Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Right Stuff

By Jay - Ottawa
Following events like an American presidential election can be a test of mental endurance and a challenge to the biliary tract.  After a while, one begins to lose faith in humanity.  Anyway, that was my day, until I came across an article about another president -- until late December, one our contemporaries, but from elsewhere and now gone forever.  We still have his legacy.  I’m speaking of Václav Havel (1936-2011).  You may have seen him in the past on the News Hour (PBS), or read one of his books, or seen one of his strange plays.  As a leader enmeshed in the tough choices of managing a country, he proved politics need not be one part lies and one part venality supported by greed.  Havel was different.
A Toronto writer and translator, Paul Wilson, went to Havel’s funeral in Prague.  His full account is linked above. Here are a few quotes in case you can’t take the time to read it all, but still need a boost as we continue to push through the big muddy of 2012 American politics.
Wilson describes a poster that went up all over Prague around the time of Havel's funeral, “a shot of Havel with his back to the camera, walking toward the ocean.”  On the poster was a quotation summarizing “one of Havel’s most deeply held beliefs”:  Then this paragraph near the end of Wilson’s tribute: 
Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. 
As I said, Václav Havel was different.  It is not madness or naiveté to insist upon -- and to push a little harder for -- that difference.
Like many great Czechs before him, Havel insisted on the importance of truth, but with a difference. “Truth and love,” he was fond of saying, “must prevail over lies and hatred.” He was often ridiculed for what seemed like a Hallmark sentiment (“Why love?” people asked), but he defended the slogan by referring to one of his greatest insights: truth, by itself, is a malleable concept that depends for its truthfulness on who utters it, to whom it is said, and under what circumstances. As a playwright, Havel turned this insight into a dramatic device: in most of his plays, the main characters constantly lie to one another and to themselves, using words that, in other circumstances, would be perfectly truthful. Truth by itself is not enough: it needs a guarantor, someone to stand behind it. It must be uttered with no thought for gain, that is, in Havel’s words, with a love that seeks nothing for itself and everything for others.  


Denis Neville said...

Vaclav Havel, "The Power of the Powerless"

“Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe. . . .

“Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. . . .

“The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the "dissident" attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest "dissent" could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.”

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”
- Emily Dickinson

Anne Lavoie said...

Beautiful. Thanks Jay.

I was uplifted until I remembered that our entire society is built on the cult of Self. Capitalism needs and thrives on it. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of illusions and lies intended to feed the ego.

I think our only hope is if our national character changed from being one concerned with propping up the ego, and more about being concerned with the collective 'US'.

Buddhism, which is more a Way of Life than a religion, speaks to this. 'The source of all the troubles and evil in the world is the imaginary, false belief in self. This artificial construct creates selfish desires, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism etc., producing everything from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, all evil in the world can be traced to that false view.' (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Until we change how we perceive our true essence and connection with others, aka inter-being, and what we perceive to be the proper function of Capitalism, I am afraid this country is doomed to self-destruction.

The only hope I have is in the nascent Occupy movement. It has the essence and power of Oneness at its core.

That the truth, and I stand behind it.

Denis Neville said...

@ Anne Lavoie - "our national character, cult of the self, until we change how we perceive our true essence and connection with others I am afraid this country is doomed to self-destruction"

In a PBS Newshour interview last night, Thomas Edsall, author of "The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics,” discussed the different world view held by liberals and Democrats from that held by conservatives and Republicans.

Liberals are concerned with compassion and fairness, while Conservatives focus not on compassion, but a different kind of fairness. Conservatives see contests in zero sum terms. There are going to be losers and winners.

Politics is dominated by the issue of debt and deficits. Scarcity and austerity encourage conservative, backlash politics. Edsall describes this as an ugly period of zero-sum conflict between the “haves” and “have-nots” over immigration, education and programs that serve primarily low-income people and minorities.
Edsall says the “haves” are not the one percent, but older conservatives who cling to their “income from savings, which they do not want more heavily taxed, and their Medicare coverage and Social Security benefits, which they do not want diverted to ‘ObamaCare,’ or any venture transferring tax dollars to those with lower incomes.”

