Vaclav Havel: Living Within the Truth


A few days ago I wrote about Václav Havel’s ingenious analysis of post-totalitarian political culture in his 1978 pamphlet “The Power of the Powerless.”

The main point was that, under a post-totalitarian system, masses of ordinary people could be brought to participate willingly in their own disenfranchisement. The Soviets figured out that they could run a state in a way that made it too inconvenient for people to be their authentic selves or stand up for what they believed in.

Yes, of course there was real terror at the base of Soviet system, but Moscow’s big discovery was that most of the time it wasn’t necessary: they could get people to go along with the system out of habit. By the time a peasant or factory worker woke up and realized they’d been mouthing slogans they didn’t believe for decades, there was just too much water under the bridge to bother changing. Besides, they always knew they could get that midnight knock at the door if they got too far out of line.

In today’s post, I will focus on Havel’s call to reject this mode of life and politics. The antidote to living within a lie is to live instead within the truth.

It sounds too easy.

Just live within the truth? Havel must mean something more than that you simply stop believing falsehoods and start believing the truth instead. To be quite specific, he meant you should stop mouthing those slogans you never believed in–what we might today call performative obedience. But Havel wasn’t really focused on what you literally believed or disbelieved. His concern was how individuals’ lives could be–and were–submerged in a swamp of performative obedience. His interest was in the question whether people lived in conformity with the whole program of government lies.

The answer to the question, How does one live within the truth?, for Havel, is a paradox.  To resist a system, you must start by having your own, inviolable life. You create such a life on the basis of things you know to be true. These things become impervious to official lies.

But this answer just pushes the question back one step. How does one build a life of inviolable truths? Math, after all, consists of inviolable truths. Should one become a mathematician?

Well, Havel points out, there’s something to that. Mathematicians might just make good dissidents. When Havel looked at Czechoslovakia’s budding resistance movement in 1977, he saw that “a ‘dissident’ is simply a physicist, a sociologist, a worker, a poet, individuals who are merely doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime.”

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Václav Havel (Image: Radio Free Europe)

Another dissident Havel knew was a beer brewer. He typified what Havel called the “small-scale work” of dissent. He stood out because he was an excellent brewer, and he wanted the brewery (where Havel worked at the time) to produce excellent beer. Driven by inner priorities, he analyzed the problems of his workplace and made recommendations. The brewer’s assumption that his colleagues shared his desire to do better made everyone around him uncomfortable, including the power structures of the Communist Party. He was labeled a “political saboteur” and stripped of the little authority he possessed. He had, Havel wrote, “come up against the wall of the post-totalitarian system.” Just by trying to brew good beer.

No one, of course, consciously constructs their lives with this kind of function in mind. No one brews beer, plays guitar, models with clay or writes sonnets primarily to defy the government. But done with integrity, Havel argues, leading lives fueled by disciplined, creative energy has this effect nonetheless. As he puts it, “every piece of good work is an indirect criticism of bad politics.” Here is the paradox of living within the truth restated, more directly this time: To be your best political self, you must cultivate a robustly apolitical self.

Dissent comes from a realm that Havel called the “pre-political.”

I turn, as I so often do, to Orwell to add depth to this idea.

In 1941 Orwell was worried that Great Britain would cave to Nazi Germany and accommodate the wave of fascism rolling across Europe. But curiously, Orwell wasn’t that worried. He thought  the English, although capable of making peace with fascists, could never be very good fascists themselves. Why not? Among other things, Orwell wrote (in “England Your England”), they would laugh at the way fascists march. It was part of the English national character, he explained, to scorn in-your-face military swagger:

One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.

The matter of what one finds ridiculous is deeply encoded in your character, seemingly as an instinct. What you hold in laughable contempt says volumes about who you are at your pre-political core.

What was it about the English in 1941 that Orwell thought set them against fascist theatricality at this basic level? Part of it is that the English did not and simply could not lead the kind of lives that could be invigilated in every detail by some overweening authority. Britons were too full of their own ideas and pursuits. And it was not important that these ideas and pursuits be lofty, which they emphatically were not, in Orwell’s estimation. What is important about the lives of the English is that they were theirs. Orwell writes:

[A]nother English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it . . .  is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. . . . Like all other modern people, the English are in process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, ‘co-ordinated’. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence. No party rallies, no Youth Movements, no coloured shirts, no Jew-baiting or ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations. No Gestapo either, in all probability.

Wait. Is Orwell, the great political thinker, honestly telling us that the English are good libertarians because they do crosswords and collect stamps? Orwell’s greatness, though, often consists in seeing what is right in front of his nose. The fact that the English were accustomed to having lives of their own–so much so they were not even aware of their condition–did not make the private sphere any less sacred or special. It made it more sacred and special, something worth guarding and sacrificing for.

For Havel, the oppressiveness of the communist regime made it abundantly clear what it felt like to be deprived of a private self. It was the same thing Orwell noticed but without having to be oppressed: “Individuals,” Havel reflected, “can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence.”

