Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Havel on the slow burn of democratic change

We must not be afraid of dreaming the seemingly impossible if we want the seemingly impossible to become a reality” – Václav Havel

Thanks to the faded receipt stuck between its dog-eared pages, I know that I purchased Václav Havel’s The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice on February 17, 1999, my junior year in high school. I’m not sure exactly what pretension led me to buy the Czech president’s collection of speeches aside, perhaps, from my already entrenched obsession with Prague (I’d read, by that point, five or six Kundera books), but I read the whole book, cover to cover, within its first year of ownership (which, if you know me, is uncommon; books have been known to sit upon my shelves gathering dusk for decades…I’m a bit of a book hoarder), going back for individual chapters again and again.

There is nothing I can say about Havel that the experts haven’t said already, except that he was an inspiration to my sixteen-year-old self and continues to be. Upon hearing today of his death, I was reminded of a particular passage and reached for my copy of the book, only to find that I’d dog-eared it so many years ago. I think of it now, in 2011, in this year of revolutions:

…democracy in its present Western form arouses skepticism and distrust in many parts of the world.

I admit that I, too, am not entirely satisfied with this recipe for saving the world, at least not in the form offered today. Not because it is bad, or because I would give preference to other values. It does not satisfy me because it is hopelessly half-baked. In fact, it is really only half a recipe. I am convinced that, if this were not the case, it would not evoke the great distrust that it does.

The reason for this distrust does not, I think, lie in some kind of fundamental opposition in most of the world to democracy as such and to the values it has made possible. It lies in something else: the limited ability of today’s democratic world to see beyond its own shadow, or, rather, the limits of its own present spiritual and intellectual condition and direction, and thus its limited ability to address humanity in a genuinely universal way. As a consequence, democracy is seen less and less as an open system that is best able to respond to people’s basic needs; as a set of possibilities that must be continually rediscovered, redefined, and brought into being. Instead, democracy is seen as something given, finished, and complete as is, something that can be exported like cars or televisions, something that the more enlightened purchase and the less enlightened do not.

-Vaclav Havel, Stanford, September 29, 1994

Havel’s words resonate with me in thinking about Iraq, in thinking of the foreign policy of the pre-Obama years, and in comparison to the foreign policy of the current administration. They make me wonder what, if anything, my own government learned from Havel, or will learn from the future leaders of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria… And they make me wonder why, with such foresight, such awareness, Western governments continue to make the same mistakes Havel presciently pointed out.

Václav Havel was a poet, a visionary, and a mere mortal acutely cognizant of his mortality…and one who will be greatly missed on this earth.

1 Comment

  1. i alos love havel’s writings ..

    quote .. “And they make me wonder why, with such foresight, such awareness, Western governments continue to make the same mistakes Havel presciently pointed out.”

    it’s because earth is a school .. we would never expect 12th graders to have learned from last year’s 12th graders … same curriculum year after year, same room, just the students change

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