Commencement 1995

A Photo Feature with Excerpts From the Address by Vaclav Havel

One evening not long ago I was sitting in an outdoor restaurant by the water. My chair was almost identical to the chairs they have in restaurants by the Vlatva River in Prague. They were playing the same rock music they play in most Czech restaurants. I saw advertisements I'm familiar with back home. Above all, I was surrounded by young people who were similarly dressed, who drank familiar-looking drinks, and who behaved as casually as their contemporaries in Prague. Only their complexion and their facial features were different--for I was in Singapore.

I sat there thinking about this and again--for the umpteenth time--I realized an almost banal truth: that we now live in a single global civilization. The identity of this civilization does not lie merely in similar forms of dress, or similar drinks, or in the constant buzz of the same commercial music all around the world or even in international advertising. It lies in something deeper: thanks to the modern idea of constant progress, with its inherent expansionism, and to the rapid evolution of science that comes directly from it, our planet has, for the first time in the long history of the human race, been covered in the space of a very few decades by a single civilization--one that is essentially technological.

The world is now enmeshed in webs of telecommunication networks consisting of millions of tiny threads or capillaries that not only transmit information of all kinds at lightning speed, but also convey integrated models of social, political and economic behavior...The life of the human race is completely interconnected not only in the informational sense, but in the causal sense as well....We are familiar with CNN and Chernobyl, and we know who the Rolling stones, or Nelson Mandela or Salman Rushdie are.

Even in the most democratic of conditions, politicians have immense influence, perhaps more than they themselves realize. This influence does not lie in their actual mandates, which in any case are considerably limited. It lies in something else: in the spontaneous impact their charisma has on the public.

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 till 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 crowd, to imbue their actions with a spiritual dimension (which of course is not the same thing as ostentatious attendance at religious services) to explain again and again--both to the public and to their colleagues--that politics must do far more than reflect the interests of particular groups or lobbies. After all, politics is a matter of serving the community, which means that it is morality in practice. And how better to serve the community and practice morality than by seeking in the midst of the global (and globally threatened) civilization their own global political responsibility; that is, their responsibility for the very survival of the human race?

I don't believe that a politician who sets out on this risky path will inevitably jeopardize his or her political survival. This is a wrong-headed notion which assumes that the citizen is a fool and that political success depends on playing to this folly. That is not the way it is. A conscience slumbers in every human being, something divine. And that is what we have to put our trust in.

It is obvious that those who have the greatest power and influence also bear the greatest responsibility. Like it or not, the United States of America now bears probably the greatest responsibility for the direction our world will take. The United States, therefore, should reflect most deeply on this responsibility.

Isolationism has never paid off for the United States. Had it entered the First World War earlier, perhaps it would not have had to pay with anything like the casualties it actually incurred.

The same is true of the Second World War: when Hitler was getting ready to invade Czechoslovakia, and in so doing finally expose the lack of courage on the part of the western democracies, your President wrote a letter to the Czechoslovak President imploring him to come to some agreement with Hitler. Had he not deceived himself and the whole world into believing that an agreement could be made with this madman, had he instead shown a few teeth, perhaps the Second World War need not have happened and tens of thousands of young Americans need not have died fighting in it.

Likewise, just before the end of that war, had your President, who was otherwise an outstanding man, said a clear "No" to Stalin's decision to divide the world, perhaps the Cold War, which cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars, need not have happened either.

I beg you: do not repeat these mistakes! You yourselves have always paid a heavy price for them! 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 already talked about: of understanding modern civilization as a multicultural and multipolar 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.

Not long ago I was at a gala dinner to mark an important anniversary. There were 50 Heads of State present, perhaps more, who came to honor the heroes and victims of the greatest war in human history...A slight chill went down my spine, for I could not help observing that one table had been singled out as being special and particularly important. It was a table for the big powers...The architect of that seating arrangement...was not guided by a sense of responsibility for the world, but by the banal pride of the powerful.

But pride is precisely what will lead the world to hell. I am suggesting an alternative: humbly accepting our responsibility for the world.

