by Randolph T. Holhut
AR Chief Correspondent
December 29, 2011
VACLAV HAVEL AND THE POWER OF TRUTH
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When historians look back at 2011, I believe they will see a year that matched 1968 and 1989 for revolutionary fervor that spread around the world.
From Tahrir Square in Cairo, to the Indignados of Madrid, to the public union supporters in Madison, to Zuccotti Park in New York, ordinary people joined together in the struggle for dignity and freedom in 2011.
The battle of democracy against plutocracy defined this year. Why?
"The answer is clear enough: because Occupy has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement," wrote Rebecca Solnit for Tomdispatch.com. "Like those other upheavals it's aligned with in Spain, Greece, Iceland (where they're actually jailing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most recently Russia, it wants to ask basic questions: What matters? Who matters? Who decides? On what principles?"
The battle over those basic questions is still very much in progress, with an outcome that is very much in doubt. But change rarely happens quickly, and rarely happens as first envisioned.
That is what needs to be kept in mind as the calendar flips over to 2012.
"People in thousands of communities across the United States and elsewhere are living in public, experimenting with direct democracy, calling things by their true names, and obliging the media and politicians to do the same," Solnit wrote.
"The breadth of this movement is one thing, its depth another. It has rejected not just the particulars of our economic system, but the whole set of moral and emotional assumptions on which it's based."
But while change doesn't happen quickly or predictably, this much is certain - the power of tyranny is no match for the power of truth.
The events of the miracle year of 1989 - "Solidarity" rising again in Poland, the "Peaceful Revolution" in East Germany and the razing of the Berlin Wall, the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia - was fueled by throngs of nonviolent protesters in streets and squares who risked everything to gain the chance to live in truth.
I see that spirit in the Occupy movement, the spirit embodied by people such as Vaclav Havel, who died on Dec. 18 at the age of 75.
A poet and playwright, Havel was on the outs with the communist regime in Czechoslovakia since he was a child. His family's property was confiscated by the government in the late 1940s, and he was denied access to education because the government deemed him "bourgeois." He still managed to reach the university level and begin his career in theater.
Czechoslovakia under communism was all about lies. To survive in a rigid, bureaucratic system imposed from above, where dissent equaled imprisonment and death, you had to lie. You had to conform. You had to keep quiet.
In 1968, as student protests swept the world, there was a brief moment where it looked like changing this system was possible. Czech leader Alexander Dubcek's reforms became known as the Prague Spring.
Those reforms would not last the summer. The Soviet Union saw Dubcek as a threat to the stability of communism in eastern Europe, and sent in 750,000 troops to overthrow his government and crush the Prague Spring.
For the next 20 years, Havel continued to challenge the government. He was blacklisted and his writings were banned. He spent time in prison. He was under constant surveillance by the secret police. Yet he never lost his hope that the truth would prevail.
The resistance strategy was a simple one - refuse to cooperate with the machinery of oppression, and recognize that an unjust regime stays in power only as long as people are willing to stay silent and do nothing to change it.
Havel maintained that each person has the power to peacefully overturn a repressive government, simply by living a life of truth and creating "a situation in which the regime is confounded, invariably causing panic and driving it to react in inappropriate ways."
That life of truth was built in the 1970s and 1980s by reconstructing a civil society that created the space for artists, writers, educators and other creative people to come together and find ways to free themselves and their nation from the economic, moral and political rot of decades of dictatorship. The government could not control this space, this space where the seeds for a revolution were sown.
In the whirlwind autumn of 1989, when the Iron Curtain collapsed under the weight of its lies, it was Havel who Czechs rallied around. He was elected president of a free Czechoslovakia. When the country decided to split into two nations, he resigned and then came back as president of the Czech Republic.
Havel had been sick for a long time, and the world sadly had forgotten the spirit of 1968 and 1989. It is fitting that his death came at the end of another year of revolution and people power, so we can remember that nonviolent change is possible, and that hope and truth will always outlast tyranny.
"Hope is not a prognostication - it's an orientation of the spirit, " Havel wrote in 1993 for Esquire magazine, "Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can't delegate that to anyone else. Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.
"Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It's not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
"In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope."
Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.