Why do totalitarian governments form corporate states, a vast apparatus crowded with youth clubs and holiday camps and and ministries of culture, and that sort of thing? Because they want their citizens to assemble their entire identities from component parts that are optimized by the regime for surveillance and control. They don’t want excellent brewers or even Orwell’s humble stamp collectors, because such people are doing their own thing. Totalitarian systems are allergic to privacy, a hidden sphere of being. Havel writes that a totalitarian government “is perfectly aware of the potential power of ‘living within the truth’ rooted in the hidden sphere, and well aware too of the kind of world ‘dissent’ grows out of: the everyday human world, the world of daily tension between the aims of life and the aims of the system.” So it tries its best to abolish the everyday human world.

In a 2006 letter, Kurt Vonnegut had this advice to give to five students of St. Xavier High School of New York:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seen from the perspective of Havel and Orwell, this was deeply political advice. Because when you follow your inner imperatives, when you discover and express who you are in a way that makes your soul grow, you can be assured there is an authority somewhere who dislikes what you’re doing. Your inner excellence is an indirect criticism of their bad politics.

I should note that the Soviet Communist Party was not the only organization in the world that stood to benefit by abolishing privacy and shaping the component parts from which an obedient citizen is expected to build their lives. Our system does this too, with a smiling, indulgent face. Ours is no Soviet system based in state terror (at least for most of us); it hollows out lives and wastes them rather than repressing them or killing them outright. Our system gives us mass culture, bad food, the menace of gun violence everywhere, and public environments built for cars and corporations rather than people, and we voluntarily assemble our lives from these parts. We convince ourselves the parts are great because, aren’t we great, and aren’t we made of those things?

Every time I go for a “good” walk in the suburbs, I indirectly critique bad politics in the way Havel foresaw. The sidewalks, you see, do not connect with one another in the suburbs. They appear and disappear. They don’t go anywhere. Isn’t a sidewalk a kind of path? And aren’t paths by definition supposed to go somewhere? I cannot try to go for a good walk without pointing up the badness of the policies that led to the sidewalks’ design. This complaint on its own seems trifling, but it is connected to a host other objections to be raised about the built environment. Together, these complaints indicate a lie, in which we are constantly pressured to live. That lie is: the built environment is for humans. In reality, though, the aims of the system diverge from the aims of life: the system is not for humans. Pretending otherwise is humiliating, because people are not meant to accept lies as the framework of their lives.

So walking becomes a way of living within the truth.

There’s one last thing I think Havel would want us to know about living within the truth; it is a project that can be taken up immediately. This is because, as Havel notes, it is an answer to a sense of responsibility, and responsibility is something we carry with us everywhere. In this regard, the decision to live within the truth is like Christianity’s notion of a sudden conversion. Just like Christianity, Havel writes, living within the truth “is a point of departure for me here and now–but only because anyone, anywhere, at any time, may avail themselves of it.”

Vonnegut emphasizes this too. Once you ascertain the best thing about life–that it is irrevocably yours–you may act on this good news immediately. Right after encouraging the students of St. Xavier High to grow their souls through art, Vonnegut exhorts them, “Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of [your teacher], and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

Notice one more thing. That list of “artwork” looks a lot like Orwell’s catalog of private English pursuits–so humble and ordinary! All those things are connected up with what Havel calls the “aims of life.” Pursue them with discipline and vision and you will eventually find yourself in conflict with the aims of the system. To live within the truth by making your soul grow is a refusal to identify with the system; it is a refusal to be the system. There is nothing more important than this.





Dipshit Nation: A Photo Essay


Sometimes a picture really does say it all. Like this one:


The man in the photograph, if you do not know him, is Jerry Falwell, Jr. He’s a rich, famous evangelist who charges pious, eager minds $22,000 a year to receive moral instruction at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia. He runs the place, under the same “holy orders” as his dad before him.

He is a dipshit, as you can see in the picture–or so I will argue in a moment.

But first, I’d like to give that term–dipshit–some philosophical depth. Consider my effort a small gesture in the same spirit as Harry G. Frankfurt’s admirable 2005 book that developed the pungent but vague idea of bullshit into a precise, usable concept.

The first qualification for being a dipshit is that one must look like one. I am aware of the non-scientific, indeed, question-begging nature of this criterion. Bear with me though. For half a century, the idea that criminals had criminal faces was a going scientific theory, thanks to Cesare Lombroso. In his influential 1876 book Criminal Man, Lombroso wrote that the wrong kind of face was a sure sign of criminality and could even indicate a “love of orgies and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood.” It was a picturesque theory.

Anyway, guided by Lombroso’s thinking, for years and years police actually harassed and arrested people for the way they looked. Lucky that doesn’t happen anymore.

While Lombroso was eventually debunked as a criminologist, I bravely advance a variant of his theory that still awaits falsification. How can you tell a dipshit? Start by looking at his face. I mean, check out Falwell up there. And if his companion burns with a higher wattage of intelligence, she has taken special care to conceal it.

Which brings me to the next criterion. A dipshit is a special kind of stupid. By this I do not mean that his mind is an entirely vacant house. He is more of a middling ignoramus, but of a certain brand. The dipshit is a bold, aggressive fighter for the kind of intellectual solipsism that Alexis de Tocqueville observed among Americans. “In most of the operations of the mind,” Tocqueville wrote, “each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.” In the 19th century, Americans treated matters of epistemology as matters of politics, asserting that, in a free country, their knowledge claims were as good as anyone else’s. It mattered not whether those claims were based in proven common sense, hoary superstition, or outlandish religious fantasies. What mattered is that they were honestly come by in a country of free and equal citizens.

