Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered remarks at Aspen Central Europe’s Annual Conference and Gala on November 22, 2018 in Prague, Czech Republic. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.
Words and Deeds
Remarks at Aspen Central Europe’s Annual Conference
Thank you, Ivan, thank you, Jiri, and thank you to your terrific team at Aspen Central Europe for hosting this important conference—and a special thank you to Zuzana Reznickova from Economia Media House and my friend Michael Žantovský.
I am excited to be on my first international trip since joining the Aspen Institute in the United States as President and CEO.
It seems only fitting that I would visit Prague first, as the Aspen Institute’s Board has so many Czech roots: Leonard Lauder, Fred Malek, and, of course, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—whose new book is called Fascism: A Warning.
Leonard, Fred, and Secretary Albright helped plant the seeds of Aspen Institute Prague that you have nurtured into the strong Institute that Aspen Central Europe is today. It is a great pleasure to meet you and see in person what has been accomplished.
I would like to take a moment to talk about what binds the Aspen Institute’s network of international partners together:
The Aspen Institute stands for the promise of well-ordered communities in which the civil society functions as a crossroads where left and right meet center;
where science and social science meet humanism;
where the public and private sectors meet civil society;
where tradition and disruption meet progress;
and where idealism and realism meet aspiration.
We support the great organs of a working democracy—like the vote and the free press and the independent judiciary and private industry.
And we believe in the idea of human dignity—the twin notions that every single person all across the world has equal value … and that no one is more human than anyone else … and thus, despite the differences of culture, we should all share in the core political and social freedoms.
Given our commitment to sustain these commitments, Aspen Central Europe is of central importance.
We value greatly your effective collaboration to frame and solve problems. I am very impressed with the inclusive array of speakers and the critical topics being addressed today—from competitiveness to governance and from education to security to quality of life. I look forward to learning from your discussions and all the good ideas this conference will put forward to make a positive social impact.
Let me close my welcome remarks by saying that, in my country, “impact” has become a very important concept. Allow me to say why.
As you know, we in America have witnessed there—and perhaps elsewhere—the recent rise of political polarization, shameless expressions of intolerance, attacks on democratic principles, and the stubborn denial of facts. It is terrible to see that some in my country believe that it is justifiable to demonize one’s opponents, stoke the fires of racial, ethnic, and religious resentment, and blame vulnerable populations for problems they did not cause. It is not.
History has witnessed such political misbehavior before—and one lesson of history, as Secretary Albright has written, is that, when they can, bullies will play on peoples’ fears and seek to concentrate power in their own hands. They will try to rewrite law so that it serves their own authoritarian impulses and interests. If they succeed, they move from being bullies to being dictators.
This process is not inevitable, but neither is progress.
We believe, for America, that the best way to prevent the slide to authoritarian government is to understand and address society’s genuine problems and create practical solutions—practical impacts—while also promoting the core values and principles of democratic society—and the people who uphold them.
In the United States, this is the Aspen Institute’s calling—to promote leadership and civil dialogue in ways that support democracy and at the same time to solve practical problems in the economy, in education, in technology. Our dialogue must lead to action—and our action to impact. We need both words and deeds.
By acting upon a non-partisan agenda that addresses real peoples’ needs while at the same time speaking up for democratic values and practices, we can be a voice of conscience in America, a voice of moral imagination. Again, words and deeds.
As we try to do that, consistent with the values of the Aspen Institute’s founding 70 years ago, you can be sure that we will take inspiration from your words and deeds here, today, and from the words and deeds of the Velvet Revolution and the Gentle Revolution, and leaders like Vaclav Havel in your part of the world and Madeleine Albright in mine.
Thank you for your vital work and the hope it brings.
Hearing the Call of President Vaclav Havel
Remarks at Aspen Central Europe’s Annual Gala
Thank you again, Ivan, for hosting me this evening, and thank you to Michael Žantovský for the invitation. It’s wonderful to be with you and to have the opportunity to listen to the words of the distinguished Yale Professor Timothy Snyder, who always uses knowledge, reason, and research to support our common humanity.
I bring greetings from all at the Aspen Institute, especially the great Leonard Lauder, Fred Malik, and Madeleine Albright, our deeply revered former Secretary of State and daughter of the Czech Republic.
