By Troy Headrick
I’m currently reading Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless,” a wonderful treatise on human nature, unfreedom, power, culture, and mass psychology. Though he writes about what he calls “post-totalitarianism,” a dictatorial system that held sway across Eastern Europe during the Soviet era, I am persuaded that some of Havel’s thinking seems applicable to America and other “free” countries.
While reading the essay, I ran across a sentence that troubled me because it seemed to hit close to home. The passage I’m referring to goes like this: “[In unfree states, people] are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way.” In other words, we can only be made to live a lie if we have in us the capacity to live lives of dishonesty. I don’t think Havel is talking about the simple act of telling untruths—sometimes euphemistically called “fibs.” I think he’s discussing something much deeper, something that cuts to the core of how we interact with others and with ourselves, with the sort of values we profess to live in accordance with.
All this makes me wonder if Havel’s argument can be applied to “free” Americans and those who live in other “advanced” and “democratic” places. Are we really as free as we think we are? Is it possible that we, too, live according to generally accepted lies or myths because there is something inside of us that finds these lies appealing or nurturing? Do they make us feel good about ourselves? Do they help us fit in? Do they do our thinking for us?
Havel repeatedly argues that ideology and dogma were the culprits. Once a certain “truth” seeps into the collective psyche, a kind of inertia take hold and it becomes a premise upon which arguments are built.
For example, in societies governed by consumerism, we come to see success as measured by the acquisition of material wealth and things. To spend is to be. To have is be worthy of having. But isn’t such a belief rooted in the kind of ideology and dogma that Havel analyzed in unfree places?
Once the lie takes hold, we act in ways that strengthen it. (Havel points out that ideology and dogma actually shape reality rather than being shaped by it.) In my previous example, we have erected our entire economic system around dogma and myth, around the lie we have gotten comfortable with. (Economists have long harped on how the “health” and “success” of the American economy rest on “consumer behavior”—the mass acquisition of things.) I’m reminded of the old saying, “Business is the business of America.” (Note: I’ve just checked this and discovered that the real quote, though very similar (and attributed to Calvin Coolidge), goes like this: “The chief business of the American people is business.”)
All this makes me wonder, what other lies have we told ourselves so often that they’ve become truths? What other things do we believe in that oppress us?
Havel’s piece is interesting and can be found in many libraries and bookstores. I highly recommend that others read it because it is a wonderful treatise on mass psychology.
I look forward to hearing what you have to say about his argument and the way I’ve borrowed it. Thanks so much for reading!