Author: Mark Edwards


Vaclav Havel: Concluding Thoughts

It’s been a joy visiting here at Concurring Opinions again – thank you to the Co-Op crew for the opportunity. I’m going to take my leap month early this year and consider this January 32nd so I can finish up the Havel posts.

Havel’s Presidency had its up and downs, but what is stunning to me is that he managed it all. There was simply no precedent for a transition of power in Czechoslovakia. Try to imagine, if you can, arriving in the White House tomorrow, to find it abandoned. You have no political experience. You are in charge of the country, and it is convulsing in revolution. Where do you begin? How do you begin?

Havel did what he knew best: he sat down to write, in this case not a play or essay, but a constitution. Havel was the principal architect and drafter of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. As in the case of much of Havel’s writing, it is striking in its parsimony. Much of the bitter history of totalitarian and post-totalitarian society is starkly if implicitly revealed in each articulated principle:

Democratic values constitute the foundation of the state.
The freedom of thought, conscience, and religious conviction is guaranteed.
The inviolability of the person and of her privacy is guaranteed.
A person’s dwelling is inviolable. It may not be entered without the permission of the person living there.
Only a law may designate which acts constitute a crime.
Censorship is not permitted.
Everyone who suffers from material need has the right to such assistance as is necessary to ensure her a basic living standard.
Everyone has the right to the protection of her health.
Everyone has the right to education.
Everyone has the right to demand that her human dignity be respected.

A few final thoughts on Havel: He was not anti-communist. He was horrified by the effects of a system, created by and embodied through individuals, which had encouraged people to avoid two fundamental and ultimately inescapable responsibilities: the responsibility to themselves to live truthfully, and the responsibility to each other to live kindly. He did not ultimately seek a political revolution, but rather an existential one. The type of existence he imagined was incompatible with post-totalitarianism, so a political revolution would be an inevitable by-product of that existential revolution in post-totalitarian states.

But Havel’s critique was hardly limited to communist post-totalitarian regimes; it applied with equal force to capitalist, democratic systems, if such systems encouraged people to avoid their two fundamental and inescapable responsibilities: the responsibility to themselves to live truthfully, and the responsibility to each other to live kindly. In particular, Havel saw in the consumerist West a dangerous phenomenon: individuals attempting to sate themselves through by material satisfactions, to shirk moral responsibility to themselves, each other, and for the actions of their state. Havel saw that the he need for an existential revolution in such a society is just as great, and perhaps as inevitable, since people probably cannot withstand the internal pressure of alienation from themselves forever. In a consumerist society, we consume with increasing speed but can never quite consume enough to be satisfied. Eventually, perhaps, it will become clear that one cannot avoid one’s moral responsibilities with more and better things. As Havel forecast with amazing prescience about the sudden collapse of the East European regimes, such systems are vulnerable to “a sudden explosion of civic unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure, or simply an irrepressible transformation in the social and intellectual climate.”

I, for one, hope that time is coming. And when I say hope, I mean hope as Havel meant it: “not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”



Vaclav Havel, Part VI: Havel Na Hrad (Havel to the Castle)

Vaclav Havel was released from his longest prison term in 1983. He was hospitalized for the following month – a fact which alone speaks volumes about the conditions of his confinement. The Czechoslovak regime had tried almost everything it could to silence him, to no avail: internal exile, censorship, constant surveillance and harassment, imprisonment with hard labor, glittering offers to emigrate – nothing worked.

In retrospect, they should have just killed him. They were afraid to do it – in fact, he was released from prison because they thought he was about to die in their custody – because the treatment of dissidents all over the world was, for the first time, being closely monitored internationally under the Helsinki Accords. (In fact, the International Helsinki Foundation was headed by a Czech exile – Karel Schwarzenberg, who eventually became one of Havel’s closest advisors and is currently the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic).  Havel and the other Charter 77 leaders had been shrewd enough to frame their dissent as a celebration of the Helsinki Accords — but it also reflected their fundamental commitment to human rights.

Totalitarian regimes had signed the accords to assure their survival – borders were recognized, aid made available. They did not know it, but they had sown the seeds of their destruction by agreeing, as an afterthought, to tie aid to their treatment of human rights advocates. They could not kill Havel and get aid, so they had to gamble: take the aid and try to control Havel, or kill him and try to survive without the aid. They let him live and lost.

As much of Eastern Europe began to open up following Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to power in the Soviet Union, the Czechoslovak regime went in the opposite direction: it cracked down especially hard, much harder in fact than neighbors such as Poland, Hungary and East Germany. Repression increased in Czechoslovakia as it decreased elsewhere. Havel was arrested and imprisoned yet again.