There is, however, one force that has at least as much, if not more, influence on the general state of mind as politicians do.

That force is the mass media.

Only when fate sent me into the realm of high politics did I become fully aware of the media's doubleedged power. Their dual impact is not a specialty of the media. It is merely a part, or an expression of the dual nature of today's civilization of which I have already spoken.

Thanks to television the whole world discovered, in the course of an evening, that there is a country called Rwanda where people are suffering beyond belief. Thanks to television the whole world, in the course of a few seconds, was shocked and horrified about what happened in Oklahoma City and at the same time, understood it as a great warning for all. Thanks to television the whole world knows that there exists an internationally recognized country called Bosnia and Herzegovina and that from the moment it recognized this country, the international community has tried unsuccessfully to divide it into grotesque mini-states according to the wishes of warlords who have never been recognized by anyone as anyone's legitimate representatives.

That is the wonderful side of today's mass media, or rather, of those who gather the news. Humanity's thanks belong to all those courageous reporters who voluntarily risk their lives wherever something evil is happening, in order to arouse the conscience of the world.

There is, however, another, less wonderful, aspect of television, one that merely revels in the horrors of the world or, unforgivably, makes them commonplace or compels politicians to become first of all television stars. I never fail to be astonished at how much I am at the mercy of television directors and editors, at how my public image depends far more on them than it does on myself, at how important it is to smile appropriately on television or choose the right tie, at how television forces me to express my thoughts as sparely as possible, in witticisms, slogans or sound bites, at how easily my television image can be made to seem different from the real me. I am astonished by this and at the same time, I fear it serves no good purpose. I know politicians who have learned to see themselves only as the television camera does. Television has thus expropriated their personalities and made them into something like television shadows of their former selves. I sometimes wonder whether they even sleep in a way that will look good on television.

I am not outraged with television or the press for distorting what I say, or ignoring it, or editing me to appear like some strange monster. I am not angry with the media when I see that a politician's rise or fall often depends more on them than on the politician concerned. What interests me is something else: the responsibility of those who have the mass media in their hands. They too bear responsibility for the world, and for the future of humanity.

Just as the splitting of the atom can immensely enrich humanity in a thousand and one ways and at the same time, can also threaten it with destruction, so television can have both good and evil consequences. Quickly, suggestively and to an unprecedented degree, it can disseminate the spirit of understanding, humanity, human solidarity and spirituality, or it can stupefy whole nations and continents. And just as our use of atomic energy depends solely on our sense of responsibility, so the proper use of television's power to enter practically every household and every human mind depends on our sense of responsibility as well.

Whether our world is to be saved from everything that threatens it today depends above all on whether human beings come to their senses, whether they understand the degree of their responsibility and discover a new relationship to the very miracle of Being. The world is in the hands of us all.

And yet some have a greater influence on its fate than others. The more influence a person has--be they politician or television announcer--the greater demands placed on their sense of responsibility and the less they should think merely about personal interests.

It is often said that in our time, everyvalley cries out for its own independence or willeven fight for it. Many nations, or parts of themat least, are struggling against moderncivilization or its main proponents for the rightto worship their ancient gods and obey the ancientdivine injunctions. They carry on their struggleusing weapons provided by the very civilizationsthey oppose. They employ radar, computers, lasers,never gases and perhaps, in the future, evennuclear weapons--all products of the world theychallenge--to help defend their ancient heritageagainst the erosions of modern civilization. Incontrast with these technological inventions,other products of their civilization--likedemocracy or the idea of human rights--are notaccepted in many places in the world because theyare deemed to be hostile to local traditions.

In other words: the Euro-American world hasequipped other parts of the globe with instrumentsthat not only could effectively destroy theenlightened values which, among other things, madepossible the invention of precisely theseinstruments, but which could well cripple thecapacity of people to live together on this earth.

What follows from all this?

It is my belief that this state of affairscontains a clear challenge not only to theEuro-American world but to our present-daycivilization as a whole. It is a challenge to thiscivilization to start understanding itself as amulti-cultural and a multi-polar civilizationwhose meaning lies not in undermining theindividuality of different spheres of culture andcivilization but in allowing them to be morecompletely themselves...

