If Jean Bethke Elshtain is anything, she is engaging. At least that’s my excuse, because I probably should have been more self-possessed when I interviewed her. I should have been looking around her office, jotting notes about the atmosphere, and sketching her person so as to recreate all of it later. But I’m going to blame it on her. Something about Elshtain calls for more than just pat answers and routine discourse. It asks that one bring not just thoughts and opinions with oneself, but also an active mind, ready to participate in and contribute to the dialogue.
Our discussions on this day revolved primarily around the contemporary public square. As an entry point, we had decided to use the thought of Václav Havel, a leading figure in the former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and subsequently the nation’s president. Besides being a skilled politician and revolutionary leader, Havel was also an acclaimed playwright, influential political theorist, and the coolest head of state since David rocked the lyre.
With regard to political theory, Havel’s key contribution was his text, “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay which contains his articulation of what he termed, “post-totalitarianism.” Havel contends that in a post-totalitarian context ideology has taken over, becoming, “a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality.” This lie has run rampant, and no individual any longer has control. Even the alleged leaders can only conform to the system and its structures. Conforming, moreover, is the simplest of things, since “[people] 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.”
In such a context, Havel emphasizes the political potency of simply “living in the truth.” In essence, “The task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully, and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power—the power of ideologies, systems, apparatuses, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.”
Havel’s work calls one to look not just at one situation, but to unearth the deeper currents at work, to look for the wider implications of the situation. Truly engaging Havel’s thought does not mean just regurgitating principles and opinions; it means setting off on the paths of thought he opened up. Professor Elshtain has long exemplified this, exploring these paths with ingenuity, insight and rigor. And for an afternoon, she was generous enough to bring me along with her.
We need to remind ourselves that these words really have a deep meaning and significance for the lives of millions of people in the world. We need to remind ourselves that we trivialize words at our own peril.
James Hoey: Let’s begin by talking about the idea of “living in the truth.” It was interesting how transparent the concept was within “The Power of the Powerless.” I knew what he was talking about, and I felt strongly the weight it had. But it was so tied to his actual situation and, though there seems to be a principle of genuine political import in it, when you take it out of that context, it gets a lot foggier. So what does “living in the truth,” as a political concept, look like in our context? Does it still have something to contribute?
Jean Bethke Elshtain: That’s an interesting question. Let’s take Havel’s situation first. One of the commitments of the dissidents of central eastern Europe, and of course Havel was one of the most important figures, was that rather than their opposition taking the form of secret cells, they would live as if they were free citizens in a free society. They would do what they were doing in the open. For instance, Havel wrote an open letter to Gustav Husak, the communist thug who was running the regime at that particular time. People were struck by the courage involved in that, in the “as if.” We’re just going to act as if we’re in a free society and see what happens when we do that. And of course, for Havel, the result was imprisonment, but nevertheless, for Havel there is the power of the moral exemplar, the person who does stand up.
In some ways it’s harder—and I don’t mean to say that we pay the price he paid—but harder in our own culture because we are so open and free. You can sit down on the internet and find your own micro-identity group that cares exactly about the things you care about and say anything you want to say online. You can stand outside and shout imprecations at the government all day long and no one will come and arrest you.
So, what does it mean to be “living in the truth?” I think there, Havel would say, “Well, it means doing what I did in my own context, which is piercing through, penetrating that dense tissue of mystifications that you will find in every society.” It was clear what those were in pre-1989 Czechoslovakia. It’s harder here, but there certainly are such things. For example, if there isn’t the possibility for authentic speech and action, then it means that certain elites simply get on automatic pilot and do what they want. That’s why some of the debates surrounding the embryonic stem cell debates have been disheartening to me, because you have some who will say, “Oh, those people who are making arguments against it are not letting science do what science does. We have to ‘believe in science.’” And I think, “What the heck does that mean? Everything science does we just roll over for?”
So, it would be not letting people say, “Well, it’s science, so the ordinary person has no say over it since they’re not the expert.” It means we need to question some of the assumptions that go into an enterprise like science, especially insofar as it’s going to attach onto such fundamental questions as the nature of human life itself. Because you can get mystification surrounding not just things like financial markets, for God’s sake, but phenomena like science as well, where, you know, those of us who are not scientists feel, “Gosh, I’m not an expert.” We’re made to feel like that. So there’s a hesitancy to try to cut through it. And yet, the grounding presupposition of a democratic society is that we have to raise questions.
