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[RRE]Vaclav Havel

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  • Phil Agre
    The other day I read John Keane s biography of Vaclav Havel (Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, London: Bloomsbury, 1999), and I d like to reflect
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 18, 2003
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      The other day I read John Keane's biography of Vaclav Havel (Vaclav
      Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, London: Bloomsbury, 1999),
      and I'd like to reflect on the relevance of Havel's life and ideas
      to the current situation in the United States.

      Vaclav Havel is a playwright and political essayist who led the
      dissident movement in communist Czechoslovakia and, after the 1989
      revolution, spent 13 years (until this past February) as the Czech
      president. He is a hero, and he managed to live a worthwhile life
      in terrible conditions.

      John Keane, for his part, is an English political theorist who is best
      known for bringing the work of Havel and other dissident intellectuals
      to a world audience in the 1980's. This work became immensely
      influential. Not only did it help somewhat to protect the dissident
      movement from repression, but it gave rise to the current discourse of
      "civil society" as a sphere of social life independent of the state.

      Havel is by any measure a remarkable person, and in reading Keane's
      biography I was struck by a pattern in his life. The pattern begins
      in his teenage years, when he led a remarkable literary circle of
      his peers. The circle was called the Thirty-Sixers because its
      members had to be born in 1936, and it published several issues of
      its own literary journal. Having gathered this circle, Havel and
      his colleagues then sought out various Czech literary figures to get
      advice on their literary works. This is the same person who, much
      later, was one of the main organizers of the Charter 77 dissident
      movement, calling on the Czech government to uphold its commitments
      to human rights under the Helsinki Accords, and who was then, in
      1989, a principal organizer of the Civic Forum, which represented
      the opposition in the transfer of power from the collapsing communist
      government.

      The pattern in Havel's life is what I call issue entrepreneurship:
      pick an issue, gather a network of people with an interest in it,
      and organize activities among them. In the case of the Thirty-Sixers,
      the issue concerned the distinctive experience of a generation and
      its literary expression; in the case of Charter 77 it was human
      rights; and in the case of the Civic Forum it was the creation of
      new political structures to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of
      communism. Successful people, in my experience, engage in a great
      deal of issue entrepreneurship, repeatedly evolving their issues
      and expanding their networks as they go along. A well-chosen issue
      will identify what sociologists call a structural hole: a bunch of
      people, preferably already well-connected in other ways, who ought to
      know one another but don't. By identifying such an issue, the issue
      entrepreneur spots an opportunity to become centrally located in newly
      emerging social networks -- a position that can generally be converted
      to some kind of advantage, even if the details of that advantage
      are not necessarily clear at the outset. There is nothing wrong with
      this. It is a powerful way of understanding the world, and I wish
      that everyone knew how to do it. Yet this central skill of social
      life is a mystery to almost everyone, with the result that society
      is filled with misguided theories, e.g., that power is completely
      seamless and static, or that success is simply a matter of hard work
      or else entirely arbitrary. Issue entrepreneurship is rarely taught,
      and until recently it has scarcely been codified. So the real puzzle
      is how anyone ever learns it at all.

      Havel's life is a case study in this puzzle. He was born to a wealthy
      family, and so perhaps he was socialized into the skills through his
      upbringing. Yet his family was not especially entrepreneurial. They
      did own a theater, and his charismatic uncle ran a film company, so
      that his interest in literature was understandable. But from Keane's
      description, he reminds me of numerous people I've met who seem to
      have been issue entrepreneurs from the time they were born.

      In any case, the skill of issue enterpreneurship does not suffice to
      explain the phenomenon of Prague teenagers, surrounded by wars and
      political disasters, starting a literary circle and publishing their
      poetry. It speaks well for the health of Czech culture at that time,
      at least on an elite level, that the cultural forms of the literary
      circle were so readily available -- their practices not just familiar
      to a group of teenagers but appealing to them. This is a culture that
      understood that the world is made of ideas, and knew that it actually
      matters how well a group of young people is managing to express its
      distinctive generational experience in the form of poetry. This
      kind of intellectual seriousness ran throughout Havel's life, and
      it eventually provided the backbone of a dissident movement that had
      little else to sustain it.

