The only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth and, at the same time, the cosmos. – Vaclav Havel
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that it was initially inspired by some traveling I did in Europe last fall. My travels in September took me to what we call Eastern Europe (in contrast to locals, who obstinately declare it “Central”), starting with a brief stint in the Czech Republic. True to the sniffles I experienced on my flight from London, I was sick as a dog in Prague; what’s worse, I’d done minimal background research on the culture I was parachuting into. This led to largely aesthetic jaunts through the city in those moments that I managed to drag myself off of my thin mattress in the bland, sporadically-electrified Hotel Letna (apparently two stars in an ostensibly Soviet-era rating scheme). Even so, between beautiful architecture, locally-brewed pilsner, and plentiful cobblestone alleys through which I could dodge obnoxiously inebriated British tourists, I had a great time.
I won’t deny, though, that my time in Prague would have been richer if my knowledge of the country consisted of more than a spotty familiarity with Franz Kafka. It’s marginally coincidental that shortly after I returned to Canada, one of the Czech Republic’s greatest statesmen, Vaclav Havel, passed away at 75. Havel, who’s reputation as a dissident emerged with his work as a politically-charged playright in the mid-1960’s, became a key leader in the anti-Soviet resistance movement that developed in the wake of the Communists’ brutal repression of the Prague Spring uprising in 1968. A passionately outspoken champion of human rights and democracy through the end of Soviet rule in 1989, he became president of newly-independent Czechoslovakia that year, continuing his premiership over the Czech Republic after the united country split in 1992.
The above quote is from a speech Havel gave upon his acceptance of the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia, on July 4th 1994. Tellingly entitled The Miracle of Being: Our Mysterious Interdependence, it touches on themes of coexistence and cosmology, stressing that the lens through which man sees the world has become exclusively empirical, at the expense of perspectives that acknowledge the immense challenges presented by multiculturalism and globalization. The gains made by science, relatively huge from the Enlightenment through the Industrial Revolution, are shrinking in a marginal sense, leaving us existentially anxious given how much we still do not know. “In short,” writes Havel, “we live in the post-modern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain”.
This article is of great interest to me, as someone entering into an MA program in political science with an emphasis in ethnicity and pluralism. The research proposal that I included in my application back in January stated my intention to examine multiculturalism, and whether it could work in Western societies steeped in what I supposed to be Enlightenment-born principles of democracy and human rights. A good friend of mine, who happens to be an accomplished academic who thinks often and deeply of these sorts of things, encouraged me to consider whether these “values” are indeed Western, and directed me to this speech. Upon reading it, I was challenged by Havel, who claims that freedom mean nothing if it remains in our minds a “Western value,” epistemologically isolated from the rest of human history and existence. He says it best:
Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect for the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence.
Give the article a read – it goes smoothly, and is well worth your time. While you’re at it, think of me, and pray that I’ll pursue my studies in a way that reflects Havel’s commitment to justice and humility.