Saturday, May 29, 2010

Democratic Vistas: Vaclav Havel's The Art of the Impossible

A friend of mine earlier in the year lamented that the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election victory seemed to have waned since that thrilling November evening. While I could acknowledge some truth in what he said, fully sensing that the party fizz had flattened somewhat, I also detected something much more urgent in his comment. I suspect that beyond the historical implications of Obama’s win, as well as the ripe possibilities and hopes that it raised, there was also a utopian element at work in my friend’s expectations. It was as if his hatred of George Bush had been so intense that the love of Obama was, to some degree, just the other side of that coin.

For many, especially on the left, Bush had made America the scourge of the planet which meant that (after Obama won) the world would soon be spinning on its proper axis again. The belief seemed to be, with Obama in the White House, that the violent insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan would now put away their toys and play nice. But the world hasn’t changed in that manner and the zealots haven’t gone away. (Neither has the right-wing version currently propping up the Tea Party.) I do think that Obama sensed the unreal expectations being heaped upon him which is why he underplayed the significance of his election. He knew that the world he was about to confront was the same world that the previous President confronted. Their approach to it might be radically different, but (unlike Naomi Klein) he understood that the irrational ideologies threatening democracy were not solely the product of American corporate power. (In saying so, I'm also not forgetting the economic mess the previous administration left for Obama to clean up.)

The point of creating an intelligent and thoughtful political culture goes far beyond the rabble-rousing of partisan ideologues. To press the point, Walt Whitman once asked in Democratic Vistas, "Did you too suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, for a party name?" To answer that question, I turned to Vaclav Havel's 1997 book, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice. Havel's book is basically a chronicle of speeches, beginning with his address to the United States congress in 1990 (a year after the fall of communism) and concluding with a 1996 speech about politics and theatre at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague three years after he became president of what is now the Czech Republic. But the overall theme of this anthology is a political and personal quest of an idealist struggling to come to terms with the vision of what his homeland was, what it might become and where it might go. Elections and regime changes don't always grapple with those issues.

Vaclav Havel
For instance, in one essay, where Havel examines the nature of totalitarianism and what democracy might mean to a country that was deprived of it, he doesn't accept that just because the communists have been toppled that the authoritarian thinking that enveloped Czech culture went with them. In his New Year's address to the Czech nation in 1990, Havel explained, "The previous regime - armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology - reduced man to a force of production and nature to a tool of production." But he doesn't stop at blaming the communists for what their future might hold. "We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue but also because it could blunt the duty each of us faces today, that is, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly."

What Havel is saying quite simply is that totalitarianism didn't fall from the clouds, or become a systemic force that oppressed an innocent public. He is saying that we are all responsible for its existence and that political systems grow out of the character structure of a peoples. (It reminded me of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich when he visited the Soviet Union shortly after the Russian Revolution. He tried in vain to explain the Oedipal conflict to the Red Army who refuted the idea and then later went off to die for the Motherland.) What Havel did (and what I think Obama is trying to do) is to restore a sense of what personal responsibility means when creating freedom within a democracy.

Wilhelm Reich
The Art of the Impossible is an honest appraisal of how politics can shape as well as distort our perceptions of the world. In discussing what he sees as the politician of the future, Havel writes, "A politician must become a person again, someone who trusts not only a scientific representation and analysis of the world, but also the world itself...not only the summary reports he receives each morning, but also his own instincts." Because of what we choose to define as democracy in the West, the issues - be they national unity or the economy - are only part of a shell game used by political leaders to illicit our solitary support at the voting stall. It's rarely about how, as a community of people, we wish to define what our political culture truly means. Instead of cultivating visionaries, we've become too much creatures of expedience. What I think Obama is attempting to do, through his historic health care package and international diplomacy, is to cultivate a vision by using his instincts. That's what Havel does in The Art of the Impossible. He makes expedience irrelevant.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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