January 15, 2018

Vaclav Havel’s Benedict Option

One of my heroes is Vaclav Havel, the now deceased former President of the Czech Republic, who was a chain smoking, adulterous atheist writer and one time dissident before the collapse of communism and his rise to leader of his country.  In these cloying, suffocating, enchained times of complete and utter freedom in the West, his writing is timely, and even more so, year by politically-correct year.

Just after the fall of the Iron Curtain I was in Prague and found myself staying with a Brethren pastor and his family.  They were conservative in that central European way, and theologically conservative too. And they had a huge picture of Vaclav Havel on the back of their lounge room door, staring impassively as we sat eating far-too-stodgy food.

vaclav havel, president, praha 24.11.2009

The family house and their church meeting hall were hidden behind large walls in a side street in the central city.  That was the only way they were allowed to function during the days of the communist regime.

I asked why the picture. Why a Brethren family with a picture of a chain smoking, womanising atheist on the door of the pastor’s house?

Because he gave us our freedom,” was the simple reply.

And he had.  Havel, wreathed in cigarette smoke, and cheating on his wife, wrote such searing words of truth against oppressive tyranny, showing up how words were being used to hide meaning, to control and to scare people into submission, that anyone who trusts in the man who claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life, could not help but admire this broken but brave man also.

What would Havel make of the subterranean tyranny of the soft totalitarianism that is on the rise in the West?  The stultifying, stilted, souring language of progressivism that is all sweetness and light.  How would he feel about how this neo-totalitarianism, wrapped in democracy, uses and abuses words in much the same way the paleo-totalitarianism of communism did?

It’s worth reading his famous The Power of the Powerless, a searing essay that cuts the ground out from under those who use language to hide meaning and use it to control the narrative, while all the time refusing to acknowledge that is what they are doing.

In his famous example he speaks of a greengrocer who, for reasons of self-preservation, is forced to put a sign in his window “Workers of the World Unite!”, that has come from the central party. Havel’s question about power is subtle.  He’s not concerned here with naked power, but power dressed up in finery, a finery that encourages you to acquiesce publicly, while giving you some wiggle room in your conscience, if you can fool yourself often enough into doing so, and hence be partner with the demise of your own intellectual integrity.

Havel states:

That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

It’s that same “harmony with society” that a friend of mine in his workplace says is the reason a good number of his colleagues who otherwise disagree with Wear it Purple Day, turned up in purple nonetheless.  No one demanded they do so.  No one would have kicked their door down at midnight. No one ever will in all probability.  No, they will acquiesce for the sake of “harmony with society”, regardless of the discordant cacophony jangling within their conscience.

Vaclav goes on:

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence.

The right to be left in peace.  Only the most ardent culture warriors hold such a right in no esteem, especially for others of us who do not publicly assent to what they view as competing and superior rights. There may be no peace for the wicked, but there is none from them either.  So we, replete with our flabby underbellies addicted to the heart gods of comfort and ease, will not rock the boat and will duty place the sign in the window, or wear the colour on the day.

Havel nails it with these words:

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.

“Victims and pillars of the “post-totalitarian system”.  What a pity, as Havel foresaw, that it is the post-totalitarian system that is most committed to ideology and therefore the hardest to call out.  Just change the word “workers” to whatever the identity politics word-du-jour happens to be uttered from the powers that be in our colourful, hyper-modern, trans-googled world.

Such a system is a shape shifter, bending and morphing and refusing critique; always smiling, or grimacing, depending of your stance towards it.  It is at one and the same the self-professed victim, the protector and the prosecutor.  Post-totalitarian but totalising nonetheless.

Havel was my pastor friend’s hero, despite his solidly non-evangelical womanising and atheism,  because as a dissident understood the power of, well, dissent.

Havel understood that small communities of incremental dissent, or what he called “parallel structures” (and what fellow Czech dissent Vaclav Benda labelled a “parallel polis”), that exist side by side with the dominant and dominating structure, exerted a power that was beyond their size.

And lest you think this is another call for retreat and withdrawal, hear this clarion call by Havel in his essay:

…the parallel polis points beyond itself and makes sense only as an act of deepening one’s responsibility to and for the whole, as a way of discovering the most appropriate locus for this responsibility, not as an escape from it.

See that?  This parallel city points beyond itself.  It deepens responsibility to and for the whole! A Benedict Option perhaps, for chain smoking, adulterous atheists who are yet committed to freedom and truth.

When I left Prague I was headed straight to Paris.  I dumped all of the Czech koruna into an envelope and left it on my pillow.  Small change that I didn’t need.  Turns out it was a month’s pay for a pastor back then, a pastor who had lived and overseen the life of a parallel polis before freedom finally came.



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