Today this attitude has become supercharged. Tom Nichols, in his timely and insightful 2018 book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, argues that what used to be a special political attitude toward knowledge has become a kind of deranged existential stance that encompasses one’s whole identity. Americans still believe, as Nichols puts it, that “having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s.” But now people take personal offense at expertise. Nichols writes, “The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge.” The dipshit puts himself vocally and visibly in the service of this hostility.

But surely we can recognize a kind of rebellious, ragged glory in this individualism. Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” Aren’t the people I’m scorning as dipshits actually following an inner light, living authentically as “students of real life,” or some such?

No. Being a reactionary simpleton is a choice, made brazenly in the face of demonstrably better options. It is not the same thing as being an honest, average Joe who navigates life’s trials with zeal and conviction, learning along the way. This voluntarism is a distinguishing mark of the dipshit.

The dipshit is (just) conscious of the great repository of human knowledge that helps us flourish. Thanks to this knowledge, surgeries get done, airplanes keep flying, and teachers continue to teach our kids how to calculate standard deviation. But the dipshit’s refusal to harmonize his life with a culture whose collective knowledge dwarfs and ennobles his own is a deliberate act of self-trivialization. He hates and fears the most open-ended part of being human–the ability to learn, and the dependency on others we experience as learners. We should no more flinch from naming the dipshit as such than H.L. Mencken hesitated to call out the “lesser sort” of man, who shouted hosannas to drown out science and poetry. Mencken’s lesser man may not know what a philistine is, but he is an expert at being one.

One of the Bible’s most beautiful, inspiring verses, Philippians 4:8, is an ode to not being a philistine. It runs, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The dipshit sneers at this attitude. If shouting it down doesn’t dispel it, he may wave a gun in the face of its champions. You will recognize the dipshit by his hostility to the Philippian virtues.

Finally–and this is more of a corollary to the main criteria, not a criterion as such–to be a dipshit is to earn permanent obloquy. There is no coming back from it. This is because, unlike crimes or sins, which deserve serious attention that can result in judgment, dipshittery is a base, clownish thing that sits inert, unadjudicated by decent folk. It is a low-pressure mass in the soul, unable to attract the freshening winds of moral deliberation.

Dante illustrated ingeniously that sins have varying degrees of seriousness. To offend gravely brings grave consequences. Alas, there can even be a kind of grandness to evil, just as there can be transcendent mercy in forgiveness. Furthermore, serious evil can be didactic, as anyone who has read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky knows (I am thinking especially of the “Rebellion” chapter). The dipshit has no acquaintance with this moral register. Unaccustomed to engaging in matters of any moral weight, he retains the stench of cheapness until he dies.

Well, that’s the outline of the thing. Now, on to cases.

I have already anticipated much of what I would wish to say about Reverend Falwell, above. Again, he certainly looks like a dipshit, something his students and acolytes should try harder to appreciate. Unfortunately, they will get hung up on other things–his state of undress, the drink in his hand, and the overall lewdness of the mise en scene. They err, as usual.

The real offense of Falwell consists, not in the license he takes, but in his expectation that his followers will adore him in public and thereby collude in his fraudulent increase of wealth and power. It is not enough that Falwell fleeces his sheep for millions of dollars a year. He clearly believes he has debased them so far that he can get a lusty “Hell yeah!” from them when he tweets out his creepy idea of what real Christian men get up to on their yachts. His deepest dipshittery consists in his belief that his followers are as crass and stupid as he is. I don’t know, maybe they are. That would be a shame.

Mark and Patricia McCloskey of St. Louis (Image: NPR)

And here we have Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who brandished their guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in June.

Dipshit face? My computer lacks a font large enough to check that box appropriately, at least for Mark. He displays a mastery of the form. Patricia, in a more mysterious frame of mind, is vacantly scanning the middle-distance, possibly lost in contemplation of some secret pain. If her reverie were to let her hand drift just five degrees husband-ward, though, this scene could be down one dipshit. They probably should have take more gun-brandishing lessons.

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Brandon Lewis in Richmond, Virginia, January 20th 2020 (Image: 13News)

Maybe from this guy? Honestly I kind of hate to call him a dipshit. There are like a dozen pictures of him on the internet, and he looks this jolly in all of them. Which doesn’t jibe with the rest of his appearance, that of a sketchy special forces soldier who, after an unwanted discharge followed by a years-long Krispy Kreme jag, finds occasion to line up the scope of his sniper rifle on your chest and then put a hole the size of a coffee can through it. Which is what the Barrett M28A1 rifle is for. And, yes, the helmet is for special operators; it’s so they can hear better. Plus it’s pretty light.

But back to the man himself. His name is Brandon Lewis, and he owns a gun shop in New York. It is with a sigh that I do, in fact, pronounce him a dipshit. By gathering together with other putative gun rights protesters in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital city of the Confederacy, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he put himself oafishly at the service of a cause that could not fail to threaten and demean African Americans. If he wishes his real cause, whatever it is, to receive due attention, he should write a letter or give a speech, not dress up as Commander McFeed, First Special Reconnaissance Detachment of Gastronomie Directe.

