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Havel the Dissident: A Legacy Worth Claiming

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On a warm evening in 1991, a colleague and I found an out-of-the-way café in the old part of Prague. Two men with blank expressions stood outside. The interior was dim and close, with room for only eight or nine tables. The place was almost empty. Just a sleepy waitress, a bartender polishing glasses, and a single patron who sat alone drinking wine and chain-smoking cigarettes.

The President of Czechoslovakia wasn't reviewing official papers. He was reading a book, a startlingly un-Presidential act to our American eyes. My companion, a neoconservative State Department official, already admired him for defying and defeating a Communist state. He'd impressed me by bringing a writer's sensibility and an affinity for true underground culture to his role as head of state.

Havel even tried to appoint Frank Zappa as his Minister of Culture. "We're not rock musicians," Zappa told a reporter back in the sixties. "We're electronic social workers." The State Department wouldn't let Zappa assume the post, but Havel had made his point to the Czech public by offering this apparatchik's position to the composer of songs like "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" ("Some say your nose, some say your toes, but I think it's your mind.")

We never spoke to Havel that night. It didn't seem polite to offer anything more than the curt nod of acknowledgement any café patron gives another at that hour. But Havel spoke to us, to all of us. And on the occasion of his death, the real lessons of his life's work are in danger of being lost.

Today we're told that the Occupy movement is too idealistic, too naïve. Naïve? Try Havel's words if you want naïve: "May truth and love triumph over lies and hatred."

Think of that as the Velvet Revolution's "one demand."

Portrait of the President as a Young Freak

As millions of people know, the underground playwright Havel first made his political mark in Charter 77. That group was formed to defend the Plastic People of the Universe, a banned and imprisoned rock band working in the Zappa mold of musical dissonance and cultural dissidence.

The Occupy movement is not on the cultural fringe, despite what its detractors say. But Havel's movement began as a Yippie-like creature of the underworld. Charter 77 rarely had more than a thousand members. It was a strange blend of political idealism and the hippie subculture where people proudly labeled themselves "freaks" to the conventional world. Despite its later alignment with economically conservative forces, it was more Allen Ginsburg than Alan Greenspan.

And it was created to defend the Plastic People of the Universe, whose grating music makes Occupy's drum circles seem like a children's choir serenading the bored residents of a home for aging veterans.

Words

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité - what wonderful words! And how terrifying their meaning can be! Freedom in the shirt unbuttoned before execution. Equality in the constant speed of the guillotine's fall on different necks. Fraternity in some dubious paradise ...

Havel addressed the liberal democratic West on words in the 1970s, noting that the suppression of speech can give language enormous power:

I ... live in a country where a writers' congress speech is capable of shaking the system ... a manifesto served as one of the pretexts for the invasion of our country one night by five foreign armies ... a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.

When a system has become inflexible and is in danger of collapsing, what it fears most is words. Think about that the next time you see a phalanx of cops tear down a tent city on television. Havel had been burned by language, too:

The same word can at one moment radiate great hope, at another it can emit lethal rays ... true at one moment and false the next, at one moment illuminating, at another, deceptive. On one occasion it can open up glorious horizons, on another, it can lay down the tracks to an entire archipelago of concentration camps.

And as we approach an election year that will be filled with the rhetoric of freedom, this observation still resonates:

The same word can at one time be the cornerstone of peace, while at another time machine-gun fire resounds in its every syllable.

Control

In 1975 Havel had the presumption to write directly to Czechoslovakian head of state Gustáv Husák with a few suggestions. There's more than a passing resemblance between the fear-driven Communist society Havel condemned in that letter and the financial anxiety many Americans endure today:

The technique of existential pressure is ... universal. There is no one in our country who is not, in a broad sense, existentially vulnerable. Everyone has something to lose and so everyone has reason to be afraid. The range of things one can lose is broad, extending from the manifold privileges of the ruling caste... down to the mere possibility of living in that limited degree of legal certainty available to other citizens.

Today, one out of two Americans lives in financial insecurity. Even many upper-middle-class citizens live from month to month, just one layoff notice away from medical bankruptcy or home foreclosure. "Everyone has something to lose," observed Havel.

