“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” — Václav Havel
Václav Havel, whose birthday it is today, will always be relevant. His quotes float into my head as I read the news, as I watch the footage. He’s THERE. Like Orwell is THERE. In the fog of propaganda, these quotes help me shake off the illusion, and see what’s going on for what is going on. The quote above ^^ is with me always. It’s right there when I need it. And I often need it, the world being the awful place that it is.
First up: his essential and famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless“, written in 1978. For God’s sake, don’t skim. It’s important. In it, he lays out the features of tyranny: bureaucratic tyranny, ideological tyranny, and how tyranny operates: tyranny forces individuals to participate in it, until everything becomes empty ritual, empty words, all used to prop up an empty system. This essay is one of the most important things he wrote, and spread like wildfire through Eastern bloc countries at the time. I lean on it heavily, myself, especially as the propaganda in this country becomes ever more stifling, and I notice an alarming number of my fellow citizens seem to WANT a government like the one he describes. Václav Havel helps me stay sharp. Pay close attention to language. It’s all there.
Here’s a little bit about the about the Velvet Revolution of 1989 – so-called for its notable lack of violence. Czech novelist and playwright Ivan Klima wrote in his wonderful book The Spirit of Prague:
What happened in November 1989 is well known. As an eyewitness and a participant, I wish to emphasize that this revolution, which really was the outcome of a clash between culture and power, was the most non-violent revolution imaginable. In the mass meetings attended by up to three-quarters of a million people, no one was hurt, not a window was broken, not a car damaged. Many of the tens of thousands of pamphlets that flooded Prague and other cities and towns urged people to peaceful, tolerant action; not one called for violence. For those who still believe in the power of culture, the power of words, of good and of love, and their dominance over violence, who believe that neither the poet nor Archimedes, in their struggle against the man in uniform, are beaten before they begin, the Prague revolution must have been an inspiration.
The Velvet Revolution culminated in Havel’s election as president of Czechoslovakia after 40 years of Soviet Communist rule. In such perilous times as we live in now, it is important to remember heroes like Havel. Havel is a hero of mine for many reasons, but perhaps the main reason is his policy of living “as if” he were free.
More after the jump. Plus some thoughts on Iran, because it’s related.
Havel spent a ton of time in jail for his political writings. His philosophy/rules for existing were: yes, he lived in an un-free un-just society, but he would behave as if he were free. The magic word “if”, a term from theatre, Stanislavsky’s “Magic If”, is crucial: “What If” “As If” “If” is the mystery of the creative process. So Havel, a man of the theatre, acted “as if” he were living in a free society, and was constantly arrested for it, and he continued to act “as if” he were free, and in so doing drove the authorities slowly insane. He endured decades of arrests, surveillance, censorship. The world knew about his plays, his home country didn’t: his work was suppressed.
People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.
Even as President, Havel continued to live his “as if”. He was an idealist. He had a sense of the absurd, due to living in a schizophrenic political culture, where the lunatic dictates of the Politburo were official policy, all of which contradicted REALITY. Totalitarian governments create schizophrenic populaces, where you must live divided from oneself. Havel’s sense of the absurd also came from his chosen artform: theatre, with its long history of abstract ways of addressing truth and criticizing power. Havel is an heir to Ionesco, not Ibsen.
Much of what was unforgivable to the powers-that-be during the Velvet Revolution was the sense of humor on display. The tone of the revolution was not of rage and vengeance. Instead, the tone was of mocking levity. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Autocratic governments prefer violent resistance. Violent resistance validates their power. But to be laughed at and mocked calls into question the legitimacy of power and control.)
Havel and his Civic Forum, the protesters in the Velvet Revolution, refused to recognize power anymore. They just laughed at it.
In November, of 1989, as the Communist edifice began to crack, Czechoslovakia was given a warning. The government was hard-line Communist, and the memories of the 1968 Prague Spring were still fresh. The upheaval in Eastern Europe was like a brush-fire, and those in power in Czechoslovakia wanted to make sure it didn’t spread within their borders. It’s still breathtaking to remember how quickly these events took place. If you were alive in the fall of 1989, you know how difficult it was to keep up with the news. Look at the timeline: In the second week of November Czechoslovakia was warned to keep its people under control. By December 29, Václav Havel was the first freely elected democratic president of the nation. On November 25, 1989, the Communist Party leadership in Czechoslovakia resigned.
Steven Greenhouse reported in The New York Times on Nov. 25, 1989:
After the news of the resignations of the older leaders spread, there was singing and dancing and scenes of jubilation throughout the center of Prague, where just a week before the police had clubbed demonstrators in a vain effort to put down the protests.
