December 20, 2011
Havel's revolution of truth (Michael Gerson, 12/20/11, Washington Post)
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 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."
Posted by Orrin Judd at December 20, 2011 6:38 AM
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