December 18, 2011, while the world was obsessing over the passing of Kim Jon-il, the North Korean ruler, I found myself saddened by a much more momentous historical passing, the passing of Václav Havel, dramatist, intellectual, the last president of Czechoslovakia, and the first president of the Czech Republic. While the American media gave significant air time to Kim Jon-il’s passing, I found myself reflecting why we failed to recognized the perhaps much more significant contribution to our contemporary culture by citizen hero Havel.
Havel did a lot of things that made him stand out in the global political stage of the late twentieth century. He showed the importance of family influence in developing your world view – his parents came from solid Czechoslovak intellectual stock, helping to found Czechoslovakia’s main film studios on his father’s side and a grandfather who was a journalist on his mother’s side. The one thing he did figure out early was the importance of this field, the field of writing, to the development of cultural opposition to an oppressive regime, in this case the Soviet regime. He stood out as a dramatist and as an essay writer. As a young man, he became involved with the Prague Spring movement of 1968, which landed him in jail for the first, but definitely not for the last time.
The Soviet regime was particularly obsessive in its control of the cultural sphere, since its founders understood at a personal level a lesson that Havel would repeat again and again: how you mean within the cultural sphere, the sphere of civil society, is as important as what you mean. He joined the a number of other influential Eastern European intellectuals, including Czesław Miłosz, Boris Pasternak, Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky (all right, these two are Russian, but they share that Slavic/East European intellectual DNA, so I count them in with the others), and Lech Wałęsa in emphasizing again and again that real political change can come from highly symbolic actions that lead to substantial political change.
What does this mean for us today? Well, in his piece for the History News Network, “Occupy Wall Street Isn’t the Same Old Political Crap—It’s Much, Much More,” Professor James Livingston remarked how the current Occupy Wall Street movement was taking some of its cues from Havel’s writings. He remarked how Havel most of all showed how: “The means and the end of resistance was not to draw up more just demands, write up more pristine platforms, or do more good on behalf of the benighted (“direct political work in the traditional sense”); it was instead to try to live your life free of the claims of necessity, in a “pre-political” space where you learned how to distinguish between the truth and the speech of power.”[i]
For me, however, the real power of Havel’s works – outside of their intellectual and rhetorical elegance, even in translation – is his driving home the point that how we mean is as important as what we mean. In what probably constitutes as Havel’s best known essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” he uses the example of an anonymous greengrocer who chooses to quietly live his opposition to the regime in everyday life. He refuses to vote in elections he considers false. More importantly, he refuses to put flags in his window when his only motive for putting them there would be to avoid being reported by the house warden – one of the low level political operatives in his neighborhood. This type of simple, personal display of political opposition may seem simply symbolic, is the beginning of what Havel calls “living in the truth.” The most significant, most radical, and most invisible effect of this type of individual behavior is that: “Most of these expressions remain elementary revolts against manipulation: you simply straighten your backbone and live in greater dignity as an individual.”[ii] He continues to theorize that this type of “living in the truth” may not amount to much at an individual level, and it may carry a heavy personal price – in Havel’s case a revolving occupancy in Czechoslovak prisons over the course of 25 years, including a five year stay from 1979 to 1984. However, when a whole bunch of people come together and start to share similar ways of displaying symbolic opposition to a regime, well, then you become what is called a “dissident,” and you get to be a large enough movement to bring down a regime that encompassed sixteen countries and about half of Europe. Then you become the president of one of the emerging countries in the new political order that emerges because a whole bunch of like-minded friends decided not to hang their banners during big Soviet holidays.
Which bring us back to the importance of passing, or not passing. In our society, particularly our youth society, we always find it hammered how important it is not to “pass for something.” Particularly among people of color, it becomes cultural significant not to “pass for.” Sometimes the well-meant feeling behind this injunction can create serious personal consequences. The admonition, for instance, not to “pass for white,” or “pass for anglo,” if you belong to certain groups can sometimes limit the talents and horizons of some. As a Latina who specializes in Slavic studies, for instance, I cannot help but think at how many times I have felt like I should start presentation apologizing for not doing a “Latino topic.” It does not mean that I want to “pass for” a Slav. Equally troubling can be the assumption that a certain personal and cultural positionality is a prerequisite to speak and to research authoritatively in certain disciplines. I would like to think in that choosing an area not traditionally associated with my background or culture, I am standing along with Havel in creating an supporting the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth.