Sat, Dec 24, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The power of living in truth

As the battle of truth against greed is played out all over the world today, people can not only find support in protections for speech and assembly, but also in the enduring inspiration of Vaclav Havel’s life in truth

By Jeffrey Sachs

Illustration: Tania C.

The world’s greatest shortage is not of oil, clean water, or food, but of moral leadership. With a commitment to truth — scientific, ethical and personal — a society can overcome the many crises of poverty, disease, hunger and instability that confront us. Yet power abhors truth and battles it relentlessly. So let us pause to express gratitude to Former Czech president Vaclav Havel, who died this month, for enabling a generation to gain the chance to live in truth.

Havel was a pivotal leader of the revolutionary movements that culminated in freedom in Eastern Europe and the end, 20 years ago this month, of the Soviet Union. Havel’s plays, essays and letters described the moral struggle of living honestly under Eastern Europe’s communist dictatorships. He risked everything to live in truth, as he called it — honest to himself and heroically honest to the authoritarian power that repressed his society and crushed the freedoms of hundreds of millions.

He paid dearly for this choice, spending several years in prison and many more under surveillance, harassment and censorship of his writings. Yet the glow of truth spread. Havel gave hope, courage and even fearlessness to a generation of his compatriots. When the web of lies collapsed in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks poured into the streets to proclaim their freedom — and to sweep the banished and jailed playwright into Prague Castle as Czechoslovakia’s newly elected president.

I personally witnessed the power of living in truth in that year, when the leadership of Poland’s Solidarity movement asked me to help Poland with its transition to democracy and a market economy — part of what the Poles called their “return to Europe.” I met and was profoundly inspired by many in the region who, like Havel, lived in truth: Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Bronislaw Geremek, Gregorsz Lindenberg, Jan Smolar, Irena Grosfeld and, of course, Lech Walesa. These brave men and women, and those like Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Leszek Balcerowicz, who led Poland during its first steps in freedom, succeeded through their combination of courage, intellect and integrity.

The power of truth-telling that year created a dazzling sense of possibility, for it proved the undoing of one of history’s most recalcitrant hegemonies: soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Michnik, like Havel, radiated the joy of fearless truth. I asked him in July, 1989, as Poland’s communist regime was already unraveling, when freedom would reach Prague.

“By the end of the year,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I was just with Havel in the mountains last week,” he said. “Have no fear. Freedom is on the way.”

His forecast was correct, of course, with a month to spare.

Just as lies and corruption are contagious, so, too, moral truth and bravery spreads from one champion to another. Havel and Michnik could succeed, in part, because of the miracle of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who emerged from a poisoned system, yet who valued truth above force. And Gorbachev could triumph in part because of the sheer power of honesty of his countryman, Andrei Sakharov, the great and fearless nuclear physicist who also risked all to speak truth in the very heart of the former Soviet empire — and who paid for it with years of internal exile.

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