Former President Havel addresses a European cultural congress on the economics of culture
On a warm evening in 1991, a colleague and I found an out-of-the-way café in the old part of Prague. Two men with blank expressions stood outside. The interior was dim and close, with room for only eight or nine tables. The place was almost empty. Just a sleepy waitress, a bartender polishing glasses, and a single patron who sat alone drinking wine and chain-smoking cigarettes.
The President of Czechoslovakia wasn't reviewing official papers. He was reading a book, a startlingly un-Presidential act to our American eyes. My companion, a neoconservative State Department official, already admired him for defying and defeating a Communist state. He'd impressed me by bringing a writer's sensibility and an affinity for true underground culture to his role as head of state.
Václav Havel even tried to appoint Frank Zappa as his Minister of Culture. "We're not rock musicians," Zappa told a reporter back in the sixties. "We're electronic social workers." The State Department wouldn't let Zappa assume the post, but Havel had made his point to the Czech public by offering this apparatchik's position to the composer of songs like "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" ("Some say your nose, some say your toes, but I think it's your mind.")
We never spoke to Havel that night. It didn't seem polite to offer anything more than the curt nod of acknowledgement any café patron gives another at that hour. But Havel spoke to us, to all of us. And on the occasion of his death, the real lessons of his life's work are in danger of being lost.
Today we're told that the Occupy movement is too idealistic, too naïve. Naïve? Try Havel's words if you want naïve: "May truth and love triumph over lies and hatred."
Think of that as the Velvet Revolution's "one demand."
Portrait of the President as a Young Freak
As millions of people know, the underground playwright Havel first made his political mark in Charter 77. That group was formed to defend the Plastic People of the Universe, a banned and imprisoned rock band working in the Zappa mold of musical dissonance and cultural dissidence.
The Occupy movement is not on the cultural fringe, despite what its detractors say. But Havel's movement began as a Yippie-like creature of the underworld. Charter 77 rarely had more than a thousand members. It was a strange blend of political idealism and the hippie subculture where people proudly labeled themselves "freaks" to the conventional world. Despite its later alignment with economically conservative forces, it was more Allen Ginsburg than Alan Greenspan.
And it was created to defend the Plastic People of the Universe, whose grating music makes Occupy's drum circles seem like a children's choir serenading the bored residents of a home for aging veterans.
Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité - what wonderful words! And how terrifying their meaning can be! Freedom in the shirt unbuttoned before execution. Equality in the constant speed of the guillotine's fall on different necks. Fraternity in some dubious paradise ...
Havel addressed the liberal democratic West on words in the 1970s, noting that the suppression of speech can give language enormous power:
I ... live in a country where a writers' congress speech is capable of shaking the system ... a manifesto served as one of the pretexts for the invasion of our country one night by five foreign armies ... a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.
When a system has become inflexible and is in danger of collapsing, what it fears most is words. Think about that the next time you see a phalanx of cops tear down a tent city on television.
Havel had been burned by language, too:
The same word can at one moment radiate great hope, at another it can emit lethal rays ... true at one moment and false the next, at one moment illuminating, at another, deceptive. On one occasion it can open up glorious horizons, on another, it can lay down the tracks to an entire archipelago of concentration camps.
And as we approach an election year that will be filled with the rhetoric of freedom, this observation still resonates:
The same word can at one time be the cornerstone of peace, while at another time machine-gun fire resounds in its every syllable.
In 1975 Havel had the presumption to write directly to Czechoslovakian head of state Gustáv Husák with a few suggestions. There's more than a passing resemblance between the fear-driven Communist society Havel condemned in that letter and the financial anxiety many Americans endure today:
The technique of existential pressure is ... universal. There is no one in our country who is not, in a broad sense, existentially vulnerable. Everyone has something to lose and so everyone has reason to be afraid. The range of things one can lose is broad, extending from the manifold privileges of the ruling caste... down to the mere possibility of living in that limited degree of legal certainty available to other citizens.
Today, one out of two Americans lives in financial insecurity. Even many upper-middle-class citizens live from month to month, just one layoff notice away from medical bankruptcy or home foreclosure.
"Everyone has something to lose," observed Havel.