Reaffirming and Defending the Legacy of Vaclav Havel

Remarks by Carl Gershman at the “Salute to Vaclav Havel”
Washington, D.C. November 19, 2014

My thanks, Martin, for inviting me to speak about reaffirming and defending the legacy of Vaclav Havel on this important occasion.

When Havel was a scholar-in-residence here at the Library of Congress in the beginning of 2007, we said that we would like to present him with the NED’s Democracy Service Medal. He agreed, but on the condition that we use the occasion to give visibility and support to dissidents from countries that did not enjoy democracy. The result was a major forum that he called “Dissidents and Freedom,” addressed by eight activists from Russia, China, Burma, Belarus, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. An Iranian exile who was present at the event said that this was how a real hero gracefully and discreetly gave “his audience an invaluable lesson in humility and empathy.”

Havel’s remarks at the start of the meeting were brief but memorable. He said that bringing dissidents together from so many different countries was extremely important, not just because it gave them the possibility of cooperation, but because it showed that what they have in common – “their fight for liberties, for human rights,…human dignity, human freedom” – transcended their cultural differences and the political ideologies of their respective governments.
He then said that while it’s important to support such dissidents, there are two risks. The first is that democratic governments and their embassies have no way of knowing who is a real leader and a future president, and who is “only some crazy, crazy man who likes drinks in the embassy.” Still, he said, it’s necessary to support such people because “to risk that you don’t speak with the right person is much cheaper than the risks…, for example, if you arranged an invasion,” and that such support is also “more sensible for the future of freedom and democracy.”
The second risk, he said, is that the dissidents might not be successful, and their stories, unlike his own, might not have the kind of happy ending that Americans like so much. The dissidents, he said, “have no guarantees. They only have some precepts, principles, some values.” They know “that it is necessary to speak the truth” and “to speak about values,” even though we must accept that “it will not bring…in the near future some visible happy end. But in spite of it,” he said at the end, “I think that it is very good and very important to like happy ends.”

There are several conclusions I draw from this. The first is that Havel’s universalism was real, not false, as a particular Czech official whom I mentioned in an article earlier this week has claimed. Havel was not trying to impose a Western worldview on others, but was recognizing their common humanity and the universal desire for human dignity and freedom.

The second conclusion is that solidarity with people fighting for freedom is not only the right thing to do, it’s also less risky than the alternative, which is giving up your belief in universal human freedom. If you do so, if you regard human freedom as solely a Western value with no more legitimacy than the official ideologies of authoritarian governments, and subordinate it to the pursuit of narrow, short-term interests, you will lose your compass and your humanity, and you will pay a price in your own freedom and security.

And the third conclusion is that one should never give up hope. The road ahead may be very hard, there can be a lot of suffering and failure. But openings can come at the most unexpected times and places. The key thing is to hold on to your values, to sharpen your ideas, to speak the truth, and not to lose your sense of humor.
Havel had a wonderful, sometimes self-deprecating, sense of irony, with which he could put serious challenges in perspective. His legacy may not be appreciated today by some officials in the Czech government. But that, too, will pass, and we should not give up hope that this story, like Havel’s struggle as a dissident living in truth, will also have a happy end.