On Plurality and Remembering Vaclav Havel

On Plurality and Remembering Vaclav Havel December 21, 2018

Last weekend many members of the Atheist community took time out of their schedules to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Christopher Hitchens. ‘The Hitch’ was a firebrand, and as an orator he is a talent that is sadly missed in the ranks of the godless today. I’m going to write about the Czech Republic’s President Vaclav Havel though. He also died on this week in 2011, mere days after Atheism’s dearly departed 4th horseman (a fact my FaceBook memories reminded me of this morning).

Vaclav Havel, 2006 Image Credit: Jiří Jiroutek via Wikimedia Commons (CC-By-3.0)

Playright, Poet, President

I genuinely don’t understand how Vaclav Havel’s story hasn’t been made into a movie yet. The man was an absurdist playwright who went from being a starving artist to president of Czechoslovakia, and then the eventual president of the Czech Republic after overseeing Czechoslovakia’s split in a civil war so bloodless that no one even calls it a war. They call it ‘the Velvet Divorce’.

Seriously, docudramas have been made about Margret Thatcher that make her look sympathetic, but this guy can’t get a mini-series?

Havel’s Vision was one of Hope and Pluralism

Most Americans don’t care about the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic has the GPD of approximately Tennessee; Americans barely care about their own Tennessee. Which, if we are being honest, is probably why the above mentioned biopic about Margret Thatcher happened and one about Vaclav Havel has not. But Vaclav Havel helped to change the shape of the world in ways that were both elegant and prescient. Consider his situation. He found himself in a country that was tenuously held together under Soviet rule. When the Soviet Union went away, through basically ‘being thoughtful and good with words’ he managed to become the President of that entire country, helped form NATO, and was so not a power hungry jerk about the whole thing that when half the country said ‘y’know, we don’t really think we should be one country’ he said … ‘yeah ok, that makes sense, go do your own thing’.

This is because Vaclav Havel’s philosophy was one of belief in individuality and self-determination under the rule of law. He did not believe it was government’s job to compel behaviors, morals, or social norms that restrict the rights of other people to live their own lives however they see fit. In a commencement speech at Harvard University in 1995 Havel illuminated this pluralist view of humanity and how despite our disagreements we must, as a global civilization, come to understand that we are all interconnected and interdependent.

From: ”Radical Renewal of Human Responsibility”

“Many of the great problems we face today, as far as I understand them, have their origin in the fact that this global civilization, though in evidence everywhere, is no more than a thin veneer over the sum total of human awareness, if I may put it that way. This civilization is immensely fresh, young, new, and fragile, and the human spirit has accepted it with dizzying alacrity, without itself changing in any essential way. Humanity has gradually, and in very diverse ways, shaped our habits of mind, our relationship to the world, our models of behavior and the values we accept and recognize. In essence, this new, single epidermis of world civilization merely covers or conceals the immense variety of cultures, of peoples, of religious worlds, of historical traditions and historically formed attitudes, all of which in a sense lie “beneath” it. At the same time, even as the veneer of world civilization expands, this “underside” of humanity, this hidden dimension of it, demands more and more clearly to be heard and to be granted a right to life.”

I think the point Havel was getting at there is one that we see very clearly in our current politics. The technological advancements of our time promise unprecedented interconnection between people and cultures. This is a boon for industry and the sharing of knowledge. But along with the growth of this global community comes the merging of cultures, and with this merging comes international pressures to conform to different ways of doing things in the name of commercial interests or political expediency. Traditions and norms are the victims of such progress, but it is incumbent on those who believe in freedom of choice and association to respect traditions while embracing the interconnectedness of our destinies.

In America (and increasingly in other western nations) we most prominently see this conflict in the anti-globalist rhetoric of the isolationist right. This fearful ideology is rooted in the belief that a people must be dominant in the face of perceived scarcity. They say they must dominate politically because their traditional values are at risk; they say they must dominate economically because their jobs are at risk; they say this new and emerging world must be made in their image, because the alternative in one in which they fear their cherished traditions will be relegated to the dust-bin of history. Or as Havel said:

“And thus, while the world as a whole increasingly accepts the new habits of global civilization, another contradictory process is taking place: ancient traditions are reviving, different religions and cultures are awakening to new ways of being, seeking new room to exist, and struggling with growing fervor to realize what is unique to them and what makes them different from others. Ultimately they seek to give their individuality a political expression.”

This ‘contradictory process’, of course, comes with a very significant problem in that all non-dominant cultures, beliefs, or opinions then feel the need to retaliate in defense of their own self-expression. They are taught, by way of example, that the only route to autonomy is through shows of force wherever they are told to begrudging capitulate instead of embracing a path of mutual acceptance and cooperation. Rather than working on what we can do together, we fight about what others believe that we don’t. This in turn causes dominant cultures to feel threatened, and they try to quash the expressions of those who don’t believe as they do.

This does not strike me as tenable.

What does Any of this Have to do with Satanism?

Havel was, of course, talking about the political forces that have lead to the debates many nations are having today between globalism and isolationism. But in reflecting on the past year I’m struck by how applicable his thoughts are to the work that  The Satanic Temple (TST) has been doing in pursuit of religious liberty. Because dominionist theocrats seek to dominate peoples and cultures, media perception of TST has generally painted a narrative of Satanists ‘fighting against Christians’, but it’s more a case of them ‘fighting for pluralism’.

Deeper investigation into any of TST’s actions shows that their goal is one of inclusion, not usurpation. In TST-AZ’s lawsuit against Scottsdale they asked to be included at city council meetings; in Arkansas they ask for the Baphomet monument to be included alongside the 10 commandments, in Chicago and Michigan this Holiday season they include their displays, not challenge the existing ones. Again and again whenever theocrats try to say that TST is trying to ‘remove god from the public sphere’ their actions seem to be quite the opposite.

So, as we approach the new year I would ask everyone to reflect on the message of Vaclav Havel and consider that truly secular government is not the enemy of a pluralist culture. A truly secular government can celebrate our differences while championing our common causes, and that we should not seek to break the will of those with whom we disagree, but direct our wills toward allowing everyone to live as fully as they are able even though we may disagree. One last quote from Havel’s 1995 commencement speech:

“It is a challenge to this civilization to start understanding itself as a multi-cultural and a multi-polar civilization, whose meaning lies not in undermining the individuality of different spheres of culture and civilization but in allowing them to be more completely themselves. This will only be possible, even conceivable, if we all accept a basic code of mutual co-existence, a kind of common minimum we can all share, one that will enable us to go on living side by side. Yet such a code won’t stand a chance if it is merely the product of a few who then proceed to force it on the rest. It must be an expression of the authentic will of everyone, growing out of the genuine spiritual roots hidden beneath the skin of our common, global civilization.”

You can read the full text of Havel’s speech here.

About Jack Matirko
Jack Matirko is an activist, blogger, and podcaster focussing on issues of church and state separation. He runs Patheos' Satanic Blog For Infernal Use Only (patheos.com/blogs/infernal), co-hosts the Naked Diner Podcast (patreon.com/nakeddiner), and is a member of The Satanic Temple-Arizona Chapter. His opinions are his own. To contribute to his work please consider becoming a patron of his podcast. You can read more about the author here.
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