An article in Foreign Policy brought back old memories of the Eastern European dissidents who so rightly inspired me in my Cold War liberal youth. The article concerned the fortieth anniversary of Charter 77, the great manifesto by Czech dissidents such as Vaclav Havel. These men and women bravely stood against malignant Soviet/Russian nationalism imposed from without. No less important, they stood against the corruption of language and the “Get over it” undignified compliance with untruth imposed from within.
Havel’s great essay, “The power of the powerless” includes a famous gut-punch passage that suddenly seems horribly pertinent to our present day.
THE MANAGER of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.
Another paragraph down, Havel offers another insight about how that stupid little sign offers ideological cover which allows that grocer to turn away from his own obedience to a despicable regime. Those of us instructed to get over it, not to endanger our prosaic connections by emphatically denouncing President Trump’s latest depredations, might learn from this as well.
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.