Havel recognized the leadership resignations as window-dressing only. On November 25, the same day as the resignation, he led protests against the “new” leadership.
R.W. Apple, Jr., reported in The New York Times:
“The new leadership is a trick that was meant to confuse,” said Václav Havel, the often-jailed playwright who to many symbolizes political dissent here. “The power remains in or is passing into the hands of the neo-Stalinists.”
“Shame! Shame! Shame!” shouted thousands of his listeners, part of a huge throng of protesters estimated by Czechoslovak officials at 500,000 to 800,000 … Today’s crowd was the largest in the nine straight days of demonstrations …
More than 24 hours after the old regime came apart, it was still not clear whether the Communists were ready for significant changes, including the abandonment of their claim to permanent control of the Government, or whether they were trying to regroup behind a new facade …
A light snow was falling on Mr. Havel and Alexander Dubcek, the 67-year-old Slovak who instituted liberalization crushed by Soviet-led tanks 21 years ago, as they spoke to the vast throng at the stadium.
People in the crowd were in an exuberant if wary mood, their confidence buoyed by the departure of Mr. Jakes. They wore ribbons in red, blue and white, the national colors, and waved Czechoslovak flags as Mr. Havel told them that he was “profoundly disturbed” by the composition of the new Politburo named at 3 a.m. today.
On November 28, Serge Schmemann wrote in The NY Times about Havel, who was quickly rising to prominence:
If proof is needed that the pen is mightier than the sword, then Václav Havel is a veritable smoking gun. In and out of prisons over the last twenty years, his plays banned in his native land, the playwright today accepted the figurative surrender of his tormentors at a meeting with Prime Minister Ladislav Ademec … Active in 1968 as chairman of an unsanctioned Club of Independent Writers, he subsequently helped found the Charter 77 dissident movement and through his clashes with the authorities was repeatedly sent to prison.
Mr. Havel was on one of his stints in prison only last May, this time for trying to lay a wreath at the grave of Jan Palach, a student who burned himself to death when the Warsaw Pact forces invaded in 1968. As recently as a month ago, the police dragged Mr. Havel from his sickbed to put him in detention on the eve of anticipated demonstrations marking the October 28 National Day.
Now, at the huge demonstrations that have abruptly routed Czechoslovakia’s neo-Stalinist regime, the crowds have chanted “Havel! Havel!” as the writer has proclaimed the demise of the system he fought with pen in hand and his willingness to join a government that would guide Czechoslovakia to democracy.
If you were alive back then, then you remember all the upheaval. Communist leaders all over Eastern Europe were competing with one another to make public statements acknowledging their deplorable behavior in an orgy of self-deprecation. After 70 years of not caring what the citizens had to say, suddenly they all seemed to care, desperately. Just another version of the Socialist/Communist stand-by: ritualistic self-criticism. Beware. We live in an era where self-criticism has taken on the aspects of a ritual: apologies must be worded in a certain way, otherwise they are not accepted, and etc. You might as well just write a script of an “appropriate apology” and hand it out to everyone with commands to follow it word by word. (It still won’t be accepted.) Pay attention: These are the signs. History provides examples for this sort of thing.
On December 7, 1989, two things happened: the Prime Minister, Ladislav Adamec, resigned. And Havel made a public statement saying he would accept the role of President, if it was offered.
On that same day, Henry Kamm reported from Prague in The NY Times:
In less than a month, the modest 53-year-old writer has gone from being a bookish and persecuted symbol of resistance to totalitarianism to become the acclaimed leader of the Civic Forum mass movement, which is shaking the foundations of a 41-year-old Communist regime… And tonight, after fencing wittily with several reporters and refusing to deny his availability, he finally owned up to it. “I have repeatedly said my occupation is writer,” he replied to an American correspondent. “I have no political ambitions. I don’t feel myself to be a professional politician. But I have always placed the public interest above my own. And if, God help us, the situation develops in such a way that the only service that I could render my country would be to do this, then of course I would do it.”
And so it came to be. The pressure on the Politburo to stand down was too much for the crumbling Communist regime. On December 29, 1989, Václav Havel was chosen president of the new democratic Czechoslovakia.
Craig R. Whitney, reporter for The New York Times, reported from Prague, on that day:
After a 20-gun salute and a military parade, Havel addressed the joyous crowd that thronged the castle courtyard. “Dear friends,” he said, “I promise you I will not betray your confidence. I will lead this country to free elections. This must be done in an honest and calm way, so that the clean face of our revolution is not soiled. That is the task for all of us. Thank you.”
