In this series, we have been reflecting on the moral legacy of Václav Havel and how it can help us counter leftist woke ideology that presents a threat to American freedom and undermines the foundations of a good society. One of the central characteristics of wokeism is a lack of tolerance for dissenting views and their bearers. There are various manifestations of this intolerance, from denigrating “dead white men” (Karl Marx seems to get a pass) and even destroying their statues to sidelining and silencing those among the living who do not meet the criteria of the self-righteous judgment of the apostles of a new orthodoxy. Part of the problem are not only those who actively participate in this undemocratic and uncivil behavior but also those who directly or tacitly support it and individuals who lack the courage to oppose it.
Woke ideology should be refused and resisted by everyone who cares about living in a society that most closely approximates the ideals of freedom, justice, and peace—and it must be opposed the right way. The utilitarian ethics governing the behavior of many social justice warriors is not a legitimate option for those who subscribe to the Christian faith. It was also not an option for Havel, although he was not a professing Christian. The anti-communist dissident who became the first president of a democratic Czechoslovakia rejected the dictum that the ends justifies the means, adhering to an ethics of responsibility that also takes moral principles seriously.
The first moral principle we learned from Havel dealt with “living in truth.” The notion of truth also played a crucial role in other luminaries of Czech history, including church reformer Jan Hus, pioneer of pedagogy John Amos Comenius, scholar and politician T.G. Masaryk, and philosopher Jan Patočka. The national motto of the Czech Republic, which we also find on the presidential flag floating over Prague Castle, is Pravda vítězí (“Truth Prevails”). What is unique about Havel is that in his personal and political life, truth was inseparable from love. This nexus is often overlooked or misunderstood but should be viewed as a matter of fundamental importance that is also relevant to our lives and times.
“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred!” is how Václav Havel ended his speech to a crowd of freedom-longing people gathered in Prague on December 10, 1989. This statement was one of the slogans of the Velvet Revolution and embodied the overall spirit of this unparalleled historical event. In the last three decades, some of the less idealistic and more cynical citizens of Slovakia and Czechia questioned the underlying assumptions and practical application of this slogan and even ridiculed its author. However, this does not detract from its value then and now, if properly understood.
From its beginning to the end of the revolution, the spirit of truth and love prevailed. That is why Slovaks use the adjective nežná (“gentle”) and the Czechs sametová (“velvet”) to describe the Velvet Revolution. It all started on November 17, 1989, with the students carrying a banner that said, “We do not want violence,” and chanting, “We have bare hands”—letting the riot police at National Avenue in Prague know that they were unarmed and did not have any bad intentions. Their nonaggressive attitude was manifested in peaceful songs, lit candles, and extended flowers, which some demonstrators placed behind the police shields. Refusal to obey police orders not to march to the city center was met with the state’s force, leading to many injuries.
As news and images of the police’s brutal repression began to reach the public, citizens mobilized. Considering our national mentality and history, it was astonishing to see people unite and dare to confront the totalitarian regime. Until then, the communist state organized massive rallies during the International Worker’s Day or on similar occasions, and participation was forced. In 1989, hundreds of thousands of people voluntarily took to the streets, filled with hope for a free society and better future. Broad civic platforms were formed that entered discussions with Communist Party leaders and presented the people’s demands: The Civic Forum in the Czech Republic and The Public Against Violence [emphasis added] in Slovakia.
One of the most memorable moments of the Velvet Revolution that led to the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was when Marta Kubišová—a popular Czech singer who was “canceled” by the communist regime after 1968 Prague Spring—emerged from the iconic balcony of Melantrich and in front of crowded Saint Wenceslas Square sang the ballad “Modlitba pro Martu” (“A Prayer for Marta”). There was no anger, resentment, or hate as she appeared in public after two decades of isolation. She could not have chosen a more appropriate song for that historic moment: “Let peace still remain with this country! Let hatred, envy, grudge, fear, and strife cease! Let them cease!”
There have not been many bloodless revolutions in human history. If political miracles happen, this was one of them. There were no attacks on people or destruction of property in the name of justice. As a sign of solidarity, people wore the tricolor of the Czechoslovakia’s flag, which, together with the peace sign and jingling of keys became symbols of this unusual revolution. The Slovak folk singer Ivan Hoffman composed a song titled “Sľúbili sme si lásku” (“We Promised Each Other Love”) that became the unofficial anthem of the revolution. Most participants still remember its lyrics: “We promised each other love. We promised to speak only the truth. We promised that we would endure. We promised ourselves a new day” [Emphasis added].
No statues were vandalized or toppled, even those of the communist leaders who were responsible for the loss of millions of lives. I participated in the revolution in Žilina, the fourth-most populous city in Slovakia. Large peaceful gatherings—where the word dialogue was often uttered—took place at Lenin Square, where the monumental bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin stood. During the general strike on November 27, 1989, more than twenty thousand of us gathered at the square, yet the statue remained untouched. It was removed in orderly fashion four months after the revolution.
