Democracy needs critical intellectuals. But can they be both office-holders and mirror-holders at the same time?by Timothy Garton-Ash / January 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
When president Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University last autumn, he devoted his acceptance speech to the subject of the intellectual and politics, explaining that Oxford is the home and workplace of an intellectual “with whom I have been debating the subject for years.” He was referring to Timothy Garton Ash. Here we print lightly edited passages from the speech, and a response to continue the debate.
Vaclav Havel: “It is my conviction that the world requires truly enlightened politicians who are broad-minded enough to consider those things which lie beyond the scope of their immediate influence… We need politicians who can rise above the horizon of their own power interests or of the interests of their parties or states and act in accordance with the interests of humanity.
“I hear the usual objection to this: a politician must be elected, and people vote for the person who thinks the way they do. So, a politician must, whether he likes it or not, be mainly an embodiment of the prevailing sentiment or of particular short-term interests. He cannot be a herald of unpopular truths or of something which may be in the interests of the future of humanity but which most of his electorate regard as a threat to their current pursuits.
“The true art of politics is the ability to win people’s support for a good cause even when the pursuit of that cause interferes with their interests at that moment… This must not, however, turn into an illusory search for future universal prosperity.
“It must be said that there are intellectuals who elevate themselves above all human beings… Let us remember how many intellectuals helped to create the various modern dictatorships. Indeed, almost none managed without their assistance or direct leadership…
“Intellectuals in politics should make their presence felt in one of two ways. They should either accept political office and use that position to do what they deem right, not just hold on to power. Or they should hold up a mirror to those in authority, to make sure that the latter do not begin to use fine words as a cloak for evil deeds.”
Timothy Garton Ash: I applaud Havel’s appeal for politicians capable of putting the long term before the short; of persuading public opinion rather than being swayed by the latest opinion poll; of leading…