Witness Mitten’s claim that President Obama believes in “equality of outcomes” that requires a massive and assertive government, while real Americans believe in “equality of opportunity.”

“The Republicans,” said Edsall, “want to win a big one in 2012, use that election to take the White House, Congress and the Senate, and try to enact as much as they can along the lines of the Paul Ryan budget, get that in place. And then if things sort of fall apart for them, they will have the law in place, and it becomes much harder for a new, more liberal majority to change things, because a minority can block so much in the future.”

Valerie said...

What an amazing man to have the integrity to hold on to his convictions throughout his life. No matter what fame or fortune came his way, it never went to his head or corrupted him in any way. Instead, Havel seems to have seen his fame and position as president as an opportunity to serve the truth . Quite a contrast to most of the politicians of today.

An intellectual and philosopher, maybe it was because Havel wasn't a professional politician that he was able to hold onto his convictions. Whatever the reason, he is to be admired for the courageous leader he was. And his leadership should serve as a model of what leaders should aspire to be.

Denis Neville said...

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. “ - Joseph Campbell

Jay has given us one excellent example, Vaclav Havel, of the embodiment of heroism in action.

Sardonicky followers, who is on your list of heroes? Who inspires you? Who made a difference in your life? What does this hero mean to you?

What makes a hero? Who are the heroes of our society? Who should be? Why?

DreamsAmelia said...

Thank you, Jay, for reminding me of what a contrast I felt in reading accounts of Havel's life compared to our own politics--worth remembering for longer than a flicker of front page flurry...leading to a morass of Wikipedia articles with "disputed neutrality" and terms like "Holodomor," which were never heard in my entire Kindergarten through college education.

In my tendency to want to romanticize, I would be inclined to view Havel as not an exception, but representative of a less dogmatic, more expansive society, which therefore could not help but produce someone of his generous "nature." But the tendency to glorify a country, society, or individual is just that--the willingness to overlook contradictions and to prop up a self that is inherently false, as Anne aptly cites from Buddhist thought. Denis' opening quote from Havel encapsulates the delusions of ego/ideology beautifully....

Mittens and Newt are painfully representative of a very common breed of 1%ers that I have to rub shoulders with everyday living inside the beltway. Obama is like a compassionate conservative version of the 1%, seeming to hint, at times, at having a Havel deep inside him, but we know he'll never show it in this lifetime because he wastes his energy appealing to the non-existent center. But our nation's 1%ers are amongst the 99% who are clearly invisible to them, with far too many 99% engaged in anti-democratic reverence of the 1%--and so, the best option is to amplify the 99%, to get away from hero worship, to see the noble and ignoble in everyone, from the deepest recesses of our own minds when disturbing thoughts that don't gel with our self-conscious image of ourselves as do-gooders and good-thinkers flits along, to the entire external world--The garbage collectors in my neighborhood are still underpaid for hard, unappealing work, considered by society to be uneducated, but they have much to teach us about perseverance (and heartbreaking kindness, just the way they say hello and ask how I am doing this morning), and in my opinion too much willingness to not become cynical and bitter in a life of work with low pay and no advancement. The same with janitors, the phone bankers at call centers, checkers at Walmart, cabbies, cannery workers, on and on... Havel and literature and Shakespeare and Buddhism exhorts people not to accept their "lot in life" as some pre-destined "human nature" but to realize that opportunity and identity are eternally malleable--that all the world is a stage, and each of us can do much to re-invent identity, as much of the individual as of community. Thus it is preposterous for the press to foist the politics of austerity and zero-sum games upon us-- that type of ideology _is_ the stuff of genocides and holocausts---we have to fight it with humor, connection, reaching out in marvelously inventive blogs, newspaper comments, and being the best neighbors we can be, even if it means being helpful for a few minutes to the person you are riding the bus with. Surely we can evolve into a more egalitarian, less opportunistic society this way. Person by person, we can do it...