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Dr. Stella Immanuel (Image: Religion Dispatches)

Okay, I’m not trying to duck the hard part of the job here (you know, writing), but I think a short formula should serve the case of Stella Immanuel. She’s the doctor who went on national TV to defy pretty much all the public health measures that have proven effective at limiting the spread of COVID-19 so far. So here’s the formula: Belief in demon sperm + doctor × steps of National Capitol = Dipshit.

Still, Immanuel strains against the stated criteria in two ways. For one, if she is a real doctor, she risks doing actual harm by advocating batshit crazy healthcare ideas and amplifying the Trump administration’s panorama of bullshit about the virus. It is one thing to have slack-jawed yokels sound off about serious matters that impact the health of millions, but to have a credentialed expert do so?–Immanuel certainly deserves the same airy disregard we give the dipshit, but she also calls for professional rebuke and sanction. She should know, and act, better.

As to less serious matters, can we honestly ascribe a dipshit’s face to Immanuel? It’s not that I hold back for fear of aggrieving the fair sex. It’s more that Immanuel actually has a pretty charismatic delivery. She shows enough vim that one wishes she actually had a bracing moral or something else of good report to declaim. She could, indeed, be the kind of preacher Abraham Lincoln said he liked–one who appears to be fighting with bees. This is all in contrast to, say, Falwell, who is so loathsome one is almost glad that noble words never find their way through his throat. Were he to speak worthy phrases–which he could only acquire by theft–one feels he should be punished with electric shocks for abusing man’s noblest gift. Let him stick with the mouth slurry that suits his character.

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Brian Cash, Michigan protester (Image ABC News)

This guy, Brian Cash, is a tough call, and not just because it’s hard to look like a dipshit while simultaneously doing a viable impression of an enraged wolverine. The crossover is very hard.

Tragically, Cash seems never to have been admonished as a child to say it don’t spray it. The times are not right for expectorating speech. Or, so says the governor of Michigan, whose COVID-19 mask-and-lockdown policies Cash and others were protesting on April 30th, when the picture was taken.

Days later, Cash took an opportunity to explain his overwrought appearance to the media, telling the Detroit Free Press that the photo left out important nuances. Cash was not erupting at the two law officers  mere inches from his face, but at another law officer behind them who, the day before, had been filmed ejecting three protesters from the Michigan State House. The ejected protesters were women, and Cash found the manhandling of them ungallant. In the photo he is inviting the law officer, actually the Sergeant-at-Arms, to assault a real man for a change. Cash clearly intended the encounter to be instructive.

So, let us pass by the fact that Cash had probably not read the findings of Dr. Sima Asadi, et al., in the September 2019 Scientific Reports noting that “Aerosol emission and superemission during human speech increase with voice loudness.” From Asadi et al. it can be deduced that one’s fury droplets do not, like Luke Skywalker’s photon torpedo, travel straight to the object of one’s attention. They disperse, in a cloud-sort-of-dealio. (It’s in the paper.)

Of course one can’t be faulted for the scientific papers one hasn’t read. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. (Although those of us with enough leisure should read more science.) Where Cash takes a hard turn toward Dipshitville is in his militant service of an aggressively stupid political campaign based on childishly simple lies. Of course Cash and his fellows do not believe in COVID-19 (he says as much in his DFP interview). Or, they do believe in it when they say it was sent here by China, but then they go right back to not believing in it.

But this garden variety hypocrisy is only the tip of an enormous iceberg of anti-intelligence. Another nuance the photo of Cash leaves out is the performative accouterments of the gathered protesters, which included military fatigues, nooses, Confederate flags, and, of course, assault rifles. The protesters assembled that day were from a dozen anti-government militias in Michigan. (One political group backing the militias is The Michigan Freedom Fund, recipient of more than half a million dollars in donations from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.)

Guided by canny, connected politicians, the Michigan militias are trying to flip the script of the small-government, gun rights movement. Despite appearances to the contrary, they say they are not white nationalists, but rather color-blind freedom fighters resisting any and all government overreach. In a remarkable profile of the movement, New Yorker journalist Luke Mogelson recently observed that many militia members see themselves on the verge of a new revolutionary war to re-establish the liberty of all citizens. I repeat: they actually think they are getting ready to wage war against the United States. Officially, the militias are about freedom broadly construed, not just White gun rights. “We want gay married couples adopting Chinese kids to be able to protect their marijuana fields with their machine guns,” a Boogaloo militia member told Mogelson.

In reality, though, the movement’s White Christian identitarian instincts cast a long shadow. When BLM protesters asked to join the militias in a June demonstration in Lansing (actually on the eve of Juneteenth, a date likely chosen to offend BLM), the BLM partners were tentatively accepted but then, when it turned out the form of government overreach they were there to protest was the excessive policing of black Americans, they were shouted down, insulted (as “thugs” and “gangbangers”), and hustled off the scene. The white militias instead cheered the police, whom they had flamed just weeks earlier as pro-mask, fascist stormtroopers. Times do change, rapidly sometimes.

