Monday, November 16, 2020

Our National Psychosis: The Similarities Between Communist Czechoslovakia and the Current United States

 


By Jeff Deist from a speech delivered at the Mises Institute’s Ron Paul Symposium on November 7, 2020, in Angleton, Texas:

A couple of weeks ago, my wife happened upon an essay from 1978 by Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident leader who was also the first president of the Czech Republic after the fall in 1989, and this essay is called “The Power of the Powerless.” It was new to me. My friend Pete Quiñones told me last night that it’s actually been circulating in the blogosphere for several years. It’s really a fascinating essay, about eighty pages. And so, he’s writing this in the ’70s when the former Czechoslovakia is still under Soviet domination but not as much Soviet domination as the USSR itself, perhaps. So, I’m reading this essay (and Vaclav Havel was also a literary guy and a poet, so he’s a tremendous writer, and you guys should all find this, “The Power of the Powerless,” easy to find), and I’m struck by the fact that the parallels between the Eastern Bloc situation he’s describing (the former Soviet Bloc) and the atmosphere in the US today are so striking. And I don’t mean to imply that we face anything close to the hardships that they did, but it’s striking. It’s still striking, and it’s ominous. It is happening here, and we can feel it; I think we can feel it. Not everything can be verbalized and intellectualized. Sometimes it’s just a feeling.

So, the good news is that he’s writing this as a dissident in 1978 and not too much later [in 1993] there was actually a happy outcome in the creation of the first Czech republic. So, sometimes when things look particularly dark, maybe you got to keep on moving forward and something good is going to happen if you do so. So, Havel talks about how the Czechs didn’t live under what we think of as a form of actual physical dictatorship. It was sort of a soft totalitarianism. In other words, he says, Well, it took the form of this almost hypnotic secularized religion where the metaphysical and existential realities of the world, they succumb to ideology. And that’s what we think of when we think of the Soviet Union. We think of people who tried to just command human energy into something new, to create a new man and also to ignore, for example, the laws of economics—that this could be willed, that this could be done by fiat or by legislative action. And so, when we think of communism, we think it ignores certain underlying metaphysical realities and realities of human nature. That was one of the big criticisms of Soviet communism. So, he says, Well, you know, this is happening here, but he talks about how people would just sort of purposely lie to themselves and their friends and family to remain in good standing in both society and with the party in Czechoslovakia.

And again, the analogy today: I’m sure you’ve seen this going around, that 2 + 2 = 5. Does 2 + 2 = 4? Well, it depends because mathematics, like everything else, is not some hard science or some branch of logic where we just simply describe a reality which already exists and which is underlying and we’re trying to grapple and figure it out. No, no, no. 2 + 2 might equal 5, depending on your outlook, depending on your identity and the circumstances, and maybe the color of your skin or your religion, or the country you come from. And of course, this is a recipe for disaster. This is a recipe for eliminating any basis of social cooperation amongst us, for having markets, for having prosperity, and of course it results in just somebody having to have the power to enforce 2 + 2 = 5.

Ideology enforced by the state becomes the only animating force in society. So, Havel gives an interesting example. He demonstrates this 2 + 2 = 5 mentality by talking about how in Czechoslovakia shopkeepers would dutifully put up the little sign that says Workers of the World Unite. They would just sort of dutifully do this. Like how back in the day people used to put up pictures of the presidents in their living rooms, and if you travel to foreign countries, oftentimes people still do that: in Latin America; in Turkey, you’ll see pictures of Erdogan and sometimes you’ll see pictures of Ataturk on the walls. So people revere these figures. So he said, Nobody actually believed this, “workers of the world unite.” The grocer didn’t do this because he means it, it was just an act of rote conformity on his part, it was a signal. It’s a signal of acquiescence, and since all the other shops do it, you do it too. This is what it meant to be a greengrocer in Czechoslovakia in 1978. And we see this in America today. We see the same kind of signaling, the same kind of acquiescence of things like masks or some of these goofy signs, All Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter or Back the Blue. These are signals, and people put them up in their yard. There’s that one that says This House Believes X, Y, and Z, and it’s this sort of hectoring thing which is supposed to prove what a great person you are in that house. So, we have the same thing happening in America today.

Most people in this room, though, are prepared to be dissidents today. Most people in this room are not willing to just go along with this stuff, and most people in this room already consider themselves the real resistance, not the fake kind where you have all the support of the political parties and the mainstream media and academia and Hollywood and corporate America. That’s not a resistance. So, we’re already past any of these illusions about democracy or politics or constitutionalism. I would argue that we’ve reached the point where loving our country requires us to identify and begin to separate the various nations which are within it. I think there’s nothing more important today.


-RW

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