Hundreds of us gathered last Sunday night in Prague, to conjure the spirit of Vaclav Havel at the first Forum 2000 conference in 16 years that he wouldn’t attend himself. Olda Czerny, who faithfully served in Havel’s cabinet and ran these conferences, also died last year. We were feeling sad about all this when Jan Urban, the journalist who taught us how hard it is to “teach old cats to bark,” introduced a video of Havel onstage, carrying a guitar. Havel was joking that he wasn’t really a philosopher, playwright or politician, he was just a “guitar carrier,” a “roadie,” he said, for Joan Baez. When the lights came back on after this video, a luminous Joan Baez stepped onto the stage in person, and we sang “We Shall Overcome” together.

The next morning the Dalai Lama was there, in a video, exhorting that “we should feel more sense of responsibility” now that Havel is no longer on this earth. “His spirit we must carry.” He and Havel were essential allies. “Good things must start from one individual,” the Dalai Lama said. “Develop new ideas. We must implement.”

How can we channel Havel’s philosophy about how to promote human rights in difficult places?  People came from Burma, Venezuela, China, the Roma ghettoes of Romania, India, Egypt, Japan, Kenya, Morocco, Russia, Belarus and elsewhere to share their strategies and concerns about this. Hundreds of students also participated, asking penetrating questions.

“The still very rich western world got more deaf and blind than before,” said Czech foreign minister Karol Schwartzenberg, in the clearest voice I have ever heard him speak. But this only means we must work to open their eyes, he said. “The chances are bigger. In Burma, I saw the effect again…Use the power of the powerless. It works.” Madeleine Albright also offered hope and advice. “Modern technology has made it harder to conceal facts,” she said. “We need to use technology to educate, not to enflame.” My favorite Czech storyteller, Jiri Stransky, advised with Havel-like simplicity that we must “educate by telling stories.” Stransky, who served 10 years in communist prisons, including  6 1/2 years of hard labor in a uranium mine, said he was taught by the “best brains” of Czech society since they were there in prison with him. “I have a doctor of prison sciences,” he joked. Romanian Valeriu Nicolae showed a clip from the film he is making about his club for Roma children who want to learn how to read, write and do math.

The new supranational institutions, such as the European Union, make it “harder to demagogue,” and make nationalist appeals “less of a factor in harming the destiny of people,”
said Enrique ter Horst of Venezuela, former UN deputy high commissioner for human rights. While there was a spirit of grace and determination at this gathering of people who are working in the hardest places in the world, we also heard some urgent warnings. Ukrainian and Belarus opposition figures talked about how bad it is. A panel pondered “Is Hungary a Democracy” and had a difficult time concluding that it is. Chinese blogger Michael Anti said that Google should leave China because all the servers in the country are in Beijing, in the hands of the government. There are no independent servers, neutrally passing data through the networks. When Chinese people put emoticons on their Chinese knockoff social network pages and microblogs, the government is mining that information to learn their opinions and gauge public sentiments at all levels, he said. Not surprisingly, the best comments were from Havel himself, shared by his English translater Paul Wilson. Wilson said the Havel presidential library should have over its mantel, his simple summary of how they brought down Communism: “We did what we could, and that meant we could do more. So we did more.”

 

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