Fred Drumlevitch said...

Thanks, Jay, for your interesting post and for alerting us to the article on Václav Havel, and thanks everyone for their additional enlightenment via comments.

Now for a bit of “devil’s advocacy”:

What if seeking, and exposing, “the truth” isn’t as beneficial as implied by Havel, or commenters on this forum? (This is unrelated to the malleability issue). While humanity has, over the ages, exhibited plenty of compassion and cooperation, it has also demonstrated a great deal of outright selfishness and violent behavior. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, are far from the cute creature they once were portrayed as being; they engage in an analogue of human war, they commit atrocities against others of their own species. What if a strong propensity to such violence is “in our genes”? Simply knowing “the truth” and attempting to live by the primacy of “love” may not be enough. And there may be others who “can’t handle the truth”, that is, they don’t understand the truth, or won’t acknowledge its implications. Finally the quest for “the truth” may itself be dangerous. Here, I’m not referring to the voluntarily-assumed danger faced by dissidents in a totalitarian state. Rather, I mean a broader and more insidious danger: What of the danger that may extend to an entire society, or even potentially the entire world, when those seeking “the truth” — but without the critical ability to recognize it — become followers of false prophets or the ever-present demagogues? (Nazi Germany is perhaps the most extreme example, but to a lesser extent, the same principle may apply to war-enamored U.S. neocons or the Tea-Partiers).

As far as the efficacy of “love”, and its corollaries, non-violence and pacifism, as counters to tyranny are concerned, they may occasionally work, but frequently they are little more than a path to death for their practitioners — the fate of Die Weltbühne editor Carl von Ossietzky and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany being prime examples.

Havel’s points regarding ideology are well taken, but I believe that some of the negatives attributed to it are not inherent, but rather, are the consequence of its hypocritical application — for instance, Communist “leadership” amassing dictatorial power, great privileges, and personal wealth while proclaiming a society of equality. Or modern American capitalists touting “the free market” and denouncing social “welfare” while themselves seeking corporate subsidies and bailouts.

One point on which I will unequivocally agree with Paul Wilson, the author of that New York Review of Books article on Havel, is his observation that “Havel instinctively understood that the old system thrived by stripping people of their dignity, by systematically humiliating them in a thousand little ways that rendered them powerless.”

Valerie said...


I still think Vaclav Havel was right in his quest for transparency of the truth. We can't make wise decisions about how to handle a situation if we aren't starting from a basis of truth. Think how different our political environment would be in America if everyone was operating from a place of knowing what was REALLY going on in terms of who is REALLY benefitting from policies (such as war in Iraq) - and the true motives of the politicians who make these decisions (supposedly on our behalf). Which is why the failure and buying off of the media - the fourth estate - which if working as it should, would be revealing what those in power want to keep hidden is such tragedy. It has robbed the public of the truth. And truth is democracy's best friend.

And yes, there are terrible realities - terrible truths. Some people are selfish and vicious. There is terrible injustice in the world. Some people if helped will bite the hand that feeds them. African wild dogs will disembowel their prey and eat them alive. But what if realities were revealed for what they are? How is this bad? Not everyone is motivated by greed and evil. Most of us are motivated by a sense of fairness and many of us have compassion (which I believe is what Havel is talking about when he uses the word love) and are disturbed by suffering. We have within us a generosity of spirit (again a quality of love), willing to have a little less so that those without can have a little more.

But right now we have a culture that punishes truth and rewards greed and dishonesty. Many of those who could be convinced to take the high road in the right circumstances – if truth were revealed - often find themselves justifying their choice of taking the low road – not because they can’t tell right from wrong but because they feel fairly sure they won’t be outed and the truth of their choice won’t be revealed.

I can't help but wonder how different America would be if we would turn to our philosophers for leadership and the truth - like Hedges and Chomsky - and our thinkers who refuse to sell out like Moyers and Sanders instead of con men like Clinton and Obama and Mittens and Bush.

