Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Vaclav Havel and the Politics of Hope"

"Vaclav Havel and the Politics of Hope" from Noetic Sciences Review, # 18, Spring 1991

It could be that many in our culture have developed an almost voyeuristic interest in the personal lives of our celebrities, including our political leaders. Yet, we seldom (if ever) deign it necessary to consider in any deeper ways the worldviews of those who lead us. It is not considered "important" to know, for instance, George Bush's view about the meaning of life, or even what the perspective of Dan Quayle is regarding the nature of reality. Certainly, this apparent lack of interest in such "deeper" matters is not unique to American society. While consideration of such philosophical matters may have a somewhat more prominent place in the political history of other lands, nowhere do they predominate. Nowhere do they assume a prominence over more down-to-earth, "bread and butter" issues like war and taxes and bread and circuses.

Perhaps this is the reason Vaclav Havel seems to some to be a manifestation of a completely different genre of political leader. He is a man whose life is energized by consideration of these "deeper things". What is the main issue faced by modern humanity in these closing years of the twentieth century? One might tick off the whole "laundry list" of the troubles of our day: the Middle East, the world economy, problems of industrialization. But no, Havel says:

The question is . . . deeper . . . whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speaking, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human I, responsible for ourself because we are bound to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything . . . for the sake of that which gives life meaning.

Perhaps one needs to remind oneself that these are not the words of a detached professor of philosophy (or even of political science!) at some central European university. They are the words of the
president of a nation of sixteen million souls in the heart of Europe. These are the words of no detached intellectual; they are the words of a man whose philosophy of life has been tempered in a crucible far harsher than that which most of us will ever be called upon to withstand. They are the words of a man who led a revolution, right in front of the eyes of the world.

And what a different kind of revolution it was! "In Poland, the revolution took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in Czechoslovakia ten days." So the saying (coined by the British reporter Timothy Garton Ash) went during the later months of 1989, the year that changed our world. Strictly speaking, the revolution in Czechoslovakia took all of a month and a half, from November 17, when government riot police attacked demonstrators in Prague, to the afternoon of December 29 when, with Alexander Dubcek presiding, the nation's Federal Assembly elected Vaclav Havel the president of what was then still called the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

It was a revolution led by writers and actors and teachers and university students and members of labor unions by intellectuals and workers, side by side. It was a revolution whose manifestos and policy statements were often drafted at mass meetings held in the auditorium of a theatre called the "Magic Lantern" with several hundred people present, all with the right to make a point about the matter under consideration. It was a revolution which, aside from that initial state-instigated violence in Wenceslas Square, proceeded in a spirit of passionate and rigorous non-violence. It would become known among the people of Czechoslovakia and then the world as the "velvet revolution", because it was so gentle and non-violent and seemed to hold close to its center a joyousness and a celebration of imagination and creativity unknown in the annals of political revolutions of
ages past.

It was a gentle revolution with a most unlikely leader: Vaclav Havel was born to a prosperous bourgeois family in Prague in October of 1936. His father was a civil engineer and a builder; his mother's father was a financial editor and had served as ambassador to several countries and then as a government minister for a short while. As a child, Vaclav grew up in the midst of plenty and privilege. Of those early years, he would later write:

Our family employed, as the custom was, domestics. I had a governess; we had a cook, a maid, a gardener, and a chauffeur. All of that put between myself and those around me (I mean my poorer fellow students and our staff) a social barrier which . . . I was very much aware of and found hard to deal with. I was ashamed of my advantages, my 'perks'. . . . I longed for equality with others, not because I was some kind of childhood social revolutionary, but simply because I felt separate and excluded . . . because I knew that between me and those around me there was an invisible wall, and because behind that wall . . . I felt alone, inferior, lost, ridiculed . . . humbled by my 'higher' status. 3

Havel's feelings of being an "outsider" would only intensify when the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and the members of his family were stripped of all their special privileges. He would later say that this feeling of always being outside the norm would have great influence upon him; later, he said, it would influence his art and his view of the world.
Central among the ideas which Havel articulates in his work is a view of humanity standing humbly before the greater forces of the natural world and the unfolding cosmos. It is only by rooting our lives within these greater forces, and directing our sights toward greater goals, Havel believes, that the so-often-absurd little lives of each of us can grow to become truly meaningful. But if we cling with all our strength to our own little lives as the center of all meaning, then we ultimately drown in a sense of our own absurdity—or, we lose hope and give over control of our lives to some outside force of ideology or authority.

