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