Living Within the Truth
Thoughts of Vaclav Havel 1978
The question is often asked at group meetings, “What can we possibly do to bring about real change?” A letter to the editor or a phone call to a radio station seems so little, so inadequate, since news organizations are already mouth pieces for corporations; and especially in societies such as ours where the violence done to human beings is not nearly so obvious and cruel as it is in other countries. And yet we know the poverty, the hardships and violence are there. So what can we do that might get to the root of things?
Vaclav Havel, one of the great figures of the 20th Century and who died in early December of 2011, had a few thoughts on this.
First, it is not as hopeless as one might think; the powerless, he says, potentially have great power. And the answer, he believed, may lie not in some grandiose scheme or single major act, but in much smaller actions that exemplify what he called “living within the truth”. At first this expression seems nebulous but as he begins to describe the political system in which we live and our day-to-day reaction to it – which he called “living within the lie” – his point of view suddenly takes on new meaning – even to those of us who live in western democracies.
1. The Great Pretend
Between the aims of the political system (let’s take the Harper government as our example of this system) and the aims of life there is a major gap, he explains. This system pretends that it is there for us. From Harper and his ministers on down, every photo-op, every word spoken describes a system that is based on our human needs. Pulling out of the Kyoto accord is really good for us, says Peter Kent. Other officials say the same about public service layoffs: the healthcare workers who look after our health, the inspectors who guard our environment, right down to cutting down on the number of workers who answer our desperate calls when we apply for EI, forcing long waits for help and as a result forcing bankrupt families to forego money for food or rent. In fact, the fault for all this is placed on our shoulders: we are simply not productive or efficient enough.
Then there are the untold billions in corporate cuts. But these create jobs, says Jim Flaherty, so these too are based on our human needs. Again, all of these things are done “for us”. In our name. It is a cruel paradox and many people see it for what it is. So do some of the ministers, even, who are under the thumb of Stephen Harper and the corporations that fund him. The system “pretends” to act on our behalf, but it does not. It pretends, for example, to be reducing the rate of poverty, but it does not. It pretends to respect human rights, but it does not. “This is why life in the system is so totally permeated with hypocrisy and lies” says Havel.
Most people who are part of this system, or are touched by it, feel the hypocrisy; yet the rules say they must behave as if they believed in this system, or tolerate it in silence, or tolerate those who work within this system. For this reason, Havel says, they live within a lie. And in this way become the glue that holds the system together. By behaving in a way that shows they believe in the system, “these individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system”.
2. What then is to be done?
“If living within the lie is what holds the system together, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.” V. Havel
In Havel’s mind, living within the truth meant finding the strength within oneself to not pretend and to say what one felt to be true.To say that the emperor has no clothes. Let us imagine that one day someone decides to describe the system for what it is and declares that the emperor is naked. Some of this takes place across the country every day but we seldom hear about it, since the media is always there to protect the system – to look the other way or twist and downplay the story to leave us confused.
In the case of Brigette DePape the media had little choice but to report on it since there she was, declaring the king naked, for the entire world to see.
But having been broadsided, the system had to defend itself and do so quickly.This task fell on its agents, who appeared to be coming out of the woodwork. The NDP quickly denounced the act as disrespectful and undemocratic; CBC’s Evan Solomon on Power & Politics did the same, enveloping Brigette with negative attacks under the guise of honest journalism; and all the usual suspects – Liberal party members on down who pretend to be fighting for us – followed suit. The horror! The horror! It seems as if all the critics also wanted to be “seen” denouncing this act of Brigette DePape. Her standing at the centre of the Senate Chambers with that Stop Harper sign was too daring an act to be associated with.
What would Havel have made of this?
By holding that sign in the middle of the Senate Chambers, something extremely dangerous had happened. Brigette DePape had exposed the system for what it was: a fake, ritualistic display of pomp and pageantry meant to pull the wool over our eyes. Come on, does anyone really believe there was anything in the throne speech to help low income workers? The poor? Single mothers searching for a place to live? Parents desperately in need of childcare? The thousands of workers thrown out of their jobs by companies moving to countries where they can pay slave wages?
But the system had been attacked and had to quickly protect itself. So Brigette was hurriedly discounted by the media and others as someone disrespectful of democracy - someone “on the left”. She would speak again, but never be heard as clearly anymore. Even Evan Solomon had to be seen distancing himself from her so he could return to interviewing people from deep within the system…the Prime Minister’s office, reporters from the National Post, MacLean’s and so on, pretending this to be objective reporting. Thank God the system was back to normal now.
Still, a few minutes of living within the truth had made the system go topsy turvy. It makes one wonder what would have happened had a few more individuals present in the Senate Chambers followed suit that day.
Why Havel’s thoughts on this are encouraging:
Havel believed that “somewhere at the beginning of this drama there were individuals who were willing to live within the truth; these people had no access to real power, nor did they aspire to it. They were ordinary people with ordinary cares, differing from the rest of us only in that they were able to say aloud what the rest of us cannot say or are afraid to say.”
It is the only way to explain the advances we have made but that we risk losing if we continue to be the glue that holds the system together. That’s why actions that might be considered inadequate, such as letters to the editor, are okay by Havel. They are an expression of living within the truth. So is OCCUPY, no matter how many times the right denounces it as so unfocused.
But there is another issue that Havel doesn’t seem to address, perhaps because of the context and time in which he was writing, where people had to meet secretly for fear of being arrested; or perhaps because the issue is so essential to social change that he assumed it too basic to even mention. It is the issue of working collectively.
3 years ago, Harper visited the automotive manufacturing plant, in London, Ontario.
From the floor, he announced deep corporate tax cuts that would benefit industries like Caterpillar - all for the overall purpose of ‘helping workers’. Caterpillar Inc. responded in kind, fraudulently skipping out on $2 Billion in taxes via hubs in Switzerland and Bermuda, bringing their revenues to the billions.
Today the Caterpillar workers are on the street, in the freezing cold. They’re locked out, not willing to succumb to Caterpillar CEOs and accept the terms imposed upon them: 50% pay cuts and the end to their benefits and CPP.
They’re still making their voices heard. But unless all people who are interested in a better quality of life get behind individuals like the Caterpillar workers, these workers are done for. 400 voices is a mere whisper in a country of 34 million.
And this is just the beginning. If Caterpillar wins, it will set a precedent for all large companies, showing that they can also pillage their workers’ lives.
If Havel were alive today, he would say that the key here is to organize in a unified voice. One that has strength in numbers, one that sees a whole country of dissatisfied citizens stand up for each other. And in coming together to support each other’s different, yet oh-so-similar goals, the entire system would change.