Havel's description of his 20th Century Communist society echoes our own:

The more completely one abandons any hope of general reform, any interest in suprapersonal goals and values, or any chance of exercising influence in an 'outward' direction, the more one's energy is diverted in the direction of least resistance, that is, 'inwards.'"

People today are preoccupied far more with themselves ... They fill their homes with all kinds of appliances and pretty things, they try to improve their accommodations, they try to make life pleasant for themselves, building cottages, looking after their cars, taking more interest in food and clothing and domestic comfort ...They turn their main attention to the material aspects of their private lives.

Havel concluded that "Despair leads to apathy, apathy to conformity, and conformity to routine (political) performance -- which is then quoted as evidence of 'mass political involvement.'"

Ambition

Havel understood the psychology of greed and power, too. From his letter to Husák:

If it is fear which lies behind people's defensive attempts to preserve what they have, it becomes increasingly apparent that the chief impulses for their aggressive efforts to win what they do not yet possess are selfishness and careerism.

It is not surprising that so many public and influential positions are occupied more than ever before by notorious careerists, opportunists, charlatans, and men of dubious record.

From Prague to Washington, from Moscow to lower Manhattan, the opportunities change. But human nature never does:

Seldom in recent times has a social system offered scope so openly and so brazenly to people willing to support anything as long as it brings them some advantage; to unprincipled and spineless men, prepared to do anything in their craving for power and personal gain; to born lackeys, ready for any humiliation and willing at all times to sacrifice their neighbors' and their own honor for a chance to ingratiate themselves with those in power.

Technocracy

It's a historical irony that those who claim they'll govern with the most efficiency usually wind up governing with the least effectiveness. Today corporate-funded politicians from both parties argue that the country should be led by "technocrats' who'll govern without messy "ideologies."

That's a false premise Havel knew well. He called it the "process by which power becomes anonymous and depersonalized, reduced to a mere technology of rule and manipulation."

Washington's technocratic "bipartisans" dream of a world where, in Havel's words, the "professional ruler is (seen as) the 'innocent' tool of an 'innocent' anonymous power ... legitimized by science, cybernetics, ideology, law, abstraction, and objectivity -- that is, by everything except personal responsibility to human beings as persons and neighbors." Havel's Prague is our Beltway:

States grow ever more machinelike; people are transformed into statistical choruses of voters, producers, consumers, patients, tourists, or soldiers, (where) in politics good and evil, categories of the natural world and therefore obsolete remnants of the past, lose all absolute meaning (and where) the sole method of politics is quantifiable success.

Havel condemned a system of state-orchestrated political theater, and the self-perpetuating failures of imagination which mistook the indifferent and pro forma participation of its citizens for genuine democracy. And he saw its universal nature:

(It) has a thousand masks, variants, and expressions. Essentially, though, it is the same universal trend ... the essential trait of all modern civilization, growing directly from its spiritual structure, rooted in it by a thousand tangled tendrils and inseparable even in thought from its technological nature, its mass characteristics, and its consumer orientation.

"The contemporary concept of 'normal' behavior is," Havel wrote, "deeply pessimistic."

Responsibility

"I favor 'antipolitical politics,'" said Havel, "politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them."

I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans.

None of us -- as an individual -- can save the world as a whole, but . . . each of us must behave as though it were in his power to do so.

Decades later he said this to the leaders of Western countries:

Today, more than ever before in the history of mankind, everything is interrelated ... Because of this, the future of the United States or the European Union is being decided in suffering Sarajevo or Mostar, in the plundered Brazilian rain forests, in the wretched poverty of Bangladesh or Somalia.

Havel had glaring faults. American neocons offered him small favors during his final rise to power. He reciprocated, consciously or unconsciously, by aiding their destructive military ventures and adopting their foolish economic policies. He succumbed to the politics of personality, both his own and those of the leaders who courted him. But it would be a shame if that's all the world remembered. Havel seemed unhappy in the role of leader. It's possible than he lost sight of his deepest insights, his truest gifts. It was the outsider Havel, the dreamer of the impossible, the surrealist and absurdist, we should remember. That's the Havel who can and should inspire dissidents everywhere. "Is the human word truly powerful enough to change the world and influence history?" he once asked. With his life and his words, Václav Havel gave us his answer. He showed us the power in each individual and the responsibility that accompanies that power.

At his best, and above all else, Havel was a dissident outsider who realized his power and used it. Now it's our turn.

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