By Dr. Josef A. Mestenhauser

This is a complex question. It can be answered in terms of our own associations, such as Sokol, or the Czech and Slovak Cultural Center because part of the concept of the civil society does imply existence of many voluntary associations. And indeed we all cherish and practice the idea of voluntarism. At the same time it can be answered on several other levels of analysis. For example, is the US a civil society, or, as the globalization has caused many to argue, should we be striving to establish a global civil society. The “Arab Spring” is often used as example of this “trend” if indeed it is a trend. To Czechs and Slovak that analogy with the Prague Spring is music to our ears because it relates the “trend” to the former Czechoslovakia, the record of the dissidents in helping to evict the oppressive communist regime and the subsequent explosion of creation of voluntary associations. Vaclav Havel’s name is, of course, associated with the concept of the civil society, but to be more accurate, the term can be traced all the way back to the Greek heritage of our Western Society.

To us in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota the concept rings the bell because it was precisely Vaclav Havel who helped us start a Vaclav Havel Symposium for Civil Society, an annual event that features a well know personality, speaking over a period of several days to varied audiences at the University of St. Thomas, at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church, and at few open to public events. Although the structure of this Symposium does include the Czech and Slovak communities the principal funding comes from these two organizations. The Czech and Slovak communities are represented by the two Honorary Consuls of the Czech and Slovak Republics. Vaclav Havel was, of course, the first inaugural speaker, and still remembers his visit to Minnesota.

Most of us associate the term “civil society” with democracy, freedom of expression, civility in the conduct of public and private affairs, and in general with the ideals we all associate with a “good society” not only in this country but around the world. Why is it then that there are many people who are critical of this concept, and why the very President of the Czech Republic is skeptical about it on the ground that the proliferation of voluntary societies (he thinks they are “pressure groups”) interferes with the functioning of political parties? There are others who are more favorably predisposed to the idea of civil society, but still voice concern that our own society is gradually losing its civility.

I would like to ask our readers to stop for a moment and reflect on what the term means to them, how our associations fit into that conception, and how to work together to make it more meaningful, if we find some things missing in it.

I will contribute to this thinking in the next article in which I will attempt to explain and analyze the concept and its component parts to show its complexity and to suggest that having voluntary associations does not automatically create such a civil society. Then I will invite our members to attend the program of the next Vaclav Havel Symposium that will take place in October with a prominent speaker from the Twin Cities, Harry Boyte, a nationally and internationally recognized expert on this concept who knows how to make it work in practice.

Our members should be able to verify their own conceptions and to recognize the many opportunities we all have to make our entire communities and the country a civil society and how that effort might translate into a global pattern.