Neil said...

Agreed about American presidential elections. Fred raised an interesting point about the wisdom of seeking truth. John Rawls claims that "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought." I am not familiar with Havel’s plays, but characters that constantly lie, using words that, in other circumstances, would be perfectly truthful, reminds me of the American justice system, which over the past few decades has co-opted our politics, our economy, and our lives.

I would challenge Havel on his definition of Hope; it may be the conviction that something has a fair chance to succeed, regardless of how it turns out. Hope is missing from the rigged game. A rigged game still makes sense, however perverse.

If Havel was different, perhaps it was due to a genuine sense of self. I see that missing in Obama, who has yielded to adoration and ambition and betrayed his constituents. The hope of Obama gave way to the injustice of the rigged game.

The death of Václav Havel, like any person, reminds us of the fate that awaits us all. I do not know much about Havel, but in the linked story Paul Wilson wrote "All his life, Havel lived by the belief that if you wanted something to happen, you had to do something to make it happen, and damn the consequences, including arrest and prison, and possibly even death", with a comparison to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

I think King is the ideal, his death was a direct extension of his life, and his death served purpose in that King lived in service to others completely to the end. King appealed to the universal sense of justice, and prevailed. But there is caveat that relates to timing. Havel succeeded in the Velvet Revolution, perhaps because the time was right in 1989, but not so in 1968 when an earlier revolution was crushed. King’s window opened in the mid 50’s, but by 1968 closed on King, and Robert Kennedy too. King’s speech the day before his death was prophetic; he saw the promised land but might not enter himself.

Jay - Ottawa said...


Are you saying Truth is dangerous and wins out rarely in big-league politics? Truth is too much for us descendants of monkeys? Better to keep some truths under your hat or, better yet, under some big chief's hat? Better a massive security apparatus with lots of secrets kept from the unthinking and panicky masses? Better bread and circuses and propaganda to keep the lid on? Better something other than democracy, which is too free with truths when it's an open democracy? Better a wily Bismarck with a big Germany than a sweet Havel with Czechoslovakia split in two?

Truth is dangerous. Gandhi said truth is not passive; it comes at you with force. So, do we need priests between the Truth and the faithful, or spokesmen who can dispense Truth with an eyedropper to the press, or propagandists who can spin Truth into airy cotton candy for the masses? Truth is too radioactive? That's your point?

Is that really you over there as the devil’s advocate for those propositions? Come on. The devil has more than enough good minds to argue his case.

Havel was aware of the problem you pose. What is proclaimed as Truth can indeed propel leaders and blind followers over the cliff. That’s why Havel introduced his safety net for Truth, whether one's particular Truth is true or half true or false.

Truth must always be accompanied by Love to keep us from killing, wrecking, stealing, torturing, etc. in the cause of Truth. Wouldn’t that have been enough to stay the hand of Abraham before he raised the knife against Isaac, or to keep Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot with their simple truths from becoming mass murderers?

Suspect every Truth that sweeps you up into the business of killing others in war, or half killing them through poverty and ignorance. Truth + Hate is the usual problem.

Havel’s Equation treasures the Truth and living flesh. A great idea for today's world when one misstep in behalf of one's Truth can make the planet glow. And everybody should be in on the deal, from top to bottom -- especially the people at the bottom, on whom the mighty depend to execute their grand plans. An entire citizenry, like a good labor union, must sometimes go out on strike. Because …

Truth + Love = Civilization.

The old equations don't work anymore. Never did.

Jay - Ottawa said...

Love and Nonviolence are not engineered to get you out of a jam. In fact, they often place you in a more vulnerable position. Takes more courage to face a canon without a cannon than to face one with a cannon. Takes more time than a fast draw. Doesn't always work. And yet noble minds from various cultures have said the alternatives are worse for individuals and society.

