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World Youth Alliance
A global coalition of young people and youth organizations promoting the dignity of the human person and the culture of life at the international level.

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Looking Back Fifteen Years: Human Dignity and the Collapse of Communism

Is the human person an object which can be used and discarded at will, or a being with inviolable dignity? This question links the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with the birth of the World Youth Alliance ten years later.

1989: The Fall of the Berlin Wall


[Editor's Note: For background on Anna Halpine and the World Youth Alliance, see this magazine profile.]

Fifteen years ago last month the Berlin wall came down. This wall marked both the real and the symbolic divide between East and West in Europe; the divide between societies built upon the freedom of the person and societies structured in opposition to that freedom. At the time, I was a small child. But this event, and the events which preceded it have marked my life in significant ways.

In 1999 I was at a conference on Population and Development in New York, at the United Nations. Thirty-two young people were brought in to the negotiations and given the floor. They stated that they represented all 3 billion of the world's youth, and demanded the following: abortion as a human right, sexual rights for children and a deletion of parent's rights. They refused, at a conference convened to discuss the needs of the world's people, to discuss access to clean water, sanitation, education, shelter etc. I realized that these youth did not represent me, and that there were millions of other young people in the world whose voice was not being heard. As a reaction of conscience, I went, with a few others, back into the assembly the next morning and distributed pink flyers which stated this. We were received by the delegates with joy and were told that we must have a permanent presence at the United Nations, and that we must come to their countries and work with their young people. This was the beginning of the World Youth Alliance.

They demanded the following: abortion as a human right, sexual rights for children and a deletion of parent’s rights.
A year later, we returned to the United Nations for Beijing +5, a global conference on women. At this conference I continued to try to understand why the agenda was so narrow, what the reason for such actions could be, and what the underlying vision of both the UN and many member states must be. At one point, the United States delegation offered a short oral proposal. The proposal was this: "Human rights grant human dignity". This proposal reverses the human rights tradition that the United Nations and all human rights are now based on. Up until now, there has been no dispute that the dignity of the person is the basis for human rights. Reversing this language threatens the whole human rights project since it places the definition of the person in the hands of the state. The proposal was rejected, but in that moment I was able to see that the debate at the UN is fundamentally a debate about the human person. Do we, as a global community, see the human person as an object which can be used and discarded at will, or do we see the human person as a being with inviolable dignity, which stands at the center of everything that we do?

It was at this time that the link between what we are doing at the World Youth Alliance and what was happening behind the Iron Curtain before 1989 started to become clear. Vaclav Havel, in his extraordinary essay The Power of the Powerless, talks about the aims of the resistance movements in then Czechoslovakia and Poland. They were not movements which were motivated politically; rather, they were motivated in order to begin to reclaim their dignity as individuals living for and within the truth. The fact that living in the truth had such severe consequences for the Communist regime was secondary to the principles which animated these individual actions. Political action came later, out of a renewed social awareness and culture which recognized and nurtured the truth about the human person. Havel takes great pains to clarify that the authentic dissident movements, and the authentic expressions of renewal which came out of them were simply the result of many small efforts of individual people who decided each and every day to live the truth in themselves and to live that truth in the world around them. Because of this, the political consequences came later, and came out of organic sources rather than an initial strategic plan. Havel puts it this way: "These movements, therefore, always affect the power structure as such indirectly, as a part of society as a whole, for they are primarily addressing the hidden spheres of society, since it is not a matter of confronting the regime on the level of actual power." (Havel, The Power of the Powerless, Palach press, 1985 p.83) Havel, the Chartists and Solidarity all understood this clear and primary force of culture as lived out in individuals and communities as the most powerful force available to them, and ultimately for the shaping of societies and nations.

The debate at the UN is fundamentally a debate about the human person.
In 1991 Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the world entitled Centesimus Annus. In it, the Pope reflects on the collapse of Communism in central and eastern Europe, and comments on what he sees has happened. At the very beginning, in paragraph 13, the Pope makes a critical statement. Communism, he says, collapsed not for political or economic failure, but because it was based on a lie about the human person. This statement cuts to the heart of modern personal and social failure. It recognizes the necessity of affirming and safeguarding all human life as the cornerstone of free and just societies. It recognizes the great need of modern societies to articulate and understand the human person. When we answer this question correctly, we have the tools needed to build our communities. When we don't, we have seen the many varied ways in which projects, institutions and nations break apart.

