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(Original story by Caleb Crain at The Nation.com...)

"In “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel claimed that he and his fellow dissidents were not rebelling against a classic dictatorship—a small elite, short on ideas, whose hold on power is unstable, sharply limited by its country’s borders and reliant on military and police enforcement. Havel pointed out that, thanks to the Warsaw Pact, the Communists’ grip on power was firm and geographically extensive. Moreover, he credited the Communists with a flexible ideology that even in the 1970s still exerted a “certain hypnotic charm,” because of its powerful insights into the social conflicts between capitalists and proletarians of the nineteenth century. In Havel’s opinion, the line separating ruler from ruled in Czechoslovakia ran not between one social group and another but rather “through each person.” By means of petty hypocrisies, such as a greengrocer’s decision to ritually display a Communist Party slogan in his shop window in order to lubricate his dealings with local authorities, Czechs and Slovaks became complicit in their oppression. “Each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie,” Havel wrote. What prevented rebellion was “the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.”

In Havel’s analysis, in other words, the basis of Communist power was consumerism. The Communist regimes were not different in kind from the West; they were merely, to borrow a phrase, the avant-garde, and Havel thought the West should consider them “a kind of warning.” In hand-to-hand combat, the dissident’s antagonist was banal greed, a force not destined to pass out of the world with the fall of the Iron Curtain. A post-totalitarian regime didn’t need to execute rebels. All it had to do was reward conformists who mouthed its empty slogans, the true meaning of which was always, “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” When one weighed material comforts against something as ineffable, and unpriceable, as integrity, standing up for one’s beliefs could seem like a utopian gesture—a moral luxury that was “admirable, perhaps, but quite pointless.” As Havel emphasized in his open letter to Husák, “We are all being publicly bribed..."

...The Czechs are inveterate mushroom-pickers, and I once heard Paul Wilson liken social self-awareness to podhoubí, the mycelium—which is the network of underground filaments by which a mushroom spreads—though I forget whether the metaphor was Wilson’s or Havel’s. (Near the end of The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud, who spent his childhood in Moravia, likens the relation of dreams to the unconscious to that of a mushroom to its mycelium.) Theater is capable of bringing a group of people into a new understanding of themselves, in Havel’s opinion. “A single performance for a few dozen people,” he wrote to Olga, “can be incomparably more important than a television serial viewed and talked about by the entire country.” Havel’s faith may seem quaint today, when impact is measured in sales or page views. But he insisted on it for other forms of art as well. If only twenty people read a novel, he wrote in his open letter to Husák, “the fact of its existence would still be important.” As “the main instrument of society’s self-awareness,” culture is like a vitamin. A society can survive without it for a while, subsisting instead on the “slick, trivial, and predigested” entertainment products of a totalitarian regime, but not forever. Censorship is not the only way to starve a society; it can also be deprived of essential nutrients by a diet of junk..."


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