It is through our identification with goals and ideals beyond the ephemeral, transient world of business or politics as usual that we find meaning and strength in our lives. Through this identification with the timeless, indestructible forces of life, the conscience of the individual is empowered to continue questioning without pause in the face of absurdity, and the individual person is empowered to act without fear in the face of tyranny. This sense of oneness with a greater force beyond the constrictors of an oppressive society is what Havel calls "the power of the powerless".

Each individual being connects with the "greater force" by listening to his or her own deep, inner voice and then seeking to lead a life based upon the principle of
living within the truth. Where does one find "truth"? Out in the natural world, Havel believes: in the natural world with its natural objective laws, its cycles and seasons, and its ebb and flow. According to him, it is modern humanity's alienation from the natural world which is the cause of much of our trouble. In order to grow into harmony with the greatest Truth in the universe, Havel believes we human beings must stop seeing ourselves as the ruler over nature, and must once again come to see ourselves as part and parcel of nature. In one essay, he writes, "We must honor with the humility of the wise the bounds of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our [human] competence. . . "

The natural world will tell us what is true for us—and what is true for the world. Alienation results when people in a modern society fail to listen to the voice of nature, the voice of the conscience, and instead base their lives on the dictates of some party or corporation or ideology outside of themselves.
 Human beings relate to the cosmos and to the natural world, not only individually, but socially and politically as well, of course. What kind of social and political structures can help to lead women and men away from the alienation of living a lie, and assist them as they seek to "live within the truth"? To further these ends, Havel believes, the institutions and structures of society have to be built from the ground  upward, and not from the top down. Structures must be constructed based upon "human factors"—the needs and desires of individuals—"rather than from a particular formalization of political relationships" and the overriding demands of this or that ideology. Havel writes: "Rather than a strategic agglomeration of formalized organizations, it is better to have organizations springing up ad hoc, infused with enthusiasm for a particular purpose and disappearing when that purpose has been achieved."

It is because such small groups of mutual support and edification seem so insignificant in the face of the totality of the predominating culture that these manifestations of the "parallel polis" in the East and in the West (are these the real "thousand points of light"?) can keep hope alive.

Because they set their sights on more distant horizons—which is at the same time the horizon within their individual consciences—supporters of such grassroots organizations can strive to remain true to their own personal integrity even in the midst of oppression.

Living within the truth is never easy, for the pull of forces outside of ourselves is so very strong, and the ideology of the predominating culture always provides what Havel calls a "bridge of excuses" for choosing not to live within the truth. For Havel and his fellow dissidents in Eastern Europe, as for political dissidents everywhere, choosing to live within the truth sometimes meant facing harassment or exile or jail or even death. (Havel himself was imprisoned for nearly five years during the regime of Gustav Husak. He nearly died in prison, and was only released because such "enlightened" Communist authorities decided that they didn't need a martyr on their hands.) But in spite of persecution, Havel remained true to his course; indeed, he seemed to grow stronger in the face of persecution, for the hope within him continued to grow, and to nourish him.

In 1986, three years before he became president of Czechoslovakia, Havel was asked, "Do you see a grain of hope anywhere in the 1980s?" And he replied:

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . . . Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for . . . success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. [My emphasis.] 

Our hope arises from "elsewhere", Havel writes, from the "wide horizon's grander view", in the words of Samuel Longfellow, and not from the day-to-day reality of existence. Our hope—our sense that life "makes sense", that it has meaning (in spite of the absurdity and violence and tragedy all around us)—emerges out of our rootedness in the universe (not by our putting ourselves at the center of the universe). It does not emerge out of the blind glorification of human beings, human reason, and human endeavors—but rather emerges from the sense we receive when our human good works grow into harmony with the greater spirit of life.

Which might bring some of us to the question of God, but does not necessarily bring Vaclav Havel there. At their deepest, Havel believes, the roots of life are
transcendental: in some fundamental way "more than" the physically verifiable here and now. But, he adds, "I can't—unlike Christians, for instance—say anything concrete about the transcendental."

In describing his own religious background, Havel wrote:

I haven't been to confession (I mean the institutional variety) since childhood. I don't pray, and I don't cross myself when I
am in church. I took part in secret masses in prison, but I didn't take communion. There are some things that I have felt since childhood: that there is a great mystery above me which is the focus of all meaning and the highest moral authority; that the event called the 'world' has a deeper order and meaning, and therefore is more than just a cluster of improbable accidents; that in my own life I am reaching for something that goes far beyond me and the horizon of the world I know; that in everything I do I touch eternity in a strange way. . . .

What is also important is to keep one's sense of humor, and a humble sense of one's own absurdity. "The life of a dissident in Czechoslovakia is not particularly jolly, and spending time in Czechoslovak jails is even less so," Havel wrote in 1985. But still, he maintained, the need for a sense of levity and lightheartedness toward life remained a crucial part of his existence.