JH: And it seems that in that sense, “living in the truth” is really about pointing to the fundamentally political nature of the individual’s life and perspective, and suggesting that there is power and responsibility inherent in that. In that vein, it was interesting how similar Havel’s political vision seems at times to Obama’s recent campaign rhetoric, with its emphasis on empowerment and the need for active, civic participation. Can you comment on what similarities or differences you see between the two?
The task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully, and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power—the power of ideologies, systems, aparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.
JBE: Well one big difference I would see between Obama and Havel is that, in a way, Obama courted more messianic aspirations. Slogans like “Yes We Can,” and so on…Havel would be innately suspicious, innately skeptical because there was so much sloganeering that he heard coming from the regime. Although I have great sympathy for what Obama’s trying to do, Havel’s savvy; he’d be worried about raising all kinds of aspirations that can’t be possibly met.
And that creates a real challenge doesn’t it? You want to get people out of their living rooms, but at the same time, you don’t want to create all these unrealistic expectations that then, when they’re not met, lead to cynicism. It’s a tricky business. If there are no expectations, people are quiescent. If the expectations are too high and are not met, people become cynical and then, again, quiescent. So how do you find that middle way? I don’t think that Obama has quite figured out how to do that, how to energize people and at the same time help them to understand the deep and intrinsic limitations that are built into any complex system. There was a kind of palpable disappointment with his inauguration address, because it didn’t seem to soar like the campaign speeches, and people didn’t take away any sort of memorable phrases. And you can see him trying to make the transition from the campaign to “Oh my God, I’m the one responsible now.” I have a sense that that’s been pretty wrenching for him, to tell you the truth. At some of his press conferences, he’s looked just kind of ill-at-ease. He’s talking this sort of public policy lingo that is so at odds with the persona that developed during the campaign.
Now Havel, as president of the Czech Republic, never did a lot of the public policy lingo stuff. His speeches still stayed on a pretty high ground. But the demands of being the Czech president and being US president are quite different, obviously. So that would be an interesting thing to look at—I hadn’t thought of that—to look at Obama’s presidential campaign in the context of Havel.
JH: Havel’s aversion to lingo also seems clearly linked to his analyses of language, something that a lot of his plays explore. One of the things he talks about with language is the way it no longer is used for its basic end, and how this has caused it to really lose a lot of its weight and meaning. That is, whereas Havel believes language should first and foremost be concerned with communicating about reality, this role is increasingly being placed in a secondary position. For example, politicians sometimes may care less about clarifying a policy and its impact than they do about making it palatable or selling themselves. Or sometimes I look at Obama and how carefully he weighs each word, and it seems like his biggest concern is not to alienate anyone. That’s entirely understandable given how the media works today, but it seems like such a contrast with someone like Lincoln, who just went head first into his speeches, trying to describe the world as he saw it and almost trying to constitute it in a new, illuminating light. So I’m just wondering, what role do you think language plays in political life today, and what do you take to be the consequences of that?
JBE: Well there are several roles language can play in politics. There’s one essay—whose title I’m sure I’m going to forget—where he talks about the shoddy construction that went on in the communist era.
JH: That’s “On Evasive Thinking.”
JBE: Yeah, so the journalists there were purposefully miscommunicating in all the ways he describes, which can be very funny. In that case, words were used to deflect reality rather than to help people locate themselves in the heart of it, and that’s one possibility. Then you can have the, “Let’s try to really explain as clearly as we can what’s going on and what the options are.” And there, politicians are going to be weighing the costs of that, because you’re going to necessarily upset some people if you do that—if your speech is plain and honest and to the point. So, we could think of those who are Havelian, if you will, who nevertheless are prepared to take those risks. Then we have those for whom speech is purely instrumental, a means to gain a particular end. So they don’t describe reality, they describe only those bits of it that are most conducive to their instrumental drive.
So, I guess the question is: what kind of speech is spoken in our public square and how do we understand the public square anyway. I was at this meeting where Havel was talking to us, and he responded to the question: “President Havel, when I read your essays or hear you give your public speeches, there’s one sort of voice I hear. And then I read your plays and there’s a very different sort of person. So who’s the real Havel?” And he said, “Well, these are different rhetorical occasions. When I’m a playwright, I can explore some of the bitter possibilities and the irony of being a public figure and the ways words can be twisted beyond recognition. When I’m writing about politics, then I’m obligated to be as faithful as I can be to the reality of the moment and to offer people a way to respond so that I am opening some things up rather than closing them down.” So he concluded by saying, “same man, different occasions.” You know, there are things we talk about in intimate life with people we love, and we’re not going to stand out there with a microphone and blab it. It doesn’t mean that one situation is true and one is false.
