As Václav Havel notes, contemporary despotism attempts to conscript each citizen as an agent as well as a victim of oppression.
To the extent that we get along by going along with approved untruths, we increase the pressure on others to join us in our retreat from human dignity.
On the other hand, Havel warns, propagandists thrive on exploiting our bumbling attempts to resist tyranny. Any behavior that appears unruly can be used against us in the court of (shamelessly manipulated) public opinion.
How then does Havel recommend responding to tyranny? As the title of his famous essay puts it, our power lies in truth itself.
Anytime we “live within the truth”—that is, any time we do something because it fulfills a genuine human need, irrespective of the reigning ideologies of the age—we strike a blow against the satanic system of distortions with which our malignant managers attempt to stifle our humanity.
Though truth is in fact a lofty thing, not every deed in its behalf need be grand. Havel illustrates this point by telling us about a man to whom he once reported when employed in a brewery.
Though not a philosopher, poet, or statesman, this supervisor “was proud of his profession, and he wanted our brewery to brew good beer.” Unfortunately, the facility’s manager, and most his underlings, knew little and cared less about the quality of their product.
When Havel’s boss wrote a letter to the higher management, explaining what it would take to turn the failing enterprise around, his plea did not have its desired effect. As a ranking member of the Communist Party, his manager was informed of this act of insubordination, and the offending beer enthusiast was fired as a “political saboteur.”
Havel draws two lessons from this example. First, there is no sense in attempting to stand aloof from “politics.” In a corrupt society, anyone with a “personal sense of responsibility” will sooner or later find that, though he may be uninterested in politics, politics is interested in him.
Second, if “living within the truth” takes so many forms, it is all too easy for those who wish to live one truth to ignore the plight, and forego the aid, of others attempting to live other truths.
If the “dissident” musician or historian dismisses the struggles of the “dissident” brew master or stamp collector as irrelevant to his own, then the power of the disparate truths they love will be diluted.
To know their own strength, the lovers of truth must recognize one another, and lend one another aid.
Though it is contrary to the cause of truth to reduce it to a parody of Marxism, perhaps it would not be amiss to engage in a bit of sloganeering, and exhort the workers of truth in this world to unite!
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