Arrests and searches grew more frequent, which caused some despair among the Charter 77 leaders – but not Havel. He recognized the increasing repression as a sign of weakness in the regime. It was growing afraid because its grip on power depended more and more upon the exercise of its own brute force, since the Soviets had made clear that this time – unlike 1968 – there would be no military invasion.

Students began holding illegal demonstrations and were beaten and arrested. But as totalitarian regimes began to fall around them, more and more Czechs and Slovaks were emboldened to speak out. Released in late 1989, Havel and others formed an umbrella organization, the Civic Forum, that newly emerging dissident organizations joined. As demonstrations increased in late 1989, the regime reacted violently. The revolution in Czechoslovakia is universally called the ‘Velvet Revolution’ but it was only soft in comparison the bloodbath that was feared. You can see it for yourself here, and it is well worth watching.

When the Civic Forum called for a general strike, the regime was shocked to find the country completely paralyzed. Millions of people took to the streets of Prague and other cities around the country and it became undeniably clear that the regime had no popular support at all, and thus no legitimacy.

It was in fact exactly as Havel had predicted years before in The Power of the Powerless: the moment people stopped playing their roles, and lived honestly, the totalitarian power structure would collapse. Members of the regime recognized now that without Soviet military support, their days were numbered unless they could effect a peaceful transition. The regime sought a meeting with Havel and other members of Civic Forum. Within a few days, the regime announced it was resigning. Here is the moment word of the resignation reached the dissidents, including Havel, in their headquarters in (naturally) a theater.

It was a triumphant moment, but it left two enormous, unanswered questions: what would come next? And who could be trusted to lead the country out of 40 years of totalitarian nightmare into a new and terrifying future?

Vaclav Havel never intended to become a political leader. He was a playwright and some time philosopher who simply refused to keep his mouth shut. But, quite suddenly, as Havel had predicted, the regime had collapsed. The cause for which Havel had nearly sacrificed everything – what he called the basic dignity of each person’s right to live in truth and love – stood at the precipice of success. But it would die there unless someone committed to those ideas, who had sufficient popular support, would fill the vacuum of power.There was no one with any political experience to turn to, because all of the leaders of Civic Forum were working as janitors and boiler-feeders, or were in prison.

Havel didn’t want to become President. He wanted to write. He repeatedly laughed off the suggestion until it became clear the revolution would die unless he did it. The suggestions had become pleas. The massive crowds gathering in Wencelaus Square chanted “Havel na Hrad” (“Havel to the Castle”).  Years before, in another startling display of prescience, Havel had written that “the real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.” Now he faced that moment.

Havel had been willing to go to prison; now, against his own desires, he would go the castle.

There was no road map. No one knew what to do, starting on day one. It was impossible to get the phones to work, let alone to rid the palace of the secret police. But he went his way: simply, and living in truth. His first address as President captured the starkly honest spirit with which he assumed office:

“For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright prospects were unfolding in front of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.”

As he had written years earlier, “even the toughest truth expressed publicly, in front of everyone else, suddenly becomes liberating.”


Vaclav Havel, Part V: Prison, Torment and Temptation

Immediately after the Charter 77 Declaration was released, Vaclav Havel was arrested. At first he underwent daily interrogations at Ruzyne Prison and was released each night; by January 14, they stopped letting him leave. As I discussed in the previous installment, Charter 77 had painted the regime into a corner by couching its declaration as a celebration of the commitments the regime had made under the Helsinki Accords to respect human rights. The regime couldn’t very well prosecute Havel for agreeing with it, so they officially charged him with smuggling documents out of Czechoslovakia that were published abroad – including, of course, the Charter 77 declaration.

Havel found this first period of imprisonment particularly difficult. He had not yet learned how to deal with daily interrogations, and discovered that by trying to engage his interrogators in conversation he had given them ammunition against himself and other Charter 77 members. You can see Havel discuss how he learned to deal with interrogations here. After several months, Havel mentioned to his interrogators that he planned to resign as spokesperson for Charter 77 (the position was meant to rotate); the regime publicly announced that Havel had renounced his role in the group and released him as proof. Havel was humiliated and disgraced, but he recovered his bearings and began to work with the dissident group (and a second he co-founded – the Committee for the Protection of the Unjustly Persecuted or VONS — even more energetically than before).