JH: Do you think that there is much recognition of that in our public sphere?
JBE: I think that we’ve really been moving to shut that down. Not as an explicit project, but just the way that the culture has moved. I’ve written about this in the language of public and private. A lot of what is private we now blab, and it swamps the more public or political speech—we lose the capacity to distinguish between the two. I think that’s a real danger. We’re more interested in Obama’s dog than in an important speech on policy he gave. It all gets mushed and you can’t distinguish any longer between that which is authentically public. It would be as if Havel’s plays were taken as his political, public speech rather than as a literary device used to explore certain things. It’s not the way he is going to talk as president.
JH: It’s pretty hard to imagine Obama being a playwright or how that would be received and treated by the media and general public.
JBE: Exactly. So we have in a sense politicized the private and privatized the political, and it’s very hard for us to think about what is of authentically public concern, about what concerns all of us in our civic capacities. Part of what we’ve seen over the last half century is a diminution of the importance of what it means to be a citizen, which means you’re a human being with civic capacities. So, what do we share as citizens? Do we even think in that way any longer? We have to ponder what is the concern of citizens, which means the concern of all of us in common. Unless you have some recognition of that, it’s very difficult to have authentic public speech because we don’t have a sense of what the public means anymore.
Maybe one should think of the works of Havel as memoirs of a time that has passed us by. There are some who would say we should, that with new technologies and everything else it’s just nostalgia to talk in this way. But I’m not ready to give it up. Because it seems to me that the wager of democracy is that it means something to be a citizen and there’s a vocabulary that’s appropriate and vital and essential for talking about civic life, about who we are.
JH: What do you personally see as your role in contributing to the public square, especially given all the changes to what constitutes that sphere today. It seems like you contribute to a lot of different media.
JBE: Well, sometimes inadvertently. People pick up on something and it gets out there and I didn’t do it. You have no control, because you can write something and it just pops up and can escape into the internet in ways that you didn’t anticipate. I’m an old fashioned sort of word person. You write something and try to get it in print or in some journal or some publication of some kind. I’m not quite with it with the new stuff. I’m not in chat rooms. I haven’t gone to doing a blog, though I’m tempted because sometimes you sort of like to set the record straight about what your position really is on something instead of what people are claiming it is.
So, how do I think of it, how do I understand it? Well, part of it is this abiding interest in politics and in a deeper sense what politics can mean. My formative sense of politics was shaped by Lincoln. I just fell in love with Lincoln when I was a kid. Politics had to do with some pretty basic moral questions about justice and decency and what kind of country we were and what the constitution meant, and I never got over that. That’s still the way I think about politics. It’s not surprising that I gravitate towards people like Havel who have a sense of gravitas about political life.
And then the question is, do you feel a sense of responsibility in the kind of place that you’re in—which I do—and what does it mean to act that out. And I think that means writing for more than a small band of elite scholars, especially if you’re in a field like mine. I have a hard time understanding academics who are perfectly content, even in writing about politics, if there’s a small group of people they can talk to and that’s it. They don’t think beyond that. If you do think beyond that, then you have to consider—and you have to consider even more than I ever had to because of the new media—how do you want your ideas represented? Where? To whom do you wish to speak? How much control do you try to have over the uses of your work? And my general impression is that we have less control of that than ever today.
JH: Which I guess returns us to the different ends language can be put to and how those ends can undermine and trivialize the meaning of words. Whether a blogger writes a misleading headline to generate hits or misconstrues your arguments so that she can convincingly “win” the argument, it seems to become less and less about the realities being spoken to and more and more about just winning these different sorts of games.
JBE: And the problem is, it seems to me, that the wager of democracy is that there is a sense of the worth of civic life, the importance of dialogue and exchange. Having words that are full of meaning and import is vital to that. Think about human rights—we’ve contrived a way to even trivialize that. So, everything we want or prefer we call a right and scream about it, but then we have people, like the folks in Darfur, and there we’re reminded about what human rights and human dignity is all about. We need those reminders. We need to remind ourselves that these words really have a deep meaning and significance for the lives of millions of people in the world. We need to remind ourselves that we trivialize words at our own peril.