It takes a whole heap of stupid to believe (and perform) the lie that Michigan’s militias are color-blind freedom fighters and that their cause is in any way enlightened by political principle. Cash, and a literal army of fellow dipshits, kick in with this supply of stupid, amply. What is required is the ability to ignore historical nuances (that word again) like these, noted by Mogelson, which capture the scale of the militias’ lie perfectly:

According to [the militias’ libertarian] narrative, police brutality against African-Americans, and the weaponization of law enforcement to suppress Black activism, were not manifestations of institutional racism; rather, they arose from the same infidelity to American principles of individual freedom that, in our time, defines the political left. The false equivalency of the anti-lockdown movement with the civil-rights movement appeals to the libertarian conviction that all government interference is inherently oppressive. It also elides the fact that the civil-rights movement demanded government interference on behalf of oppressed people.

The dishonesty is enough to make you spitting mad.

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Mike Lindell, dipshit

Maybe rest is what we need. Which is where Mike Lindell could come in to help. He makes the world’s best pillow, or so he says. Many of his customers agree. They sleep like babies, they say. The problem with Lindell is, he wants us to end our 244 year-old secular republic and replace it with a theocracy.

Well, it goes against my character, but I’ll play this game for a moment. Let’s consider that theocracy. If you’re going to have an established religion, I say have one with some oomph or grandeur to it. Give me an ancient, Latin-speaking pope grasping his throne with cruel old eagle-claws–someone who openly wants to dominate and says what he means.

Not this simpering, pray-for-a-good-parking spot, Jesus-make-me-rich evangelism of suburban megachurches with their book stores and cappuccino bars. The evangelical megachurch movement is not just a deranged outgrowth of low culture; it shows clear signs of debauched cruelty. Have you heard the “Christian pop” music played in its houses of worship or on the radio stations they spawn? It can only have been conceived by people who wish for the very idea of sound to be hateful to human beings. Give me old-time hymns any day, in which the singers melodiously entreat God to bring mankind’s suffering to end. They do not create that suffering anew.

But it is precisely this crassest, most demeaning and rebarbative form of religion that is in pole position to become our established church, as Lindell would have it. His dipshittery is emblematic of the whole sorry lot who share his enthusiasm.

In the picture above, Lindell is the business guy with 18 chins in the blue suit. No, not the business guy with 18 chins and blue suit trying to use x-ray vision to stealthily check out  the wiener of the first guy in the blue suit. The guy with the mic. That guy. That’s Lindell. In March this year he said the following about Donald Trump’s election:

God answered our millions of prayers and gave us grace and a miracle happened on November 8, 2016. We were given a second chance and time granted to get our country back on track with our conservative values and getting people saved in Jesus’ name. As I stand before you today, I see the greatest president in history. Of course he is; he was chosen by God.

So, it takes a real dipshit to still believe in the divine right of kings, right? I mean, we did not just fight wars (one of which lasted 30 years) to suppress the wickedness of this idea, but we actually reached a point where we saw it for what it was–a ridiculous fabrication. But when Lindell says Trump was elected, he means that in more way than one. (Actually I’m probably giving him too much credit, so let’s say we can easily understand a double entendré there even if Lindell doesn’t know what one is.)

As with any rich person who gets involved in political campaigning, we must always ask why the getting of money is supposed to qualify anyone to comment on anything other than the getting of money. In a news interview on August 18th, Lindell exercised his rich-guy license to comment right up to the edge of dipshittery as I’ve defined it. Challenged on how he could in good faith promote an untested herbal medicine to treat COVID-19, on which he stands to profit immensely, Lindell ranted for a full 10 minutes that his motives were divinely sanctioned, he had a Christian heart, and that sort of thing. He was also fulsome in his adoration of his demigod, Trump.

Drearily, I could go on. But you get the picture. I’ll close for now.

Religion has taught us that that it can be therapeutic to name your enemies. There’s nothing so testing of the soul like contending in the dark with demons you can’t see. I hope I have breathed new life into an old term that helps with the job of naming, and seeing, some of them.


Vaclav Havel and the Post-Totalitarian System: Living Within a Lie


Ever since I read George Orwell’s essay “Charles Dickens” and then immediately read it again, I’ve known that great literature is always political.

Dickens was constantly probing social problems in his novels, and he clearly thought they could be remedied by individual effort alone. Soften the heart and open the pocketbook of some tightfisted tycoon, he believed, and you could do a bit to alleviate poverty and hunger, stop child labor, improve education, and so on, at least in one green little corner of England.

“[Dickens’s] whole ‘message,'” Orwell writes in his eponymous essay, “is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” Take Scrooge. He wakes up Christmas morning a harrowed and morally changed man. How do we know this? He gives the Cratchits a goose and some cash. For Dickens, this small act of generosity makes the world a better place.

I suppose it does, but does it address the deeper problem of endemic poverty? What England really needed was a tax-spend-and-regulate government that prevented Scrooge’s exploitation of the Cratchits and other poor people to begin with. And why did Tiny Tim have to be pitiable to earn Scrooge’s charity? Wasn’t it enough that he was a human child, with or without the crutches?

Orwell believes Dickens’s emphasis on sentimental, individual morality is the reason his hopes for improving society are so limited. “There is no clear sign,” that Orwell can see in Dickens’s writings, “that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature.’ It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system.”

