ON THE AVENUES: In Havel I trust.


ON THE AVENUES: In Havel I trust.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight.
— Vaclav Havel

Considering that the late Vaclav Havel is a longtime personal hero, it shouldn’t come as a surprise for you to learn I have been profoundly moved in the aftermath of reading Havel: A Life, a biography of the Czech playwright, dissident and president, written by Michael Zantovsky.

Zantovsky was a personal friend and sometimes confidant of Havel, but the book cannot be classified as hagiography. It’s a “warts and all” sketching of a man’s exceedingly complicated inner world and public persona. More than half of Havel’s life was lived during his country’s Communist period – and much of that time he was a marked man and presumed “enemy” of the state. Then, in a supreme irony, he served multiple terms as president.

This largely symbolic post seems to have strained Havel’s abilities as much or more than surviving outlaw status in a dictatorship.

Born during the interwar period when Czechoslovakia seemed to be emerging as a model for capitalist democracy, Havel was a child of privilege, and as such, his economic class rendered him a societal pariah when the workers’ paradise was forcibly installed after 1948. He was made to feel that he didn’t “fit,” and while capable of addressing the dichotomy intellectually, there were lifelong feelings of guilt.

Still, Havel assuaged them in various ways, and managed to find a foothold. Excluded from university owing to his origins, he served a hitch in the military and then became a stagehand, ushering him into Prague’s theatrical milieu precisely at a point where the usual governmental restrictions on free expression were softened just enough for him to begin writing slyly subversive and anarchic plays (the “theater of the absurd”), and making a name for himself – not just inside Czechoslovakia, but in Western Europe, which became of inestimable importance later, when he most needed the money and contacts.

All the while, Havel cultivated a wide range of friendships in the intelligentsia, including rebels, misfits, scholars and even the stray apparatchik. In 1968 came the Prague Spring, a thawing which held hope that there might be “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia. Leonid Brezhnev thought otherwise, and for the next two decades, the country became mired in a debilitating process derisively known as normalization.

Consumer production was increased even as the fundamental deficiencies of a primitively industrialized economy, one chained to the Soviet Union, went unaddressed. Free thought was suppressed. The inevitable result was stagnation and despair, addressed through sausages, beer and maybe a yearly holiday on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria. One could live, albeit without thinking.

Havel the star playwright now became Havel, the acknowledged leader of the opposition. He was harassed and frequently imprisoned, and yet managed to formulate a doctrine of principled dissent, focusing on matters of conscience and consciousness, which he perceived as vital at a fundamentally human level.

Examining society’s daily psychological assumptions, Havel theorized that Communism was a trauma primarily at the grassroots core of Czechoslovak society, despoiling the very nature of daily interaction between friends, lovers, neighbors and co-workers.

Persistent indoctrination in the ideology of class warfare turned all human relationships inside out, and the cynicism of everyday reality, as it operated far apart from the panaceas of official propaganda, subverted all aspects of trust, caring and hope.

Havel offered a consistent, firm, but gentle remonstrance: “Civil society” would have to be redefined and rebuilt virtually from the ground up. It was a gently scolding and passive resistance, carefully calculated to avoid open conflict, and subsequently it was assisted immeasurably by one of those historical quirks that seem irrelevant at the time, in 1975, as buried within a non-binding international conference called the Helsinki Accords.

According to the Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis in his book “The Cold War: A New History” (2005), “Leonid Brezhnev had looked forward, Anatoly Dobrynin recalls, to the ‘publicity he would gain… when the Soviet public learned of the final settlement of the postwar boundaries for which they had sacrificed so much’… ‘[Instead, the Helsinki Accords] gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement’… What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems — at least the more courageous — could claim official permission to say what they thought.”

To summarize, the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union, desperately desired the recognition of borders reshaped by World War II, and a seemingly insignificant appendage to the Helsinki Accords pertaining to human rights and freedoms was tolerated as a mere talking point for Western campaigners.

In fact, in a strange and perhaps legalistic way, the Czechoslovak government (and other Warsaw Pact nations) provided moral legitimacy to internal opposition by signing the Helsinki Accords. Granted, it did not mean opponents would avoid persecution, but in 1977, Havel and a small band of courageous dissidents wrote a document known as Charter 77, and then undertook the informal organization of a civic initiative known by the same name.

Charter 77 was hounded mercilessly by the Communist regime. Still, the very fact that Czechoslovakia had accepted human rights responsibilities intensified human rights scrutiny outside the Soviet zone, and ensured continued publicity for the opposition, which could be weakened, not squelched entirely.

During the 1980s, as Communism’s intrinsic structural flaws began afflicting the entire Bloc, Mikhail Gorbachev realized that the USSR would have to divest itself of economically draining responsibilities to Eastern Europe to survive (of course even then, it didn’t). Without the formerly perpetual Soviet guarantee of support, Czechoslovaka’s regime lapsed into a state of terminal illness.

In 1989, when push came to largely peaceful shove, the government collapsed in what is now known as the Velvet Revolution. Just eight months following his final incarceration, Havel became president of the country, embarking on a period of recovery still ongoing, more than three years following Havel’s death – or as the post-Communist adage puts it: “It’s easier to make fish soup out of the aquarium than the other way around.”

New Albany resembles that remark, doesn’t it?

Whenver I think about New Albany’s “battered city” syndrome, as our friend Gina always referred to it, Havel’s wide-ranging thoughts on the nature of a civil society come to mind.

Admittedly, 25 years later, it remains unclear what effect Havel’s thoughtfully humanistic leadership had on the course of affairs in his homeland, except that sometimes, it really isn’t whether you win or lose in the traditional all-or-nothing sense. Rather, it’s how you characterize the game, and he excelled at that.

In good times or bad, New Albany’s Battered City Syndrome is still on display, as manifested by secrecy, mistrust, inertia and contempt, especially on the part of those who regard any sign of communication and cooperation with others as a sign of weakness, which provides succor to the cultural or political enemy of the moment.

From the subsequent vacuum oozes the lowest-common-denominator politics of fear-mongering. Once not so long ago, during a heated council debate, the spluttering 1st district councilman Dan Coffey inadvertently revealed the obstructionist’s most detested target: “Them people.” In reality, “them people” want a livable city just as much as “his” people do, but this alone doesn’t scratch the ward-heeler’s itch. A truly civilized, functional city has no need for Dan Coffey, and he knows it.

Havel provides the answer: We must remove ourselves from the cycle of blame and vituperation, and get on with the process of building a civil society – a civil city – with a sustainable, inter-related foundation that prefaces future progress.

Who among us wishes to abandon his or her laboriously crafted straw man first, and get on with the task of reconstituting New Albany’s lost civility?

Let’s talk.

Meanwhile, I heartily recommend Zantovsky’s biography. Ultimately, much went wrong for Havel following the Velvet Revolution, although the author notes that Havel remained invariably courteous and polite, even when dealing with his oppressors, whether Communist or parliamentarian.

I’ll have to work on it.

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April 23: ON THE AVENUES REWOUND: Anachronisms and intellectuals, here and there.

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