President Havel gave the following speech on April 22, at George Washington University in Washington, DC, at a convocation honoring him with a presidential medal.
I remember a time when some of my friends and acquaintances used to go out of their way to avoid meeting me in the street. Though I certainly didn’t intend it to be so, they saw me, in a way, as a voice of their conscience. They knew that if they stopped and talked with me, they would feel compelled to apologize for not openly defying the regime too, or to explain to me why they couldn’t do it, or to defend themselves by claiming that dissent was pointless anyway. Conversations like this were usually quite an ordeal for both sides, and thus it was better to stay away from them altogether.
Another reason for their behavior was the fear that the police were following me, and that just talking to me would cause them complications. It was easier not to go near me. Thus they would avoid both an unpleasant conversation and the potential persecution that could follow. In short, I was, for those friends, an inconvenience, and inconveniences are best avoided.
For long decades, the chief nightmare of the democratic world was communism. Today—three years after it began to collapse like an avalanche—it would seem as though another nightmare has replaced it: post-communism. There were many, not just in the West, but in the East as well, who had been looking forward for years to the fall of communism, and who had hoped that its collapse would mean that history had at last come to its senses. Today, these same people are seriously worried about the consequences of that fall. Some of them may even feel a little nostalgic for a world that was, after all, slightly more transparent and understandable than the present one.
I do not share sentiments of that kind. I think we must not understand postcommunism merely as something that makes life difficult for the rest of the world. I certainly didn’t understand communism that way. I saw it chiefly as a challenge, a challenge to thought and to action. To an even greater extent, postcommunism represents precisely that kind of challenge.
Anyone who understands a given historical phenomenon merely as an inconvenience will ultimately see many other things that way too: the warnings of ecologists, public opinion, the vagaries of voters, public morality. It is an easy, and therefore seductive, way of seeing the world and history. But it is extremely dangerous because we tend to remain aloof from things that inconvenience us and get in our way, just as some of my acquaintances avoided me during the Communist era. Any position based on the feeling that the world, or history, is merely an accumulation of inconveniences inevitably leads to a turning away from reality, and ultimately, to resigning oneself to it. It leads to appeasement, even to collaboration. The consequences of such a position may even be…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.