There is no doubt that part of the reason Czechoslovakia peacefully moved from communism to democracy was Václav Havel. The same is true about the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. The Velvet Revolution and the Velvet Divorce were remarkably peaceful because the velvet prophet played a key role in them. This is not to say that, without Havel, Czechoslovakia would have had a similar fate as some other post-communist European countries. But his positive impact on this important historical period cannot be underestimated.
For Havel, love was much more than a fragment in an inspirational slogan. He was a man whose deeds matched his declarations. Hatred was absent in his life, which is most clearly evident in his relationship with the communists. Eda Kriseová, Havel’s friend and biographer, describes how he reacted to constant police surveillance and harassment:
These aspects of his character [patience and self-control] are connected to his tolerance; he feels sorry for those people rather than angry at them. There was never any hatred between him and his secret policemen. He always tried to get along with them and avoided humiliating them, even when they did nothing but humiliate him.[i]
As I have already alluded, Havel’s non-hateful attitude and approach toward the communists did not change during the 1989 revolution. His loving core was perhaps most tested when he moved from being powerless to being powerful and those who used to be powerful suddenly became powerless. There was no personal revenge cloaked as social justice. There was no hateful propaganda. There were no political trials. Havel may not have known Martin Luther King Jr.’s adage, “We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are going to perish together as fools,” but that loving spirit—striving for harmonious relations—operated in and through him.
The same spirit of truth and love must also work in those who care about approximating Reverend King’s “beloved community,” or what I have called a good society. This applies to all Americans, regardless of their positions and politics. We have a moral obligation to defend what we believe to be true but must do so without succumbing to hate. Dialogue is important because no human being has fully comprehended the truth, and conversation increases the chance that we will see in other people our opponents, not enemies. Refusing to dialogue suggests an enmity not only toward the person with whom we disagree but also our centuries-old civilizational ideals and American values.
Once we have accepted that truth and love should be viewed as integral and inseparable in our pursuit of a good society, the matter of critical importance is to correctly understand and fairly use the relevant terms. The word “hate” is hackneyed in contemporary American discourse. The woke movement has effectively used the phrase “hate speech” to silence their opponents. This is unethical, undemocratic, and un-American. Free speech is guaranteed by the US Constitution and must be protected by its citizens against those who under the guise of protecting the vulnerable seek to advance their own ideological positions and political interests.
President Václav Havel, who used to add a heart to his signature and had a large neon heart installed over Prague Castle, was invited to speak at “The Anatomy of Hate” conference held in 1990 in Oslo. After telling his listeners that haters “harbor a permanent, ineradicable feeling of injury that is out of all proportions with reality,” in their subconscious “slumbers a perverse feeling that they alone possess the truth,” and “want to be the center of the world and are constantly frustrated and irritated because the world does not accept and recognize them as such,” Havel provides this insightful commentary:
In hatred—just as in unhappy love—there is a desperate kind of transcendentalism. People who hate wish to attain the unattainable and are consumed by the impossibility of attaining it. They see the cause of this in the shameful world that prevents them from attaining their object.
Hatred is a diabolical attribute of the fallen angel. It is a state of the spirit that aspires to be God, that may even think it is God, and is tormented by evidence that it is not and cannot be. It is the attribute of a creature who is jealous of God and eats his heart out because the road to the throne of God, where he thinks he should be sitting, is blocked by an unjust world.
The person who hates is never able to see the cause of his metaphysical failure in himself and the way he completely overestimates his own worth. In his eyes, it is the surrounding world that is to blame.[ii]
Despite his magnanimous personality, Václav Havel was an object of hate both during and after the communist era, but he never hated back. “Among my bad qualities—and there are certainly enough of them—there is not, oddly enough, the capacity to hate,”[iii] Havel reflected on himself. Looking at his life and work, we are reminded of three things: first, anyone who stands for truth will be insulted, feel humiliated, and become an object of hatred. Second, it is not only imperative but also possible not to respond the same way. Third, love is not a sign of naivete or weakness but rather an absolute necessity and a winning strategy, especially in domestic affairs.
On the most basic level, human beings do not need definitions of love and hate—they recognize these emotions and their fruits when they see them. Once we enter the world of ideologies and politics, things can get a bit more complicated for those who do not reduce social and political life to a power struggle. There are real ethical dilemmas related to how we confront ideologies such as wokeism. While some are in clear harmony with the spirit of truth and love and others are clearly not, there also seems to be a gray zone. But this is a discussion for another day.
Christians have a plethora of theological and spiritual resources that can help them understand the meaning of love and truth, cope properly with hatred toward them, and overcome the temptation of hating others. The Christian realist tradition, represented by thinkers such as Saint Augustine, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, have much to teach those who seek to be salt and light to the world. There are worthy examples from within and outside of this tradition that have shown us how to pursue noble ideals in the right spirit—one of them being Václav Havel, a prophet to America.
[i] Eda Kriseová, Václav Havel: The Authorized Biography, translated by Caleb Crain (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 154.
[ii] Václav Havel, The Art of Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, translated by Paul Wilson and others (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 56-7.
[iii] Ibid., 55.