Artists Running For Office? How About President?

Vaclav Havel waves to crowds in Prague, shortly before becoming Czech president in December 1989.

Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright, human rights activist and yes – politician – died on December 18. Beloved in his country for speaking passionately and eloquently to power, he was was elected to the post of interim president of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989, and he was reelected to the presidency in July 1990. He served again as President of the Czech Republic until 2003.  He was jailed and his plays banned yet he continued to create and speak out and serve as a moral “North Star” for his nation.

Prime Minister David Cameron said. “Havel devoted his life to the cause of human freedom. For years, communism tried to crush him, and to extinguish his voice. But Havel, the playwright and the dissident, could not be silenced. No-one of my generation will ever forget those powerful scenes from Wenceslas Square two decades ago. Havel led the Czech people out of tyranny. And he helped bring freedom and democracy to our entire continent. Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt. Today his voice has fallen silent. But his example and the cause to which he devoted his life will live on.”

I’ve spent the past twenty years trying to make the case that artists can make great public leaders. I’ve tried to convince the people that control our arts schools and academies where creative professionals are trained to offer classes on public policy that connect the dots between the creative act and the health of the nation. I’ve tried to get the leaders of our professional societies to offer leadership training to their members. No sale.

And yet, Vaclav Havel, then the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, the playwright and former dissident who spent a number of years in his country’s jails for his words and work, said the following at a Joint Session of The United States Congress on February 21, 1990:

 “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and In human responsibility… If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative mediated to me by my conscience, I can’t go far wrong….

This is why I ultimately decided ‑‑ after resisting for a long time ‑‑ to accept the burden of political responsibility. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, intellectual to do this…If the Hope of the world lies in human consciousness, then it is obvious that intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distaste for politics under an alleged need to be independent….

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘Governments are instituted among Men deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed,’ it was a simple and important act of the human spirit.  What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that author backed it up with his life. It was not just the words, it was his deeds as well.”

How ironic that the artist who held the highest post of his country spoke to OUR Congress about the civic duties of the public intellectual and cited Thomas Jefferson as an inspiration!

Where are America’s public intellectuals? When will they stop avoiding their “share of responsibility” and add strong public deeds to the wise professional words they love to proclaim and publish? Here’s a first step – Join and help organize for CForward.

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