By what means to live our individuality in that mutuality with accountable uprightness is what the great Czech dissident Václav Havel (October 5, 1936–December 18, 2011) addressed in his 1995 at Harvard inaugural speech. Latterly published under the title “Radical Renewal of Human Responsibility” in his compiled speeches and writings, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice.
Havel, a man of colossal intellect and literary genius, who personified Walt Whitman’s firmness that literature, is essential for democracy. Who moved from playwright to president, who tolerated several imprisonments to maintain his principles of righteousness, humanism, anti-materialism, and an environmentally concerned soul, recounts an occurrence that sobered him to the irretrievable forces of globalization.
Sitting at a waterside restaurant one evening, watching young people drink the same drinks as those served in his homeland to the sound of the same music that fills Prague’s cafés, surrounded by the same advertisements, he is reminded of the fact that he is in Singapore only by the different facial features of his fellow diners
An era before the social web disrupted geography to common interests, values, and sensibilities as the centripetal force of community formation, Havel writes:
The world is now enmeshed in webs of telecommunication networks consisting of millions of tiny threads, or capillaries, which not only transmit information of all kinds at lightning speed, but also convey integrated models of social, political and economic behavior.
Yet, with foresight painfully apparent two decades later, Havel cautions that there is a dark side to this undamming of information and ideas:
Many of the great problems we face today, as far as I understand them, have their origin in the fact that this global civilization, though in evidence everywhere, is no more than a thin veneer over the sum total of human awareness. This civilization is immensely fresh, young, new, and fragile, and the human spirit has accepted it with dizzying alacrity, without itself changing in any essential way. Humanity has gradually, and in very diverse ways, shaped our habits of mind, our relationship to the world, our models of behavior and the values we accept and recognize.
With an eye to the uncertainly uneven supremacy of Euro-American values in this global marketplace of values and ideas, Havel writes:
It is a challenge to this civilization to start understanding itself as a multi¬cultural and a multi¬polar civilization, whose meaning lies not in undermining the individuality of different spheres of culture and civilization but in allowing them to be more completely themselves. This will only be possible, even conceivable, if we all accept a basic code of mutual co¬existence, a kind of common minimum we can all share, one that will enable us to go on living side by side.
If it is merely disseminated through the capillaries of the skin, the way Coca-Cola ads are ¬– as a commodity offered by some to others ¬– such a code can hardly be expected to take hold in any profound or universal way.
Confessing that such a line of thought might be dismissed by pessimists as idealistically utopian, Havel insists on not losing hope.
A time before philosopher Jonathan Lear made his case for “radical hope,” Havel writes:
I have not lost hope because I am persuaded again and again that, lying dormant in the deepest roots of most, if not all, cultures there is an essential similarity, something that could be made ¬ if the will to do so existed –¬ a genuinely unifying starting point for that new code of human co¬ existence that would be firmly anchored in the great diversity of human traditions.
Havel argues that at the core of every transcendent ritual, no matter its geographic or chronological origin is a set of mutual ethical values upholding values like sympathy, generosity, and admiration for human dignity. And yet, in an era of such irreversible triumphs of science as the splitting of the atom and the discovery of DNA, triumphs which Einstein believed united humanity through “the common language of science” any real movement toward healing the ruptures of our natural interconnectedness lies not in reverting to ancient religions but in integrating the achievements of reason with the core values of the human spirit.
Havel appeals for “the search for a new humility”, a search that politicians have an especial responsibility to ratify:
Even in the most democratic of conditions, politicians have immense influence, perhaps more than they realize. This influence does not lie in their actual decrees, which in any case are considerably limited. It lies in something else: in the spontaneous impact, their charisma has on the public.
In a passage of bittersweet keen against the difference of our present political reality, Havel adds:
The main task of the present generation of politicians is not, I think, to ingratiate themselves with the public through the decisions they take or their smiles on television. It is not to go on winning elections and ensuring themselves a place in the sun until the end of their days. Their role is something quite different: to assume their share of responsibility for the long-¬range prospects of our world and thus to set an example for the public in whose sight they work. Their responsibility is to think ahead boldly, not to fear the disfavor of the crowds, to imbue their actions with a spiritual dimension, to explain again and again ¬ both to the public and to their colleagues.
Standing before the most famed university in the most influential country in the world, Havel issues a mainly urgent encouraging advice to American politicians:
There is simply no escaping the responsibility you have as the most powerful country in the world.
There is far more at stake here than simply standing up to those who would like once again to divide the world into spheres of interest, or subjugate others who are different from them, and weaker. What is now at stake is saving the human race.
In other words, it’s a question of what I have already talked about of understanding modern civilization as a multi¬cultural and multi¬polar civilization, of turning our attention to the original spiritual sources of human culture and above all, of our own culture, of drawing from these sources the strength for a courageous and magnanimous creation of a new order for the world.
Pride is precisely what will lead the world to hell. I am suggesting an alternative: humbly accepting our responsibility for the world, Havel further adds.
Reflecting his own life experiences with the surprise of one who matured up under the locked-in patriotism of a communist dictatorial system, then moved on to travel to places like Singapore and speak to the graduating class at Harvard, Havel finishes on a note of drastic, responsible hope:
I have been given to understand how small this world is and how it torments itself with countless things it need not torment itself with if people could find within themselves a little more courage, a little more hope, a little more responsibility, a little more mutual understanding and love.