Love and Nonviolence don't split the difference between the Just and the Unjust. Maybe some forms of pacifism or Members of Congress are always ready to split the difference. Love and Nonviolence, on the other hand, do not settle for crumbs then go home.

Regardless of the "failures" of Love and Nonviolence, or how slow the results, what's the alternative? Hate and Violence. Worst of all is looking the other way -- seeing, hearing. saying, doing nothing about injustice. I'm referring to people who accept their subjugation or allow it to fall upon others without protest.

Gandhi understood why people resorted to violence to defend themselves. He reserved his harshest criticism for people who did nothing in the face of injustice towards themselves and their community.

Last question and last answer: Why bother to protest and struggle for justice for others if you're eking by, if you're lucky, on the way up, or already part of the most favored class? We are all on our own for the answer to that question.

Fred Drumlevitch said...


Thanks for the John Rawls quote. You and others on this blog are infinitely more knowledgeable than I am in matters of philosophy, politics, sociology, and history.

And I think you are correct in your unfavorable comparison of Obama with Havel, and a possible basis for Obama’s failures. With Obama, there has been very little true commitment to social justice — no strong sense of self, therefore no real sense of “mission”, therefore little action or follow through. (The importance of sense of mission is precisely what I was getting at in a long comment I made to a Krugman New York Times column in mid-2009, and reposted on my own blog three weeks ago). You also correctly pointed out the importance of context and window-of-opportunity. That is what makes Obama’s mediocre performance so frustrating. The financial crisis provided a once-in-a-generation window-of-opportunity for the advancement of social justice, and Obama did so little.


In no way do I dispute that “truth” has a multitude of potential benefits. I consider it a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for a better society. But without adequate amounts of additional factors, which include a significantly compassionate, historically knowledgeable, and analytically competent populace, not only might “truth” not be beneficial, the quest itself could even be harmful. For instance, certain “truths” have been used as rationales for eugenics programs, for Social Darwinism, even for wars.

I consider an ideology to be a useful framework and abstraction for a coherent set of societal goals, how they might be achieved, and once achieved, maintained. Of course, uncritically-parroted ideology has its own set of dangers — though those dangers are not necessarily any greater than a poorly done quest for “truth”, or truth operating without compassion.

My intended point was that “truth”, the quest for truth, and even “love”, compassion, pacifism, non-violence, and a host of supposedly desirable traits are not universally beneficial, at either the individual or societal level. On balance, I would opt for them, but the conclusions to be drawn, and the actions taken, could certainly benefit from the proper ideology, and a modicum of common sense and adaptability.

Denis Neville said...

@ Fred – “What of the danger that may extend to an entire society, or even potentially the entire world, when those seeking “the truth” — but without the critical ability to recognize it — become followers of false prophets or the ever-present demagogues?”

Eisenhower’s view of the danger of extremist movements

Dwight Eisenhower viewed the early rise of the modern American right with alarm. He knew that extreme movements evolved from the psychological and social needs of their supporters. Free societies did not necessarily perpetuate freedom; many of their citizens felt more comfortable under a government with rigid order and guaranteed aspects of life. He also realized that authoritarianism could happen even in the United States. He did not believe that America was immunized against the seeds of extremism.

Robert Biggs, a WW II veteran, wrote President Eisenhower a letter saying that he "felt from your recent speeches the feeling of hedging and a little uncertainty. We wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made in truth."

Eisenhower wrote Biggs:

“I think it is undeniably true that the activities of our government have tended to become much more complex, impersonal and remote from the individual, with consequent loss in simplicity, direct human contact and clear guidance by higher authority I believe you to be urging. In good part this situation is inherent in life in the mid-twentieth century--in a highly developed economy and a highly complex society such as our own…

“I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed. Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life. This is to me what Lincoln meant by government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

“The mental stress and burden which this form of government imposes has been particularly well recognized in a little book about which I have spoken on several occasions. It is "The True Believer," by Eric Hoffer; you might find it of interest. In it, he points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems - freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.”