In Vienna in 1946 Viktor Frankl published a small book now titled Man's Search for Meaning. It chronicles his experience in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, and in it Frankl makes two key points. He states that man is free. Man can be shackled and chained, as at Auschwitz, yet retain his freedom. He speaks of the men who, at risk to their lives saved a crust of bread for another prisoner, and he says this is freedom. He speaks also of the guards, who did the same. Frankl also says that in order to survive man needs one thing; meaning and purpose to his life. He speaks of reminding the prisoners of what this could be; remembering their wives, their children, who might somehow have survived, reminding them of the book that only they can write. And he says that from the moment a man gave up meaning and purpose in his life, Frankl knew he would be dead within 72 hours. Meaning and purpose were more important in sustaining life in Auschwitz than food, medical care or other basic needs.

Jaques Maritain, another European of the same generation worked with UNESCO as an expert advisor during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain wrote a famous essay outlining his response to the declaration in which he stated worked through the primary struggles at the heart of the document. How could men of mutually opposing beliefs come to agreement on a set of rights? Maritain relates an incident from a meeting at UNESCO to discuss the declaration. ". . . someone was astonished that certain proponents of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on the draft of a list of rights. Yes, they replied, we agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the "why", the dispute begins." (Maritain, Man and the State, Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 1998. p. 77) Maritain concluded with his own remarks: "Since the aim of UNESCO is a practical aim, agreement among its members can be spontaneously achieved, not on common speculative notions, but on common practical notions, not on the affirmation of the same conception of the world, man, and knowledge, but on the affirmation of the same set of convictions concerning action. This is doubtless very little, it is the last refuge of intellectual agreement among men. It is, however, enough to undertake a great work; and it would mean a great deal to become aware of this body of common practical convictions." (Ibid, pp 77-78)

Communism, Pope John Paul II says, collapsed not for political or economic failure, but because it was based on a lie about the human person.
This question of the why remains the area in which new developments and discussions continue to be held, and this question of the why is the continuous question of 'who is man'? Is man an entity to which the state grants rights and the protection of those rights, or is man a being with intrinsic dignity, already in possession of those rights, which must simply be recognized and respected by the state? This question, which was at the heart of the debate of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was at the heart of the dissident and resistance movements under Communism continues to be at the heart of all major debates at the United Nations and in each of our nation states. How we answer this question will determine the direction of both our policy and our culture, and ultimately the vision of humanity which we will place upon the world today and for the next generation. Most clearly, however, this question must first be decided in the hearts of individual people who then make a commitment to live in a manner expressive of these convictions. From here, these ideas will take root and flourish in the culture, and only from there can we legitimately and effectively hope to impact policy and the debates of the state.

In affirming this, it is clear to me that great claims are being made not only about who the human person is, but on the relationship that this question has to the kind of societies we build. In particular, the claim that ideas and culture are ultimately the key shapers of the foundation of our societies seems to be a particularly foreign idea, at least in the areas of policy and education that I have experienced. What has struck me about this is the natural way in which culture asserts this claim. I have indicated the great movements of central and eastern Europe. We can see this in the way that universities, entertainment and the arts continue to change lives and impact the culture. Looking at the great questions confronting the world today we can see the impact that ideas, cultural institutions and academia have had on those discussions.

Meaning and purpose were more important in sustaining life in Auschwitz than food, medical care or other basic needs.
My background is as a musician; I studied piano throughout University and spent the greater part of my teens and early twenties studying the theory, history, and pieces of the classical music repertoire. I was fascinated by the individuals that I encountered, and in love with the music that I was playing. As a musician, I was engaged in an area where most of my other peers had genuine disinterest or total apathy in political questions. While I maintained a cursory interest in politics, I too, was focused first and foremost on the appreciation and understanding of art and music. Despite this, there were two figures who stand out in my mind; one from Poland and the other from Russia; the great Polish pianist and diplomat Paderewski, and the the Russian composer Shostakovich. These men, and others, have helped me to understand the very direct link that exists between beauty, the transcendent, and the truth about what it is to be truly human.

