The First Laugh

Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson

The following speech was given by President Havel upon receiving the Open Society Prize awarded by the Central European University in Budapest earlier this year.

Several weeks ago, after the Czech national team won the World Hockey Championship, there were enormous celebrations in the streets of our country. I followed the news of these celebrations and I have to admit that I had rather mixed feelings about them, as I often do on such occasions.

On the one hand I was delighted. Czech society generally tends toward apathy and skepticism, but it is still capable of identifying enthusiastically with its national teams and thus with the country as such. I was glad to see that a kind of elementary patriotism still existed among people; that they were still able to get excited enough about something to take to the streets to celebrate the good news, even though there was nothing in it of direct, personal benefit to themselves.

On the other hand, I felt compelled to ask myself some rather unpleasant questions. For instance, if people were shouting “We won!” in the streets, were they not appropriating other people’s achievements and unjustifiably seeking a confirmation of their own excellence in that victory? Who, in fact, won that championship? All of “us”? And specifically, was it those who were celebrating in the streets? Or was it the players who represented the Czech Republic? Was this celebration a genuine expression of pure joy at the success of some of our fellow citizens, an achievement that brought glory to our country? Or was it, for many people at least, merely an occasion to nurture illusions about themselves? Are not such mass celebrations merely the expression of a distaste for assuming personal responsibility for the world and thus of the need to merge instead with the herd, to share in its collective sense of pride and irresponsibility? Are these celebrations not merely the eruption of a darkly archetypal love of our own tribe, which seems to us the best of all possible tribes only because we happen to belong to it? And the fellows who, during those same celebrations, confirmed the exceptional qualities of our nation by assaulting some people whose skin was a different color—are they not merely a more evident offshoot of something less evident, but all the more dangerous for that, something that lies dormant within the euphoria?

Perhaps the Popperian struggle between the open society and its enemies was also taking place within the crowds that celebrated this hockey victory, and perhaps, in a certain sense, within the spirit of every individual who took part.

I have to admit that Hegel, whom Popper (quoting Schopenhauer) referred to as an illiterate charlatan, was probably right about one thing: reality is ambiguous. In fact, it is very difficult to determine the borderline between the uplifting and natural solidarity that exists within a given community (a national society, for example) and the pack mentality in which thousands and millions of cowardly …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.