The world’s greatest shortage is not of oil, clean water, or food, but of moral leadership. With a commitment to truth – scientific, ethical, and personal – a society can overcome the many crises of poverty, disease, hunger, and instability that confront us. Yet power abhors truth, and battles it relentlessly. Havel was a pivotal leader of the revolutionary movements that culminated in freedom in Eastern Europe and the end, 20 years ago this month, of the Soviet Union. Havel’s plays, essays, and letters described the moral struggle of living honestly under Eastern Europe’s Communist dictatorships. He risked everything to live in truth, as he called it – honest to himself and heroically honest to the authoritarian power that repressed his society and crushed the freedoms of hundreds of millions.“The Power of the Powerless” was one of his most influential essays - a reflection on the mind of a greengrocer who obediently puts a poster “among the onions and carrots” urging “Workers of the World—Unite!” In gentle, ironic but scathing prose, Mr Havel exposed the lies and cowardice that made possible the communist grip on power. The greengrocer puts up the poster partly out of habit, partly because everyone else does it, and partly out of fear of the consequences if he does not. Just as the “Good Soldier Svejk” encapsulated the cowardly absurdity of life in the Austro-Hungarian army, Mr Havel’s greengrocer epitomised the petty humiliations of “normalised” Czechoslovakia. The people pretended to follow the Party, and the Party pretended to lead. Those shallow foundations were vulnerable to individual acts of disobedience.
Just imagine, Havel wrote, ...that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth ...The phrase “living in truth” was Havel’s hallmark. No single phrase did more to inspire those trying to subvert and overthrow the communist empire in Europe. Jeffrey Sach's trbute continues -
That would bring ostracism and punishment, but imposed for compliance’s sake, not out of conviction. His real crime was not speaking out, but exposing the sham:
He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system...He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted façade…and exposed the real, base foundations of power…He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal…everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety ...
Havel paid dearly for this choice, spending several years in prison and many more under surveillance, harassment, and censorship of his writings. Yet the glow of truth spread. Havel gave hope, courage, and even fearlessness to a generation of his compatriots. When the web of lies collapsed in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks poured into the streets to proclaim their freedom – and to sweep the banished and jailed playwright into Prague Castle as Czechoslovakia’s newly elected president.Yesterday's post was about one German historian's exploration of his Grandfather's difficulties in describing (let alone justifying) his behaviour during Nazi times. The same day, a Frenchwoman wrote a moving tribute to a 94 year old Frenchman, Raymond Aubrac for his role both during the French Resistance and througout his long life -
Just as lies and corruption are contagious, so, too, moral truth and bravery spreads from one champion to another. Havel and Michnik could succeed in part because of the miracle of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who emerged from a poisoned system, yet who valued truth above force. And Gorbachev could triumph in part because of the sheer power of honesty of his countryman, Andrei Sakharov, the great and fearless nuclear physicist who also risked all to speak truth in the very heart of the Soviet empire – and who paid for it with years of internal exile.
These pillars of moral leadership typically drew upon still other examples, including that of Mahatma Gandhi, who called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments With Truth. They all believed that truth, both scientific and moral, could ultimately prevail against any phalanx of lies and power. Many died in the service of that belief; all of us alive today reap the benefits of their faith in the power of truth in action.
Havel’s life is a reminder of the miracles that such a credo can bring about; yet it is also a reminder of the more somber fact that truth’s victories are never definitive. Each generation must adapt its moral foundations to the ever-changing conditions of politics, culture, society, and technology.
Much of today’s struggle – everywhere – pits truth against greed. Even if our challenges are different from those faced by Havel, the importance of living in truth has not changed. Today’s reality is of a world in which wealth translates into power, and power is abused in order to augment personal wealth, at the expense of the poor and the natural environment. As those in power destroy the environment, launch wars on false pretexts, forment social unrest, and ignore the plight of the poor, they seem unaware that they and their children will also pay a heavy price.
Moral leaders nowadays should build on the foundations laid by Havel. Many people, of course, now despair about the possibilities for constructive change. Yet the battles that we face – against powerful corporate lobbies, relentless public-relations spin, and our governments’ incessant lies – are a shadow of what Havel, Michnik, Sakharov, and others faced when taking on brutal Soviet-backed regimes.
In contrast to these titans of dissent, we are empowered with the instruments of social media to spread the word, overcome isolation, and mobilize millions in support of reform and renewal. Many of us enjoy minimum protections of speech and assembly, though these are inevitably hard won, imperfect, and fragile. Yet, of the profoundest importance and benefit, we are also blessed with the enduring inspiration of Havel’s life in truth.
The Resistance – comprising only a handful of valiant and fearless men and women – is the one event in contemporary history that we French, as a nation, desperately cling to. Generations of French people have indeed lived with the moral burden of Vichy France. Every French family hides tales of passive collaboration with the Nazis. Collectively, as a nation, we have survived shame thanks to De Gaulle and a few men like Aubrac.At a time of continued conformity, consumerism and hedonism - it is such lives we need to exalt.
What is most admirable with Aubrac, whose wife died in 2007, is the fact that he fought all his life against injustice. He and Lucie were always present at protests, speaking out, tirelessly visiting schools, writing columns in newspapers, battling and arguing, with as much passion as reason. Stéphane Hessel, age 94, is the same: after striking a storm last year with his pamphlet Time for Outrage! (3.5m copies sold), he campaigns to keep the Resistance's beliefs alive in the face of rampant inequality and intolerance.