Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Living in truth

‘Anti-political politics’ is possible, says Václav Havel, a Czechoslovakian playwright and political dissident. It’s 1978 and he’s formulating a strategy of non-violent resistance to the totalitarian state that imprisons him. At the time, virtually no one on earth thought it possible to overthrow the Soviet Union from within. The state was too strong, the secret police too powerful. To criticize the system meant prison. Violent resistance meant death. Any kind of political resistance was futile and could only end badly.

Yet for all its oppressive power, the Soviet Union was overcome without violence and practically without political resistance. ‘Anti-political politics’ was not only possible, it was powerful, arguably the most powerful political force the world has ever known. No other empire has simply ceased to exist because people simply stopped participating.

The United States today is not the Soviet Union of 1978 or any other year. As citizens, we are free to criticize the government until we turn blue of our own accord. We can participate in politics, tell the president to go fuck himself and generally do or say whatever we want, as long as we do it non-violently. It’s true we could be investigated for our thought crimes, possibly even harassed at work or, worst of all, put on the no-fly list, but we will not be jailed, tortured, disappeared or killed.

Of course those who are not citizens of the United States may not be so fortunate. We reserve the right to arrest anyone we please anywhere on earth for any reason or no reason at all -- put them in secret jails, torture them, then try them in secret courts with secret evidence, or just keep them jailed indefinitely and execute them if the secret court so decrees. Or we can help overthrow their government, seize their assets, train their secret police, bomb their infrastructure, invade their country, kill millions. Literally. Kill millions. We’ve done it. Count em.

Havel lived in an empire that jailed and killed of millions of its own citizens for their politics and would think nothing of killing him. He lived in a workers’ paradise. We, on the other hand, live in a democratic paradise in which we kill millions of other people for their politics. Of course neither regime phrases it that way. They/we kill to protect socialism/democracy, our great nation, our way of life. But it’s all politics in one form or another.

Havel’s insight was that politics is a lie and those who participate, however passively, are living a lie, The only effective resistance is to an all-powerful state, he saw, was to live within the truth.

People who so define themselves do so in relationship to a prior “position.” In other words, they relate themselves specifically to the power that rules society and through it, define themselves, deriving their own “position” form the position of the regime. For people who have simply decided to live within the truth, to say aloud what they think, to express their solidarity with their fellow citizens, to create as they want and simply to live in harmony with their better “self,” it is naturally disagreeable to feel required to define their own, original and positive “position” negatively, in terms of something else, and to think of themselves primarily as people who are against something, not simply as people who are what they are.

Chuckling is among the ridiculed few who see the U.S. as a one party state. Of course there are minor differences between the “parties,” particularly on domestic matters, but when it comes to controlling the world through violence, including mass murder on a global scale if “necessary”, the only disagreement between the putative parties is “how much?” The “democrats” and “republicans” are, at best, different wings of the same party. A more cynical interpretation sees their relationship more like that of the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters. Resistance to our one party state is probably more futile today than resistance to the Soviet Union was in 1978, though not nearly as painful, at least for us citizens.

But we are not evil and we are not cowards. The great majority of us are decent, moral people opposed to violence and oppression, yet we do nothing to stop those things from being done in our name. Why not?

Well, the obvious reason is that there is no political party that represents us. We have no choice in the matter.

And yes, that’s true, but why don’t we have representation? There is no law against it. There is no state apparatus stopping anyone from organizing a political party or five. We could, theoretically, elect representatives who are actually representative. Why don’t we?

I think Havel’s insight into what was wrong in his society applies to us now as well as it did to the Soviet society in 1978. We are living within a lie. Many people don’t even know what the U.S. does to people abroad and the great majority who do have some facts at their disposal do not acknowledge it, certainly not publicly, but not even in their own minds. The lie is all they want.

I also agree with Havel’s prescription for resistance. Although the U.S. government will not crush its opponents under the proverbial iron boot, people can waste their lives if they choose the path of political resistance. They certainly won’t accomplish much of anything beyond compromising on the lesser of two evils and ultimately being compromised.

But we can engage in ‘anti-political politics.’ We, as individuals, can live within the truth. For whatever that’s worth. Havel’s example notwithstanding, probably not much in the big picture, but maybe a lot for ourselves and those around us. Realistically, that’s the only hope we’ve got.