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Vaclav Havel: the Authentically Humanistic Voice of a European Cultural Hero

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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After Brexit and its related confusions in the EU political landscape, the time may have come to remember Václav Havel’s humanistic philosophy as a powerfully heroic voice of the post-cold War political landscape, advocating that Europe recover its own soul; urging a global revolution in human consciousness; reconnecting the story of man to a transcendent principle within the cosmos; nothing less than the voice of Hope.

With the possible exception of Franz Kafka, I know of no modern Czech writer whose political philosophy, within the Western Humanistic tradition, is more inspirational than Václav Havel’s. To my mind the best way to imagine him, is as one of Kafka’s “heroes for our time,” a powerful voice calling us back home to our humanity and urging that Europe know its cultural soul.

This is not to make Havel an esoteric thinker coming out of some Olympian cloud. To the contrary, he is the last arrival of a long line of Czech visionaries and political philosophers who were formed within the crucible of the Cold War. Like Emanuel Levinas, he also discerned that modern reason had become detached from the world of good and evil, had regressed to a Protagorean clever sophistry detached from the ethical.

Husserl had already conveyed a sense of the spiritual crisis of modern Europe by publishing his famous The Crisis of European Science (1936) where he affirms that in the Western World theoretical knowledge has somehow lost contact with living human experience, and that the morally ordered world of our pre-reflective lived experience is the life-world of humankind. All these ideas are perceivable in Havel’s own thinking.

Another strong influence on Havel’s thinking is the philosopher Jan Patocka (1907-1977) who had studied with Husserl and then taught Havel. He was instrumental in publishing Charter 77, the statement of resistance to Soviet occupation and communist ideology for which both Patocka and Havel were jailed by the Communist authorities. It was Patocka who had brought Husserl to Prague as a guest lecturer when Husserl was expelled by the Nazis from Freiburg University. In any case Patocka grouped his writings in a book titled Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. There, we find ample evidence that the subject which most captivated him was that of the human struggle.

In the last essay of this book titled Wars of the 20th century and the 20th century as War Patocka writes a brilliant commentary on fragment 26 of Heraclitus, and interprets his polemos as “struggle, fight, war,” a kind of adversarial relationship with reality, a struggle against the world which ontologically can be compared to realities such as love, compassion, happiness, justice. In fact, for Patocka, polemos, had priority over the other realities. Thus Patocha corrects Husserl’s assumption of an underlying harmony within reality.

These “heretical essays” became a sort of manifesto to rally the Czech citizenry against the Soviet forces of occupation. Those essays insisted that when the ontological supports of hope fail, then personal responsibility must be evoked, in order to establish a community of solidarity. Out of this solidarity arises what Patocka calls “the power of the powerless.”

The legal basis of this solidarity was the 1977 Helsinki Agreement on human rights which affirms that human beings are obliged to discover and protect a valid moral foundation, and one ought not to expect that it be provided by the state or social forces alone. As Patocka himself explains: “There must be a self-evident, non-circumstantial ethic, and unconditional morality. A moral system does not exist to help society function but simply so that man can be human… it is morality which defines man.” This concept of human rights is redolent of the concept of “inalienable rights” which accrue to being human and no state can give or take away, as proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence.

Be that as it may, what Masaryk, Patocka and Havel have in common is a recognition that as a result of a disharmony which began with Cartesian rationalism, European life and thought were in profound crisis. This of course echoed Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences where the problems of modern philosophy are traced back to Descartes, the beginning of a crisis of self-alienation; something also noticed by Vico, but alas ignored, some two hundred years before in his New Science (1730).

Husserl insists that this profound alienation and dysfunction could not be resolved unless normative status was attributed to Lebenswelt (life-world), the basis of ethical autonomy. Mechanistic science had unfortunately substituted the old awareness that human life belongs to an ordered moral universe. This idea is especially evident in Masaryk’s Suicide as a Mass Phenomenon of Modern Civilization. Nineteenth-century science has, in fact, usurped the authority previously accorded to faith and reason. Masaryk is convinced that it is crucial that humans return to a world of primary experience in order to be reconnected to a vital sense of good and evil. This is also the vital concern of Dostoyevsky’s existential novels.

Havel is part of an ongoing Czech intellectual tradition which, in order to be able to “live in truth” has recourse to Husserl’s Lebenswelt to counter an oppressive Marxist ideology tending toward manipulative, rationalistic and mechanistic theoretical deductions. This is possible only by paying attention to “the flow of life.” Indeed, for Havel “time is a river into which one cannot step twice in the same place” (fragment 21 of Heraclitus).

