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Havel on the powerless in the face of imposed PC agendas

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Havel’s 1978 essay on the power of the powerless has much to teach our civilisation in this time of PC triumphalism and cynical imposition of agendas.

For instance, consider his reflection on a sign in the window of a greengrocer’s shop:

>>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? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

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 carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has 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 . . . .

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 unquestioningly 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, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” 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. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them . . . It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.>>

Let us ponder, let us tremble, then let us arise and do better as a civilisation. END

Thot for today: how does a constitutional democracy defend itself from breakdown into anarchic chaos, from ruthless agit-prop activism and fronts for agendas tied to the rise of shadowy unaccountable oligarchs? From would-be political messiahs with promises to deliver us from chaos or to utopia? How does all of this tie to the maxim, that if you want to trigger and ride a wave of change, cause a crisis? KF kairosfocus
Eugen, the most chilling thing about all this, is that the lessons bought with so much of blood and tears are being neglected or dismissed. KF kairosfocus
Hi Kairos You are right, I lived in Yugoslavia which was supposedly under milder communist regime. Yugoslav president still managed to kill close to million politically undesirable people. So much for milder system :( Communist regime really didn't like Church which they tolerated but kept under close scrutiny. I remember going to mass on Sunday and noticed young communist man secretly taping very popular outspoken priest during homily. Back then recording devices were not as small so the device was partially exposed. My father was a teacher (Latin and Greek) and regime really watched educators closely because they could influence young generation. One day he was put under surveillance by Ministry of Internal Affairs because he talked to known (and many times jailed) political dissident. Agents followed my father around for weeks just like in a movie. That was surreal for me and my family. He and people like him who didn't like the regime could never be promoted because they were "politically unsuitable" citizens. Our society is not there yet but we see the slow and ugly beginnings of totalitarianism. Five un elected bureaucrats - judges forced decision on the nation of 300 million. Same happened in Canada, nobody asked citizens about the marriage redefinition issue. That's how "democracy" was practiced in communism! There are recent examples of businesses shut down, owners fined for not conforming to "politically suitable" behavior. Clerk was jailed because she didn't accept immoral government demands. Some people I know whisper about current issues they don't accept but the issues are forced upon them and all of us by our new progressive regime. Today's propaganda machine is in overdrive and it's far more sophisticated and advanced than communist (or even Orwell) could ever imagine. They recruited the best psychologists, sociologists, marketing experts... to study and develop new mind control techniques. Corporations, entertainment industry and government are definitely in symbiotic relationship on this. There are seemingly massive resources dedicated for indoctrination. Mindful person can notice tools and tricks of propaganda enforcers so after a while it becomes entertaining. Still they get me sometimes by subtle use of emotion engagement. Extremely perfidious! PS. I had to print Havel's article, long text is easier to read it of the paper than computer screen. Thanks for your eye opening posts which helped me and I'm sure other readers to understand context and the graveness of today's situation in the world. Eugen
Seversky, Thanks for supporting my point in the cubical political forces analysis/model I recently presented. (Also cf here onwards.) I suggest, that there is a strong tendency to slide into oligarchic or autocratic domineering, directly by increasing dominance of unaccountable elites, or indirectly by way of breakdown and chaos of anarchic character triggering a panic and resort to order at the price of liberty. Going further I suggest that constitutional, democratic liberty could only emerge when sufficient, sufficiently educated people under a tradition that acknowledged innate rights and duties became possible, backed by an increasingly free widely available press and products such as newspapers, broadsheets, tracts, pamphlets and widely accessible books. Before such, the best one could hope for was fair minded, lawful rule under a growing corpus of law guided by principles and precedents of justice. Hence the significance of Justinian's somewhat Christianised synthesis of Roman law, Corpus Juris Civilis, and King Alfred's Book of Dooms (the root of the Common Law tradition) which quite literally starts from the law of Moses and from the success of the second Christian mission to re-paganised Britain due to Saxon invasion. The breakthrough to modern liberty and democracy, historically, grew out of the Common Law Tradition, finding its key focus in the American Revolution (with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Dutch Revolution of 1581 under William the Silent of Orange being critical background). In that context, the undermining of the foundations of respect for innate rights and duties in our time is a very dangerous trend, one that is thrown into glaring highlight by the ongoing abortion holocaust, the