After his short speech, Mr. Havel went into St. Vitus Cathedral, within the castle walls, for a Te Deum mass presided over by 90-year-old Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek, the country’s Roman Catholic Primate and Archbishop of Prague. The Gothic cathedral was jammed with people of every age. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and chor performed Dvorak’s Te Deum.
Through much of Mr. Havel’s work runs the thread of what he calls “the absolute horizon” – the moral and philosophical judgments that give human life its meaning. He repeatedly warned his persecutors that by their repression of human freedom they were ultimately undercutting their own existence as well.
And that, my friends, is one of the reasons why Václav Havel is one of my heroes. He never abdicated personal responsibility, even when it required a long look at himself in the mirror. The prison guard is AS corrupt as the prisoner. (Remember the lessons of the Stanford Experiment.) The corruption is not just in the leadership. Corruption seeps down into every corner of society.
Way back in 1975, Havel wrote a letter to Gustav Husak, then President of Czechoslovakia. He warned Husak of what happens when a population is kept down. It wasn’t about politics for Havel, it was about “human dignity”. Human dignity cannot be bestowed by anyone in power. Humans already HAVE it. We are born with it. If you deprive people of these things through laws, you, according to Havel, create “permanent humiliation of their human dignity.” In this daring letter (for which he was imprisoned), Havel wrote:
I fear the price we are all bound to pay for the drastic suppression of history, the cruel and needless banishment of life into the underground of society and the depths of the human soul, the new compulsory ‘deferral’ of every opportunity for society to live in anything like a natural way … No wonder, then, that when the crust cracks and the lava of life rolls out, there appear not only well-considered attempts to rectify old wrongs, not only searchings for truth and for reforms matching life’s needs, but also symptoms of bilious hatred, vengeful wrath and a kind of feverish desire for immediate compensation for all the endured degradation.
Havel’s genius was his insistence on being “calm”, for not demanding “immediate compensation”. How many revolutions go off the rails by lining up the old guard against the wall? Revenge may be satisfactory, but this impulse in humanity should not be lauded – unless you think Madame Defarge in Tale of Two Cities is a valid role model. Good luck when the tide inevitably turns, as it always does, and you yourself face the firing squad. Revolutions eat their young.
Havel’s hat-trick was psychological. He lived under censorship and oppression. He retaliated by writing the plays he wanted to write, absurdist ironic masterpieces. His survival instinct came from a belief in human dignity and the theatrical magic of “as if”. Nobody can say to you that you MUST ignore basic human dignity, even if the entire political structure is set up that way. Like all actors and artists and writers do on a daily basis, you PRETEND: Live AS IF you were free. Truth is not bestowed. Freedom is not bestowed. It exists already. No one can give it OR take it away. It is WRONG to withhold freedom from others. There are bad laws which must be disobeyed. If you KNOW this, then you act accordingly. Those who sneer at artists forget (or never knew in the first place because they’re fucking ignorant) that artists have a lot to teach regular civilians – it’s one of the reasons why tyrannical governments target artists first.
On January 1, 1990, Havel officially assumed the role of President. He made a speech which I consider to be one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century.
Broadcast on the radio, the speech set the tone for everything afterwards. It is referred to as “the contaminated moral environment” speech. A tough draught of truth and self-reckoning after decades of double-speak and denial.
Czeslaw Milosz, another famous dissident, said, when he received the Nobel Prize: “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”
Truth is unmistakable, and Havel spoke it, but – and this is the radical part – Havel addressed the people’s complicity in the corruption. He did not point fingers at the old leaders, screaming, “YOU DID THIS TO US”. Havel encouraged the Czech people to take responsibility for having internalized oppression, and through that internalization participated in it. It may have been from necessity, which Havel acknowledged, but it created its own moral rot. The “contaminated moral environment” was, to Havel, not just about the Communist regime.
That is why the speech is extraordinary. It gives me chills.
Václav Havel’s Speech, Jan. 1, 1990
Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nation is not being used sensibly … We have polluted our soil, our rivers and forests, bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adult people in our country die earlier than in most other European countries.
But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous …
The previous regime — armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology — reduced man to a force of production and nature to a tool of production … It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy, and stinking machine, whose real meaning is not clear to anyone …
When I talk about contaminated moral atmosphere … I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extremes — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery; none of us is just its victim: we are all also its co-creators …
We have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us only, to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue but also because it could blunt the duty that each of us faces today, namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly … Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.