The Czechoslovak secret police constantly watched and tormented the dissidents. Policemen literally followed Havel everywhere he went at all times – not secretly, but openly, within an arm’s length of him. They demanded identification from anyone he talked to; they walked with him when he walked his dog. The secret police took over the property immediately next to Havel’s house and built a watchtower on it, from which they watched him at all times. They smashed his car windshield, then arrested him for driving with a smashed windshield. They planted listening devices throughout his house and repeatedly raided it, taking any documents they could find. Dissidents were beaten and arrested. Repeatedly they were grabbed off the street; sometimes they were taken for interrogation, sometimes they were driven out into the countryside in the middle of the night and kicked out of the car, to find their own way back. Many dissidents escaped into exile (often with the eager agreement of the regime). Havel and a handful of others refused to budge.

And yet, despite the regime’s best efforts, Charter 77 and VONS survived. Havel and others occasionally managed to slip from the regime’s grasp as they became skilled in subterfuge. They smuggled out documents that were published abroad. Most amazingly, the Czech dissidents actually managed to meet clandestinely with Polish dissidents from Solidarity and KOR, who were living under martial law at home.  They met in the mountainous forests on the border between the two countries.

Secret meeting with Polish dissidents

The Czech regime soon realized that merely tormenting Havel and his circle would not be sufficient to stop them. Still, under the watchful eye of groups like Helsinki Watch, they dared not kill them. Havel knew hard time in prison was inevitable if he did not stop advocating for freedom, and steeled himself for it. In May 1979, as he expected, Havel and others such as Petr Uhl, Jiri Dienstbeir and Vaclav Benda were sentenced to long terms at hard labor in the general prison population.

Havel was put to work welding metal gratings and stripping insulation from wires (which he said “wasn’t too bad, as long as you could get used to the cold and endless filth”) every day, all day long. Work quotas were set impossibly high, and when the prisoners could not fulfill them, they were punished and given reduced rations. Havel and other prisoners were beaten and threatened with execution. He suffered repeated bouts of pneumonia.

Havel was allowed one half-hour visit from his wife Olga every three months, and he and the other prisoners were allowed to write one strictly censored four-page letter home each week. Havel was not officially allowed to write anything else, but his letters home formed the basis of his famous Letters to Olga. (I say officially because of a remarkable story: Havel’s prison guards were supposed to write detailed reports on him for the secret police. One guard hated writing so much that he asked Havel to write the reports on himself instead, which he did).

After enduring these conditions, every day, for three and a half years, the regime approached Havel with a remarkable offer. They told him the following things, each of which was absolutely true:

  • His boyhood friend, now famous Hollywood director Milos Forman, who was living in exile in the United States, had arranged a playwright-in-residency position for him in at a theater in New York City.
  • Havel would be released from his hell of a prison and allowed to move to New York City with Olga, where finally he could see his plays performed at last.
  • He would be, undoubtedly, the toast of the city: the famous dissident artist, at last free.
  • From New York, he could, of course, say whatever he wanted to about the Czech regime and coordinate dissident activities.
  • No one in Czechoslovakia had given much thought to him in the past three years, and all of the former dissidents still in the country had been effectively silenced.
  • If he refused the offer, the next morning he would be back to stripping insulation off wires, unable to communicate with an outside world that had almost completely forgotten him, probably until he was dead, and almost no one would care.

What would you have done? I’d have been out the door and on the plane so fast I’d probably have injured myself.

Havel, however, instantly realized three things: (1) he could never do it, because it would betray those he left behind in prison and Czechoslovakia; (2) if they were making this offer, he was still a problem for them; and (3) he could use this offer as an excuse to get an extra meeting with Olga. He told the regime he needed to discuss it with his wife; he got his extra meeting with Olga and stayed in prison.

Unknown to Havel, stories like his refusal to leave and his tricking the authorities into an extra visit with Olga gradually spread to the general population.  A whole sub-genre of Havel jokes began to be whispered.  Here’s one: Olga wrote to Havel and said she needed to plant potatoes to eat, but couldn’t dig up the yard on her own; what should she do?  Havel wrote back, telling Olga that she must under no circumstances dig up the yard, because that’s where he had buried the secrets documents.  A week later a letter arrived from Olga, saying that a dozen secret service agents had shown up, dug up the entire yard and left in a fury; what should she do?  Havel wrote back: plant the potatoes.

A few months after he refused to leave, suffering from his worst bout of pneumonia (which eventually cost him a lung), Havel was near death. He was sent to a prison hospital, likely to die, and no one in the outside world knew. Havel managed to send a note to Olga because the hospital had more lax censorship standards, letting her know what was happening. Dissidents got word out of Czechoslovakia, and the human rights community, which Havel had helped create, erupted into protest. Helsinki Watch and other groups, coordinated with sympathetic western European governments, demanded Havel’s release. The Czechoslovak regime was embarrassed and terrified Havel would die in their custody; it also recognized a potential public relations coup. It unilaterally granted Havel compassionate release into the care of a non-prison hospital.