There is also, Havel believes, a need to be realistic and not to give in to pie-in-the-sky Utopianism. For Utopianism—the belief that human society can somehow be made perfect—can readily become the genesis of political or ideological tyranny and totalitarianism. A grain of what he calls "our distinctive central European skepticism" can provide a very healthy sense of balance, indeed. "This may be a world of dreams and of the ideal, but it is not the world of Utopia."

In April of 1985, Vaclav Havel wrote, "History is unpredictable, and we need to be prepared for a whole range of eventualities." Just how unpredictable it could be, even he had no way of knowing. In little more than four years, he would become president of his country, a "politician", whether he liked it or not. Within just seven years, he had come from being a prisoner of the state to being president of that same (but utterly transformed) state. Seemingly overnight, the most unlikely of eventualities became political reality, and the members of Civic Forum were transformed from outcasts of society into government ministers. The "parallel polis" had become the government. And the world watches eagerly to see what will happen next, and to see if the world is truly changed.

"The real question," Havel wrote in 1978, "is whether the 'brighter future' is always really so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us, and within us, and kept us from developing it?"

For in Havel's view, deep, real change does not merely take place on a political plain, on a linear scale of chronological history. The real change takes place within our souls; the real change takes place when the unfolding of our souls reflects in some deep, mysterious way the unfolding of the universe. Then it is—when an individual person dares to live within his or her truth—that the world is changed, forever.

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz is the author of six books, including Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Copies may be purchased from Amazon.com, or directly from the author.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Burma's Brave Voice of Freedom

The Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has written:

"It is [our]vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads [us] to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power…

"The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear…
We will prevail because our cause is right, because our cause is just. ...History is on our side. Time is on our side."

In the exotic Southeast Asian nation of Burma (sometimes called Myanmar), a country of about 50 million people on the Bay of Bengal, a battle of wills of heroic proportions has been taking place for the past few decades. At first glance, it might seem an uneven struggle. On one side stands one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, known as SLORC (the State Law and Restoration Council). On the other side is an heroic 65-year old mother of two sons named Aung San Suu Kyi.

For more than 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi was held as a virtual prisoner in her home on the outskirts of Rangoon. She was held in virtual isolation from 1989 to 1995 for daring to speak out against a government which has killed tens of thousands of its own citizens, which as tortured thousands of others, and which enslaves countless political prisoners in forced labor camps. For a few years in the mid-1990s, following her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, official house arrest was lifted by the Burmese junta, though Aung San Suu Kyi was trailed continually, forbidden from meeting with foreigners, and told that if she ever dared to leave the country, she would most certainly not be let back in.

But following her release from confinement, she continued to challenge the dictatorship at every opportunity. Every weekend, thousands of Burmese men, women, and children, at no small risk to themselves, would congregate in front of her home and wait for her to address them. Her weekly speeches became the country’s only open forum of free ideas. In 1998, SLORC banned any gatherings in the vicinity of Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, and arrested thousands of suspected supporters of the democratic movement. In 2003, they reinstituted formal house arrest (which was then again lifted in late 2010).

Aung San Suu Kyi has been a great inspiration—to her own people, and to the whole world. As Madeline Albright once said, “When the Burmese government tries to blame the victims for the crime, and say that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are responsible for their own repression, I can only reply that much the same was once said about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. The world is not fooled.”

She has become an inspiration to the world. But the personal cost to Suu Kyi has been great. Once her struggle against the Burmese junta began, she was allowed to see her husband and children only a few times. When her husband, Michael Aris, an British citizen and professor at Oxford, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1997, the junta refused to allow him into Burma to visit his wife one last time. She was told that she would not be allowed to return to her homeland should she leave to visit him. So, Aris died in 1998, having never seen his wife again. She has not been allowed contact with her sons, Alexander and Kim, who live in England, since 1999.

Even though Aung San Suu Kyi had been born into a prominent Burmese political family, she was leading a quiet life in England as a housewife and an academic when her country called. Almost overnight, she was transformed into a symbol of democracy, freedom, and resistance.

For many of Burma’s people, Aung San Suu Kyi is a living link to their history. She is the daughter of Burma’s greatest modern hero, General Aung San, who founded the Burmese army in 1941, and led the fight to expel the Japanese during World War Two. After the war, Aung San entered into negotiations with the British for independence, which was scheduled for January 4, 1948. But before that date arrived—on July 19, 1947—Aung San was assassinated by right wing political rivals. He was only 32 years old; he left a wife and three children—two sons and a daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was just two years old at the time.