But is humanity capable of such an undertaking?Is it not a hopelessly utopian idea? Haven't we solost control of our destiny that we are condemnedto gradual extinction in ever harsher high-techclashes between cultures, because of our fatalinability to to co-operate in the face ofimpending catastrophes, be they ecological, socialor demographic, or of dangers generated by thestate of our civilization as such?

I don't know.

But I have not lost hope.

I have not lost hope because I am persuadedagain and again that, lying dormant in the deepestroots of most, if not all, cultures there is anessential similarity, something that could bemade--if the will to do so existed--a genuinelyunifying starting point for that new code of humanco-existence that would be firmly anchored in thegreat diversity of human traditions.

Don't we find somewhere in the foundations ofmost religions and cultures, though they may takea thousand and one distinct forms, common elementssuch as respect for what transcends us, whether wemean the mystery of Being or a moral order thatstands above us; certain imperatives that come tous from heaven, or from nature of from our ownhearts; a belief that our deeds will live afterus; respect for our neighbors, for our families,for certain natural authorities; respect for humandignity and for nature: a sense of solidarity andbenevolence towards guests who come with goodintentions?

Isn't the common, ancient origin or human rootsof our diverse spiritualities, each of which ismerely another kind of human understanding of thesame reality, the thing that can genuinely bringpeople of different cultures together?

And aren't the basic commandments of thisarchetypal spirituality in harmony with what evenan unreligous person without knowing exactlywhy--may consider proper and meaningful?

Naturally, I am not suggesting that modernpeople be compelled to worship ancient deities andaccept rituals they have long since abandoned. Iam suggesting something quite different: we mustcome to understand the deep mutual connection orkinship between the various forms of ourspirituality. We must recollect our originalspiritual and moral substance, which grew out ofthe same essential experience of humanity. Ibelieve that this is the only way to achieve agenuine renewal of our sense of responsibility forourselves and for the world. And at the same time,it is the only way to achieve a deeperunderstanding among cultures that will enable themto work together in a truly ecumenical way tocreate a new order for the world.

The veneer of global civilization thatenvelopes the modern world and the consciousnessof humanity, as we all know, has a dual nature,bringing into question at every step of the waythe very values it is based upon or which itpropagates. The thousands of marvelousachievements of this civilization that work for usso well and enrich us can equally impoverish,diminish and destroy our lives, and frequently do.Instead of serving people, many of these creationsenslave them. Instead of helping people to developtheir identities, they take them away. Almostevery invention or discovery--from the splittingof the atom and the discovery of DNA to televisionand the computer--can be turned against us andused to our detriment. How much easier it is todaythan it was during the First World War to destroyan entire metropolis in a single air-raid. And howmuch easier would it be today, in the era oftelevision, for a madman like Hitler or Stalin topervert the spirit of a whole nation. When havepeople ever had the power we now possess to alterthe climate of the planet or deplete its mineralresources or the wealth of its fauna and flora inthe space of a few short decades? And how muchmore destructive potential do terrorists have attheir disposal today than at the beginning of thiscentury.

In our era, it would seem that one partof the human brain, the rational part, which hasmade all these morally neutral discoveries, hasundergone exceptional development, while the otherpart, which should be alert to ensure that thesediscoveries really serve humanity and will notdestroy it, has lagged behind catastrophically.

Yes, regardless of where I begin my thinkingabout the problems facing our civilization, Ialways return to the theme of humanresponsibility, which seems incapable of keepingpace with civilization and preventing it fromturning against the human race. It's as though theworld has simply become too much for us to dealwith.

There is no way back. Only a dreamer canbelieve that the solutions lies in curtailing theprogress of civilization in some way or other. Themain task in the coming era is something else: aradical renewal of our sense of responsibility.Our conscience must catch up to our reason,otherwise we are lost.

