Cleaveland: Seeking common ground in politics

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photo Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Our nation's challenges are numerous, complex and without obvious solution. Whether in matters of security, public education, health care, environmental issues, poverty or immigration, our political leaders seem hopelessly divided. They resemble warriors atop steep ridges who stand on opposite sides of an uninhabited middle ground. Increasingly polarized media heighten their differences. Tweets replace detailed consideration of tough issues.

Vaclav Havel, the first president of a newly liberated Czechoslovakia, composed a series of essays, "Summer Meditations," while on holiday in 1991. The lead essay, "Politics, Morality and Civility," outlines his philosophy of politics and government and directly addresses our predicament. It should be required reading for elected and appointed officials at all levels of government.

He was born in 1936 into a prosperous family that lost everything and was viewed as an enemy of the state following the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. From early adulthood, Havel built a reputation as a poet, essayist and playwright. His dramatic works satirized life under a totalitarian regime. His essays addressed human rights and abuses of political power. Because of his active role in a growing anti-Communist coalition, his works were banned. He was prohibited from traveling abroad. He was repeatedly arrested. Because of his leadership in Charter 77, a human-rights organization, he was imprisoned from 1979 to 1983. He became the leading spokesman for opponents to the government.

In the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989, student and labor protests led to the fall of the Communist government. Havel played a prominent, behind-the-scenes role in negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict between protesters and government officials. Havel, to his surprise, was elected interim president of the newly independent nation. He had never sought political office. He was elected to a full term in July 1990. Opposed to the breakup of Czechoslovakia, he resigned his post in 1993 but was subsequently elected president of the Czech Republic in 1993 and narrowly re-elected in 1998. He promoted civil rights and a market economy. He led his nation into membership of NATO and the European Union.

Havel retired from government in 2003 and resumed writing memoir and drama. His home became a revered destination for world leaders. He died in 2011.

Three excerpts from the first essay follow:

* "As ridiculous or quixotic as it may sound these days, one thing seems certain to me; that it is my responsibility to emphasize, again and again, the moral origin of all genuine politics, to stress the significance of moral values and standards in all spheres of social life, including economics, and to explain that if we don't try, within ourselves, to discover or rediscover what I call 'higher responsibility,' things will turn our very badly indeed for our country."

* "Time and again I have been persuaded that a potential of goodwill is slumbering within our society. It's just that it's incoherent, suppressed, confused, crippled and perplexed - as though it does not know what to rely on, where to begin, where or how to find meaningful outlets."

* "Genuine politics - politics worthy of the name and the only politics I am willing to devote myself to - is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole"

Repeatedly, Havel emphasized the need to establish in politics "a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust."

Is such a transformation in our politics possible?

"Beyond the Shock of Freedom" is the concluding essay in "Summer Meditations." Havel's comments on culture, public education and health care are pertinent to our contentious debates on these topics. Private and public partnerships are the solutions he proposes to advance the public good. He always stressed addressing the needs of the less able members of society.

Havel used the term "apolitical politics" to describe his philosophy. The goals for politicians must always be outwardly directed toward the needs of present and future generations. Acquisition of wealth and power do not have a role in this concept of public service.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at ccleaveland@timesfreepress.com.