      All of this matters to Havel's subsequent life. I want to discuss
      two aspects of his work: his ideas about (what later came to be
      called) civil society and his concern with language. The problem for
      dissident intellectuals was how to oppose a regime that was willing
      to place overt opponents in prison -- how, in other words, to practice
      politics in a society where politics had been outlawed. Havel
      argued that the regime's opponents should build parallel structures:
      associations that were private and nonpolitical in character, but that
      provided the society with at least a minimum of connective tissue and
      intellectual life in order to avoid being wholly atomized. The point
      is not that he opposed politics in general, but that he believed that
      the political health of a society -- and, in the case of occupied
      Czechoslovakia, the potential for a political revival when the time
      was right -- required it to be healthy on a more basic, prepolitical
      level.

      Havel was not simply generalizing from his own experience. His
      ideas grew from the intellectual community of which he was part, which
      in turn was part of a larger European tradition. But his lifelong
      disposition to issue entrepreneurship was an excellent example,
      perhaps the best in his whole society, of what he was talking about.
      By articulating issues and building networks, he helped to build
      the connective tissue of a substantial community, and this in turn
      provided him with a support system for his activities and an audience
      both within the country and internationally for his work.

      I am particularly interested in his work on the subject of language.
      One of his early absurdist plays, for example, concerned the disaster
      inflicted on a bureaucracy by a newly rationalized language in which
      commonly used words were given the shortest spellings (the word for
      "wombat" had 216 letters) and words with similar meanings were made
      as dissimilar as possible. The bureaucrats were instantly rendered
      incapable of communicating, and so a new rationalized language
      was introduced in which words with similar meanings were made very
      similar, with similar results. It is important that he could count
      on his audience, living as they did in day-to-day absurdity of
      communist rule, to understand the absurdity of a rationally organized
      way of life, and especially the absurdity of attempts to exert
      rational control over language.

      Aside from the intrinsic fascination of his well-lived life, I am
      interested in Havel for the consequences that his ideas hold for the
      contemporary United States. The connection may not be obvious. After
      all, the United States is a free society and the enemy of communism,
      is it not? But Havel, first of all, is not a simple anti-communist.
      It is more accurate to say that he is an anti-modernist in the fashion
      of Heidegger. Although he was especially emphatic about the need to
      overthrow communism, he diagnoses the ills of rational organization
      in all modern societies, due to the influence of technology. Unlike
      other opponents of communism such as Friedrich Hayek, he is no friend
      of the free market. For Havel, what is central is civil society: the
      way that people are knitted together in their beliefs and associations
      on the ground. Only on the foundation of civil society is democracy
      possible, and when the market conflicts with the connecting function
      of civil society then it has to take second place. Unlike many
      conservatives Havel does not advocate undoing the modern world.
      But he wants to construct a social foundation on which a democratic
      and sustainable society is feasible.

      Havel's main concern, though, is not modernism but authoritarianism.
      And the United States is going through a period that the ancient
      Greeks would have understood very well as the early days of an
      authoritarian regime: dubious election results, a cult of personality
      honoring a mendacious leader who routinely issued false accusations
      of lying against his opponent, civil liberties "emergencies" that
      soon become permanent, increasing secrecy, centralization of political
      power, contempt for science and the legislature, demonization of the
      very idea of a democratic opposition, an institutionalized total war,
      and so on. As with many authoritarian regimes, these measures are
      rationalized as responses to a genuine enemy, yet all of them had
      already been in evidence before the attacks of September 11th and none
      of them has any necessary connection with such attacks.

      Of particular concern in terms of Havel's philosophy is the special
      language that has been evolved over the last decade by the ruling
      party and its adjuncts. Words and phrases have been systematically
      turned into political weapons, often by reversing their customary
      meanings. Organizations like Fox News continually broadcast
      government propaganda while falsely accusing legitimate journalists
      of "bias". (Projection is a very common property of authoritarian
      language.)

      My point is not that George Bush's America is perfectly equivalent
      to Gustav Husak's Czechoslovakia. Havel's ideas are useful not
      mechanically but in comparison and contrast. One important difference
      is that authoritarianism in Czechoslovakia was not home-grown,
      as in the United States, but was imposed from the outside. Without
      tanks rolling in the streets, the Czechs had proven quite capable,
      in 1968, of liberalizing the regime on their own. Czechs were
      able to recognize the absurdities that Havel lampooned in his plays
      in part because they already understood the regime and its lingo
      to be artificial and foreign. Not only that, but the authoritarianism
      that was imposed on Czechoslovakia, first in 1945 and then in 1968,
      was already senescent, its early dynamism having been lobotomized
      through successive waves of purges. Whereas the propaganda system
      in the United States originated in a business context in which
      investments, whether in propaganda or anything else, are contingent on
      measurable results, the Soviet system of propaganda was "scientific"
      only in a dogmatic fashion that had no room for such empirical
      reality-testing methods as focus groups and polling. American
      propaganda inhabits and simulates American vernacular language in
      a way that, aside from the older tradition of trade union discourse,
      had little analog in Czechoslovakia.