Havel later recalled the month he spent in the hospital after his release as among the happiest of life (“just imagine – you scarcely see a woman for four years, and suddenly they plop you down among ten nursing school grads!”). He had been through the fire and emerged, eventually stronger. He would be imprisoned again, but now it began to seem that it was the totalitarian regime’s days that were numbered.

The quote above, and much of the detail of this post, comes from the collection of interviews of Havel in Disturbing the Peace, translated by Paul Wilson, who has a remembrance of Havel in the current edition of The New York Review of Books.


Vaclav Havel, Part IV: The Influence and Importance of Jan Patocka

Three members of the Charter 77 group were identified in its first declaration as its spokespeople: Jiri Hajek, a former member of Alexander Dubcek’s ill-fated reformist regime; Jan Patocka, a retired sometime professor of philosophy; and Vaclav Havel.  Today I want to write a little bit about the importance of Jan Patocka to the Charter movement generally, and specifically as an influence on Vaclav Havel.

"there are things for which it is worthwhile to suffer"

Jan Patocka was the first casualty of the Charter 77 movement. He died following a brutal marathon interrogation in March 1977, two months after he was first arrested.

Because Patocka was killed at a time when many of his works were still banned from publication, his importance as a philosopher – quite apart from his work with Charter 77 – was not as widely known as it might have been. Fortunately, his students collected and preserved much of his work. He is now recognized as a major figure among European philosophers of the 20th century. The vast majority of his work was entirely apolitical; or rather, was political only in the sense that individual responsibility for moral behavior is eventually, inevitably political.

Patocka was a student of Edmund Husserl’s in Freiburg, Germany in the early 1930s, as the Nazis came to power.  He returned to Czechoslovakia and became a professor of philosophy at Charles University in Prague.  In 1939, following the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany, all Czech universities were closed and Patocka could no longer teach.  In 1945, after the German defeat, he taught again at Charles University — but only until 1948, when communist totalitarians seized power.  He was banned from teaching again until 1968.  In 1968, during Prague Spring, he resumed his professorship — until, four years later during ‘normalization’ under the hard line regime that was installed following the collapse of Prague Spring, he was retired.  From 1939 until his death in 1977, Patocka had been allowed to work as a professor of philosophy for a total of 7 years.

Vaclav Havel had hoped to study philosophy, but was not allowed to because of his family’s class background. However, Patocka befriended Havel, and Patocka’s influence on Havel’s thinking was profound. I am going to try to describe that influence, but I must say two things first: (1) I am only giving you my impression; as far as I know, no one else thinks Patocka influenced Havel in the manner I’m about to describe; and (2) I am not a philosopher, so I want to tread humbly here and defer in any instance of disagreement to the brilliant and prolific Patrick O’Donnell, who has been commenting on these posts and also writing about Havel on his own blog, Ratio Juris.  Patrick, please correct me wherever you think I go wrong.

I think Patocka’s influence on Havel had its roots in Patocka’s life’s work as a philosopher: the attempt to bridge the gap between the idea of an objective and subjective human reality, or rather to develop a new understanding of human reality that could encompass both an objective and subjective basis.  What I mean by that clumsy attempt is this: in the absence of an objective moral order (traditionally supplied by religion), man had only his subjective desires to fulfill, without measuring them against any moral standard. He was, perhaps, his own God, but if so, his moral standards were entirely subjective and perhaps arbitrary. On the other hand, if there is an objective moral order that exists outside the existence of man, then man is not entirely free; there is some other thing that transcends human existence by which the worth of human existence is measured.

Even in the absence of religious belief, the existence of that objective moral standard seemed true to Patocka – and frankly, I suspect it seems true to many of us. How, then, to describe a reality that rejects the false comfort of religious dogma and embraces the idea of the human as subject, and yet also identify some transcendent, objective moral standard by which we can measure human conduct? How to encompass both objective and subjective reality, which would seem to be incompatible, into a single idea? I think that was the question with which Patocka wrestled.

Havel, I believe, applied Patocka’s attempt to reconcile the apparently contradictory beliefs in objective and subjective human reality to his analysis of the post-totalitarian system. For Havel’s critical insight was that each individual was both object and subject within a post-totalitarian system: each person who functioned within that system was both its victim and its embodiment. In a totalitarian system, according to Havel, there was clear delineation between the rulers and the ruled. The rulers acted according to their subjective will and the ruled were the objects of that will. But in a post-totalitarian system, each person who obeyed the system enforced the system on everyone else, until the system became mutually and automatically reinforcing. As Havel said in The Power of the Powerless, “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.” In that way, individuals are both the object that the system acts upon, and the subject whose will either perpetuates or destroys the system. The very title The Power of the Powerless suggests that individuals within the post-totalitarian system are both objects and subjects.