If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this, hope will return to our hearts …
In the effort to rectify matters … we have something to lean on. The recent period — and in particular, the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution — has shown the enormous human, moral, and spiritual potential and civil culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy. Whenever someone categorically claimed that we were this or that, I always objected that society is a very mysterious creature and that it is not wise to trust only the face it presents to you. I am happy that I was not mistaken. Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek, humiliated, skeptical, and seemingly cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake from their shoulders in several weeks and in a decent and peaceful way the totalitarian yoke…
There are free elections and an election campaign ahead of us. Let us not allow this struggle to dirty the so far clean face of our gentle revoltuion … It is not really important now which party, club, or group will prevail in the elections. The important thing is that the winners will be the best of us, in the moral, civil, political and professional sense, regardless of their political affiliations …
In conclusion, I would like to say that I want to be a president who will speak less and work more. To be a president who will … always be present among his fellow citizens and listen to them well.
You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just, in short, of a humane republic which serves the individual and which therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such it is impossible to solve any of our problems, human, economic, ecological, social, or political.
People, your government has returned to you!
And to those who might feel the impulse to come in and list how Havel’s government went wrong, did the wrong things, or made mistakes, etc.: you are missing (and proving) the whole point. You are one of those people interested in purity, and people interested in purity not only have no place in my world but they are totalitarian in sensibility. Human beings are not perfect. The world is not perfect. If you demand perfection in politics then … have fun never getting anything real done.
Václav Havel changed the world. I still look to his example.
I have been thinking of Havel’s observation about hope and optimism “making sense” as I watch the women in Iran rise up, with men rising up behind them in support. The mullahs have turned off the internet, like they did in 2009, and are massacring people under cover of the social media blackout. University students gunned down. Woman. Life. Freedom. A motto for the ages. They have my full support. And shame on the silence of others, shame on the media, shame on those who take this opportunity to caution everyone against “Islamophobia”. Listen to actual Iranians, and stay away from those who say they want “reforms”. The people in Iran have spoken … AGAIN. Their beef is with the regime itself, not just the forced hijab. Statistics show that more than half of Iranians do not even “identify” as Muslim. And so, in a situation very difficult for Westerners trained (brainwashed) to never criticize anything or anyone – the beef is also with Islam. We must be able to think about these complex issues. There are many excellent articles out there by Iranian people, and/or members of the Iranian diaspora. Being “mean” about a religion is very difficult for some (not me), and the problem is a situation like this will be co-opted by xenophobic evangelical racist whatever-your-want-to-call-it alt-righters, who will “use” it for their own ends. Shitty people will always be with us.
Ignoring what is going on, OR being ignorant of what is going on, is inexcusable for many reasons, and it’s particularly inexcusable for Americans because the United States has been so active in Iran in such damaging ways: assassinating Mossadegh, propping up the Shah’s dictatorship, etc. Americans need to take responsibility for the country we live in, what we have done, and standing up for the people rallying in the streets and being murdered and for the women – THE WOMEN – fighting for their rights. I am witnessing – again – the squirrelly cowardice of Western feminism in regards to issues like this – what you would call “cultural issues” – and thereby failing international feminism, and women, in general. There’s been a real push towards acceptance of the hijab. So now, here’s all these women ripping all their hijabs off. What’s a poor well-intentioned Western feminist to do? How about stick up for women rising up against male oppressors? Like, isn’t that your whole JOB, feminists? If there is a clearer example of fighting for women’s rights than what is going on in Iran right now I am not aware of it.
