Vaclav Havel's Critique of the West

More

In his own words: "We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved"

havelhavel-body.jpg

Reuters

Vaclav Havel, the former Czech independence activist and president who died on Sunday, has been justly eulogized for his intellectual leadership and personal courage in the fight against communism. Havel was also a thoughtful observer of western democracies, seeing similar absolutist trends in government structures that strive toward uniformity and ultimate solutions. In a series of speeches given in the 1990s, he laid out an analysis that seems, if anything, even more relevant today.

Western governments, he said, are organized on a flawed premise not far removed from the Soviet system that had just collapsed. "The modern era has been dominated by the culminating belief," he said, "that the world ... is a wholly knowable system governed by finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and rationally direct ... objectively describing, explaining, and controlling everything."

These bureaucratic structures are profoundly dehumanizing, Havel believed, striving to control choices that should be left to human judgment and values. This "era of systems, institutions, mechanisms and statistical averages" is doomed to failure because "there is too much to know" and it cannot "be fully grasped." The drive towards standardization is fatally flawed, Havel believed: "life is nonstandard."

The heavy hand of centralized bureaucracy, Havel observed, makes everyone first powerless, then listless. "We have lost sense that there is a way out, lost the will to do anything," he said. "The more we know about dangers like global warming, the less we seem able to deal with them." These systems also marginalize community and leave people with a "fundamental sense of nonbelonging."

The quest for uniform systems does not reduce social conflict but creates a claimant culture that feeds social conflict. "The more systematically and impatiently the world is crammed into rational categories, the more explosions of irrationality there will be to astonish us," he said. We long "for an unattainable order of things, a longing that increases as the terrain I walk through becomes more muddled and confusing. I sometimes feel the need to confirm my identity by sounding off at others and demanding my rights."

In a society where authority is embodied in complex bureaucratic systems, no one can take responsibility to do what seems right. Modern societies are suffering what he called a "profound crisis of authority and resulting general decay of order." What does that mean? "Politicians seem to have turned into puppets that only look human and move in a giant, rather inhuman theatre; they appear to have become merely cogs in a huge machine, objects of a major automatism of civilization which has gotten out of control and for which no one is responsible."

The solution, Havel believed, is to reclaim human control over daily choices. We must "get to the heart of reality through personal experience ... in short, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated." Let communities too be different: "There is no need at all for different people, religions and cultures to adapt or conform to one another. ... I think we help one another best if we make no pretenses, remain ourselves, and simply respect and honor one another, just as we are."

Responsibility, not systems, must be the activating mechanism for public choices. "Democracy is a system based on trust in the human sense of responsibility, which it ought to awaken and cultivate," he said. "We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved ... a body of information to be fed into a computer in the hope that sooner or later it will spit out a universal solution."

The first step in taking responsibility, Havel thought, is to believe in right and wrong. "The present crisis of authority is only one of a thousand consequences of the general crisis of spirituality in the world today."

"If democracy is ... to survive," he explained, "it must renew its respect for the nonmaterial order ... for the order of nature, for the order of humanity, and thus for secular authority as well. ...The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences--the very things Western democracy is most criticized for--originate not in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect. "

Changing the system then requires people to shed their indifference and start speaking the truth. "Let us finally endeavor to get rid of not only our fear of lies," Havel observed, "but also our fear of truth. ... Salvation can come only through a profound awakening of man to his own personal responsibility."

Havel did not merely talk, of course. He famously broke away from the sheep-like indifference of subjugated public, and stood up to the communist regime that was telling lies all day long. He paid for this with five years of prison and broken health. But telling the truth eventually worked.

It is not hard to imagine what Havel would do in our shoes. The difficulty of changing an entrenched system is no reason not to try. "I do not know whether or not the world will take the path which that reality offers. But I will not lose hope."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer, author and chair of Common Good. He is the author, most recently, of Life Without Lawyers: Restoring Responsibility in America, and wrote the introduction to Al Gore's Common Sense Government. More

Philip K. Howard is the author of Life Without Lawyers(Norton 2009), as well as the best-seller The Death of Common Sense(Random House, 1995) and The Collapse of the Common Good(Ballantine, 2002), and he is a periodic contributor to the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He advises leaders of both parties on legal and regulatory reform issues, and wrote the introduction to Vice President Al Gore's book Common Sense Government. A practicing lawyer, Howard is a partner in the law firm Covington & Burling LLP. In 2002, Howard founded Common Good (www.commongood.org), organized to restore common sense to American public life. The Advisory Board of Common Good is composed of leaders from a broad cross-section of American political thought including, among others, former Senators Howard Baker, Bill Bradley, George McGovern, and Alan Simpson. Howard is a civic leader in New York and is Chair-Emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, a leading civic group that spearheaded initiatives to preserve Grand Central Terminal.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

From This Author

Just In