At the age of 15, she moved to New Delhi, where her mother was appointed Burma’s ambassador to India. Later, she studied at Oxford University and received her degree in political science and economics. Following her graduation, she came to New York to work at the United Nations. It was a time of political and social turmoil in the United States, Suu Kyi said of her time in America. “The young people were for love and not war. There was a feeling of tremendous vigor.”

In 1972, Aung San Suu Kyi married Michael Aris, and just before their wedding she had written to him, saying: “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me do my duty by them.” The two settled in Oxford, where they began to raise a family, and Aung San Suu Kyi continued studying for her doctorate. It was a fairly quiet, normal life.

Quickly, the military government moved with full force against the pro-democracy movement. On August 26, a general strike was called in Rangoon, and Aung San Suu Kyi addressed her people for the first time. “People have been saying that I know nothing of Burmese politics,” she began. Then, recalling her father’s assassination, she continued, “The trouble is, I know too much.”

Overnight, it seemed, Aung San Suu Kyi became Burma’s voice of freedom, the leading spokesman for the Movement for Democracy. On September 18, 1988, the government declared martial law, and stepped up its repression. Thousands more were killed. But the opposition couldn’t be stifled. A week later, the National League for Democracy was founded, and Aung San Suu Kyi was chosen as its leader.

For the next year, she would travel around her country, rallying people to the cause. She made over 1000 speeches, in large cities and small hamlets, often at no small risk to herself. In April 1989, as she and a group of demonstrators were returning to Rangoon, they were stopped, and Aung San Suu Kyi got out of the car, and started to walk toward the battalion of troops. “It seemed so much simpler,” she explained later, “to provide them with a single target.” A captain order his soldiers to raise their rifles, but as Aung San Suu Kyi continued to move forward, seemingly freed from all fear, the soldiers put down their guns, and the caravan was allowed to proceed.

Shortly after this incident, the dictatorship ordered Aung San Suu Kyi placed under house arrest at her home in Rangoon until further notice. She would not be released from incarceration until July of 1995—six years later.

In the meantime, though, her fame grew, and the struggle in Burma received increased notice around the world. In May 1990, in response to international pressure, the Burmese government allowed the first free elections in more than 30 years. But when Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy gained over 80% of the vote, the military junta simply voided the election and announced the formation of SLORC—the State Law and Restoration Council—instead.

But Aung San Suu Kyi and her movement would not just fade away. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with all proceeds going to establish a health and education trust fund for the people of Burma. In 1991, the first book of her writings was published under the title Freedom From Fear—with all proceeds again earmarked for her people.

In her speech to the European Parliament after being awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (a speech which, of course, she was never able to deliver in person), she said:

“It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and the fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it… It is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all its forms becomes deeply entrenched…”

The people of Burma, she continued, had grown weary of passivity and fear. She quoted the lyrics of a song of the student rebellion:

Emerald cool we may be
As water in cupped hands
But oh that we might be
As splinters of glass in cupped hands, too…

The days when the Burmese people were like water—cool and passive and pliant—in the cupped hands of their oppressors were drawing to a close, slowly but surely, Aung San Suu Kyi declared. Instead, they were set of becoming “glass splinters” in the hands of the oppressors: “Glass splinters, the smallest with its sharp, glinting power to defend itself against hands that try to crush… a vivid symbol of the spark of courage, essential to those who would free themselves from the grip of oppression.”

“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit,” Aung San Suu Kyi continued. “A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions [alone] has little chance of genuine success… It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy, and human rights. There has to be [also] a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance, and fear.”

“Saints,” she reminded her listeners, “are simply sinners who go on trying.”

So, in their most recent “Saffron Revolution”in 2007, the saintly people of Burma—their brave Buddhist monks, their shining “lady” (they refer to Aung San Suu Kyi as simply “the lady” within Burma—even to speak her name publicly is a crime, punishable by years in prison)—and hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands—of ordinary men and women—workers, and farmers, and students, and teachers, the whole nation—have opened our eyes again to the power of freedom in the human heart.

“Please use your liberty to promote ours,” Aung San Suu Kyi implores us. And, she continues:
"We have faith in the power to change what needs to be changed but we are under no illusion that the transition from dictatorship to… democracy will be easy, or that democratic government will mean the end of all our problems. We know that our greatest challenges lie ahead of us and that our struggle to establish a stable, democratic society will continue beyond our own life span.

But we know that we are not alone. The cause of liberty and justice finds sympathetic responses around the world. Thinking and feeling people everywhere, regardless of color or creed, understand the deeply rooted human need for a meaningful existence that goes beyond the mere gratification of material desires. Those fortunate enough to live in societies where they are entitled to full political rights can reach out to help their less fortunate brethren in other areas of our troubled planet…"