December 19, 2011

VELVET AND VALUES:

I have often asked myself why human beings have any rights at all. I always come to the conclusion that human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity have their deepest roots somewhere outside the perceptible world. These values are as powerful as they are because, under certain circumstances, people accept them without compulsion and are willing to die for them, and they make sense only in the perspective of the infinite and the eternal. . . . While the state is a human creation, human beings are the creation of God. 
-Vaclav Havel, The New York Review of Books

Czechs' Dissident Conscience, Turned President (DAN BILEFSKY and JANE PERLEZ, 12/19/11, NY Times)

It was as a dissident that Mr. Havel most clearly championed the ideals of a civil society. He helped found Charter 77, the longest enduring human rights movement in the former Soviet bloc, and keenly articulated the lasting humiliations that Communism imposed on the individual.

In his now iconic 1978 essay "The Power of the Powerless," which circulated in underground editions in Czechoslovakia and was smuggled to other Warsaw Pact countries and to the West, Mr. Havel foresaw that the opposition could eventually prevail against the totalitarian state.

Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief target was not Communism so much as it was the "reform Communism" that many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform Communists, led by Mr. Dubcek, believed that "socialism with a human face" was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be tamed.

He wrote an article, "On the Theme of an Opposition," that advocated the end of single-party rule, a bold idea at the time. In May 1968, he was invited by the American theater producer Joseph Papp to see the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of his second play, "The Memorandum."

It was the last time Mr. Havel was allowed out of the country under Communist rule; the visit contributed to an abiding affection for New York.

After the Soviets sent tanks to suppress the Prague reforms in August 1968, Mr. Havel persisted in the fight for political freedom. In August 1969 he organized a petition of 10 points that repudiated the politics of "normalization" with the Soviet Union. He was accused of subversion, and in 1970 was vilified on state television and banned as a writer.

At the time, tens of thousands of Communists were expelled from the party, deemed too sympathetic to the Dubcek reforms that were being reversed by the Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husak. Mr. Havel kept writing, and in 1975, in an open letter to Mr. Husak -- the leader he eventually replaced -- he attacked the regime, arguing that Czechoslovakia operated under "political apartheid" that separated the rulers from the ruled.

The government, Mr. Havel wrote, had chosen "the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity."

In 1977, Mr. Havel was one of three leading organizers of Charter 77, a group of 242 signers who called for the human rights guaranteed under the 1975 Helsinki accords. Mr. Havel was quickly arrested, tried and convicted of subversion; he served three months in prison. He was arrested again in May 1979 on a charge of subversion and was sentenced to four and a half years.

The severity of this sentence brought protests from the Communist parties in France, Italy and Spain. Mr. Havel was eventually released in February 1983, suffering from pneumonia.

In prison, he was prohibited from writing anything but letters about "family matters" to his wife. These missives, he said, enabled him to make some sense of his incarceration. One of his themes was a warning to his persecutors that by their repression of human freedom, they were ultimately undercutting their own existence.

His refusal to break with Charter 77 led to other, briefer periods of detention as his celebrity status grew abroad. In January 1989, he was detained and tried after defying police orders to stay away from a demonstration.

His release in May that year represented the beginning of the end for Czechoslovakia's Communist government, which was badly out of step with reforms under way in neighboring Poland and Hungary and, under the leadership of Mr. Gorbachev, in the Soviet Union itself.

During the 1980s, Mr. Havel refused government pressure to emigrate. Not widely known at home outside dissident and intellectual circles in Prague, he became a focus for some Western diplomats and visitors, who would tramp up to the top-floor apartment of a six-story house that his father had built and philosophize with Mr. Havel while gazing across the Vltava River at the Prague Castle, long the seat of the country's rulers.

He earned virtually nothing from the menial job he was forced to take at a brewery, but had money from the royalties of publications overseas. He bought a Mercedes-Benz and decorated his book-crammed apartment with abstract paintings. He also owned the cottage at Hradecek where he died.

Vaclav Havel, dissident playwright and former Czech president, dies (lJ.Y. Smith, 12/19/2011, Washington Post)

Vaclav Havel, a Czech writer who was imprisoned by his country's communist rulers, only to become a symbol of freedom and his nation's first president in the post-communist era, died Dec. 18 at his weekend home in the northern Czech Republic. He was 75.


The death was announced by his assistant, Sabina Tancevova, the Associated Press reported. Mr. Havel underwent surgery for lung cancer in 1996 and had suffered from lung ailments in recent months.


Mr. Havel was a playwright by profession and a political activist by avocation. The two activities were complementary, and each served to gain him a leading place among the dissidents of Eastern Europe who helped bring down the communist empire. His words and deeds resonated far beyond the borders of the former Czechoslovakia, and he was widely recognized for his struggles in behalf of democracy and human dignity.


After being unanimously elected president of Czechoslovakia by the newly free country's Parliament in December 1989, Mr. Havel set the tone of the new era in a speech Jan. 1, 1990, his first day in office. Communism, he said, was "a monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine" whose worst legacy was not economic failure but a "spoiled moral environment."


"We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another," he said. "We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other. . . . Love, friendship, mercy, humility, or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension. . . . They represent some sort of psychological curiosity, or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times."


In July 1992, he resigned the presidency when it became clear that the country would be dismembered, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, its eastern neighbor, going their separate ways. The split became formal on Jan. 1, 1993. About three weeks later, the new Czech Parliament called on the country's most famous citizen to return to the presidency. He remained in office for 10 more years.


Although his office was largely ceremonial, Mr. Havel had wide-ranging influence. He was credited with a major role in providing political stability as the country's economy made a relatively trouble-free transition from communist central planning to a free market. In foreign affairs, he was influential in gaining his country's admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


But it was as a dissident that Mr. Havel first gained the world's attention. For more than two decades, beginning in the 1950s, his books and plays were banned in Czechoslovakia. They nonetheless reached a large audience through the underground publishing network and broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America.

We were fortunate enough to get to use an address by Mr. Havel in Redefining Sovereignty.  

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Posted by at December 19, 2011 10:06 PM
  

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