Havel argued that as subjects rather than merely objects, individuals had the power but also responsibility of freedom. And, as Patocka argued, the free choices individuals made according to their subjective will should be measured against an objective moral standard.

I think what excited Patocka about the Helsinki Accords – he called them a new hope for mankind — was that they attempted to define that objective moral standard, by naming those things so fundamental to a fulfilling human existence that they must be recognized as rights inherent in being.  In some ways, human rights provided the frame he had been searching for – the idea of human rights could perhaps encompass both an objective moral standard and the free will of the human subject. It seems to me that even the term ‘human rights’ denotes both a subjective and objective element. In some ways, then, by embracing respect for human rights as the objective measure of moral good in a political system, and recognizing that each individual had the power and responsibility to create such a system, Charter 77 really did represent for Patocka the culmination of his life’s work.

Three days before he was arrested, Patocka wrote a short document called The Obligation to Resist Injustice, which attempted to explain both the motives of the Charter members, and his own motives in joining them. “The idea of human rights is nothing other than the conviction that even states, even societies as a whole, are subject to the sovereignty of . . . something unconditional that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred, inviolable.”

In his last writing, Patocka celebrated Charter 77 for introducing “a new orientation to basic human rights, to the moral dimension of political and private life.”    He also recognized the risks involved in embracing that orientation but said, “there are things for which it is worthwhile to suffer.” Just five days after this document was clandestinely distributed in Czechoslovakia, Patocka was interrogated to death by the secret police.

I like to think — and I fervently, fervently hope — Patocka was right.

I highly recommend Erazim Kohak’s Jan Patocka: Philosophy and Selected Writings for an excellent philosophical biography of Patocka and collection of his works.  The quotes above are taken from that work.


Vaclav Havel, Part III: Helsinki and the Charter 77 Declaration

On the morning of January 6, 1977, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, the StB (secret police) surrounded and swarmed a car driven by the actor Pavel Landosky (if you’ve seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he plays the farmer with the pig who befriends Tomas and Tereza). In the car with Landosky were Ludvik Vaculik and Vaclav Havel, but to the secret police the people were the least important targets that day. They could be dealt with later and were – literally – tossed aside.

What concerned the secret police was a document in the car written by a group of dissidents and signed by 243 very brave people. You can see the document here. It was the declaration of a group identifying itself as Charter 77. The occupants of the car had been trying to deliver the declaration to the Federal Assembly; the secret police knew all about the group’s plans and were lying in wait. But what the police did not know was that the delivery of the declaration to the Federal Assembly was a sideshow; another copy already had been smuggled out of the country, and was to be published the next day in four leading daily European newspapers, from which it would inevitably make its way back into Czechoslovakia.

Two seemingly contradictory things about the regime’s response to the Charter 77 declaration are impressive: its severity, and its leniency. The severity of its response is remarkable because on its face, the declaration could hardly have been less revolutionary or more innocuous. Reading it today makes you wonder if you are reading the correct document – this caused all that fuss? The leniency of the regime’s response is remarkable because its clear preference would have been to kill the group’s leaders, or at least crush them, and it was quite capable of doing it. And yet, for perhaps the first time, the regime felt constrained in its response to domestic dissent by both the weight of world opinion and the logic of its own decisions.

The regime felt constrained because the Charter had framed its declaration, in its very first sentence, not as a complaint but as a celebration of Czechoslovakia’s adoption of the 1975 Helsinki Accords – formally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — into its domestic law. The declaration then stated that the basic human rights protected by the Covenant were routinely violated in Czechoslovakia (listing several examples), and that, in the future, the Charter group and other like-minded citizens should and would accept responsibility for fulfilling the aims of the Covenant and Czechoslovak law by “drawing attention” to violations of basic human rights.

The Helsinki Accords were the product of an intense and long negotiation process, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), involving all of the independent countries of Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union. The purpose of the Conference in the eyes of the United States and its West European allies was primarily security – it hoped to get the Soviets to recognize permanent and inviolable borders between East and West, particularly in divided Germany; and the Soviets wanted the borders redrawn by Stalin after World War II recognized as well. The primary purpose of the conference in the eyes of the Soviets and their East European allies was cooperation – they wanted to secure badly needed trade and investment for their teetering economies. But the Accords also included the recognition of transnational individual civil and political rights, the positive obligation of governments to protect those rights, and the obligation of other states to monitor each state’s compliance with that obligation. And, because recognition of those rights was included in the Accords, compliance with that obligation was tied to badly needed trade and investment.