      Thus, despite its thoroughgoing irrationality -- its consistent
      practice of standing just beyond the reach of rational debate -- the
      jargon of American propaganda is in an important sense rational. It
      ought by rights to be susceptible to the same kind of lampooning that
      Havel applied to the rationalized languages of his own milieu. Yet,
      whereas Havel's plays could readily occupy the gap between absurdity
      and reality in occupied Czechoslovakia, Americans have found that
      gap much harder to identify. Even the American regime's most vocal
      opponents have been essentially befuddled by the artificial languages
      that pelt them.

      Havel's ideas about civil society and language were interrelated.
      In order for people to knit themselves a system of parallel structures
      beyond the reach of an oppressive politics, they needed to recognize
      the emptiness of the ruling party's language. In the United States,
      by contrast, not only is the ruling party's language altogether
      more sophisticated, but it actually includes a distorted version of
      the language of civil society. Heard for example during the 1990's
      debate on welfare reform, it aims at the creation of "intermediary
      institutions" that remove the populace from direct participation
      in politics and place it under the tutelage of the ruling party and
      its ideology.

      The goal of this strategy, plainly, is occupy the entirety of the
      language, thus leaving the democratic opposition with no language
      with which to speak, whether by writing absurdist plays or otherwise.
      Czech authoritarianism, in Havel's analysis, was primarily concerned
      with the public sphere, thus leaving the private realm of apolitical
      association at least somewhat open for parallel initiatives.
      Contemporary American authoritarianism is different. Although ruling
      party opponents are routinely slandered in the media as traitors and
      spoken of as providing aid to terrorists, an offense for which people
      can be sent to prison with no legal process whatsoever, the party
      controls the public sphere primarily through bombast and projection,
      rather than through overt oppression. And, just as importantly, its
      strategies for occupying the language are equally effective in the
      sphere of private association.

      Now despite all of these developments, the United States is nowhere
      near as authoritarian a society as Havel's Czechoslovakia. Although
      the rationalized irrationality of American propaganda is much greater
      than that of the communist Czechs, American society is in Havel's
      sense much healthier than the society that the Soviets invaded
      and occupied. One straightforward reason for this is that issue
      entrepreneurship is much more prevalent in the United States than
      it was in Czechoslovakia. The American tradition of autonomous
      association has of course always been celebrated -- not always
      justly, but we are speaking of comparisons. American society,
      being much less stratified by class, offers greater opportunity and
      thus incentive to those who embark on issue-entrepreneurial careers.
      The dynamism of the economy likewise depends upon and rewards that
      kind of initiative, both as business entrepreneurship in the narrow
      sense and career networking in a broader if incomplete sense that
      began to be codified widely in the 1980's.

      Issue entrepreneurship, however, is not an automatic antidote
      for tendencies toward authoritarianism. The American ruling
      party apparatus consists almost exclusively of highly aggressive
      practitioners of issue entrepreneurship. What is needed and missing
      in the United States is the other major component of Vaclav Havel's
      life story -- the intellectual seriousness that believed down deep
      that the world is made of ideas and that the health of a society
      depends on the health of its language. To be sure, the United
      States does a remarkable job of motivating its young to be poets.
      Its universities are institutionally the strongest in the world,
      functioning as platforms for issue entrepreneurship to an almost
      unbelievably greater degree than those of, say, Germany and France.
      What is urgently needed is that sense, innate to the intellectuals of
      Central Europe, that something crucial is at stake in the health of
      the language. Civilization cannot survive when language becomes the
      terrain of a thoroughly instrumentalized political war. Vaclav Havel
      and his colleagues won a contest of decency against the dead hand of
      an authoritarian system that had nothing living inside it. Today's
      authoritarians are altogether more resourceful. Today's civil society
      will have to discover a correspondingly deeper meaning in its own
      ideals.

      end
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