'It was awful. He was sat watching the voting in parliament, then his face went all red and he shouted something about spitfires and the White Cliffs of Dover, and then he just burst into flames. The Parker Knoll's ruined'.
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Monday, March 11, 2019
I first read Living in Truth, a book of essays by and about Václav Havel that was published just after the Velvet Revolution which brought him to power as the President of post-Communist Czechoslovakia in early 1990. Havel was a fascinating figure. A playwright who lived most of his life in Prague, he became a well-known dissident during the darkest days of repression after the short-lived Prague Spring of 1968. He was imprisoned by the Soviet-backed puppet regime led by Gustáv Husák (to whom Havel – cheekily – addresses the essay that was to become the first chapter of Living in Truth, about the long-perceived shortcomings of the regime). Later, Havel become the leading voice of the Czech human rights group Civic Forum – for which he would incur yet more official disapproval – but which would propel him on to a much wider stage as a leading advocate for reform. Havel believed, at the time Living in Truth was published in 1985, that the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet satellite states – along with that of the Soviet Union itself – had effectively run of out steam, and he, along with millions of others, were living in a ‘post-totalitarian’ period, when people would start to ‘live in truth’ again. What he didn’t foresee, however, was that the end was to come a lot sooner than he believed when he started writing. Barely four years after the essays were written, Havel found himself propelled from dissident and former prisoner to the highest office in the land, and all without a shot fired in anger. It’s the second chapter, ‘power of the powerless’ that I remember best, largely because of the story of the greengrocer. In this chapter, Havel describes the actions of the manager of a fruit and vegetable shop, who – along with many other sales outlets at the time – was expected to display signs extolling the virtues of Maxist-Leninism with their wares. In Havel’s version, the manager has to display signs, with slogans such as Karl Marx’s rallying cry of ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ or ‘socialism is the light of a child’s smile’, in amongst ‘the onions and carrots’ so that they blend with the everyday. Failure to do so, Havel goes on, could lead to the manager being officially reproached for not having the proper, approved window decoration – a failure that will be noted and could be held against him at a later date. But Havel then explains that the signs are ignored, they have no meaning, no-one – probably the manager least of all – actually believes them anymore. They are merely going through the motions of putting them in shop windows, and shoppers pay no attention to them whatsoever. The command to display them is part of the hollow rhetoric of a repressive, out of touch, and increasingly hated power structure. I can’t remember my first response to the story, perhaps I thought it was just one more stupid manifestation of totalitarianism; mind control of the masses, but something that showed that such control was essentially futile. I certainly would have felt that it would never happen in the ‘West’. Yet the story of the sign was not destined to stay among the onions and carrots in my mind. Fast forward 30 years and the otiose signage of totalitarian eastern Europe has now spread like onion blight and carrot fly throughout privatised industries and global economies. Equally pointless exhortations are laid before us in the name of professional development and human resource management (a phrase in itself redolent of repressive power control). We are now required to display the thinking of ‘owning’ our work, or to take team building and commitment to banal –even at times farcical – extremes. We might ignore messages like ‘team work makes the dream work’, but failure to display means we’re not accepting of our place in the hierarchy; a crime to be recorded and for which expiation will be demanded at the next appraisal, or kept on file for future reference, or even references. The ‘power’ of the powerless that Havel uses in the title is the essential power of dissent: the right to be able to say that the emperor is, in fact, stark bollock naked, without fear of repression or harm. That is what is necessary for a return to sanity in public and political life. The rise of populism, along with the derision heaped on empirical evidence, exemplified by Michael Gove’s ‘having enough of experts’ will have to be countered at some point. The alt-right and right wing elected politicians will have to be faced with the reality of their ill-thought through utterances. Not even President Trump can evade responsibility for the duplicity and danger created by double-speak, distortion and populist excess tub thumping. For there will come a time when ‘great’ will become ‘grate’ in his favourite red baseball cap slogan. And when that reckoning comes it will owe much to Havel’s belief that extremism can be defeated by the truth that has to be lived by each and everyone who has been damaged or denied by the politics of division and empty rhetoric. I recently saw an ID lanyard around an employee’s neck which carried the slogan: ‘I never settle for good enough’. Never, really? Not even when you’re running late and the kids need collecting from after school club, or when you’ve arrived at work angry and upset after a row with your partner? It insults the intelligence of the wearer and anyone who reads it. Instead of giving credence to the slogan, my thought was that this person’s thought processes have been commandeered by their bosses, an insult to her intelligence and the collective wit and understanding of herself and her work colleagues. Milan Šimečka, Slovak Philosopher and friend of Havel’s, described this form of propaganda as ‘the big insult’, which he defined as ‘a situation where intelligent people have to listen to bunkum and talk bunk, fully aware that it is bunk, because otherwise they would only have themselves to blame for the consequences’.