A kind of bi-polar political thinking is becoming more and more common in today’s politically polarized world…everyone is expected to be unquestionably loyal to the position he belongs to or has been assigned to.
Václav Havel wrote that in 1986. You know I’m not a loud person, but when I read that, I could’ve opened the window and shouted. Someone understood…someone got it.
In our glorious Age of Whatever-You-Want-to-Call-It, anyone who considers themselves moderate, and/or independent, or (oh, horrors!) apolitical is between a rock and a hard place. Both political poles are out for political blood, it seems. You vote for what you judge to be the lesser of two weevils, and everyone assumes you are a “X Supporter.” You point out So-and-So might have a good idea about Y, and you’re accused of agreeing with So-and-So on A, B, and C. It’s enough to make anyone want to hide their head in the sand and not even bother.
Havel understood the struggles of life under a government that frustrates you and a society polluted with ideology and propaganda. The issue for him was not specific to communism, nor to any specific political identity:
I don’t hold with any particular ideology, doctrine or, even less, any political party or faction… If I serve anything, then only my own conscience…if I criticize my government, then not because it happens to be a communist government but because it is bad.“I Take the Side of Truth” (1983)
When you feel like no one represents you, when speech is no longer free, and when society tries to pigeonhole you into identities, parties, and groups—you can feel so powerless and, at times, apathetic. Havel’s outlook, as summarized in Open Letters, speaks directly to the problems of the 21st century and (sadly, in retrospect) is as relevant for us as it was for his Soviet readership.
Playwright, Prisoner, President
Václav Havel was born in Prague in 1936. Due to prejudices against the wealthy, his opportunities were stunted due to his family background, but he managed to forge a successful career for himself writing plays. Eventually, Havel’s enthusiasm for free thought and speech, both in writing and in daily life, led him to the forefront of the “wrong side” of Soviet life.
Havel used his writing and analytical abilities towards various dissident movements and documents in Czechoslovakia. In return, the Soviet authorities hounded him, placing him under house arrest and several times in prison. Though a reluctant politician, he was elected president shortly after the non-violent Velvet Revolution: he would hold the distinction of being the last president of Czechoslovakia, as well as (later on) the first president of the Czech Republic. After public service, Havel went back to writing plays, and he passed away in 2011.
As a disclaimer—I know very little about Czech history. I also know nothing about Havel beyond his Wikipedia article and this collection of his writings, Open Letters. I’m not in any position to opine on his qualities as a president, so this review will focus solely on the book, viewed from a broader political science and philosophy perspective.
Live Within the Truth
Open Letters covers the years 1965–1990. As the editor Paul Wilson suggests, the selections can be roughly viewed as following into two groups: those written before his longest prison term (1979–1983) and those written after it. The first group is, alternately, more focused and specific to people and events; the second group of writings is philosophically broad and universally framed.
The heart of the book is Havel’s famous essay The Power of the Powerless, a parable about a greengrocer who refuses to display communist propaganda in his shop window. I first came across it back in 2013 (my history professor at the time was also a Soviet dissident and survivor, so the topic interested me strongly). After reading it, I remember the mixed feelings of awe and dread it left in me.
The premise is so simple, it’s disturbing. Would you take the smallest step required of you to just live within the truth? Don’t think of it as “dissent” in the typical sense (Havel resists the notion even of dividing people into dissenters and non-dissenters). Rather, it’s living your life without any of the “white lies” we may be committing, even unconsciously, which over time surrender our actual autonomy. The analogy of a greengrocer and shop sign sounds quaint, but there are modern-day equivalents.
Not to take too much of a personal detour, but I remember making “live within the truth” a personal goal, back in 2013 fresh after reading this essay (and full of young optimism). I’ve always considered myself a stubbornly honest person, but either events overtook me or my eyes were finally opened to my weaknesses—probably a bit of both. Through senior year at uni and beyond, it was insanely hard to be the brave greengrocer. I remember as many failures as successes in living within the truth. Even today, the battle against sacrificing your true self for an easy identity (regardless of the goodness or validity of said identity) is a conflict I still struggle with. Solzhenitsyn’s “live not by lies” is a little easier—it implies deliberate deception, which I can safely say I avoid. But to “live within the truth” is intentional, conscious honesty, eyes wide-open to any tendencies to take the safe white lie, the easy way out, or just stay silent when you should speak.
Havel’s emphasis on the power of the individual and the greater spiritual good is something I can readily understand. In a way, his model of civic duty reflects the model of Christian duty, though he does not outright say so (the book, for the most part, lacks any religious references, though once or twice Havel implies a belief in God). My impression, from reading Havel, is that he sees the individual’s moral and spiritual integrity as of primary importance, so that even should a person suffer for their principles’ sake (as he did), there is no loss to the individual, and in time society benefits. By contrast, life in a lie is spiritually damaging to the individual and to the nation as a whole.
Part 2 to come…