When Havel in his “Politics and Conscience” (1984) makes reference to Husserl’s distinction of the natural world from “the world of lived experience” by which to approach the spiritual framework of modern Western Civilization and the source of its crisis, he is by implication also invoking Vico’s distinction between the world of nature made by God, and the world of culture made by man. In any case, Havel’s brilliant insight is this: there is a fundamental distinction between the world that can be constructed out of an ideological viewpoint and the world rooted in a trustworthy lived-experience.

Impersonal manipulative forces can be resisted only by the one true power we all possess: our own humanity. This is nothing less than Humanism at its very best. It all begs this question: Where does Havel locate the foundation for this humanity which he finds in the phenomenal experiential world?

The answer can be glimpsed in a letter written in 1989, from prison, to his wife Olga: “Behind all phenomena and discrete entities in the world, we may observe, intimate, or experience existentially in various ways something like a general “order of Being” The essence and order of this order are veiled in mystery; it is as much an enigma as the Sphinx, it always speaks to us differently and always, I suppose, in ways that we ourselves are open to, in ways, to put it simply, that we can hear.” (“Letters to Olga,” letter n. 76)

The reader should notice here that within this “order of Being,” the emphasis is not on sight, on clear and distinct Cartesian ideas, but on hearing, on the perception of the mysterious. In 1994, in a lecture at Stamford University Havel also makes reference to “unconscious experience,” as well as “archetypes and archetypal visions.” This echoes Jung’s collective unconscious and the archetypes, or the idea of fundamental experiences shared by the entire human race, found in all cultures, no matter how distant in space and time they may be from one another.

What is unique to Havel is that, like Vico, he sees the history of the cosmos recorded in the inner workings of all human beings: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. Moreover, the history of the cosmos is projected into man’s own creations, it is the story of man, and it joins us together. Even after thousands of years, people of different epochs and cultures feel that somehow they are parts and partakers of the same Being, which they carry part of the infinity of such a Being. As Havel aptly puts it: “all cultures assume the existence of something that might be called the ‘Memory of Being,’ in which everything is constantly recorded.” Which means that the guarantees of human freedom are not found in systems of thought, or ideologies, or programs of action but in “man’s relationship to that which transcends him, without which he would not be, and of which he is integral part.” (In “Democracy’s Forgotten Dimension,” April 1995, pp. 3-10)

One of the constant refrains in Havel’s political philosophy is that of the loss of respect, including self-respect, apparent in the modern and post-modern world: loss or respect for what Havel calls “the order of nature, the order of humanity, and for secular authority as well.” Gone is the sense of responsibility that inhabitants of the same planet ought to have towards one another. Havel sees the causes of this loss of respect in the loss of a “transcendental anchor” which he considers the source of responsibility and self-respect. He pleads that humankind must reconnect itself to “the mythologies and religions of all cultures.” Only thus they can engage in the common quest for the general good.

What exactly is the general good? Havel’s answer is that a “global civilization” is already in the process of preparing a place for a “planetary democracy.” But this planetary democracy here on Earth must be somehow linked with the Heaven above us, with the transcendent. Havel is convinced that only in this setting “can the mutuality and the commonality of the human race be newly created, with reverence and gratitude for that which transcends each of us, and all of us together. The authority of a world democratic order simply cannot be built on anything else but the revitalized authority of the universe.” (ibid. p. 9).

Havel does not assume that such an order has already arrived in Europe. To the contrary, his essay titled The Hope for Europe (The New York Review, June 20, 1996) stands as a provocative survey of Europe’s enormous influence on human civilization, but this influence is ambiguous; it can be constructive as well as destructive.

Let us examine more closely Havel’s views on ideology, European Civilization and the European Union which may be about to come apart up as we speak. In an essay by the title of “Politics and the World Itself” published in 1992, Havel critiques the Cartesian-Marxist assumption, which is the general assumption of philosophical rationalists, that reality is governed by a finite number of universal laws whose interrelationship can be grasped by the human mind and anticipated in systematic formulae. He insists that there are no laws and no theories that can comprehensively direct or explain human life within the context of an ideological fix-all.

