In December, we commemorated the tenth anniversary of the death of Václav Havel—a dissident playwright, freedom fighter, and president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Havel loved the United States and was beloved by many of its citizens. One of the clear indications of this special relationship is his bust’s location in the Freedom Foyer inside the US Capitol since 2014. However, busts have little significance if we fail to reflect on the life and work of those they depict. America has given Eastern Europe a lot since World War II, but former communist countries also have something good to offer the United States, including Havel’s legacy.
At the outset, it should be noted that Havel is different things to different people. I view him as the velvet prophet who gently yet urgently communicates that the ethics of responsibility is a fundamental solution to the crises human beings individually and collectively face, especially in our time. He is a forthteller rather than a foreteller, possessing the ability to see reality as it is and manifesting the moral courage to address the gap between the actual and the ideal.
Before classifying someone as a prophet, we should keep in mind Jean Bethke Elshtain’s keen observation: “I have long worried that, from time to time, those who embrace the powerful term prophetic for their work use it as a kind of ideological cover. ‘Prophetic’ too often seems to amount to denunciatory rhetoric attached to a specific political agenda.”[i] I similarly maintain that authentic prophets are not strictly ideological or partisan. This does not mean that they need to be or appear “neutral” in their reflections on social and political life.
Václav Havel meets the aforementioned criterion, though he never claimed the title of “prophet.” In his book Summer Meditations, there is a chapter with the telling title, “What I believe,” which Havel starts by expressing his attitude toward inflexible systems of thought:
I have never espoused any ideology, dogma, or doctrine — left-wing, right-wing, or any other closed, ready-made system of presuppositions about the world. On the contrary, I have tried to think independently, using my own powers of reason, and I have always vigorously resisted attempts to pigeonhole me… Some of my opinions may seem left-wing, no doubt, and some right-wing, and I can even imagine that a single opinion may seem left-wing to some and right-wing to others — and to tell you the truth, I couldn’t care less.[ii]
Havel has also been known for advocating “apolitical politics.” From the perspective of political theory and realpolitik, this approach may seem naïve and undesirable, but from the standpoint of prophetic tradition, it is acceptable and even necessary. And someone who declares, “I’ve always understood my mission to be to speak the truth about the world I live in, to bear witness to its terrors and its miseries… to warn rather than hand out prescription for change,”[iii] Havel in fact, however reluctantly, took on the mantle of prophet.
Because of his flexible yet not relativist worldview and extraordinary story, it is unsurprising that Havel has long been admired and appropriated by people from a relatively wide ideological and political spectrum. When he—as the newly elected president of Czechoslovakia—spoke to a joint session of the US Congress in 1990, both Republicans and Democrats applauded him. He won the respect and friendship of both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. In a deeply politically polarized United States, I do not see too many better-qualified candidates who can play the role of a “prophet to America.” And we need prophets, now and always.
Like all other prophets throughout history, Václav Havel is only human, but he deserves to be heard with an open mind. He should not be dismissed because of a real or perceived weakness in his thought or action (and certainly not because of his “identity”). Perfection is not a prerequisite for prophecy. If a fallen creature could not be a moral authority, we would be living in a much more cynical and brutal world than we are now. It is all too easy to avoid facing reality or rationalize our own bad behavior by using the moral equivalence fallacy, and we should avoid it.
As is the case with every true prophet, Havel’s message is inevitably going to elicit a wide range of reactions, but it would behoove us not to ignore his voice or “cancel” the messenger. We are currently witnessing an erosion of freedom in America, and it is impossible to predict the state of American democracy after our generation leaves this world. If Havel’s bust will still stand in the Freedom Foyer [emphasis added], it would be a hopeful sign that our generation did its duty and protected freedom in this country.
America—just like any other country—faces various crises; their nature, causes, and gravity are open for debate. We cannot presume to know what precisely Havel would think about the current state of American society, but we can reasonably assume that as one of Czechoslovakia’s leading anti-communist dissidents, he would not be oblivious to the intensifying attacks on freedom by identity politics and the woke culture.
Although it is possible that Havel could have identified some elements in the postmodern leftist ideology to which he might be sympathetic, he would undoubtedly reject it as a method and worldview. And so must all freedom-loving people. Similar to earlier phenomena such as “multiculturalism” and “political correctness,” we are dealing with an ideology that contains some truth but overall constitutes a threat to American society and democracy.
The forthcoming series of articles will explore the problem of “wokeism” (a descriptive term here) and discuss the ways how it can be ethically and effectively confronted. By focusing on progressive movements and left-wing politics, I am not ignoring other problems America is currently facing. Havel would oppose all extremist ideologies, wherever their origin on the political spectrum. I am focusing on left- rather than right-wing radical ideologies (while being cognizant of the inadequacy of all labels to describe complex phenomena) because at the present moment I consider it a more urgent threat to democratic freedom in this country.
Furthermore, even though my country of origin experienced both fascism and communism in the twentieth century, I have direct experience only with the latter. Therefore, I feel more compelled to address the ideology whose current manifestations resemble my past experience in important ways. Nobody, including me, forms one’s views and positions in a vacuum. Lived experience in no way guarantees the infallibility of a person’s judgment, but it can increase its accuracy and explain his passions.
Exploring the life and work of Václav Havel can help us understand and confront the illiberal far-left. Havel serves as an example of someone who was able to live in truth amid ideological falsehood and political hypocrisy; choose courage at a time of cowardice, opportunism, and adversity; and extend love in response to humiliation and hate. He believes in the importance of accepting responsibility for a more free, peaceful, and just world; embracing hope as an alternative to utopianism and cynicism; and exercising humility as the antidote to pride, aggression, and narcissism.
Finally, the prophet Havel wants Americans to know that there is an important connection between remembering God and living in freedom. On July 4, 1994, Havel became a recipient of The Philadelphia Liberty Medal, which is awarded to those who “demonstrated leadership and vision in the pursuit of liberty of conscience or freedom from oppression, ignorance, or deprivation.” On this occasion, he delivered a speech that concluded with a prophetic remark: “The Declaration of Independence, adopted 218 years ago in this building, states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems that man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”[iv]
[i] Jean Bethke Elshtain, Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), xv.
[ii] Václav Havel, Summer Meditations, translated by Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 60.
[iii] Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvížďala, translated by Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 8.
[iv] Václav Havel, The Art of Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, translated by Paul Wilson and others (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 172.