When you fear insulting a culture more than you care about standing up for the people who LIVE in that culture … you really need to ask yourself what the hell you are doing with your life. There was a post on Instagram from a member of the Iranian diaspora who addressed Western people, warning them that “disdain for Islam” is part of these protests, and “before you tut-tut” … consider the reasons for this disdain. (Meanwhile: the same people warning against Islamophobia have no problem criticizing all Christians. Make it make sense.) The media finally – after 19 days of nonstop protests and mass killing – started catching up, although with a noticeable half-heartedness. There was an article in the New York Times about the counter-protests. This is akin to the YEARS of going to Rust Belt towns and interviewing Trump supporters. Enough already. If I have to read one more article about people in diners talking about why they voted for Trump, the media failed. I mean, they have failed all around anyway. Look up The Munich Post. Yes, the Munich Post was “biased”, but if you think interviewing resentful people sitting in diners in the Rust Belt – for YEARS – is not biased, if you think covering the COUNTER protests in Iran – while barely mentioning the PROTESTS – isn’t biased, then there’s no hope for you. I’m not going to stand up for or apologize for or make excuses for a political regime that continues to view women as second-class citizens, inhibiting their freedom – of movement, self-expression, dress-code, independence, etc. (A couple years ago, Saudi Arabia finally lifted the ban on women driving. A compilation video leaked of Saudi women driving, giving peace signs to the camera, wearing big sunglasses, doing donuts in the sand, all as some pop-rap song played. I remember this being shared widely, with comments along the lines of, “Yay for Saudi women! They are given the right to drive and this is the first thing they do! You go, girls!” I don’t disagree but allowing women to drive in the second decade of the 21st century is nothing to celebrate. It is a fucking disgrace.) I will stand up for Iranian women’s humanity, dignity, for all Iranians’ art, writing, films. I will stand up for THEM – and have done so, as anyone who has read me for more than five minutes can attest to! Propaganda has been really effective in the last twenty or so years, keeping people inhibited and intimidated from criticizing something affecting a group identity they do not belong to. If you’re not a member of said community, then you have no right to speak on it, apparently. If you do suddenly show support for, say, the Iranian protests, or protests in other countries, you are accused of “virtue signaling”, another intimidation linguistic tactic, which has a silencing effect. #1. No shit I’m virtue-signaling because the cause is virtuous. #2. Worldwide attention has an effect. It denies totalitarian regimes the luxury of privacy. Actress Golshifteh Farahani – banned from working in Iran (after appearing in such groundbreaking films as About Elly – which I wrote about here – Half Moon – which I wrote about here – and as one of the women moviegoers in Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin – which I wrote about here) – and then found a place in American cinema, especially as Adam Driver’s wife in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson) – made this point on Instagram. She observed: “Westerners calling attention to what is happening have an impact.” On Instagram and elsewhere, underneath clips of Iranians being beaten on the streets, etc., are comments sections filled with comments like this: “Why not protest for the women forced to take OFF their hijab in France?” Very very effective mis-direction. Look out for people who try to steer the conversation away from the people actually going through whatever catastrophe it is, and towards their pet issue. The laws in France are bad, but WE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT THAT RIGHT NOW. I say this all the time: Not everything is meant to be about everything.
And so I applaud the women in Iran. I am committed to listening and learning from the people who actually live there. Isn’t that what people keep lecturing us to do? Why won’t they do it with Iran? Iranian voices are telling us. Who ya gonna believe, me or your lying eyes? Havel’s words resonate. The “certainty” we see on display in these amazing protests is that the cause is just. The repercussions are horrifying but the cause is just. Four decades of repression has done its work. Those women burning their hijabs – being beaten and sometimes killed – and the men cheering the women on – that’s what it looks like to live AS IF you were free. It’s no less than total revolution.
I wrote about Havel’s “as if you were free” in the context of Iranian liberation – particularly Iranian women’s liberation – years ago my review of Shirin Neshat’s Women Without Men, a drama about the CIA-organized coup against Prime Minister Mossdadegh in 1953. I highly recommend this bold film, with a dreamlike visual style, steeped in magical realism, based on a banned Iranian novel (also well worth seeking out). If you want to know about what is going on in Iran right now, if you want to catch up, then follow Shirin Neshat on Instagram. And also follow Shabnam Toloui, the star of Women Without Men, who first made such an impact me in The Day I Became a Woman – wrote about it here -, where she played the woman in the bicycle race, pursued on horseback by the furious men in her family, her brothers and/or her husband.
Toloui was banned from working in Iran because she was a member of the Baha’i faith. Forced to live in exile. Toloui is another great resource for what is happening in Iran. Living “as if you were free” – you could be killed in the process – symbolizes that the powers-that-be have not reached your inner self, your soul. The powers-that-be HATE THAT. They want more than anything else to crush the individual’s inner spirit. It sure would make their jobs easier, now wouldn’t it.
I have not been tested the way Iranian women have been tested. I cannot enter into their experience, but I can be outraged on their behalf, and support them fully in their desire to be free. They are living “as if they were free”. Vaclav Havel’s spirit lives on in any population trying to throw off the shackles of oppression, his spirit reminds everyone that human rights can, of course, be taken away and/or granted by capricious authority figures, but at the bottom of it: We are born free. Freedom is not a privilege. It’s not even a right. It’s just the way things ARE.
In 2023, the New York Film Critics Circle gave a special award to then-imprisoned Jafar Panahi. The awards-dinner booklet features essays by NYFCC members and I wrote the essay about Panahi. I led with Václav Havel.