Tuesday, December 28, 2004

SueAndNotU Hall of Fame: Vaclav Havel

For the crust presented by the life of lies is made of strange stuff. As long as it seals off hermetically the entire society, it appears to be made of stone. But the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, "The emporer is naked!" - when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game - everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.
--From The Power of the Powerless

I've been treating myself to Vaclav Havel over this break. And it's got me contemplative and verbose. So consider yourself warned. I'm feeling slightly ashamed of my complete and consuming idolatry of the man (if I could invite three people from history to a dinner party, I'd probably invite 3 Vaclav Havels) because of his own embarassment over the dissident mantle. But this is not the assumed embarassment of polite humility, the affable "aw shucks, I'm just one man." To consider him with the romantic vision of a courageous, lone dissident is a fundamental violation of his philosophy—he coins it "living in truth." Havel says that the Western notion of a "dissident" as a special class only serves to separate dissenters' concerns from the concerns of society at large, and thereby deprive them of any meaning whatsoever. If they are portrayed as only a few malcontents - a special class stirring up trouble - the system can go on pretending away the deep structural and moral crisis it foists upon its citizenry.
The term "dissident" frequently implies a special profession, as if, along with the more normal vocations, there were another special one - grumbling about the state of things. In fact, a "dissident" is simply a physicist, a sociologist, a worker, a poet, individuals who are merely doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime.
There are thousands of nameless people who try to live within the truth and millions who want to but cannot, perhaps only because to do so in the circumstances in which they live, they would need ten times the courage of those who have already taken the first step. If several dozen are randomly chosen from among all these people and put into a special category, this can utterly distort the general picture.

Havel wrote these tracts as philosophical guideposts for those attempting to navigate the totalitarian system with dignity intact. But reading them now, they offer up an unintentional autopsy of the Soviet system. Here we find revelations that are now pedestrian with familiarity: how Soviet totalitarianism differs from classic dictatorships; precisely how ideology works as a tool of social control and compromises its victims as implicit partners in the farce; how the very nature of the system transforms every prosaic act into a political one, and how the whole grand, exalted, gargantuan monstrosity of it all is, like a fabled beast, utterly unable to withstand a simple word or act of truth and thus prosecutes these with unrivaled fury.

During his four years in prison, he was only allowed to write one letter a week to his wife - four sides maximum. And even these were subject to the cruel editorial delight of a vengeful commandant:
Havel started writing a 'cycle' of letters about his philosophical views. He mentioned the 'order of being.' "The only order you can write about," declared the commandant, "is the prison order." Then he decided Havel should not write about philosophy at all. "Only about yourself." So Havel designed another cycle of letters on the subject of his moods: sixteen of them, two to each letter, one good, one bad. And he numbered them. After eight, the commandant called him in: "Stop numbering your moods!" "No foreign words!" he ordered one week. "No underlining!" the next. "No exclamation marks!!"
-from Prague - A Poem, Not Disappearing, Timothy Garton Ash

There are so few Havels in the world, and so many tyrannies mutating and adapting like viruses. The task for dissenters has become profoundly complicated, the relationships between power and citizen muddied. How ought one react in Russia? In the Caucasus, outside of Georgia? Is the system so thoroughly corrupt that, as in Havel's Czechoslovakia, any collaboration with power compromises human dignity? Or in these semi-free states, is that now a kind of escapism? Is it possible and necessary to reform from within these systems? What about in our own country; in a stable democracy where political responsibilities are largely the domain of professional party apparatchiks rather than private citizens, how do most effectively confront political actions that assault our sense of justice?

I'm rambling rhetorical now, but one final thing. Just try to imagine being a Czech citizen in January 1990 - mere weeks into your new independence. And imagine, after decades of doublespeak and official untruths - after the violation of pretending that your life's efforts were directed toward the advancement of an ideology you knew to be bankrupt, after nodding and smiling at this assault on your individual dignity and your culture, imagine that you heard your new president take to the podium and tell you this:
My dear fellow citizens: For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.

I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

Our country is not flourishing.
It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly. Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all. "

I cannot recommend the link to this speech enough. It's earth-shattering, even now.


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