As a child of the 1970s, someone who became aware of the larger world during Vietnam and Watergate, I'm not the kind of person who has a lot of heroes. It's a character flaw of my generation that we assume clay feet instantly, and spend most of our time searching for them, to prove ourselves right. We expect to be disappointed, so we make damned sure we will be disappointed. And if we're foolish enough to let our guard down and start to believe in someone, well...we've got no one to blame but ourselves when they let us down, as they inevitably do. And we reinforce our walls of self-defense and say we won't get fooled again.
But there was one New Boss in my life who wasn't "same as the Old Boss," and that man was Vaclav Havel, who died today at the too-soon age of 75.
I like having a constitutional law professor as a president (most of the time), but I loved the idea of there being, somewhere in the world, a playwright who was president, since that was a profession I spent about 15 years of my young adult life pursuing. The playwright president was, to me, the next best thing to a philosopher king. I admit it was a personal bias.
I knew Havel's work as an absurdist playwright, but in the late 1980s I became more aware of him as a political dissident and writer. And this is when I fell in love.
It was his essay, "The Power of the Powerless" that did me in. This was the essay in which he advanced the idea of "living in truth," refusing to agree to that which was repellent, refusing to say Yes when the state insists on your Yes, as the most powerful weapon against what he defined as "post-totalitarian" authoritarianism. To Havel, it was the people's decision to live in falsehood that kept Communism in power, not the tanks or secret police. It was the ability of the state to get people to show up to parades, wave flags, and hang propaganda signs in their storefronts that created a fiction of agreement that no one felt safe to challenge. But let one butcher say No--let one shopkeeper refuse to hang up the sign in his window, and the whole house of cards would begin to tremble.
Havel did not fight against the state by threatening it or leading an armed rebellion. He fought against it by demanding that it live by its own laws and adhere to its own constitution--a challenge the state proved utterly unwilling to meet. He lived in truth, and challenged the government to do the same. It couldn't do it. By exposing the puppet government in Prague as a complete fraud interested only in power and control, not in actual governance at any level, Havel and his co-signatories on "Charter 77" robbed it of legitimacy and made it difficult for ordinary Czechs and Slovaks to view it as anything other than a bully. He released the slaves in Plato's cave from their chains and let them see the actual sunlight.
When the Velvet Revolution toppled the Communist government in Prague without violence or bloodshed, and the people chanted "Havel to the Castle!" he became Czechoslovaki's president. He began his first New Year's address by reminding his countrymen what former presidents had said in similar circumstances. "For forty years on this day," he said, "you heard from my predecessors the same thing: how Czechoslovakia is flourishing, how happy we all are, how we trust our government. I assume you did not elect me to this office so that I, too, would lie to you."
Imagine an American politician having the balls to say anything that honest. I say imagine it, because the chances of ever hearing it are slim.
Havel was no saint, and he was the first to admit it. His writings from his tenure as president, and from the years after, are full of doubts, misgivings, and admissions of mistakes, both personal and political. He was a human being, not a Ken doll. He wasn't tall, or blond, or strong. He was a rumpled little man with un-stylish moustache and un-filtered cigarette, who was more comfortable at CBGB than the White House. But he did his best to live by his principles and approach his work from a position of honesty and integrity, whatever the outcome--because, to him, doing what was right was more important than winning. When it became clear that Czechoslovakia would split into two nations, he stepped down, unwilling to preside over an action he felt was desperately wrong. I'm sure many people, in his country and abroad, viewed that as a sign of weakness. And I'm sure he knew exactly how those people felt. Evidently, he didn't give a shit what they thought. He did what he thought was right. And then he returned, to become the new Czech Republic's first president.
Again--imagine seeing that, ever, here at home.
So, yes, Vaclav Havel was a hero to me. Not because he was flawless, but because, flawed as he was, he tried his best. He showed the power--and threat--that can reside in one person's persistent and ruthless insistence on searching for and then speaking the truth. He showed how important a single person really can be--if that person is strong enough to say "No." And he showed that words really can be more powerful than weapons, when those words help people see the truth and give them the courage to stand up to defend it.
As far as I'm concerned, every high school civics class in the United States should include "The Power of the Powerless" as required reading. A population that understood and could quote passages from Havel might actually start to demand a better class of leaders than we're currently getting. They might be able, finally, to reject the rhetoric, the nonsense, the hate mongering, and the lies that pass for political discourse in this country. They might, finally, like Havel's brave little butcher, be able to refuse the empty flag-waving and say, "No."