Vaclav Havel, the Bayard of the Semantic War, died this week. We lost in him one of the towering figures of the 20th century. I first encountered his writing on French television, sitting in the living room of my dear departed friend, Jean Tanguy, in Locquirec, France. On that day, fittingly enough 14 July 1989, I had chosen to share the celebrations with Jean and his family, rather than to sit on the reviewing stand on the Champ Elysées (I was in France to participate in the Bicentennial conference, “L’Image de la Révolution Française”, organized by Michel Vovelle. The conference speakers sat on the reviewing stand with then President Mitterand.)
Jean and Marie-Claire had never seen a play by Havel, and French tv had chosen that night to air a Paris production of Havel’s one-act play, “The Petition.” We all found it a remarkable play, and performance. (Havel had been in the audience.) A few days later, I bought a French version of three of Havel’s plays, “The Petition” among them: I quickly translated it into English, to use in my European Civilization class. We still read it each year. The publication of a splendid collection of Havel’s essays, Open Letters. Selected Writings, 1965-1990, allowed me to assign that text, too. In May 2005, I had the delightful experience of sitting in Georgetown’s Gaston Hall, listening to Havel. In the Q&A that followed his dialogue with Madeleine Albright, all but one student in the queue came from my Euro Civ class: all of them had read Havel and asked wonderful questions. Teachers don’t get many moments that fulfilling.
Why have I insisted that so many Georgetown students read Havel? He spoke the truth, as he saw it. Long before the term “Semantic War” came into usage, Havel understood that the war of ideas, expressed through words, ultimately determines the fate of political systems. [For what it’s worth, I think someone in the Clinton Administration, perhaps Albright, essentially put together Havel’s emphasis on semantics and the American obsession with declaring “war” on everything in sight.] He believed, much as John Stuart Mill did, that the truth has the annoying characteristic of being true, and thus cannot easily and permanently be suppressed. Those who have used the term “Semantic War” have usually meant the conflict between different interpretations of a given event, or different sides in a given conflict (say, the US Government and one of its foreign enemies, state or non-state), but Havel understood it in its genuine essence: the war between truth and falsehood. These political Semantic Wars claim to revolve around that paradigm – each side claims a monopoly on truth, and denounces the other side as minions of Satan and all his lies [my Euro Civ students begin their fall semester with a classic example of this technique, the Chanson de Roland] – but each side mixes genuine truth with falsehood or prevarication. States do not much care about the truth as an abstract concept; they care about their own survival, that’s the ultimate “truth” for them.
Havel could be ruthless in rooting out the truth behind the semantic subterfuge of even his own side: Stanek, in “The Petition,” examines his weaknesses more thoroughly than virtually any character in the history of the theatre. He, not Vanek, takes apart each side of the issue. Havel wonderfully ends the play by the device of Stanek’s political connections getting poor Javurek, the “dissident” musician lover of Stanek’s daughter, out of prison. The petition seemingly has become pointless, at least insofar as Javurek’s fate is concerned. Havel thus forces viewers/readers to get beyond the specific case.
In his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel provided an essential theoretical underpinning to the movements all over East Central Europe. The intro to that essay in the Open Letters collection cites Solidarity activist Zbygniew Bujak on its importance to the Gdansk workers in 1979-80. Havel gives one of my favorite examples of how we must understand the Semantic War between truth and falsehood. That War is less a titanic clash of thundering ideological salvos, and more an endless series of seemingly innocuous skirmishes. Havel offers us a simple case (from the version in Open Letters, 132-33):
“The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan, “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? […]
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and the carrots. He put them all in the window simply because it has always been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. […]
Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” […]
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestionably obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, because he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. […] Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power.”
Havel later asks the greengrocer to stop “living the lie.” Take down the sign. Refuse to participate in bogus elections. Say what you think. Havel is no fool: he knows (from personal experience) what refusal to “live the lie” will mean. [Think of that wonderful scene from The Lives of Others, when the Stasi officer asks the neighbor, whom he has never seen before, how her daughter’s studies at X University are going.]
It’s hard to think of Havel’s greengrocer without also thinking of Mohammed Bouazizi, isn’t it? He could no longer live the lie. Just as Havel puts it, Bouazizi was “a human being and thus ha(d) a sense of his own dignity.”
When you build your whole system upon lies, Havel reminds us, there will come a point when the person who says 2+2=4 is a threat to the system. We might think of Galileo’s brilliant retort to his opponents, who suggested that Aristotle had insisted the Sun revolved around the Earth, so it must be so. Galileo replied that Aristotle had made that deduction based on the evidence from the naked eye; honest empiricist that he was, Aristotle, had he had access to Galileo’s telescope, and seen what Galileo had seen, would have come to the same conclusion as Galileo. 2+2=4. Poor Galileo spent the last 20 years of his life under house arrest for stating the obvious. The system, in this case the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, could not accept, in a time of conflict about religious dogmas [the Church placed Galileo’s work on the Index at the same time that it condemned a work of Calvin], anyone who questioned any doctrine it had formally approved.
How often do political leaders today lie? How often does a state murder people, often deliberately and in cold blood, and then offer some pathetic and usually transparently false justification? In how many ways are we all the greengrocer? In the US, the Republicans have raised deliberate lying to an art form. Most of them have become such ingrained liars, so deeply committed to an ideology [Havel’s “Powerless” essay explains how that works] that they can no longer recognize the truth. One lie leads inexorably to the next, because the foundation on which they have built their ideology is demonstrably false. The Democrats, in part because they do not, in fact, have an ideological foundation, are very poor liars. They lie, of course, but they can’t stay on message as well as the Republicans: now and again, the truth pops out of their mouths. They can’t help it: 2+2=4. One minute they tell some ridiculous lie (say about the monstrous budget deficits that lie ahead, after about 2014), the next they point out a genuine truth (that taxes on the wealthiest Americans will have to up). They naturally shy away from the truth of that second statement: such a change in the tax system will help reduce the share of national wealth held by the 1% and bring us back to the more equitable wealth distribution of ca. 1980 or even 1994. The Occupy movements are telling that simple truth: no solution is possible until we reduce significantly the share of national wealth held by the 1%.
Maybe we should all post the slogan, “Power to the Powerless,” on our front doors, both literal and virtual.