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Havel: The revolution of truth

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Michael Gerson
December 20, 2011
— As the heroes of the Cold War walk off into the mist— Ronald Reagan, then John Paul II, now Vaclav Havel—each departure makes their world more distant and foreign. But it is too early for forgetfulness, which would also be ingratitude.

Once in a nightmare, European dissidents lived in prison, in whole nations that were prisons. They were confined to mental hospitals by governments sustained through the promotion of mass delusion. They were forced to make confessions of imagined crimes by regimes that were criminal enterprises.


And then the government of Czechoslovakia went a step too far. In 1976, it arrested a band called “The Plastic People of the Universe” for offenses against cultural conformity. This was a perfect symbol of communism: a system that could not tolerate the unauthorized singing of songs. The regime’s stupidity undermined its capacity to intimidate. Havel—a countercultural intellectual and rock fan—co-founded the Charter 77 human rights movement. Never has bad popular music been put to better use.


In history’s great refutation of historical pessimism, Europe’s nightmare turned out to be a “fairy tale”—a phrase Havel used to describe his experience. On Oct. 27, 1989, Havel was sent to prison for the fourth time. That December, 300,000 Czechs turned out in Wenceslas Square to chant, “Havel to the Castle!” By New Year’s Day, Havel could declare, “People, your government has returned to you!” In February, he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress as the leader of a free Czechoslovakia. It was four months from prisoner to visiting president.


Havel helped overthrow communism by discrediting its central tenet. Scientific socialism taught that history is the outworking of massive economic and social forces that the individual could not hope to budge. Ideals, Marx sniffed, were “phantoms formed in the human brain.”


As Winston Churchill might have said of Havel: Some phantom. Some brain.


Havel relentlessly exposed communist ideology as a confidence game, a Ponzi scheme, dependent on broad deference to obvious lies. One ideal—a commitment to truth—proved to be a lever long enough to move the world.


Reading back over Havel’s landmark 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” is like wading through molasses scattered with diamonds. The intellectual jargon is thick—and then comes a crystalline phrase, a perfectly polished insight. Communist regimes require people to “live within a lie,” demanding dehumanizing rituals of loyalty. He describes his country as plastered with slogans but lacking in genuine belief.


“Each person,” he says, “somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity.” They drift together “down the river of pseudolife.” Yet in a society ruled by lies, truth gains a “singular, explosive, incalculable political power.”


The desire to live authentically is the equivalent of a fifth column—a revolution hidden in a whole society. Truth advances in a political speech, in a hunger strike, in a play, in a song. “It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak,” says Havel, “utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division.”


Havel was a historical prophet of the first order—and the fulfillment of his own prophesy.


“Living within the truth,” according to Havel, is an inherently moral enterprise. It requires sacrifice, which presupposes a “sense of responsibility” for others—a belief in love, friendship and compassion. In the company of John Paul II and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Havel believed that political renewal starts in moral and personal renewal.


In one letter from prison, he wrote, “But who should begin? Who should break this vicious circle? The only possible place to begin is with myself. … Whether all is really lost or not depends entirely on whether or not I am lost.”


Uncomfortably, Havel also applied this moral vision to the prosperous nations of the West. He criticized “a selfish cult of material success” and “the absence of faith in a higher order of things.” Consumerism and relativism, he warned, could also strip people of humanity and responsibility. Even the wealthy and powerful can live within the lie.


In his speech to the U.S. Congress, Havel urged Americans to put “morality ahead of politics” and to foster “responsibility—responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success.”


American intellectual Noam Chomsky called Havel’s speech an “embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon”—itself a statement both silly and repugnant.


The Czech Republic had this rare advantage: its leading intellectual believed in the ideals of Western civilization. And by his faith in civilization, he helped to save it.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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