Consequently, we need to abandon “the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

In 1990 Havel addressed the U.S. Congress on the subject of democratic ideals and the rebirth of the human spirit where he reflected on the end of the bipolarity of the Cold War and the beginning of “an era of multi-polarity in which all of us, large and small, former slaves and former masters will be able to create what your great President Lincoln called ‘the family of men.’” He also declared that: “consciousness precedes being,” by which he simply means that the salvation of the human world lies in the human heart, the human power to reflect, and in human responsibility. More specifically Havel proclaimed that: “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed—be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable.” This echoes Martin Buber or C.P. Snow’s insight on the two cultures: the world of “I-it” of science concerned with manipulation and use of matter out there (what Descartes calls extension into space), and the world of “I-Thou,” the world of the humanities and the poetic characterized by dialogue and ethical concerns.

So, what is to be done? Havel answers not with another ideology or a program or a Platonic blueprint but by simply reminding people that the way out of the crisis is dedication to responsibility: “Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success—responsibility to the order of being where all of our actions are indelibly recorded and where they will be properly judged.”

In 1995 Havel gave a commencement address at Harvard University where he recognizes that the world has already entered a single technological civilization and in the spirit of Husserl, Masaryk and Patocka he sounded the alarm: there is also afoot a contrary movement which finds expression in dramatic revivals of ancient traditions, religions and cultures. In other words there is an attempt at the recovery of “archetypal spirituality,” a searching for “what transcends us, whether we mean the mystery of Being or a moral order that stands above us…Our respect for other people, for other nations, and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of Being, where it is judged.”

The question inexorably arises: What about Europe? In 1996 in his address at Aachen which he called “The Hope for Europe” Havel surveys and analyzes Europe’s enormous influence in world civilization but articulates some provocative thoughts: this influence can be both constructive and destructive. The challenge is to discern the positive constructive influences on which to build. He identifies the best that Europe has to offer the world in “a place of shared values.” To talk of shared values is to talk about European spiritual and intellectual identity, solidarity, the European soul, if you will. His sincere hope is that Europe, for the first time in its history “might establish itself on democratic principles as a whole entity.” There is a caveat: this will happen only if the values that underlie the European tradition are supported by a philosophically anchored sense of responsibility. More precisely: “The only meaningful task for the Europe of the 21st century is to be the best it can possibly be—that is, to revivify its best spiritual and intellectual traditions and thus help to create a new global pattern of coexistence.”

In Havel’s “The Politics of Hope” one reads that “in my own life I am reaching for something that goes far beyond me and the horizon of the world that I know; in everything I do I touch eternity in a strange way.” With this grounding, politics becomes ‘the universal consultation on the reform of the affairs which render man human.” There is no doubt that in Havel we have today a rare strong voice of the post-Cold War “new Europe” advocating a sort of “conspiracy of hope.” A conspiracy this that insisting that politics must be accorded a transcendental source and foundation or it will be built on sand. In today’s nihilistic global world this “conspiracy of hope” will be like the proverbial canary in the cave. If we ignore or suffocate it, it will be a sign that our so called civilization is in the process of committing suicide.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Merkel’s projection regarding nationalist movements in Europe

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In recent years, we have repeatedly spoken about the blows that hit the United Europe hard, and resulted in constant and overwhelming crises in this block. The European authorities now refer to “returning to nationalism” as a potential danger (and in some cases, the actual danger!) In this block, and warn against it without mentioning the origin of this danger.

The German Chancellor has once again warned about the rise of nationalism in Europe. The warning comes at a time when other European officials, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have directly or indirectly, acknowledged the weakening of Europe’s common values. This indicates that the EU authorities don’t see the danger of extensive nationalism far from reality.

“Nationalism and a winner-take-all attitude are undermining the cohesion of Europe”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “Perhaps the most threatening development for me is that multilateralism has come under such pressure,” Merkel said. “Europe is facing attacks from the outside and from the inside.”

A simple contemplation on the issue of “return of the United Europe to nationalism” suggests that the current European authorities have played an active role in the desire of their citizens to return to the time before the formation of the European Union. In the 2014 general election, we saw more than 100 right-wing extremist candidates finding way to the European Parliament.

This could be the starting point for making fundamental changes in macroeconomic policies and creating a different relationship between the European leaders and the citizens of this block. But this did not happen in practice.

Although the failure of European leaders to manage the immigration crisis and, most importantly, the continuation of the economic crisis in some of the Eurozone countries has contributed to the formation of the current situation, but it should not be forgotten that the growth of radical and nationalist parties in Europe has largely been due to the block’s officials incapability in convincing European citizens about the major policies in Europe. In this regard, those like Angela Merkel and Macron don’t actually feel any responsibility.