It is my profound belief that there is only oneway to achieve this: we must divest ourselves ofour egotistical anthropocentrism, our habit ofseeing ourselves as masters of the universe whocan do whatever occurs to us. We must discover anew respect for what transcends us: for theuniverse, for the earth, for nature, for life andfor reality. Our respect for other people, forother nations and for other cultures, can onlygrow from a humble respect for the cosmic orderand from an awareness that we are a part of it,that we share in it and that nothing of what we dois last, but rather becomes part of the eternalmemory of Being, where it was judged.

General observations of this type are certainlynot difficult to make, nor are they new orrevolutionary. Modern people are masters atdescribing the crises and the misery of the worldwhich we shape, and for which we are responsible.We are much less adept at putting things right.

So what, specifically, is to be done?

I do not believe in some universal key orpanacea. I am not an advocate of what Karl Poppercalled "holistic social engineering," particularlybecause I had to live most of my adult life incircumstances that resulted from an attempt tocreate a holistic Marxist utopia. I know more thanenough, therefore, about efforts of this kind.

This does not relieve me, however, of theresponsibility to think of ways to make the worldbetter.

It will certainly not be easy to awaken inpeople a new sense of responsibility for theworld, an ability to conduct themselves as if theywere to live on this earth forever and to be heldanswerable for its condition one day.

There is one great opportunity in thematter of co-existence between nations and spheresof civilizations, culture and religion that shouldbe grasped and exploited to the limit. This is theappearance of supranational or regionalcommunities. By now, there are many suchcommunities in the world, with diversecharacteristics and differing degrees ofintegration.

I believe in this approach. I believe in theimportance of organisms that lie somewhere betweennation states and a world community, organismsthat can be an important medium of globalcommunication and cooperation. I believe that thistrend towards integration in a world where--asI've said--every valley longs for independence,must be given the greatest possible support.

These organisms, however, must not be anexpression of integration merely for the sake ofintegration. They must be one of the manyinstruments enabling each region, each nation, tobe both itself and capable of co-operation withothers. That is, they must be one of theinstruments enabling countries and peoples who areclose to each other geographically, ethnically,culturally and economically and who have commonsecurity interests, to form associations andbetter communicate with each other and with therest of the world.

Co-operation between such regions ought to be anatural component of co-operation on a world-widescale. As long as the broadening of NATOmembership to include countries who feelculturally and politically a part of the regionthe Alliance was created to defend is seen byRussia, for example, as an anti-Russian,undertaking, it will be a sign that Russia has notyet understood the challenge of this era.

The most important world organization is theUnited Nations. I think that the fiftiethanniversary of its birth could be an occasion toreflect on how to infuse it with a new ethos, anew strength and a new meaning, and make it thetruly most important arena of good co-operationamong all cultures that make up our planetarycivilization.

But neither the strengthening of regionalstructures nor the strengthening of the UN willsave the world if both processes are not informedby that renewed spiritual charge which I see asthe only hope that the human race will surviveanother millennium.

In conclusion, allow me a brief personalremark. I was born in Prague and I lived there fordecades without being allowed to study properly orvisit other countries. Nevertheless, my mothernever abandoned one of her secret and quiteextravagant dreams: that one day I would study atHarvard. Fate did not permit me to fulfill herdream.

But something else happened, something thatwould never have occurred even to my mother: Ihave received a doctoral degree at Harvard withouteven having to study here.

More than that, I have been given to seeSingapore and countless other exotic places. Ihave been given to understand how small this worldis and how it torments itself with countlessthings it need not torment itself with if peoplecould find within themselves a little morecourage, a little more hope, a little moreresponsibility, a little more mutual understandingand love.

I don't know whether my mother is looking downat me from heaven, but if she is I can guess whatshe's probably think: she's thinking that I'msticking my nose into matters that only people whohave properly studied political science at Harvardhave the right to stick their noses into.

I hope that you don't think so.

Thank you for your attention.

The transcript of this speech was providedby the Harvard News office. The speech wasdelivered as part of the afternoon Commencementexercise on June 8, 1995.Gabriel B. Eber