People who live in the post-totalitarian system,” wrote Vaclav Havel in The Power of the Powerless, “know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.”
Far be it from me to suggest, in this presidential election year, that it is of little importance which man is elected, or whether a party comes to full power with the proud intention of raising temples everywhere to the great god of Sex, rather than merely worshiping it furtively and still somewhat guiltily, as their opponents do. And I am aware, and I have written elsewhere, that those who want to enshrine the unnatural must have recourse to the full force of a state tending toward the totalitarian, lest people clear their heads and return to the natural. So we have no choice but to fight the political fight.
Yet we should remember why it must be fought, and this is hard to do when all things, including the relations of man and woman, are subsumed under the political.
Havel asks us to consider a greengrocer who one day decides not to hang a Communist propaganda sign in his window. He does not replace it with a different sign; he does not trade one ideology for another. Ideology, says Havel, “is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality,” and life in its system is “permeated with hypocrisy and lies.” It absorbs man into “a mere ritual.” It gives him nothing to think with but “a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.”
To break with that system is to reject the “logic of its automatism.” You attempt instead “to live within the truth.” But where is such a life to be found?
Havel says that it lies latent, dormant, half-smothered within each individual: “Under the orderly surface of the life of lies, therefore, there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth.” Therefore we must appeal to that life, he says, in “the area of the existential and the pre-political.”
He insists upon this, recalling the 1969 trial of musicians in a rock and roll band. “These people had no past history of political activity,” he says. They “had been given every opportunity to adapt to the status quo, to accept the principles of living within a lie and thus to enjoy life undisturbed by the authorities. Yet they decided on a different course.” They were like the Christian baker in Colorado who has gently declined to contribute his work to affirm same-sex pseudogamy; or like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who decline to pay for their employees’ contraception and abortion. None of these people wanted to make a political point. They wanted to decline to make a political point; even to decline to be political at all.
Since “every free human act or expression, every attempt to live within the truth, must necessarily appear as a threat to the system,” the system must see them as things that are “political par excellence.” And so they unwittingly are. From the pre-political, says Havel, must come the first stirrings against the totalitarian world, the world of ideology.
He recalls a foreman at the brewery where he once worked. “He was proud of his profession,” says Havel, “and he wanted our brewery to brew good beer.” He was always at work, thinking of improvements, but that meant he was a nuisance to “the slovenly indifference to work that socialism encourages.” The brewery’s managers did not care for the work and were ruining the place, so the foreman complained to his superiors, and for his pains he was “labeled a ‘political saboteur.’” He lost his job. His attempt to live within the truth came not from politics but from a fundamental human aim—to do good work and to behold its fruits.
The United States, still more than nominally a democratic republic, shows many signs of the post-totalitarian demoralization that Havel describes.
Consider a schoolteacher who will not bow to the ugly utilitarian aims of the Common Core, but who teaches great poetry for its own sake. The automatism of her fellow teachers and her superiors will move to crush her. Consider the secretary who declines to post a rainbow flag on the wall beside her. The machine lurches into action. Consider the curator of a small museum, who exhibits paintings he believes are beautiful and powerful, without regard to the sex or the race of the painters. Juggernaut comes a-rolling.
The system is perpetually hungry. It must be so because lies evacuate the soul. The more you feed, the emptier and hungrier you become. To the totalitarian mind, all things must be politicized; no region of life may remain untouched, unabsorbed, undevoured. Choirs, knitting groups, groceries, elementary schools, day-care centers, libraries, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, congregations, bowling leagues, fast-food joints, department stores, florist shops, delicatessens, marriages, flirtation, love poetry—all must go down the vast assimilating gullet of Jabba the State, who belches up emptiness and rages for more.
Havel suggests that at all costs we must protect regions of human life from politics, if we are ever to live within the truth again, and if we are to recover a healthy politics itself. The cure must come from without, not least because the political rebel plays the game by the assumptions of the politics he opposes. What are those seedbeds of health? I will name one here: the school.
I do not mean that children should be taught political truths rather than political lies. I mean that it is eminently desirable that they should not be immersed in politics at all.
Some engagement with the political is inevitable when you are talking about history, but even then it is best to teach about historical eras as you would teach about alien cultures, generously, on their own terms, with their own stories and songs, and not to sneer at them because they used outdoor privies and their women were not in Congress and they read the Bible a lot. School should be what its name suggests: a place of leisure, where you learn good things for the sake of their goodness, and not for mere utility, political or otherwise.
The child who reads and cherishes The Lord of the Rings will have, I believe, more of substance to say about how we should live than will the child brought up on political doggerel. He will have life to appeal to; he will have the humus of reality from which green things can spring. Learn from The Wind in the Willows about friendship and the hilarious folly of being human. Or just enter that world of Mr. Toad; play the music because you love it; be wise and childlike; you will be a rebel before you know it, and almost whether you know it or not.