I picked this book up, a collection of letters he'd written to friends, colleagues, and political figures, only because I wanted something to read during the long slow 9 hour shift I had at work that day.
What I've found though, is a very fiery and astute observer of politics in this playwright-turned-politico.
Vaclav lived during the Soviet Occupation of Czechoslovakia, now split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. While the ruling regime of the day was Communist, his observations of the voting public, and of the mechanics of the political system are directly applicable to our nation today.
Though he had one consolidated ruling party of wealthy elites, and a group of weak opposition parties, we have two ruling parties, with the same group of elites running both of them, and a group of weak opposition parties.
On Third Parties
If one changes the wording of Vaclav Havel's letter on the creation of a new opposition party, "On the Theme of Opposition," he very well could be talking about the USA today.
"We are frequently told that because we now have freedom of speech (which is supposedly the basis of democracy), public opinion, assisted by the media, will carry out the natural restraining function of an opposition. This notion is based on the faith that government will draw the appropriate conclusions from the public criticism. The trouble is, democracy is not a matter of faith, but of guarantees.
The essence of democracy-- the real source of those guarantees-- is something else: a public, legal contest for power. At the same time, public opinion (as represented by the press, for instance) can act as an effective check on government, and thereby improve its quality, only if it also has the power to influence government, and this can only be done if public opinion leads to a process of public choice-- through elections, for example. Ultimately, power only really listens to power, and if government is to be improved, we must be able to threaten its existence, not merely it's reputation."
I would say that the very same applies to the Republican and Democratic parties. Only when we refuse to let terrible candidates gain access to power by not voting for them, will our government be accountable.
Truley, there isn't a clash between Republicans and Democrats in this presidential race. We have two candidates that are running for the presidency of the status quo. Those that are really in power are the corporate elite. They own print media and broadcast media; they have horozontally integrated with the arms industry and the energy industry. They run the show.
In Communist Czechoslovakia, the Government took over all businesses for it's own use and pleasure.
What has happened to us today in America, is the Businesses have taken over the Government and are using it for it's own use and pleasure.
On Political Victory
Havel sees a path for victory, not for an opposition party, but for Humankind based on unifying principals:
"Make real individuals the measure of society and the system. Not in such a way as to choose an abstract idea of man as the starting point for a new phraseological ritual, but in a simple and practical manner: by taking an interest in concrete human lives, not ideological filters; by struggling for particular human rights, demands, and interests; by rehabilitating values that have until recently, been considered "metaphysical," values like conscience, love of one's neighbor, compassion, trust, understanding."
Another interesting thing to note is the groupthink that occurs in political parties. We must shed our ideological blinders and be willing to crtique and refuse our political leaders when they come to us with solutions that are not in our interest and do not fulfill our political will:
"The fact that many noncommunists saw communist error for what it was at a time when communists did not have the slightest idea they were wrong, needs to be ackowleged. [...] If this is not done, it means that communists are a special breed of superhumans who are -- on principle-- right even when they are wrong, while noncommunists are -- on principle-- wrong even when they are right."
Go ahead and change the word "communist" for either Republican or Democrat, and "noncommunist" to the opposing party. Re-read it. Either way it's true.
Democrats and Republicans both, like the Communists of the Czech republic, often refuse to see their own errors, and refuse to own them or correct them. While this may save face in the short run, reality is that it builds a culture that leads our civilization into disaster, while enacting flawed policies that do not benefit the population at large.
On "Selling Out"
A political leader, Alexander Dubcek, was forced to resign under pressure of the Communist Party leadership for being true to the Communist party values in his political action, while the Communist Party leadership was being corrupt and self-serving.
Dubcek was faced with three options, all of them bad.
Havel wrote a letter advising him to stand against the Party leadership, and call their patriotism and ideological loyalty into question, rather than submitting and letting them do the same to him.
He said to him, "They beleive you to be incapable of betrayal. [...] That is why one of their probably aims at the present moment is to induce you not only to bow to their ideology, but I have even heard that they intend to turn you into the cheif prosecutor of your own policies."
For most Americans, neither of the two candidates truely appeal to our own interests. 97% of Americans want the troops out of Iraq. Neither Obama nor McCain have plans that will do so. Both of them plan on leaving not only our troops behind, but private mercenaries like Blackwater, as well as functioning fully staffed military bases for us to project our military might onto the middle east.
A majority of Americans may not full understand the platforms of the front-runners like Obama, Hillary or Edwards, which is why they wouldn't have understood that they don't really offer universal health care. But most Americans WANT to get the private insurers out of their lives, to put an end to the pay-or-die system we have.
Conservatives want to reduce government spending and reduce government power, yet McCain wants to continue a highly costly war in Iraq, opposes Habeas Corpus, thinks it's ok to torture, and wants to continue expanding the government's power to spy on innocent civilians, and effectively destroying all constitutional limits on government power to further expand.
These choices have done to us, the voters, exactly what the Communists did to Dubcek. They party leadership expects us to defend candidates who oppose our own views. They expect us to be the "chief prosecutors against [our] own policies." They also expect that we are "incapable of betrayal" to place our political will and vote outside of their pocket.
Havel advises Dubcek to take heart in seeking truth first and foremost, even in the light that brutal punishment may follow. Dubcek faced the options of opposing the party leadership and possibly winning, possibly being tried and executed, or slipping away silently and letting his country be overtaken by criminals.
Our situation is similar, though we don't face execution for simply standing in ideological opposition to the government (at least not yet), we do face the option of either voting for what we want to see, or voting the lesser of two evils, and letting this election year slip silently into the night.
"a de facto defeat need not be a moral defeat; ... a moral victory may later become a de facto victory, but a moral defeat, never."
We must not let ourselves become morally defeated, never sell out our ideals. They are the only things that the government cannot take from us by force. They must be given up willingly.
Why it's important
Said Havel to Dubcek, "Your act will have no positive effect on the immediate situation; on the contrary, it will probably be exploited to justify further repression. But that is all negligible when set beside the immeasurable moral significance of your act for the social and political destiny of our two nations. People would realize that it is always possible to preserve one's ideals and one's backbone; that one can stand up to lies; that there are values worth fighting for; that there are still trustworthy leaders; and that no political defeat justified complete historical skepticism as long as the victims manage to bear their defeat with dignity."
Ultimately, Dubcek resigned and though he didn't vocally oppose his own past policies, he did nothing to defend them, and slipped away silently into the night, and Czechoslovakia fell further into the dark of corrupt rulers.
Let's not follow Dubcek's suit.