The recognition of transnational civil and political rights was included primarily at the insistence of West European countries. In his excellent analysis of the importance of the Helsinki Accords in the development of international human rights law and advocacy, The Helsinki Effect, Daniel C. Thomas notes that the Soviets and the United States were equally impatient with the European countries insistence on including a transnational ‘human rights’ agenda – President Nixon went so far as to scold his European partners that “We would not welcome the intervention of other countries in our domestic affairs and we cannot expect them to be cooperative when we seek to intervene directly in theirs.” And, as you can learn by watching the proceedings of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s conference Helsinki 1975 and the Transformation of Europe, Henry Kissinger and Leonid Brezhnev privately agreed that the human rights provisions of the Accords were meaningless and that nothing would change in practice. East German leader Erich Honecker reassured advisors worried about the adoption of human rights principles that “there will always be the Stasi.” In other words, the major players in the adoption of the Accords regarded the human rights provisions cynically and as an after-thought.

Dissidents in Eastern Europe, however, did not. A small group of dissidents in the Soviet Union started the first Helsinki monitor organization, claiming the privilege of monitoring whether the Soviet Union was meeting its Helsinki obligations domestically. In Czechoslovakia, concurrently, Vaclav Havel was organizing a group of dissidents who had decided to risk all by advocating for basic human rights. Three members of that group in particular — Zdenek Mlynar, Jiri Hajek, and Ladislav Hedjanek — seem to have developed the strategy of tying their advocacy directly to the Czechoslovak regime’s adoption of the Helsinki Accords into domestic law. The group called itself Charter 77, and its declaration expressly invoked both the human rights obligations the regime had agreed to as an afterthought, and the right of citizens themselves to monitor compliance with those obligations and report their findings to the world at large.

Framing Charter 77 as a supportive response to Czechoslovakia’s adoption of the Helsinki Accords was both tactical and substantive. Tactically, it was a masterstroke. The regime found itself practically check-mated before the game had begun, because it had already agreed to everything Charter 77 demanded. Western European governments, and human rights advocates, could and did insist that Eastern European governments meet their obligations under the Accords – or, if they were forswearing the Accords, the West could do the same and cut off trade and border recognition. And, since groups like Charter 77 were only helping to fulfill those obligations, and were very much in the Western eye, they could not be easily destroyed.

The Charter’s model of dissidence – using international human rights law as a lever against domestic repression – quickly spread across Eastern Europe and the world. In addition, the Charter’s insistence on a role for private citizens in monitoring respect for human rights – what Havel called civil society – helped create a model so ubiquitous today that it is hard to believe it was once an innovation: today we call such organizations NGOs. In direct response to Charter 77 and other similar groups in the East, civil initiatives such as Helsinki Watch – later Human Rights Watch – developed in the West. And as we’ll see, those initiatives eventually played an important role in bringing down the regimes of Eastern Europe. Indeed, it was the work of such initiatives, that simply took cynical governments at their word and insisted on respect for human rights, that created the practice of transnational human rights law and advocacy. That legacy obviously continues to reverberate in the world today.

A long, dark road lay ahead for the declaration’s signatories.  All were arrested and repeatedly interrogated;  many were imprisoned, beaten, harassed and placed under constant surveillance.  Vaclav Havel spent almost five of the next seven years in prison.  One of the three intial spokespeople for the group — philosopher Jan Patocka — would be dead at the hands of the secret police within a few weeks.  But more on that in future installments.



Vaclav Havel, Part II: The Power of the Powerless

During the early 1970s in Czechoslovakia, following the failed attempts of reform communists to liberalize some aspects of society while maintaining a monopoly on political power, the old guard regime re-asserted its complete control with the help of Soviet tanks, through a process that was euphemistically called “normalization.”

Amazingly, the catalytic event for Havel – that caused him to cross the Rubicon into dissidence – was the criminal trial of a Prague rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe. In a farce of a trial, the young members of the band were convicted of – well, that was never completely clear, but essentially of being out of the ordinary – and sentenced to lengthy terms in prison.

It was not because rock music was important that Havel decided to speak up – rather it was precisely because it was so unimportant. What Havel recognized in that trial was this: that the regime had decided to deny people any sphere of autonomy whatsoever. If a handful of harmless eccentrics could not, in the privacy of their derelict flats, play awful music (I’ve heard them) simply because it seemed to them a genuine expression of their beings, then the last bit of autonomous space had been breached.

