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  • The Emperor has no Clothes
  • Václav Havel (bio)

During my first presidential visit to the United States more than fifteen years ago, I received an important gift here in Washington, on behalf of my country. It was the original manuscript of the Czechoslovakian Declaration of Independence from the year 1918. This rare and valuable document had, until 1990, been the property of the Library of Congress. It was hand-written in Czech by our first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who deserves a great deal of the credit for the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia and who, when he was in exile in the United States, worked closely with President Woodrow Wilson. It is highly likely that, in writing this Declaration, Masaryk was inspired by the American Declaration of Independence.

There are several such documents in modern history that have had a significance similar to that enjoyed to this day by the American Declaration of Independence. I need only mention, for instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted after World War II by the United Nations, or the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference in 1975. These documents are so much more successful for having been written in simple, clear, eloquent language, if only because that makes it easier for school children to learn them and take them to heart, so that they become a permanent part of their civic understanding and their system of values.

Along with the precision and the elegance of such basic documents, of [End Page 5] course, there is one other thing that plays an immensely important role: There must be people who are willing, as they say, to "put themselves on the line" for these documents. These declarations must be taken seriously; their general principles must be made specific; they must be made genuinely binding; and their fulfillment must be a tangible thing.

Unfortunately, there are regimes or governments in the world who make a great show of flaunting these papers, yet clearly do not take them seriously. For such regimes, these declarations are merely one of the loftier aspects of a formal ritual that has a single purpose: to disguise a miserable reality. Their function is similar to the function of many celebrations, flag-waving parades, demonstrations, or celebratory proclamations or speeches: not to reveal truth, but to hide it.

What may rightly and properly be done about it?

Certainly, such manipulation with words, texts, declarations, constitutions, or laws should not be met with merely private ridicule or resistance. There is another way, one that is riskier, yet more productive. It may not be universally applicable, but it has proven effective in most cases, especially in the modern world with its unprecedented concentrations of power and the unprecedented influence of falsely used words. That way consists in a persistent effort to take those who invoke those declarations at their word, and to demand that their words amount to more than hollow sound. Such an approach usually provokes great astonishment and anger in rulers who are used to no one taking them at their word, and to no one having the courage to appeal to the real meaning of their words. But that is only to be expected.

This is precisely what we did during the era of dissident resistance to communist totalitarian power. We took our country's constitution, its laws, and its international treaties—and among them, chiefly the Final Act of the Helsinki Agreement—very seriously, and we began to demand that the government respect them. That was how not only Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia did it, but also Solidarity in Poland, the Helsinki Committees in the Soviet Union, and opposition groups in the other communist countries. Those in power were surprised and caught off guard, and it was hard for them to justify the persecution of those who demanded nothing more than that the authorities respect the rules that they themselves had set. And so a mere appeal to truth began to win out over the police and the army. [End Page 6]

I am convinced that we must support in every possible way people who stand up to dictatorial regimes by taking them at their word and drawing...


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