Tens of thousands of Czechs rallied in the streets of Prague April 21 to protest budget cuts, higher taxes and corruption -- the largest protest since the 1989 Velvet Revolution swept out communism. It made me think back to their courageous leader who died four months ago.
Vaclav Havel certainly had more courage than I did.
He went from a Communist jail in 1989 to the presidential palace at Prague Castle in a few days. But he had suffered for decades for resisting the Communist authorities' demand that he still his pen and shut his mouth.
When I visited Czechoslovakia in 1980, I was so scared of the secret police that I kept all my notebooks with me at all times. I wrote people's names and phone numbers in code. And I never took notes in public.
I was so afraid of burning my sources and leading the secret police to their doors that I never made contact with the dissident movement.
While sitting in an outdoor café in Prague with some friends of my father -- who was born in Czechoslovakia and fought with the Free Czechs in World War II -- I made the mistake of bringing out the New York Times. Our Czech friends turned grey and I was quickly told to put these forbidden publications away.
There were no armed troops on the street corners. The communists had found more effective ways to instill fear. If you criticize things, you'll never get an apartment, or a visa to go to France. Or your kids won't get into college.
In the small village outside Brno where my father was born, schoolteacher Edward Kalina was punished by the Party because he had refused to denounce the Charter 77, a list of demands for freedom and human rights issued by Havel and other dissidents. Kalina was no longer allowed to teach history -- only sports. And his children were barred from attending university.
Havel and the other dissidents fought this system with great courage. Frankly, I never believed they would win. Then, one day, thousands gathered in Wenceslas Square jangling their keys, shouting "Havel to the Castle," and communism collapsed.
When I finally met Havel in, 1995, he told me that as president he had to deal with the bureaucracy and no longer had the time to write poems in cafes or even attend his own play, The Memorandum, which opened that week off-Broadway in New York while he attended the U.N. General Assembly.
But Havel said he remained committed to his values and, "I still cherish them and
I have not abandoned any part of them."
Havel said it was an irony of history that when the Soviet tanks invaded in 1968 and crushed the "Socialism with a human face" movement or the Prague Spring, "all the reform-minded communists were expelled from the [Czechoslovak Communist] Party. They were replaced by what turned out to be the most conservative communist regime throughout the Soviet bloc, with virtually no room for modifications.
That is why, after communism was overthrown, we could start from scratch. Because our communist regime compromised itself so much that there was no real chance for post-communist forces or some sort of a reform or post-communist party to gain a major influence.
Havel said the free market had created winners and losers and for "part of the population, especially in the middle age, the decades of life under communism have deformed them in a certain way."
This is a matter that concerns the moral condition of the society. It is necessary to remedy that and . . . to help people to restore their sense of responsibility and the awareness of their dignity.
In 1991 Havel wrote Summer Meditations, which included a sort of mini-manifesto for an enlightened society:
"If today's planetary civilization has any hope of survival, that hope lies chiefly in what we understand as the human spirit," Havel wrote.
If we don't wish to destroy ourselves in national religious or political discord; if we if we don't wish to find our world with twice its current population, half of it dying of hunger; if we don't wish to kill ourselves with ballistic missiles armed with atomic warheads or eliminate ourselves with bacteria specially cultivated for the purpose; if we don't wish to see some people go desperately hungry while others throw tons of wheat into the ocean; if we don't wish to suffocate in the global greenhouse we are heating up for ourselves or to be burned by radiation leaking through holes we have made in the ozone; if we don't wish to exhaust the non-renewable, mineral resources of the planet, without which we cannot survive; if, in short, we don't wish any of this to happen, then we must -- as humanity, as people, as conscious beings with spirit, mind and a sense of responsibility - -somehow come to our senses.
I once called this coming to our senses an existential revolution. I meant a kind of general mobilization of human consciousness, of the human mind and spirit, human responsibility, human reason.
Czechoslovakia -- now two separate states -- can take great pride that it produced such a warrior of noble ideas and then crowned him with his nation's highest honor.