Recently I’ve been re-reading some of the classics of 20th century central European liberation literature. These include Adam Michnik’s 1985 Letters from Prison and Ceslaw Milosz’s 1953 The Captive Mind. At the glowing core of this genre, for me, is Vaclav Havel’s 1978 pamphlet The Power of the Powerless, a wellspring of deeply humane wisdom that remains electrifying 42 years after its publication. Havel’s analysis of totalitarian political culture still illuminates what is wrong with our system as a system even today. It shows that we still have demons to cast out even in the post-communist world.

(Image: Penguin Random House)

Havel’s fundamental claim in The Power of the Powerless is that the people of central Europe living under Soviet dominion in 1978 existed, not as you might expect a dissident to say, under a totalitarian system, but rather under a post-totalitarian system. What does he mean by this?

Before I go into definitions, let me put my first card clearly on the table. Havel’s diagnosis of post-totalitarian politics applies to Americans today. That’s why I’m writing about it. Although our system is clearly not as bad as the Soviet one, it exhibits many of the same characteristics in embryonic form. More to the point, our system is based on the same fundamental proposition as the Soviet system was–the government tries to buy the people’s enduring loyalty by causing the provision of enough material goods.

If you would like a simple historical reference that helps keep this point in mind, recall the famous “Kitchen Debate” of 1959. That was when Nixon and Kruschev met in Moscow to compare the comfort and purchasing power of their citizens in terms of kitchen conveniences. Even though the communist economy consistently under-performed western capitalism on such quality-of-life scores, Havel writes that it is crucial to remember Moscow nonetheless accepted the comparisons as a valid measure of performance. “What we have here [behind the Iron Curtain],” Havel writes, “is simply another form of the consumer industrial society, with all its concomitant social, intellectual, and psychological consequences.” In other words, communists and capitalists were never as utterly different as they made themselves out to be. Moscow wanted to show its followers they were materially better off for being communists, and Washington wanted to do the same by capitalism.

So with this commonality in mind, let’s look at what Havel means by a post-totalitarian system; if such a system seeped its way into the basic bond between government and citizen then, under communism, it could happen today under capitalism.

In a classic dictatorship, Havel writes, governing authority is based on a dominant personality and is geographically circumscribed in the place where the dictator can exercise the full force of his charisma. Although fascism was becoming a broad political movement in 1930s western Europe, Hitler, to take the classic example, was never going to rule Italy directly as its dictator. Mussolini was required, to declaim in Italian from a wrought iron-railed Roman balcone about the glories of Rome, and so forth. Each man’s power was based on nationalism, which has borders on the map and a particular ethos and aesthetic.

Another feature of a classic dictatorship for Havel was the pivotal role of armed security forces. Although dictators start out popular (sometimes, at least), their lasting authority “derives ultimately from the numbers and the armed might of [their] soldiers and police.” Coercive force is everything for a strong man. (For a case study in how charisma and armed force fit together to form a classic dictatorship, see the life and career of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. He was a walking, talking definition of what Havel meant by a classic dictator.)

Havel identifies four ways in which Soviet communism differed from classic dictatorship and, in a sense, moved beyond the old model:

  1. The ideology of post-totalitarian systems has potentially global appeal and therefore competes for global influence. The point of its struggle is to master the world. And although Soviet communist ideology germinated in a small ideological center in Moscow, it had indeed spread over much of the globe by the time it was entrenched in Havel’s Czechoslovakia.
  2. While the authority of classic dictatorship depends on the ephemeral appeal of personalities, and is therefore unstable and insecure, post-totalitarian systems are rooted in real, historical movements that have (or once had) popular legitimacy. As Havel writes of Soviet communism, “Even though our dictatorship has long since alienated itself completely from the social movements that gave birth to it, the authenticity of these movements . . . give it undeniable historicity.”
  3. The governing “philosophy” of a post-totalitarian system is precise, adaptable, and comprehensive, which makes it valid across changing times and circumstances. It is, Havel writes, like a state religion, which answers all life’s questions and to which one can convert with a subjectively genuine feeling of conviction and enlightenment. The post-totalitarian system wants its citizens to feel like rational agents who choose the state’s ideology freely, not subjugated drones.
  4. In a post-totalitarian system, the means of exercising authority are comprehensively prescribed in a body of established laws and regulations. This is unlike a classic dictatorship, in which improvisations can be made at the ruler’s whim and government officials have to constantly update their operating directives accordingly. (Think of how utterly unpredictable North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un is and how assiduously his underlings must constantly change step to stay in line with him.) In a post-totalitarian system, a state official occupies a fully-elaborated, logically coherent system, with its priorities and procedure all spelled out. He is what Havel calls a “blind executor” of the system’s internal laws.

This last feature, although it looks ho-hum, is actually the dreadful summation of the first three, more sinister-looking features. Once you have a globally ambitious system that commands mass loyalty (or at least conformity) even without the charisma of a great leader or the direct threat of force, encoding the whole thing in law makes it a recipe for perpetual, self-regulating totalitarianism. This is a new danger in the world. Now, not just an armed brigand or a muscled Big Man can subjugate you, but any wan, anonymous bureaucrat can take your property, send you to prison, dissolve your family, or end your employment and say, “It can’t be helped, friend. This is what the law demands.”

