Recovering the Value of Words: Remembering Vaclav Havel



By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Next month, Georgetown University is to host event honoring the memory of the late Vaclav Havel. 

Georgetown was one of the first places that Havel visited after coming to the U.S. in 1990, following the revolution that brought freedom to the nation. “I wanted to visit students because students played a very important role in our Velvet Revolution,” Havel said.

The Embassy of the Czech Republic, in collaboration with Georgetown University, the Václav Havel Library, and American Friends of the Czech Republic, invite you to the special dedication of Václav Havel’s Place, which begins with a panel discussion in Gaston Hall on October 2, at 3 pm, followed by the dedication and reception in the Alumni Square, honoring the late Czech president, playwright, and human rights advocate – Václav Havel.

Panelists will include former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Professor Tomáš Halík from Charles University in Prague. The event will be moderated by Professor Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.

Georgetown University theater students will also perform short skits before the panel discussion, during the procession to Alumni Square, and at the reception to set the tone of the event.

Havel is best known for his role in the Velvet Revolution which a key event in ending Soviet tyranny in Central and Eastern Europe.

We are not Czechs, nor of Czech origin, but admired Havel from afar for his role in the revolution and helping launch a new political culture in post-Communist Czechoslovakia.

But as 21st century citizens, Havel’s impact is greatest in reminding us of the tyranny of words. 

Words are used lightly now; there is significant overload from the internet, the published media inundates more than it clarifies, and politicians are masters at disguising realities by reinventing each day a new event or crisis.

Havel stood for the value of words and the importance of honesty. 

In this sense, he clearly is in the tradition of John Stuart Mill who felt strongly that democracy rested on open and public debate and on treating words in debate as key elements of clarifying reason, not simply obscuring or covering up.

We face the tyranny of words becoming meaningless and without meaning – literally words connected to actions – and judgments of their value made we will lose our liberty.

As we lose the capacity to debate, and simply end up living in our I-worlds where those who agree with us are our only companions, democracy will fail.

As Mill put it:

“It’s hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Such communication has always been… one of the primary sources of progress. ”

Havel hit hard and often – not surprisingly as a talented playwright and poet – on the importance of honesty in language as a key element of real politics, as opposed to authoritarian speak.

James Skillen in a piece written in 1990 at the time of Havel becoming President of Czechoslovakia captured this aspect of Havel very well indeed.

Perhaps it is not so surprising to think that the Czechoslovak people would turn to their best-known dissident and human rights activist to lead them after they had brought down the discredited Communist government. But the man is not a typical political activist; he’s a playwright and poet. By what authority does he command political respect?

At least part of the answer to that question comes from Vaclav Havel’s disciplined attention to exposing lies and seeking truth. Words really matter to him. Speaking to the public in a New Year’s Day speech, the new president said, “I do not think you put me into this office so that I, of all people, should also lie to you [as past governments have done].

“Our country is not prospering. The great creative and spiritual potential of our nation is not being used to its full potential,” he told the people bluntly. What kind of political leader has the courage to speak this way?

“The worst thing is that we are living in a decayed moral environment. We have become morally ill, because we have become accustomed to saying one thing and thinking another. We have learned not to believe in anything, not to have consideration for one another and only to look after ourselves. Notions such as love, friendship, compassion, humility and forgiveness have lost their depth and dimension….” [The Des Moines Register, January 6, 1990.]

Even more remarkable is Havel’s speech before the German Booksellers Association on October 15 last year when he received their peace prize—just weeks before he helped to lead the peaceful revolution in Czechoslovakia. To the booksellers, whose business is “the dissemination of words,” Havel speaks about words, truth, and human responsibility. We can thank The New York Review of Books for publishing A.G. Brain’s translation of that speech in its January 18 edition.

“In the beginning was the Word; so it states on the first page of one of the most important books known to us,” says Havel. “What is meant in that book is that the Word of God is the source of all creation.” And if the Word of God is the source of creation, then that part of it “which is the human race exists as such only thanks to another of God’s miracles—the miracle of human speech.”

Part of the mystery of human life and human speech, Havel continues, is that words can convey both truth and error, both clarity and confusion. “Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile….”

A good warning indeed; and a legacy to be built upon in the 21st century.

Remembering a great leader is not about building an historical monument; it is about reshaping current history to fashion a better rather than a worse future.

It is in this sense that we remember Vaclav Havel.

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