Under the old implicit rules, the regime had demanded, and gotten, public obeisance: you attended the proper rallies and you kept your mouth shut about politics otherwise, you lived where you were told, worked where you were told, ate and read what you were told, and the regime probably wouldn’t bother you. But Havel had been watching for years as what he called the post-totalitarian system permeated deeper and deeper into what little private space a person might have left. And he realized that the one hope people like he clung to – that if they did and said the right things in public, they could escape a little, sometimes, in private – was a delusion. One could not escape by moving into a deeper corner of the cage.

But Havel also realized something deeper and more profound, that he eventually explicated in his underground masterpiece essay, The Power of the Powerless. He realized that by playing the game – by doing the right things in public, and hoping for a little autonomy in private – people were not just surviving in the system: they were an essential part of the system. With what I suspect was his playwright’s eye, he saw that everyone, everyone, was playing a role that had been assigned to them. An implicit bargain had been struck: I will act the way the regime wants, and the regime will not punish me.

It was a type of play, a facade.  If you want to understand what he meant in the most visceral, shockingly literal way, watch this clip from a Czech state broadcast of Spartakiada, a ‘festival of health and optimism.’  Watch it all the way to the 5:00 minute mark, and I promise you won’t forget it.  Of course, in most ways the play was less obvious, but you get the point.

[Interestingly, it is very difficult to find photographic evidence of life in Prague during this period, other than in the files of the secret police.  This is the poster from an exhibit of secret police surveillance photos of the time.  It gives you a sense of daily life.] 

But Havel also saw that in a play, the most revolutionary act is for an actor to announce to the world of the play that it is in fact a play; to refuse to play one’s part; to refuse even to walk off stage but rather to stay on stage and be real. If even one actor would do that, he could not be ignored. And if a critical mass of actors would do that – would commit to what he called “living in truth” – the whole production would collapse.

That was what he meant by the power of the powerless – he had comprehended something so simple and terrifying, and articulated it so clearly, that it could not be tolerated – that the powerless, who felt they had no choice but to play the roles they had been assigned, actually had the power to bring the entire production crashing down. The play depended upon them.

But, Havel argued, if people had the power to end the system, then they also had the power to perpetuate the system. The decision was entirely theirs. They were not mere objects in someone else’s drama; they were subjects, capable of acting according to their will and so responsible for doing so. Consider the implication of that for a moment: if the decision was theirs, then on an essential level, past the reach of the regime, and despite its best efforts, they were free. But, because they were free, they were also responsible for their choices.

The essential core of humanity in each individual – what Havel described as the “longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression” – was still there. As Havel put it, “Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate.”

Continued after the break . . .

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Vaclav Havel (and thanks for having me back)

Thanks so much to Sarah, Dan and the Concurring Opinions crew for inviting me back.

I’d like to use my visit to Concurring Opinions this month mostly to write about Vaclav Havel, who died on December 18th. And because I also blog over at PropertyProf, I’m going to post some of these entries over there as well.

My sense is that most people in the legal academy have a vague idea that Havel was very important during the collapse of East European totalitarianism in 1989, and that he even though he openly admired Frank Zappa he was allowed to be President. All of those things are true, but they badly miss the mark.

Havel’s contribution to the theory and practice of respect for human rights was incisive and profound. He left behind a body of work that merits our serious, sustained attention. If we miss that, we are depriving ourselves of something great and beautiful.

More after the break . . . .

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The Battle of the Fish Castle

An extraordinary article by Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times recently told the story of Qin Rong, owner of the Fish Castle Restaurant in Beijing.  She was told to clear out by a state-affiliated development agency that had purchased the land out from under the restaurant.  Her landlord knew about the pending sale at the time she entered her 3 year lease, but didn’t tell her.  She still had two years left on her lease but was willing to go – if the developer would fully compensate her for the renovations she had made to the building.  The agency said no.  She refused to budge.  That’s when things got crazy.  

In China, impasses like this are sometimes resolved violently; specifically, the development agency dispatches ‘relocation men’ who either reach agreement with, or beat the hell out of, the tenant.  Knowing what was coming, Qin Rong hired an ex-relocation man who had switched sides to help protect her and her business.  Apparently she hired the right guy, Lu Daren.

When 60 – yes, 60 – thugs showed up and dragged Lu Daren and other holdout tenants out onto the street, a pitched battle ensued, and the thugs left.  Police investigated but refused to intervene.  For the next few weeks, without heat or electricity, Lu Daren, Qin Rong, and the restaurant employees slept inside the Fish Castle, while thugs occasionally circled outside.  The standoff ended when the agency agreed to renegotiate.  The parties reached an agreement for full payment, and the Fish Castle was abandoned.  

