Václav Havel often said we should live life “as if”—as if there is no oppression, as if we must set an example of life well-lived even under the weight of a coercive regime. His belief in the power of exemplary actions undertaken by ordinary people—as opposed to the more formal political acts of revolutionary leaders—set Havel’s approach to resistance apart. He did not ask for heroics. He recognized the revolutionary force of everyday examples: not bowing your head, not putting the picture of a tyrant on your wall, not voting in farcical elections, not hanging the party sign in your shop window. Havel’s hero was the greengrocer, the powerless, the everyday casualty of oppression. He insistently resisted the epithet “dissident” because he did not like the idea of recognizing only one or two people of extraordinary courage and repute. Instead, he felt that there are no small acts of resistance; any act, by anyone, has the potential of reverberating—of being absorbed and replicated, and leading to meaningful change. Of course, the context dictates the significance of the act, and an awareness of that environment makes for true political consciousness and authentic acts of resistance.
To paraphrase Jan Palach, the Czech student who died from self-immolation in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969, the purpose of “living in truth,” of acting out one’s own life choices against the imposed existence of an oppressive power, is to not give up and not give in. The parallel with Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi should not be lost here, and it leads to the core of Havel’s point: it is the reverberation of a given act that makes for revolutionary change. Havel’s story of resistance centers around the active observer who sees, internalizes and interprets the act. Exemplary acts can be replicated in a different form, at a different time, with a different audience. They become a springboard for the observer’s own actions. Sarcastically invoking Marx’s opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, Havel called this “the specter of dissent.”
Havel never forgot Palach’s urge to resist demoralization and the temptation to give in. He asked the question powerless people everywhere want answered: How can we prevail over oppression? How can the individual overcome the psychological, social and political barriers imposed by the experience and history of violence? Havel maintained that while individuals might have trouble overcoming such barriers, the difficulty is not insurmountable. The individual can both recognize and overcome her circumstances. Agency from this point of view relies both on the capacity of the individual to recognize her own moral compass and the moral example set by others. Since totalitarian societies destroy the web of human relations among us in order to forestall opposition, we must rebuild our mutual ties, starting with ourselves. Havel’s idea of resistance builds on a view of life as a series of layers, an environment we create together, a work of solidarity continuously in the making. “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart,” he wrote, “in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”
Havel’s work stands as a remarkable articulation of what responsible action could look like under the extreme conditions of Eastern European totalitarianism, but the value of his inquiry extends beyond that time and place. Indeed, he expected political ideas to cross boundaries of time and place. Havel the playwright and Havel the dissident intertwine in a philosophical tale of resistance and responsibility that has sparked action the world over. This is the stuff of which revolutions are made. Yet his call to political action also applies to the less extreme but equally important ways in which consumer societies with gross inequalities erode a sense of human connection. His life and work exemplify a kind of interplay between the private individual and the political world, between personal responsibility and social consciousness. Resistance can and must be reawakened within each of us. A year of revolutions has ended with the death of a true revolutionary, but we should rejoice in seeing Havel’s spirit endure in the actions of ordinary people from Cairo, to Russia, to Wall Street.
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