involved with the dirt that is around you and one day, all of a sudden you wake up and realize that you are a dissident, that you are a human rights activist. With me the story was rather similar. It was only much later, while I was in prison, that I started reflecting on the process and why I had done what I had done. There must be some, call it “transcendental,” source of energy that helps you overcome all these sacrifices. Now some people may disagree with this idea of a transcendental source, but I feel it. While I was in prison, I often thought about why a man decides to remain decent, a man of integrity, even in situations when he or she is on his own, when nobody knows your actions and thoughts-except you yourself. Even in these situations, a man can feel bad, can have a bad conscience, can feel remorse. Why is this? How is it possible? And my answer to this is that there must be another eye looking on-that it’s not just the people surrounding you that make the difference. I have no evidence of the existence of such an eye, but am drawing on the archetypal certainty of such an existence.
I have experienced, and still experience, a whole spectrum of fears. Some of my fears have had greater intensity than the fears of the others. But my efforts to overcome these fears have also been perhaps more intense. The major fear is imagining I might fail somebody, that I might let somebody down and then have a very bad conscience about it. For example, when I am thrown into an unknown Latin American country, I could be asked to speak, to address the parliament. I give a talk, I try to be flowery, impressive. I deliver. But once this is over, I always turn to somebody and say, “What was it like? Was it good? Did I deliver?” I have always felt this uncertainty; I have always been a person suffering from stage fright, from fear. Fear is with me, but I act in spite of it.
When a man or woman is ready to sacrifice everything for very serious matters, what happens in the end is that such a person takes himself or herself extremely seriously. His or her face then becomes very rigid, almost inhuman, and such a person becomes a monument. And as you know, monuments are made of stone or of plaster and it is very difficult for monuments to move. Their movements are clumsy. If one wishes to retain humanity, to stay human, it is important that you keep a certain distance. To keep this distance you need to be able to see that there is a certain element of absurdity, even ridicule, in one’s deeds.
Often people confuse hope with prognostics. Prognostics is the science of studying whatever happens around you in the world. With it either you will make a positive prognosis (because you are an optimist) or a negative prognosis (which would have a pessimistic impact on the people around you). But it is very important to differentiate. Hope is not prognosis. Hope is something that I see as the state of the spirit. If life had no sense, then there would be no hope, because the very sense of life, the meaning of life, is closely linked with hope.
ON FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY
Freedom without responsibility is perhaps something that is a dream of almost everybody to do whatever you want to do and yet not to assume any responsibility for what you did. But of course, that would be a utopian life. And also, life without any responsibility would not make sense. So I think the value of freedom is linked with responsibility. And if freedom has no such responsibility associated with it, then it loses content, it loses sense, and it also loses weight.