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Havel's Hope Was Never A Dirty Word

On Sunday morning, the former (and first democratically elected) president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, died at his weekend home in the northern countryside of the Czech Republic.

While my condolences go out to his family, friends, and the entire population of his homeland, I can't help but selfishly think of the implications such a passing holds for my own U.S. citizenry as well, as we make final preparations before beginning this 11-month slog towards election day 2012. While Havel wore many hats during his 75 years of life -- poet, playwright, politician, etc. -- it was his deep understanding of the true meaning of "hope" that our country needs a lesson in at this moment.

Whether Senator Obama was sincere in his positive pledge of "hope and change" in 2008 or if the Republican establishment believes their own venomous dismissal of that "hopesy-changey stuff" they have been railing against since 2008 is not for me to say. However, in light of Havel's passing, I think that someone must stand up and defend "hope;" the kind of hope Havel carried within himself and spoke so openly and articulately about throughout his time as a resister to the communist party, political prisoner, and eventually as leader of a free and democratic Czechoslovakia.

Over the last four years, many in the GOP have made the derision of "hope" standard inclusion in all stump speeches and every media opportunity. Since 2010 Republican mockery can only be matched for pace by the speed at which Democrats seem to be running away from the term. Lest they be perceived as actually believing in this "hope" stuff.

For Havel, "hope" was never a dirty word. As he once said in a series of clandestine letters between a securely iron-curtained Prague and a free West Germany (packaged together in the book Disturbing The Peace):

...[T]he kind of hope I often think about...[is] a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation...Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit...

If Senator Obama's hope was some sort of attempt at prognostication, then Republicans are right to belittle this false promise. However, if the Senator's "hope" was the same as Havel's, then the mockery of this orientation at the hands of Republicans is nothing less than an assault on the best in the human spirit itself.

Though I was not personally there in November of 2008, I can still hear the chants in Grant Park of "Yes we can, yes we can..." Millions had rallied around the ideas of the Obama campaign that were generally distilled among the masses as "hope and change" -- and they elected the man tied to this distillation into the highest office in the land. In the two and a half months between election night and inauguration day that chant somehow shifted in our minds from "Yes we can" to "Yes you can." The masses rallied around this man that we believed could usher in a new day for America. But there is a critically important difference between believing in "we" and believing in "you." As a newly elected Havel said in a 1990 New Years Day address to his country:

Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world...the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them only. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.

Us all.


Not just "you" -- no matter how post-partisan, post-racial, post-modern, or larger-than-life that "you" might be.

For however disillusioned or disappointed Democrats may be in the "hope and change" they expected over the first three years of an Obama presidency -- I think that this mental transition from "Yes we can" to "Yes you can" is a critical hinge point. In light of such desertion by the "we," it hardly seems fair to lay the blame so squarely on the "hope."

As Scott London surmised in his report for the The Harwood Institute on public innovation "...[H]ope is not just something you wake up with in the morning. It is a personal choice, a commitment you have to make and remake everyday -- to yourself, to others, and to the community as a whole."

Hope takes work.

Hope takes commitment.

Hope takes "we."

If Obama's "hope" in '08 was cheap and easy, then there is no excuse to be made for such a campaign stunt three years back. Republicans are right to ridicule and Democrats cannot be blamed for distancing themselves from such fuzzy, feel-good language. However, if Obama and Havel shared the same "hope," then much of the frustration and ridicule most probably belongs on an abdicated "we," rather than an unfulfilled "hope."

With this Havelian (if that is a word) understanding of "hope" I urge Democrats and Republicans alike to fully embrace and pursue that "hopesy-changey stuff" with unrelenting fervor. There is a long campaign trail before us -- with the even tougher task of governing awaiting on the other side. As the months drag on, I think we'll all be served to remember Havel's insistence regarding this entire exercise in democracy: that "...politics can be not only the art of the possible...but it can even be the art of the impossible, namely, the art of improving ourselves and the world."

...Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out...It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now" (Disturbing The Peace).

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