worst in history . . . many, many hundreds of millions. Mass bloodguilt is a very dangerous pattern, not least as the cognitive dissonance and benumbing of conscience, perversion of ethics, law, state and law enforcement implied by such produces a morally blind and benumbed public that will then tend to drift on into onward evil after evil. As has clearly been happening. I would point out on my own observations and experience of Marxists in action in student and national politics, that there is unfortunately a continuum from Marxist thought driven agit prop to subversion and manipulation of institutions to usurpation of state power, often with naive face cards and false front groups that champion seemingly and sometimes actually legitimate causes. But as radicals gain power, their driving anger (often rooted in personal life experiences), their habits of subversion and unjust targetting, and their lack of respect for the due balance of rights, freedoms and responsibilities . . . i.e. their habitual injustice, their equally habitual slander, all multiplied by endarkening and conscience benumbing ideologies become a source of danger to liberty. Worse, if such a one emerges as a would-be political messiah. In that context, I point straight to the rise and domination of a wide swath of the academy by the Frankfurt School and similar groups, the linked pattern of so-called critical theory and its influence on X-studies across a very wide spectrum, now coalescing in the sort of intimidatory political censorship that we see increasingly backed by state power all around us. So, whether or no we find it palatable, Havel's classic essay of a generation past has a lot to say to us about where the increasing political correctness [--> censorship] of our day driven by the cultural/institutional marxist long march through our civilisation is leading us. The warning signs on our civilisational march of folly are increasingly evident, but are we even more increasingly blinded and endarkened, benumbed in conscience and locked into a terrible momentum, even as we head for the cliff? What I say as one with painful history literally written into my name is that the first step out is insight guided by sound history. It is hard to dispute well grounded facts, though many try to distort, dismiss, deflect or deny the truth. That is why I warn that the lessons of sound history were bought with blood and tears; those who distort, neglect or dismiss such doom themselves to learn them again at much the same price. If, if, they have not become such fools as cannot even learn from experience. Havel's essay has ever so much to teach us, starting from that greengrocer and the loaded sign in his window. Or in Lincoln's terms, how many times are we being induced to say, yes, the tail of a sheep is the fifth leg, so a sheep has five legs? (And, how dare you question that, you deserve what you get.) Let us learn from the courage of Havel. KF PS: Am I the only one seeing errors with the captcha test? kairosfocus
Eugen, do you care to expand on your experience (even in a relatively mild case, Yugoslavia IIRC)? That may have somewhat to teach us. KF kairosfocus
Kairos thanks for the link to essay by Havel, I'll read it soon. I remember term political suitability when I lived in communism. That is what we today call political correctness. Idea is the same. I'm afraid this system is slipping into totalitarianism ie becoming like communism. We have Christians jailed for what they believe, example clerk Kim Davis. Eugen
PC should not be a problem in a free nation with brave men willing to risk themselves. PC is imposing moral/practical rules without the consent of the goberned. Even if they don't mind same rules. Its about contracts. Locke said government is a contract between free men willing to give up some freedom to a government to enforce what the free men want same gov't to do. We are not under PC rules. We can say no but it means illegal punishment. pC must make their rules into laws or we the people owe no obedience to them. Tell them NO we will not obey you!!!!! first things first. then talk about the issues. PC existing is a sign of failure of American/Canadian citizens defending thier rights and contracts. Robert Byers
It's a balancing act. On the one extreme tyranny, too much power concentrated in the hands of too few with no possibility of change because the few, once they have the power, are not going to surrender any of it with out a fight. On the other extreme chaos, a total breakdown of any kind of law and order in which everyone is at the mercy of whoever has the most guns and is prepared to wield the most violence. Whatever your opinion of government here, we have not experienced the kind of oppression that led Havel to write his essay, neither have we experienced a nationwide breakdown of the relative social stability we take for granted. And I'm pretty sure we don't want to. Seversky
MJ, this is an essay that helped change history -- this is the Vaclav Havel who became President of the Czech Republic. And, this essay can do so again. KF kairosfocus
Profound and beautiful. I just have this sneaking suspicion I have read something similar before... (sarc for that last line) The issue is not necessarily the systems themselves, but the very world-foundational idea that a government can actually provide anything to anyone other than basic national/border defense. This idea invariably leads to oppression as we have seen time and time again. It also reminds me of the living a lie kind of mentality of some of our more faithless posters here... Government (from the founders perspective) should only be capable of dictating what cannot be done within certain bounds otherwise, this is the exact end result. mjoels
Perhaps, we need to read and ponder Havel's famous essay on the power of the powerless: http://vaclavhavel.cz/showtrans.php?cat=eseje&val=2_aj_eseje.html&typ=HTML KF kairosfocus

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