Trying to understand America, I found myself in a prison cell in Czechoslovakia in 1978.
Next to me was Vaclav Havel, writing an essay called “The Power of the Powerless.” The latter word described Havel at the time, but within a few years he would lead the “Velvet Revolution” and become the first president of Czechoslovakia after communism failed. When the country split in two in 1993, Havel became the first president of the Czech Republic.
Before all of that, even before prison, Havel had been a playwright in the absurdist tradition. I once saw one of his plays performed; no fair asking what it was about. After the Soviet Union crushed Havel’s native country in the “Prague Spring” uprising of 1968, Havel’s plays were banned, and he spent five years in prison for spearheading a protest movement calling for human rights in Czechoslovakia.
So what was he doing writing away so cheerfully in a dank cell, years away from vindication and freedom? After all, I was turning to him in desperation, with far fewer worries on my plate, and a much larger plate. I was just feeling down because I heard the president say protesting football players should be fired and because I had been binge-watching Ken Burns’ brilliant and depressing new documentary on the Vietnam War.
It was a war we had lied our way into, and lied our way out of, and watching it all over again was so unpleasant that I had to quit for a few days. The final episodes wait on the DVR, both a reminder and a threat.
Watching the news made me feel no better. As best I could tell, the 24-hour news channels for two solid days carried absolutely no news that wasn’t about a record-setting mass murder in Las Vegas. I turn to the news to learn what Donald Trump is doing to ruin the country, and all TV will tell me is what mass murderers are doing to ruin the country.
At least with Trump news, there’s a chance that something good, or at least funny, will happen. Not so with mass murders. I won’t turn on the news tomorrow and learn that all those bullets were filled with nothing but fake blood and some sort of long-acting anesthetic. Lester Holt won’t tell me that all those people who got shot are feeling much better now and will soon be back on their feet.
What’s worse is thinking that wall-to-wall news coverage might be exactly what that murderer wanted, sort of a posthumous farewell gift from America. And I know that as a country we will do nothing to stop the next lone loser with record-setting mayhem in mind.
For Americans, mass murder is just a routine natural disaster, like hurricanes. We won’t try to stop mass murderers because that would require listening to evidence. We won’t try to stop worsening hurricanes because that would require listening to science. And we won’t try to understand protesters because that would require listening to each other.
Havel saw it all. Suppose a greengrocer puts a sign in his shop window saying “Workers of the world, unite,” Havel wrote. Chances are he never thinks about the slogan or about the workers of the world. He places it there because the authorities told him to put it there. If he declines, he could get in trouble. It could hurt his business.
It would be more truthful, Havel said, if the greengrocer put up a sign saying, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.” More truthful, but also more offensive. Putting it all on workers who, after all, might just as well unite allows the greengrocer to hide behind a high façade of ideology.
But, Havel argues, “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” a veil that humans use to hide their “‘fallen existence,’ their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo.” By accepting the ritual of ideology, the greengrocer becomes a player in the game and allows the game to go on.
“Human beings are compelled to live within a lie,” Havel writes, “but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way.” The system alienates humanity, but alienated humanity supports the system.
“In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life,” Havel writes. “This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.”
Havel was writing about a nation under the yoke of a communist-dominated Soviet Union that had inherited the worst features of the Russian czars. Surely, none of that could apply to America, despite its growing tribalism, its ideology dwarfed by partisanship, the unwillingness of “consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.”
No, Havel wasn’t letting the Western world off the hook. Wasn’t the grayness and emptiness of life under communism only “an inflated caricature of modern life in general?” he wrote. “And do we not in fact stand … as a kind of warning to the West, revealing to it its own latent tendencies?”
Mr. Havel, I leave you to your cell. But I lock the door behind me wondering whether those football players kneeling in protest serve as a warning of their own, a warning that protesters serve the cause of liberty more honorably than those who think patriotism consists of placing into the window whatever sign of the day the authorities endorse.