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Archive for January 7th, 2012

[Political] ideology…is almost a secularized religion.  It offers a ready answer to any question whatsoever; it can scarcely be accepted only in part, and accepting it has profound implications for human life…it offers an immediately available home:  all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish.  Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home:  the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority.  –  Václav Havel

Václav Havel, the playwright turned politician who was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first of the Czech Republic, died three weeks ago on December 18th.  The next day, Anne Applebaum published an article on Slate about how one of Havel’s writings, an essay named “The Power of the Powerless”, was probably his most important gift to the world outside his own country:

…Havel not only opposed the Communist regime, he articulated a theory of opposition.  His plays – as turgid, alas, as the Communist bureaucrats they are meant to satirize – will not survive, except as curiosities.  But his famous political essay — “The Power of the Powerless” — will live forever.  Its appeal is universal.  I have given Havel’s essay to Iranian friends, and I once discussed it with would-be dissidents in pre-revolutionary Tunis.  In both places it seemed — seems — relevant.

In this essay, Havel didn’t talk about marches or demonstrations.  Instead, he asked the inhabitants of totalitarian countries to “live in truth”:  That is, to go about their daily lives as if the regime did not exist, to the extent that was possible…By the late 1980s, “living in truth” was widely practiced across central Europe.  The first time I went to Poland in 1987, I stayed with friends.  According to the law, I was supposed to register my presence in a private home with the police.  “We don’t do that,” my friends told me.  “We don’t believe the police have the right to know who stays with us.”  I didn’t register — and because thousands of other people didn’t either, that law became unenforceable.

But Havel proposed more than mere civil disobedience.  He also argued in favor of what we would now call civil society, urging the inhabitants of totalitarian states to found small institutions — musical groups, sporting groups, literary groups — which would develop the ”independent life of society,” and prevent their members from being totally controlled from above.  This too was widely practiced, in Prague’s famous underground philosophy seminars, in the illegal printing presses all across the communist world, in Poland’s independent “Flying University,” and, most successfully, in Poland’s independent trade unions…

I was unfamiliar with the essay, but read it and found it even more powerful than Applebaum lets on.  Like so many in the West who have not been directly impacted by the growing police-state here, she fails to see that Havel’s words do not only apply to countries we in the West label “totalitarian”, but to our own society as well.  He points out that in all modern societies – soi-disant “democracies” included – government becomes a bureaucratic machine which runs by itself toward an inevitable end; his advice about “living in truth” is therefore just as important to Americans as it was to people in the former Soviet bloc.  And though the essay contains numerous references to specifics of 20th century Eastern European history with which my readers may be unfamiliar, this may actually enhance your appreciation of the piece rather than distracting from it, because it will help keep you from being seduced by the tempting and comfortable delusion that your country “isn’t like that”.  Mentally replacing Havel’s references with contemporary American ones will help you to see his points:  for example, substitute  “possession of leaves from a common weed” for “possession of banned books”, “buying or selling sex” for “playing rock music” and “Support our Troops” for “Workers of the World, Unite!”

The copy provided in the Slate article had clearly been run through an optical character reader and was thus infested with weird errors of the sort which inevitably result from that not-yet-perfect technology, so I proofread it to correct these errors in order to provide y’all with a clean PDF copy.  It’s not short; 51 pages in all, so it may take you an hour or two.  But it’s not a difficult read and it is, I think, an important one; if you agree pass the link on or download the PDF yourself for email dissemination.  Havel’s philosophy, especially his advice to ignore the lies which support oppression and just live like free, rational people, needs to be spread as widely through the West as it once was through the Soviet Empire.

One Year Ago Today

Holiday Leftovers” comments on “promoting prostitution”, divorce blackmail, a clueless CNN article, really cheap whores, the right to own and control one’s body, the good sense displayed by Dutch women and history repeating itself in shortsighted criticism of civil rights activism.

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