On November 19, The John W. Kluge Center, The Embassy of the Czech Republic, and Florida International University will remember Václav Havel’s influence and legacy in a private conference at the Library of Congress. The event will be immediately followed by the dedication of a bust of President Havel in the U.S. Capitol.
Havel twice was a scholar-in-residence at The John W. Kluge Center: in spring 2005, and again from December 2006 to March 2007. “Insights” presents a four-part series on Václav Havel’s life, legacy, and relationship to the Library. Jason Steinhauer continues our series.
Václav Havel addressed the public twice during his time at the Kluge Center. In 2005, while he held the Kluge Chair in Modern Culture and conducted research on human rights while working on his final play, “Leaving,” Havel delivered a major address on human rights titled “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” When he returned in late 2006 to work on his memoirs, “To the Castle and Back,” staying into the early part of 2007, Havel convened eight activists from around the world for a forum on dissidents and freedom.
Havel’s first appearance addressed the responsibility of governments to uphold human rights and citizens’ responsibilities to demand them. Citizens must have the courage to hold their leaders accountable for the promises they keep, Havel said, particularly their promises to protect the rights of all citizens. Throughout history there have been documents that speak to the promise of human rights, Havel reminded his audience, yet soaring rhetoric was not enough–the courage of men and women was required to hold political leaders accountable for their promises.
“There must be people who are willing to put themselves on the line for these documents. That is, these declarations must be taken seriously, their general principals must be made specific, they must be made genuinely binding and their fulfillment must be a tangible thing… [There must be] a persistent effort to take those who invoke those declarations at their word and to demand that their words amount to more than hollow sound.”
When he spoke again in 2007, Havel used his platform to give voice to eight dissidents and activists from around the world, including Burma, China, Cuba, North Korea and Belarus. Havel did not like the word dissident–he felt it sounded like a profession, and, as he curtly said, “It isn’t any special profession.” Dissidents are simply individuals unafraid to speak freely for human rights. They can be academics, scientists, journalists, playwrights, students or from any other walk of life.
Havel warned against the human predisposition to reward only the stories that end happily–that is, to celebrate human rights activists only once they have succeeded, as opposed to supporting them during the process when success is not guaranteed. “My story had [a] happy end, but it doesn’t mean that all work of all people who are engaged opposition under [a] dictatorship will be successful.” There are no guarantees, only values; no assurance of future results, only the conviction that current conditions are untenable. We can enjoy happy endings, but not be blind to the reality of what comes before them.
The 2007 event is rather remarkable for its assemblage of voices from around the world. Student leaders from Iran, an advocate for the Uighur people in China, and a demonstration leader in Belarus, among others, all shared one stage at the Library. At the close of the event, the Chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy and retired Congressman Vin Weber presented Havel with the NED’s Democracy Service Medal.
It’s a wonder to realize how activists from countries thousands of miles apart, with vastly different cultures, and speaking at least eight different languages all gained inspiration and courage from a single man. None had met him during his time as a playwright and activist, only as a statesman. They knew him once the struggle was complete, not during the fight. But they had read his words and heard his story told. Such is the power of words–their ability to spread, diffuse, express complex ideas, and to travel farther and wider than any speaker who utters them. Such is the power of libraries–for they safeguard our words for those who come after us, long after we are no longer around to speak them.
§ Watch: “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” May 24, 2005 | Full Transcript
§ Watch: “Dissidents and Freedom,” February 20, 2007 | Full Transcript
§ Watch: Paul Wilson On His Translation of Vaclav Havel’s Memoir “To the Castle and Back” | Full Transcript
Havel’s Address to Joint Session of U.S. Congress (C-SPAN video)