Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Orwell, Havel and the power of truth-telling

Two days ago, a car in front of me featured a bumper sticker with the following quote:
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell.
Other stickers on that car’s bumper included a pro-vegetarian slogan, that familiar line about it’ll be a good day when the military has to have bake sales to buy bombers, and a few other stickers indicating that the driver leans to the left, politically.
Last night in the parking lot of my church, I saw a bumper sticker with the following quote:
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell.
Other stickers on the car: “They Might Be Giants” and “Don’t blame me, I voted for Ron Paul.” Not a liberal driver, though one with quirky musical taste.
This is no longer a political blog, but this coincidence did bring to mind a point about the remoralization of politics, made by Vaclav Havel when he was a Czech dissident. Excerpt:

One such fundamental experience, that which I called ‘anti-political politics’, is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long term and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience and subconsciousness and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development. It is, however, becoming evident–and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance–that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters. It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the ‘innocent’ power and to unmask its guilt, as the author of The Gulag Archipelago has done. It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power. The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can, though speaking to themselves. It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakeable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honouring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.
Yes, ‘anti-political politics’ is possible. Politics ‘from below’. Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the ‘rule of everydayness’ we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.
When Jan Patocka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term ‘solidarity of the shaken’. He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity. Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power–the phenomenon of human conscience?

Tell the truth, no matter what. What else is there?

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Franklin Evans

posted April 1, 2010 at 10:45 am

Power — by which I include the powerful — abhors honesty. It opposes restrictions, expresses automatic hostility to even the most superficial dissent, and when power is institutionalized it goes about creating and maintaining structures and mechanisms that facilitate both.
To me, the genius of the Great Experiment started by our founders is the institutionalization of anti-power, and the basic structure that represents this is the peaceful (all terms are relative, of course) transition of power. We call it politics, and heap scorn on it, but the mechanism is not the problem and never was. The problem has been and ever shall be that it creates and maintains both enemies of power: Restrictions and dissent.
This is why I have contempt for people who don’t vote. They are surrendering their control of power, or more specifically they fail to maintain the only thing that can oppose power, and that’s numbers. It’s not about majority votes or that sort of thing. The powerful’s first action in achieving office is to do everything they can to mute the voices of their constituencies.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 11:04 am

Most people get their truth from TV or talk radio. Few are willing to search for it.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 11:10 am

“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate

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Todd K

posted April 1, 2010 at 11:14 am

Do we have to search for Truth, or simply acknowledge it? It seems to me that we often spend a lot of time and energy rationalizing what we *want* to be true, instead of accepting what is actually true.

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Franklin Evans

posted April 1, 2010 at 11:18 am

“People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true. People’s heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it all true. People are stupid; they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to fool.”
— Wizard’s First Rule, Terry Goodkind
I use this in various contexts, and wish to append here that I am subject to this “rule” as much as anyone. The only “cure” is constant vigilance, both of what I observe and of my internal dialogue.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Totally random comment here, for what it’s worth. This has nothing to do with Havel, but more an interesting observation about bumper stickers: I heard a story a few years back about a study showing a strong correlation between drivers who feel compelled to plaster their cars with bumper stickers (of any kind, but more typically those “statement” bumper stickers) and incidents of road rage. Drivers were more likely to be perpetrators of road rage if they were the sort of people who plastered their cars in bumper stickers. I don’t know if it’s true, but as a daily commuter I do find anecdotally these tend to be more aggressive drivers. I’ve rarely had a bumper sticker on my car, and they are usually of the “proud parent” variety. I spend most of my commute listening to audio books (just finished “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) lectures (currently listening to a 3-hour segment from William Lane Craig on the problem of evil) and compelling interviews of the Mars Hill Journal variety.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 12:08 pm

“People’s heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it all true.”
Franklin, it’s interesting: Writers like Dallas Willard have called this phenomenon “rumors from the intellectual heights” and cite is as one reason for an increasing secularity in our society.
Many people “take it on faith” (and are simply operating in their lives based on these rumors that have filtered down from the heights and found their way into the mass media) that people of faith have checked their brains at the door, having never themselves explored the reasons for a particular faith’s credo.
That’s rarely the case with commenters on this blog, but it is a disturbing overall trend of ironic anti-intellectualism one finds in Western society these days amid the presumed glories of the Information Age (or what might more accurately be termed the “Information Overload Age”).

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Franklin Evans

posted April 1, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Houghton, a thumbs-up vote for your post.
I don’t know how accurate that study is today, but it does seem to be so for my driving experience (300-mile weekly commute).
Seen today: “My dog is smarter than your honor student.” The driver was chatting merrily away on her cell phone, weaving a bit across the lane, and all I could think was “apparently, your dog is smarter than you are, too.”

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Franklin Evans

posted April 1, 2010 at 12:16 pm

My uses of that quote have made it an excellent candidate for that deceased equine, Houghton. I hadn’t heard or seen Willard’s commentary, and I will look it up.
I’ve mellowed a bit. I no longer hold unfettered contempt for those who fall prey to the “rule”, especially as I look back at those times I’ve been amongst them. The vast majority of the time it almost doesn’t matter, because what we actually know vs. what we think we know has at most trivial consequences. But, those rare times when it’s critical, we too often fail to dig out from under it.

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Major Wootton

posted April 1, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Franklin wrote:
–Seen today: “My dog is smarter than your honor student.” The driver was chatting merrily away on her cell phone, weaving a bit across the lane, and all I could think was “apparently, your dog is smarter than you are, too.”–
That popped a grin on my face on a day that hasn’t had a lotta grins.

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Lord Karth

posted April 1, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Allow me to respond to Mr. Evans’ posts with a bit of wisdom of my own, namely, my Third Motto:
“In any situation, don’t just assume the presence (and effect) of Human stupidity, self-deception and ignorance.
Rely on them.”
46 years in this world, and it’s never let me down.
Your servant,
Lord Karth

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Your Name

posted April 1, 2010 at 6:21 pm

“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate
“You can’t handle the truth”- Jack Nicholson

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