Undoubtedly, if this process doesn’t stop, the tendency to nationalism will spread across the Europe, and especially in the Eurozone. European officials are now deeply concerned about next year’s parliamentary elections in Europe. If this time the extreme right parties can raise their total votes and thus gain more seats in the European Parliament, there will be a critical situation in the Green Continent.

The fact is that far-right extremists in countries such as France, Sweden, Austria and Germany have been able to increase their votes, and while strengthening their position in their country’s political equations, they have many supporters in the social atmosphere.
Finally, the German Chancellor remarks, shouldn’t be regarded as a kind of self-criticism, but rather are a new projection of the European leaders. Merkel, Macron and other European officials who are now warning about the emergence of nationalism in Europe should accept their role in this equation.

This is the main prerequisite for reforming the foundations in Europe. If they refuse to feel responsible, the collapse of the European Union will be inevitable, an issue that Merkel and Macron are well aware of.

First published in our partner MNA

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Dayton Peace Accord 23 Years On: Ensured Peace and Stability in Former Yugoslavia

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For the past twenty-three years life has been comparatively peaceful in the breakaway republics of the former Yugoslavia. The complicated civil war that began in Yugoslavia in 1991 had numerous causes and began to break up along the ethnic lines. The touching stories and the aftermath effects of the breakaway republics of Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and in Kosovo are still unfolding. Though the numbers of deaths in the Bosnia- Herzegovina conflict in former Yugoslavia are not known precisely, most sources agree that the estimates of deaths vary between 150,000 to 200,000 and displaced more than two million people. During the conflict a Srebrenica a North-eastern enclave of Bosnia once declared as a United  Nations  (UN ) safe area” saw one of the worst atrocity since second world war.

It has been estimated that more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks were massacred in Srebrenica and it was one of the most brutal ethnic cleansing operations of its kind in modern warfare. The US brokered peace talks revived the a peace process between the three warring factions in Bosnia- Herzegovina. For Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina a United States (US ) -brokered peace deal reached in Dayton on 21st November 1995. In a historic reconciliation bid on 14 December 1995 , the Dayton Peace Accord was signed in Paris, France, between Franjo Tudjman president of the Republic of Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic president of the Federal Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), Alija Izetbegovic, president of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

When conflict in Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia ended, the reconciliation began between ethnically divided region. The US played a crucial role in defining the direction of the Peace process. In 1996, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) -led 60,000 multinational peace enforcement force known as the Implementation Force (IFOR)) was deployed to help preserve the cease-fire and enforce the treaty provisions. Thereafter, the Court was established by Resolution 808 and later, Resolution 827 of the United Nations Security Council, which endorsed to proceed with setting up of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to try crimes against humanity . International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was the first United Nations (UN) war crimes tribunal of its kind since the post-second world war Nuremberg tribunal.

In the late 1990’s, as the political crisis deepened a spiral of violence fuelled the Kosovo crisis between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Yugoslav forces. Unlike the Bosnia- Herzegovina, Kosovo was a province of Serbia, of former Yugoslavia that dates back to 1946, when Kosovo gained autonomy as a province within Serbia. It is estimated that more than 800,000. Kosovos were forced out of Kosovo in search of refuge and as many as 500,000 more were displaced within Kosovo.

Subsequent t hostilities in Kosovo the eleven week air campaign led by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) against Yugoslavia in 1999 the Yugoslavian forces pulled troops out of Kosovo NATO. After the war was over, the United Nations Security Council, under the resolution 1244 (1999) approved to establish an international civil presence in Kosovo, known as the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Nevertheless UNMIK regulation No 1999/24 provided that the Law in Force in Kosovo prior to March 22, 1989 would serve as the applicable law for the duration of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

In this  context reconciliation is a key to national healing of wounds after ending a violent conflict. Healing the wounds of the past and redressing past wrongs is a process through which a society moves from a divided past to a shared future. Over the years in Serbia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and in Kosovo the successful peace building processes had happened. The success of the peace building process was possible because of participation of those concerned, and since appropriate strategies to effectively approach was applied with all relevant actors. The strengthening of institutions for the benefit of all citizens has many important benefits for the peace and stability of former Yugoslavia. Hence, the future looks bright for the Balkan states of Serbia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.