Havel goes on to describe the symptomology of this disease. Even though communism had its pantheon of charismatic revolutionary heroes, by Havel’s lifetime, the job of governance could be, and was, mostly done by faceless functionaries. The system was automatic. It had a life of its own and followed its own aims. The most horrific effect of this transformation was to make each individual’s worth conditional on, and subsumed under, the aims of the system–even while the system gave the people a fake versions of their own lives as “good” communists. The state’s ruling ideology, Havel writes, “offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”

Furthermore, the subjects of the system are self-policing. They speak in a code of shared loyalty with one another, where one person “helps” another show obedience to the ruling ideology, and the other person returns the help in kind. Havel imagines such an exchange in terms of political slogans. A grocery store manager displays a poster in his store window that says “Workers of the world unite!” But what the sign really means, is “I am obedient, and I have the right to be left in peace.” An office worker enters the grocer’s shop. Just hours before, she hung a similar poster in the hallway of her workplace. Although neither person “means” what the posters say, both display their posters to contribute to the “general panorama” of obedience, under an unspoken diktat. “Each proposes to the other,” Havel writes, “that something be repeated and each accepts the other’s proposal.”

Communism collapsed under the weight of so many lies, it might seem pointless to highlight one or two of them. But it is not. There is one fundamental lie that implicates the subjugated people in the creation of the very power structures that subjugate them. This is the ur-lie.

The state proclaims itself inerrant. Whatever it says or does is correct by definition. Of course people know this is not true. But if they wish to share in any fraction of the state’s power–even the tiny fraction of power required to live in peace–they go along with the state’s mystifications. Some of these mystifications are outright lies, capable of easily being shown false.

But still, people go along to get along. It seems so ordinary. But, Havel tells us, it is not. Going along to get along is what constitutes the post-totalitarian system:

Individuals need not believe all [the government’s] mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.

The bind that decent people find themselves in is this: they genuinely need that small share of the government’s power that allows them to live in peace. They need to go along to get along, tacitly assenting to the slogans that are pasted up in the general panorama, which propagates the myth of an inerrant government.

So it turns out that Charles Dickens was not wrong. The proper target of political literature (and other kinds of moral suasion) is human nature. Any government that demands that its citizens go along with a comprehensive network of lies in the service of some national program is effectively demanding that people debase themselves and, as Havel put it, “part with” their capacity to make moral choices–their dignity. This demand can only be defied one person at a time.

Havel was a miraculously clear writer and moralist. He wrote that if the main evil of a post-totalitarian system is living within a lie, the antidote is to live within the truth. This will be the focus of my next post on this topic.




Corruption Most Foul


At first I thought Gore Vidal just liked writing about whorehouses.

They show up in most of the seven historical novels that make up his “American Chronicles” series. His power characters–politicians, newsmen and captains of industry mostly–patronize brothels time and again. He depicts the goings on in them with an easy fondness.

Aaron Burr, whom Vidal liked for his ambition and canniness, was a regular customer. So were Lincoln’s smart, sensitive young secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. Vidal even murmurs the rumor that Honest Abe himself caught syphilis in the arms of a professional during his youth in Illinois. This suggestion was loudly excoriated by critics when it appeared in Vidal’s 1984 Lincoln (part of the “American Chronicles” series), but the critics’ anger began losing its righteous edge in 1998 when history proved Vidal right on another supposedly salacious claim about a U.S. president’s sex life. In his 1973 novel Burr, Vidal had insinuated that Thomas Jefferson did not merely enslave Sally Hemings but fathered children by her as well. At the time, Vidal was shouted down, called “meretricious.” Then he was vindicated. Could he have been right about Lincoln too?

I hear Vidal answering, Of course! And furthermore, Who cares? The point of Vidal’s light touch when writing about sex generally and the use of prostitutes by well-connected men specifically is that the activity itself was so blasé, so immaterial to whatever the men’s lasting accomplishments were. Lincoln would still be the best and noblest of U.S. presidents even if the historical record were to reveal that he used a Springfield prostitute in 1840-something.

I was titillated–if that is the right word–to read this week about just how well and thoroughly serviced were the Texas politicians of Samuel Ealy Johnson’s day. Father of Lyndon Johnson, Sam was a Texas state representative on and off between 1905 and 1923. In 1905, Robert Caro reports in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, it was common for lobbyists to occupy the offices of “their” representatives, drafting laws, making deals, and generally running the business of Texas’s legislature–sometimes even answering roll-call on the floor. So liberated from their duties, the elected representatives spent their time in Austin whorehouses, their rooms, meals and saloon tabs paid for by the lobbyists.  You may look this up for yourself on pages 46 and 47 of Caro’s wonderful book.

To all this I say, “Oh, for the good old days!”

By this I do not mean that I approve of prostitution. (I am a liberal, after all–I don’t think you’re entitled to debase or brutalize someone just because you’ve paid good money to do it.) What I mean is, I wish we could have 1905’s more honest, less harmful level of corruption in our politics today. I reject the wicked and sinister thing we have instead. Let us have Mitch McConnell openly boozing it up 24/7 in a bordello bought and paid for by the Blackstone Group. It would be far better than having him in his actual, scabrous form–scolding the poor over “entitlements,” bleeding them of their meager incomes by shifting the tax burden onto them, and all the time raking in millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.

