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Tuesday, April 22, 2003
Very nice, long article about Vaclav Havel in Reason.
In April 1975, facing an utterly demoralized country and an understandable case of writer’s block, Havel committed an act of such sheer ballsiness that the shock waves are still being felt in repressive countries 30 years later. He simply sat down and, knowing that he’d likely be imprisoned for his efforts, wrote an open letter to his dictator, Gustav Husak, explaining in painstaking detail just why and how totalitarianism was ruining Czechoslovakia.
"So far," Havel scolded Husak, "you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power."
It was the Big Bang that set off the dissident movement in Central Europe. For those lucky enough to read an illegally retyped copy or hear it broadcast over Radio Free Europe, the effect was not unlike what happened to the 5,000 people who bought the Velvet Underground’s first record: After the shock and initial pleasure wore off, many said, "Wait a minute, I can do this too!"
It's an interesting comparison, but one seemingly in keeping with Havel's character. It's not so much that he's populist, since "the common people" come in all sorts of flavors (George Bush, for one, does a remarkably good impression of populism, one effective enough to give him a lot of power), and more that he's human. A key quote would be: "As for heads of state, I haven’t met anyone yet whose eyes didn’t shine with delight when I suggested that after the official reception we should go get a beer somewhere really quick." There is something in many of the more rational leftists--my father, certainly, along with almost every politics teacher I've ever had--that really wants to see someone we could go get a drink with as our leader, or compatriot. We can respect someone like that, someone who attends to the banalities of life in a public way. It was part of Clinton's appeal, the idea that we could have some fries with him down at McDonald's, and a big part of why the whole getting-a-hummer thing didn't hurt him as much as some people wanted it to. (I'm not exactly thrilled that he did it, although strictly for reasons of politics.) Is this just good-ol-boyism, though? Is it something that women wouldn't identify with, or might call stupid boyism? Well, not the girls I hang out with, but I'm not sure, I guess.
It's hard to follow Havel's example totally into American politics, since we're far from living under a dictatorship and "speaking truth to power" is often a far more complicated proposition than Orwellites would have you believe, but the style thing--style being a hugely important part of political communication--is key. For instance, there was a certain rhetorical tendency in the anti-globalization movement (back in the benighted pre-war days) to talk about their "taking back the street" protests as a kind of party, a reclamation of joy from the oppressive funlessness of corporate culture by dancing around like, I guess, the happy natives would once the yoke of industrialization was lifted from their societies. Aside from the fact that this wasn't the most effective technique since a lot of corporations seem to be solely concerned with pandering to our mindless self-indulgence (and god bless 'em for it!), the problem was that what the activists seemed to be promoting wasn't a whole lot better. At the few I attended, for instance, the party seemed to involve smoking pot, listening to folk music, and playing frisbee, which is a source of joy for a fairly small slice of the population. For me, though, and presumably for anyone else who wandered in without wearing an item made of hemp, it was kind of boring and smelly. Oppressive tool of the ruling class or not, getting wasted once in a while and stumbling home singing Abba songs is a fucking blast.
The mistake they made, and continue to make, is confusing the appearance of joy with actual joy. Playing frisbee in the sun is always going to look fun, because it's frivolous and there's no risk and there's no conflict. But it might not actually be fun. Going to the bars, however, could be sad and pathetic, a bunch of mindless, depressive, deluded individuals nacotizing themselves into unthinking comas in order to dull the pain of their worthless existence. Or it could be, as I said before, a fucking blast. We could get nicely buzzed and play darts and yell jokes at the barkeep and put on Prince and dance around, even as people are suffering and between the times where we try and figure out how to make things better. This is maybe an overly intellectual and, er, artistic view of the world, maybe, but it's one I believe in strongly. I also believe that change can't come without hope, and hope can't come without some bit of happiness, and that striving for happiness is not without some risk. Trying to have a good time always means that you might have a bad one and be disappointed and go home alone, but it's that unsafe striving that, at its heart, drives political movements seeking to bring the margins to the mainstream.