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Hungarian Interest, Ukraine and European Values

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Diplomatic conflicts that have recently arisen between Hungary and its neighboring countries and the European Union as a whole most clearly show the new trend in European politics. This trend is committing to national and  state values of a specific  European country, doubting  the priority of supranational  interests within the European Union. Political analyst Timofey Bordachev believes that “the era of stale politics and the same stale politicians, who make backstage decisions based on the“ lowest common denominator,” are finally coming to an end. Politicians with a new vision of the world order come to power, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, or the new head of the Italian Interior Ministry, leader of the right-wing League of the North Party, Matteo Salvini ”.

It is not the first year that Hungary is trying to protect the interests of its citizens and the state from external influence, to protect the Hungarians in the territory of neighbouring states  by establishing for this  a special position (Commissioner  for the development of the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine), to determine relations with other countries on the basis of their attitude to the rights of Hungarians. This is how conflicts with the European Union arose, after Hungary refused to let migrants into the country, in the same manner, a conflict  arose with Ukraine, which is trying to build a state ideology, based on nationalism, which a priori does not provide for the proper level of realization and protection of the rights of non-titular nations.

In relation to Hungary, Ukraine follows the same policy as in relation to Russia – to initiate various accusations, to call for punishment, to talk about the inconsistency with European values of the Hungarian policy under the leadership of  Orban. Doing so Kiev has its multifaceted interest: cooperation with NATO and the EU, support  for any decisions of Brussels, the anti-Russian course, domestic policy based on the nationalist  ideology. And in all these areas  Hungary poses  a problem for Ukraine. In the description of relations with Hungary  Kiev even  uses the word “annexation“.

Hungary is hardly planning to seize any Ukrainian territory, but on what  grounds Ukraine falsely accuses Hungary of its annexation intentions in relation to Transcarpathia?  The Ukrainian side highlights several positions:

Issuing Hungarian passports  to Ukrainian citizens (ethnic Hungerians)

This  is an old story, it has come to light again recently due to the growth of Ukrainian nationalism. Moreover,  there are concerns about the implementation by Hungary of the “Crimean scenario” in relation to Transcarpathia.

The Hungarian government has created the position of  “Commissioner  for the development of Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region and the program for the development of kindergartens in the Carpathian region”.

Ukraine demanded an explanation. A note of protest was delivered to the Hungarian Charge d’Affaires in Ukraine, and the Foreign ministers of Ukraine and Hungary had a telephone conversation on the problem. Hungary continues to ignore the requirements of Kiev.

Ukraine fears further disintegration processes

At the same time, in Kiev there is no understanding  of the fact that combining the ideology of nationalism with the country’s national diversity and European integration is hardly possible.

Ukrainian experts note the growth of separatism in the Transcarpathian region, as well as the “strange behavior” of the governor, who plays on the side of Hungary. They also complain that “pro-Ukrainian ideology”(?) is not being сonsolidated in Transcarpathia, and this region is not controlled and monitored by  the Ministry of information. In a word, the state is losing control over the territory, which it neither develops nor controls. Such behavior of the governor and the region’s residents may indicate that the state is not sufficiently present in the lives of residents of Transcarpathia, and this a financial and humanitarian drawback they compensate with the help of Hungary, – experts believe.

Apparently, Ukraine is unable to reach an agreement with Hungary as relations are tense. In response to the Ukrainian law on education, adopted in the fall of 2017, which infringes the rights of national minorities, Budapest blocked another, the third, Ukraine-NATO meeting. Ukraine witnessed this embarrassing  situation  in April 2018.  At the same time elections were held in Hungary, in  which Viktor Orban’s party won a majority in the parliament. Such a tough stance of Budapest in relation to the Ukrainian educational policy Kiev considered to be just a sign of electoral populism. However, this was a mistake.

Viktor Orban’s victory in spring 2018 was convincing, and a convincing victory means obvious support of his migration policies as well as his support  for compatriots abroad. The party of Orban – Fides – not only won a majority but a constitutional majority – 133 of the 199 seats  in the National Assembly of Hungary.

There is no doubt  that Hungary has become Ukraine’s another serious opponent in the process of its European integration. And it is unlikely that either  country  will take a step back: there will be presidential elections in Ukraine soon, and in Hungary, the victory won by Orban, apparently, confirms the  approval of his independent  foreign  policy  by  the citizens.  So the conflict is likely to develop.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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