The character of Mitch McConnell, Republican Senator of Kentucky, is a matter of public record. There are no secrets behind, say, his 2016 refusal to have the Senate consider Merrick Garland, then-President Obama’s nomination to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. This was a shameless, deliberate dereliction of constitutionally-mandated duty by the Senate majority leader. But because it was excellent politics, McConnell got away with it. One of the reasons it was excellent politics was because it was the equivalent of a white sheriff telling a black man that sundown was coming, and the U.S. Senate was a sundown town: Don’t back-sass, and move along. A certain thirty-five percent of the electorate loved this.

As I say, McConnell is not hard to figure out.

Still, there are always more horrible things to discover about those we already know to be monstrous. The redoubtable Jane Mayer proves this dreary law in her highly insightful profile of McConnell as Trump’s “enabler-in-chief” in the April 20th New Yorker. (Author of the 2017 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Mayer knows whereof she speaks: it is is the money that politicians receive and spend, and not the things they say, that reveals the truth of where they stand.)

While still a state congressman of humble background in the 1970s, McConnell taught a class at the University of Louisville, Mayer reports, in which he gave his thoughts on the “three things necessary for success in politics,” writing them on the blackboard. They were: money, money, money. McConnell would soon divorce his wife, a bookish historian, and seek a more promising situation. As he told his press secretary at the time, “One of the things I’ve got to do is to marry a rich woman.”

(Image: The Cut)

It was during these years that McConnell began to advocate for the idea that money was a functional equivalent of speech and therefore subject to constitutional protections under the First Amendment. This idea would come to fruition in the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, which said basically that the rich could buy and buy and buy all the political power they wanted while you must be satisfied with your one measly vote. If there was a single moment in which our republic was sold to the owning class, this was it. And more than any other politician, McConnell made this sale happen. (To be fair, though, the campaign finance machine that McConnell perfected was conceived of and built by LBJ in 1940. See Caro, pp. 627-664.)

But back to McConnell and his wife situation. He eventually succeeded in marrying up. Most Americans probably know that McConnell’s current wife, Elaine Chao, is the Secretary of Transportation, and most Americans probably have a vague sense of how such appointments are made. You don’t need a PhD in poli sci to figure out that being a senator’s spouse can dramatically improve your chances of being asked to join the president’s cabinet. It’s just one of those things.

McConnell and Chao were already doing pretty well money-wise when Chao’s mother died in 2012, leaving the couple $25 million and making McConnell one of the wealthiest members of the Senate. But that’s not quite the end of the story that the money tells.

Much of Chao’s fortune comes from Chinese companies founded by her father, whose connections included Jiang Zemin, the former President of China. Her family members continue to sit on the boards of large Chinese (and U.S.) companies, including one that builds ships, including Chinese warships. When the Trump administration approached Chao in 2016 about her choice of secretary positions, Transportation was what she asked for. Chao could have chosen anything–education, labor, housing, but she chose ships.

Reporting by the New York Times shows Chao has used her cabinet position to build a highly profitable bridge between Chinese businesses and those owned by her family in America. Over the years, Chao’s father and his associates have given McConnell millions in campaign contributions; some of this money would have come from loans made by a Chinese government bank labeled by the Trump administration as a security threat to the United States.

The favors also come in from Mitch’s Legislative Branch. In July 2020, one of the Chao family’s largest companies, the U.S. Foremost Group, received large federal loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, which was guided through the Senate by McConnell. Of course, whatever Foremost got in PPP was likely no more than couch change compared to the corporate tax breaks they’ve enjoyed over the years helped long mightily by son-in-law Mitch. (Don’t call those entitlements, though.)

And if money is political speech, it is Wall Street financiers, not Kentuckians, who say they want McConnell as Kentucky’s senator. According to an article in Salon in July 2019, more than 90 percent of McConnell’s financial backing comes from outside the state, most of it from financial interests in New York. Many of these are umbrellaed under the secretive Blackstone Group. Business donors in red states such as Georgia and Indiana also kick in for Mitch. And McConnell is not only the beneficiary of the national campaign-finance machinery. He runs what Mayer calls the most powerful such machine in U.S. history. Thanks to McConnell, GOP candidates for Congress across the country are elected by moneyed interests from everywhere but their states. (It’s also a fair guess that some of the money, like McConnell’s, comes by way of multinational business from foreign powers opposed to U.S interests.) Altogether, to think of McConnell as representing the people of Kentucky–or of politicians backed by his machine as representing their states–requires a highly creative, or possibly perverse, reinterpretation of democracy.

Everything McConnell does to ensure our republic stays sold to organized money is legal, as far as we know. Likewise, everything he does to enrich himself and his in-laws in the process of carrying out his open campaign of corruption is legal–although the jury might literally convene on this matter sometime in the future. But honestly, the next time McConnell opens his mouth to accuse poor people of playing the system to snag “entitlements,” I’d really rather he just move into the local whorehouse, send the bills to Blackstone, and star in a reality TV show about how much fun he’s having. At least I could respect his honesty.