Havel the Politician

2003-04-05

I've just started reading a collection of speeches by Vaclav Havel, longtime president of Czechoslovakia and (after the Velvet Divorce) the Czech Republic. Havel was president while I lived in Czechoslovakia and I have tremendous respect for him, since he was one of very few people to openly oppose the communist regime. Havel calls politics "the art of the impossible", which certainly seems to fit his own life story (on October 27, 1989, he was thrown in jail for the fourth time by the communists; less than 6 weeks later, he was president of his country). Havel is a playwright, a thinker, an intellectual; yet he accepted the presidency. Why? He writes as follows:

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 core of all actions -- if they are to be moral -- is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, 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.

If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative, I can't go far wrong. If, on the contrary, I am not guided by this voice, not even ten presidential schools with two thousand of the best political scientists in the world could help me.

This is why I finally decided -- after resisting for a long time -- to accept the burden of political responsibility.

I'm not the first intellectual, nor will I be the last, to do this. On the contrary, my feeling is that there will be more and more of them all the time. If the hope of the world lies in human consciousness, then it is obvious that intellectuals cannot avoid forever assuming their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distaste for politics beneath an alleged need for independence.

It is easy to have independence in your program and then leave others to carry out that program. If everyone thought that way, soon no one would be independent.

I think that Americans should understand this way of thinking. Wasn't it the best minds of your country, people you could call intellectuals, who wrote your famous Declaration of Independence, your Bill of Rights, and your Constitution, and who -- above all -- took upon themselves the practical responsibility for putting them into practice?

Quite a challenge to a hermetic intellectual like me.


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