I am honored to be here during the centennial of freedom, independence, and democracy in central Europe at the end of World War I—an anniversary that reminds us of the transatlantic exchange of ideas and opportunity that remain as two of the core pillars of the international system. The strong bonds and cooperation between the Aspen Institute in the United States and the seven European Aspen Institutes contribute in no small part to the vitality of this transatlantic relationship.
Today’s conference reflected so well the Aspen Institute’s methodology: broadly drawing from the experience and lessons of the past, but firmly focused on the present and the future … creating the ideas and actions, the words and deeds, that will address real peoples’ problems and improve the quality of life and freedom for all.
This conference demonstrates the catalytic potential of a regional Aspen. In a part of Europe that had been afflicted by nationalistic conflicts in the past, the importance of international cooperation and trans-border understanding could not be more clear.
This Central European Aspen emphasizes so effectively the methodology that enacts Aspen Institute values. I was inspired to hear the exchange of ideas today that are fundamentally about how we create and sustain in this era the fair, good, and just society that allows all members to flourish, develop their talents, and share responsibility and power. In my country, our great hero and thinker Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called this the “beloved community.”
These ideas are under some pressure all around the world as many countries, including my own, debate and discuss questions like: Who is a citizen? What is the role of a free press? How do we include democratic principles at every level of government?
And, what will it take for the global community of nations and peoples to address some of our shared challenges like climate change, economic disruptions caused by technology, and the rise in the divisive politics of resentment?
As I mentioned this morning, the Aspen Institute is an ideal place to take on these difficult questions because we bring together all parties—business, government, academics, journalists, civil society, and others—for a common purpose: to frame real problems thoughtfully, to find solutions, and to bring those solutions to life.
As part of this commitment to build this social space, Aspen Central Europe is of great importance—both because of the historical courage of Central Europeans, and because of your ability to imagine and keep alive the flames of freedom even in the once-seemingly endless night of tyranny.
Aspen Central Europe is central to the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Idea for another reason—because some of the writers and thinkers of this part of the world developed ideas while struggling within the vice of the Soviet system that speak to the greatest yearnings for freedom in the human spirit.
Growing into my adulthood in America in the 1980s, for example, I was educated and awakened by the writings of Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, grounded in their Czech life stories while also speaking truth to power and cultures all across the globe.
It was Kundera whose incredible novel The Joke helped me to see in human and cultural terms the pain and loss that occurred when the state bureaucracy tried to mandate a people’s culture on small communities that had lived and created their own beautiful cultures for centuries.
And it was Havel who inspired friends of freedom everywhere by describing with such insight and empathy the “power of the powerless” to create and negotiate small spaces of liberty and resistance that chipped away morally and practically at oppression.
Havel’s masterwork Letters to Olga taught a generation of people in my country that it is possible for the lone individual voice of a political prisoner to subvert the moronic logic of censorship by writing in coded language and with a humanist’s soul.
The idea that the author of Letters to Olga would go from prison to the presidency was absolutely mind-blowing to people like me wondering how any individual, perhaps acting alone, can make a difference.
Well, Havel wasn’t acting alone. He had with him the power of the powerless. And he brought that power with him in 1990 when he spoke to a joint session of the United States Congress in a historic speech on the same moral plane as Nelson Mandela’s four months later to that same body.
President Havel’s speech was actually read by our friend and colleague here tonight, Michael Žantovský.
At the time that President Havel spoke, many in the Congressional chamber believed they were seeing and hearing what amounted to the history’s final rebuke of the Soviet system. And they were.
Yes, he expressed gratitude to America for its support of freedom. But his other message was a warning. Some of the Americans may have been too arrogant to hear that.
Having joined the people to make freedom real again in Central Europe, Havel also knew that if the West perceived itself as winners of the Cold War—triumphant, exceptional, and vindicated—our global order would become imbalanced.
President Havel predicted a condition whose signals are even stronger today than when he came to Congress 30 years ago, saying, and I quote:
“Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed—be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable … Interests of all kinds—personal, selfish, state, nation, group, and, if you like, company interests—still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests. We are still under the sway of the destructive and vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation and not just a part of it and that therefore everything is permitted.”
This was a call from one of our era’s greatest political philosophers—a warning not for one time, but for all time.
Aspen Central Europe is central to the global idea of the Aspen Institute because the history, people, and thinkers of this region have an honest view of the mingled yarn of the human condition—good and evil together—and the way that yarn can be woven, for good or ill, into political power.
Your history, your courage, your values, and your example here in Prague and here in Central Europe make an indelible contribution to the cause of human freedom around the world. Thank you.