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« Accepting the Unacceptable or When May Met Trump | Main | Notes from Trumpland ~ The Boy Who Cries Wolf and Gets Away With It »

Trumpland Resistance and the Absurdity of Václav Havel

A human action becomes genuinely important when it springs from the soil of clear-sighted awareness of the temporality and the ephemerality of everything human. It is only this awareness that can breathe any greatness into an action. The outlines of genuine meaning can only be perceived from the bottom of absurdity. (Václav Havel, in Disturbing the Peace)

I’ve been to Prague on many occasions, and while I had not visited during communist rule, I did arrive soon after the Velvet Revolution. Václav Havel was speaking on the high steps of the Česká společnost antropologická located at the southeast end of Wenceslas Square. I entered the square at the other end, at the corner of Vodičkava and Václavské nám. I turned right onto the square and was immediately confronted with tens of thousands of people and an overturned Soviet tank. So began my love affair with the Czech Republic and Václav Havel.

Wenceslas Square from the Česká společnost antropologická I read a number of Czech novelist: Josef Skvorecky, Milan Kundera, Ivan Klíma, Ladislav Klíma, and, of course, Bohumil Hrabal. Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (Czech: Příliš hlučná samota) is still one of my all-time favorite novels. I also read every English translation of Havel’s work: his essays, meditations, and plays. Havel was a man apart: playwright, dissident, president. He did his best to be, in action and character, a moral politician. Some say he succeeded and other that he failed. Either way he was a bright light at the time when the Soviet Union collapsed in what seemed like a breath.

Samizdat was a significant form of resistance among dissidents across the Soviet Union, but it is now, at least in my mind, most closely associated with the Czechoslovakia opposition. Of course, samizdat was an underground movement in which censored or dissident, alternative, often subversive publications were written, copied, and passed around, primarily by hand. In an essays, Havel explained how seemingly insignificant barely noticed acts of resistance brought down the Soviet Union. He gave the example of a man writing an essay, making ten carbon copies and passing it around to ten friends and acquaintances. Let’s assume it stopped there, that only ten people read the essay before it was destroyed. Ten readings against the established might of the Soviet empire. It certainly seems like an utterly futile effort. And yet, Havel says no. That every tiny act, every whispered word, every quickened heart reading a faded copy, eventually had an accumulative affect that brought down communist rule. The insignificant is significant.

Of course, the insignificant becomes significant in the company of other insignificants. There are two things to say about this company of irrelevance. First, the moral integrity of an act is not determined by its efficacy. Second, its efficacy is only realized in community. Our imaginary writer’s integrity was assured through the act of resistance, in this particular case the writing of an essay. That would be so even if only one person read his essay. Second, because he was a part of a community of resistance that took many forms, he brought down the Soviet Union. The accumulation of insignificance is powerful beyond appearances.

Václav Havel When I first read what Havel claimed I was quite moved. I thought it was, well, significant. Recently I pulled Havel’s books off my shelf and looked for that samizdat story told in an essay. I couldn’t find it, though I would bet my fortune the essay is in Disturbing the Peace or Summer Meditations. And though it’s been a long time since I thought of those words, they once again seem important. They seem a necessary encouragement for Trumpland resistance. Why? The reason is simple. I’m insignificant and nothing I do will make that much difference. 

We are now facing rule in the United States by a demagogue who has called the oligarchy and military into his administration. For eight years President Obama made little effort to resist the American oligarchy (either because he didn’t want to or because he decided the effort would be counterproductive or useless). They have the money, which means they have the power. And now that power is aligned to Christian fundamentalism and an extreme right wing ideology. We even have an open and proud white supremacist working in the White House itself. If a president doesn’t want to give it a go, why in heaven’s name would I try? Any effort I could make to change the rising tide of right wing oligarchy would be foolish and futility. Nonetheless, Havel gives me heart.

I have no doubt only a handful of people will read this blog, not unlike the ten carbon copies handed around the Czech samizdat. I will join the women’s protest march this coming Saturday (men are welcome!) here in Seattle and will be lost in a crowd which some estimate will reach 50,000 people. My words and my protests will be insignificant in the face of the man-boy in the golden tower, his one percent friends, and angry old soldiers. My resistance will be ignored by the Republican Party that now controls the House, Senate, White House, federal courts, and Supreme Court. But if Václav Havel is correct, my insignificance is significant. No one thought and few dreamed that the Soviet Union would and could collapse so suddenly. But it did. And according to Havel, that guy and his ten carbon copies is responsible.

I need to do two things. First, act even if it does seem foolish and futile. Second, trust that others are just as foolish and that our accumulative impact will bring change. So, perhaps it is time for me to reread Havel’s writings on resistance, political morality, the art of the impossible, and the politics of hope.

Time to gear up everyone. A hard rain is coming. Reading Václav Havel is not a bad way to prepare.

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

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