Out and About

Vaclav Havel and a Civil Society, April 26, 1999

The Social Action Committee of Hope Presbyterian Church, Mac-alester College, and the University of Saint Thomas have created the Vaclav Havel Civil Society Symposium, an organization to promote civil society throughout the world. Nothing could be more appropriate than to inaugurate the Symposium with an address by Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic.

The Macalester Field House was filled. Dignitaries—Governor Ventura and Mayor Norm Coleman, to name two—were present, as was the press. Although this reporter attended compliments of Sandra Johnson and The University of Saint Thomas, my place turned out, appropriately, to be in the Press Section. I have been reading articles by Havel in the New York Review of Books for years and I was excited to see one of my heroes.

A video created by Macalester students provided a prelude to the program. It took us through a sketch of Havel’s life and his efforts to confront a society of the total state. Following the video, bagpipers led the flag bearers followed by the academic procession, women garbed in colorful Czech clothing, and, finally, the guest of honor. Macalester’s President, Dr. McPherson, welcomed us and Dr. Miller of Hope Presbyterian introduced Havel. The audience responded with a long, loud, standing ovation.

Havel said that it takes more than freedom of speech, vital as that is, to create a civil society. A civil society, he said, is fragile and myster-ious, requires a growing self-confidence, cannot be created from above, and takes years to grow. He identified three pillars of a civil society. Free association—free in a very broad sense. An as-sociation has its own authentic purposes that are other than those of either business or the state. The state supports this openness because openness fosters stability. The purpose of a civil society is not profit but benefit for all. Strong Self-Government—elected local and national government in a decentralized state that educates its citizens and provides an environment of safety. Delegation of Function—that is, govern-ment delegates functions to other entities, like schools and hospitals, rather than monitoring all with military police.

"Dear Friends," he then observed, "you may think this is all self-evident. My purpose here is to help you understand the problems of other nations and where we are in this process. These pillars cannot be taken for granted, and state control can be reestablished."

Many elected officials in his country, he said, think of their election as a right to rule rather than to foster the values reflected above. It takes time and a different mindset to see that the aim is to share power rather than to end up with political professionals.

Havel’s speech created in me a renewed appreciation for life in the United States. I thought about Mike Groh’s work in the Balkans (Pietisten, Winter 1999) and the powers faced there by those who struggle for a civil society without much experience in creating and maintaining free, civil institutions. Even when I am frustrated with the Church or wonder whether particular churches are more negative than positive, I can see, in light of Havel’s remarks and Mike’s experience, how valuable the mere existence of churches is. They are places in which people gain experience in running things by participating in a voluntary, free association. This is a precious heritage, often taken for granted. I wonder what the Vaclav Havel Civil Society Symposium will be doing in the future. I think it is an important enterprise, one that demonstrates Havel’s vision.

— PJ

A Visit to Nantucket, August 20-21, 1999

The sometimes Copy Editor and I paid a visit to Nantucket Island the same day as Bill and Hillary Clinton. Unaware of the first family’s plan, we went with Sandy’s sister, Robbie, to pick up her daughter, Kristen, and son, David. Kristen worked the summer at Murray Camp and David joined her for the final week. The sun shone brightly as we crossed the ocean in the huge ferry, Nantucket. The mainland dropped over the horizon as we approached the home base of Ismael and Captain Ahab. We disembarked on the crowded wharf and waited for Kristen who soon arrived in the large, long, Murray Camp van. We marveled as she wheeled through the narrow, packed streets without mishap.

We learned that things were different because the President was in town with Hillary, who was to deliver an address. We passed a street blocked by the secret service and made our way to the home of our gracious hosts, Mary and Chuck Murray. It is never far to the beach on Nantucket. As you may know, the island is about 12-miles long and three-and-one-half-miles wide. It seems to be a place for wealthy people and those who serve them.

We went to The Fareway for dinner. Kristen, with Robbie, parked the van while the rest of us went past the outdoor bar into the restaurant. Suddenly, people were shouting. As I looked out, I saw a convoy of sport-utility vehicles, each with three or four aerials reaching for the sky. Moments later, Kristen breathlessly informed us that she had seen the President in one of the vehicles. She had called to and waved at him and he had waved back.

That evening, we encountered more signs of the President. As we parked, security people were closing a street. Later, driving to a beach we spotted men atop a widow’s watch, manning huge guns. We wondered, as son David snapped a photo of the guards and guns on the perch, if we might be in the center of the crosshairs of a high-powered rifle trained on us just in case.

How amazing, this security. What expense for every movement of the first family. Amazing, too, that they really can be protected. At what level of government does the protection stop?

Fortunately, we were without need of secret service and were free to leave the island the next day. With a two plus-hour crossing in the rain, we had left the strange, special life of Nantucket Island. I was glad I had been there and also happy to leave.