Paderewski placed his art at the service of his country, even while serving at the highest elected office. His art was used to uplift the crowds, and buy time for the resistance movements to meet in the green room during his performance. Art and policy existed side by side.

Shostakovitch lived more recently, under the Communist regime in Russia until his death in 1975. For many years of his life, Shostakovitch lived and worked with his suitcase packed and ready at the door. He never knew when his music would bring him accolades from the state or immediate deportation. Although constantly invited to serve as a state composer and follow direct rules for his art, Shostakovitch chose to freely compose and express himself and his art as authentically as he was able.

There are others; the writers, painters, poets, musicians, philosophers and many other great men and women of courage who pursued their thoughts and ideas despite the great risk it brought to their lives. This is what Havel calls living in truth, and this is what the Communists understood so correctly as posing the greatest threat to their society of lies. What is amazing is the clarity with which the Communist and other totalitarian regimes recognize the power of beauty, truth and culture to topple seemingly impregnable tyrannies—dictatorships which are backed up by armies, spy systems and a systematic and repressive violence quake with fear before a poem, a play, a symphony and short story. The power of truth is most powerful to those who are actively spinning lies.

Human cloning, abortion, HIV/AIDS and the ways which we distribute foreign aid are all symptoms of a flawed understanding of the human person.
In our work at the World Youth Alliance, the examples of Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 have been a constant inspiration. There was the great injection of hope at the election of Pope John Paul II, who started his pontificate with the words "Be not afraid!" and then took that message straight into Poland. There was the work of Vaclav Havel, and the other members of Charter 77, who articulated the possibilities inherent in the reality that "the center of power is identical to the center of truth." (Havel, The Power of the Powerless, 25) There were the great activities and unsung heroes of the underground, led in each country primarily by the intellectuals, the poets, the writers and the mystics. There were the ex-patriots, writing and suffering in solidarity, who were honestly and searchingly describing the interior struggles of individuals and movements; Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate comes to mind. In all of this there was sustained vibrancy, a life lived with purpose and intent, and a culture that recognized the choices in front of it.

The ideas and principles which animated the resistance movements under Communism remain in many ways the same ideas and principles still needed in the world. On a global scale the dignity of the person is being threatened in real ways. Human cloning, abortion, HIV/AIDS and the ways which we distribute foreign aid are all symptoms of a flawed understanding of the human person. Our work has involved participation at international conferences, discussion and dialogues with Ambassadors, diplomats, heads of State and young people. What we have seen is the global response of the young people and those placed already in positions of influence in government, policy and culture to the ideas which we are proposing. There is an embrace of the dignity of the person, and of the need to experience this on our own and restore it to the culture. What we are witnessing is a new cultural transformation among a generation of youth, who are being inspired and equipped with the tools necessary to propose a new vision of the person to the world. As before, it is the best and brightest who are rising to this challenge, and who are stepping forward to be the lights in a generation and for the whole culture.

The achievements of the resistance movements remain a sure guide and inspiration for us. These movements understood the power of truth; the power of culture; and the power of working together for a common aim. The leadership of these movements confronted reality, shared their vision with the people and trusted that the force of their vision, grounded in the reality of truth, would sustain them in adversity and ultimately free them from the lies enmeshed in the culture. Beyond that, their actions and courage eventually toppled one of the most powerful and evil empires in the world. The lasting legacy that these leaders leave the world is that of a new generation, inspired by their thoughts and actions and willing to take up the challenge to build a world worthy of those people who dwell within it.

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December 15, 2004

ANNA HALPINE is President of the World Youth Alliance.

This speech was given at a conference on Human Dignity and Totalitarianism, in Vienna, Austria, on November 6th, 2004.

Copyright 2004, Anna Halpine. All rights reserved.

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12.20.04   Godspy says:
Is the human person an object which can be used and discarded at will, or a being with inviolable dignity? This question links the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with the birth of the World Youth Alliance ten years later.

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