To some, this story may sound like Kelo in China: a mom and pop business driven out by developers supported by the state.   But there are a lot of critical differences.  Among them: the crux of the Kelo opinion was not that under a set of particular circumstances private property rights must give way to the interest of the state, but rather that in the United States, local political institutions provide a forum for resolving local land use decisions of general application.  Qin Rong, and others angered by the actions of the development agency, had no political means of redress; they could not throw the bums out, so to speak.  The result was violence, as it often is in the absence of a peaceable means of redress. 

In many ways, both the reaction in the United States to Kelo, and the battle for the Fish Castle in Beijing, have proven the Supreme Court correct: political fora provide adequate means of redress for people angered by local land use decisions of general application; it is only when such institutions are unavailable that alternative means — whether judicial review or occasional self-defense — are required.


Acceptable Deviance

Roscoe Pound observed more than a century ago that in “all cases of divergence between the standard of common law and the standard of the public, it goes without saying that the latter will prevail in the end.”  I suppose if one sentence could sum up my research agenda, that would be it (let us not pause to consider that my research agenda is therefore over one hundred years old).  Interestingly, it’s not necessary that the law change under those circumstances; rather, enforcement practices come, eventually, to reflect the standard of the public — what we usually now call norms.  I’ve called those gaps between law and norms ‘parameters of acceptable deviance’ or PADs.  Behavior within them is formally illegal but socially acceptable, and generally does trigger either a formal enforcement response or social sanctions.  Behavior outside of them may be either formally legal or illegal.  Behavior that is both formally illegal and socially unacceptable usually triggers a formal enforcement response; behavior that is formally legal but socially unacceptable usually triggers social sanctions. 

Roscoe Pound: great moustache, greater mind

Roscoe Pound: great moustache, greater mind

To see this phenomenon in action, go for a drive.  Chances are you’ll behave within a PAD by speeding, but not speeding too much.  Let us say, up to 77 mph in a 65 mph zone.  If you get a ticket for driving within a PAD, you’ll be upset.  But if you see someone exceeding the PAD, you’ll hope s/he gets a pulled over.  If you get stuck behind someone acting outside the PAD, but obeying the law by driving below the speed limit, you might apply social sanctions (not you, dear reader, but someone else might make rude gestures, for example).

The article I’m now finishing – errr, would be finishing, if I were not writing this instead – applies the PADs concept to property rights.  It was a delight, therefore, to see this article in last week’s New York Times.  It’s a fascinating story — regardless of how you interpret it — about the reaction of people in a small city in Russia to the privatization, and then near shuttering, of the factory that was the city’s lifeline. 

When the factory employees, used to a communist economy, asked the regional government to replace the inept and perhaps corrupt new owner, they were told it couldn’t be done because “private property was sacred.”  The owner ran the business into the ground.  But when the owner stopped paying the employees’ wages, they still came to work.  When management told them there was no more work and to go home, they still came.  When the local utility cut off electricity and heat to the factory, they still came.     Finally, at somewhat of a loss about what to do, the government took over ownership of the factory through a state-owned bank (although it insists it will be sold again to private owners) and put the employees to work.

Now, there are lots of ways to interpret this story.  Here are a few:

(1)   It demonstrates that the communist culture of worker entitlement and economic inefficiency still exists, and that Russia lacks the political will to overcome it;

(2)   It suggests that crony capitalism is eroding (or has already eroded) any popular support for post-Soviet market reforms;

(3)   It suggests that in Russia, the United States, and everywhere in between, regardless of ideology, some businesses are too important to be left to the judgment of the free market (i.e., are too big – or at least important — to fail)

There are many other possible interpretations, and I’d be curious to hear yours.  But here’s the one that interests me, and that I think would interest Pound: people tend to live their lives with reference to, but not in obedience to, the law.  People are not law-abiding; they are acceptable-deviance-abiding.  Notice that the workers in this story didn’t strip the factory of whatever they could find – that behavior would have been unacceptably deviant.  Instead, they behaved within parameters of socially acceptable deviance – insisting that they could enter private property to wait for their jobs to return.  Both acts are inconsistent with the sacredness of private property rights; one is socially unacceptably deviant, the other is not.  By simply acting within bounds of socially acceptable deviance with regard to private property rights, the people caused the state to realign itself, regardless of the strictures of formal law. 

If you find it objectionable as a matter of principle, mind your speed on the drive home.


A quick update . . . .

For those who were interested in my December 26th post on whether the arrest power should have been used against Anwar Awlaki in 2002: the Yemeni government has concluded that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab probably met with Awlaki shortly before launching his attempted attack on the Northwest airliner.  That raises the stakes in deciding whether Awlaki should have been arrested in 2002; it does not, of course, alter the complex legal and ethical issues that surround the decision not to arrest him.