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Remembering Vaclav Havel: Live Truth to Seek Justice

A column by Steve Russell about the death of Vaclav Havel and how it was unfortunately upstaged by the death of Kim Jong Il

The traditions of my people teach that acting unjustly toward others will cause blowback. This is famously illustrated in the story of how disease came to man in retaliation for what he had done to parts of creation he could dominate. Man had mistaken the power to do something for the morality of doing it. Our stories warn against this hubris, and I expect yours do as well.

We like to think that this balance, what the Asian Indians call karma, plays out in this life. It failed this week when the North Korean government chose a day to announce the death of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il—a man who will be remembered for starving children in the service of acquiring nuclear weapons—that bigfooted the death of a man who actually deserved the “Dear Leader” appellation, Vaclav Havel. Kim Jong Il went to his reward on a Saturday, but his sclerotic government could not put their story together to announce it until Monday, the day after Havel made the journey.

Havel was the playwright who became a head of state with the demise of his Communist opponents in the Velvet Revolution, and some will argue that his greatest failure as head of state was presiding over the division of Czechoslovkia into The Czech Republic and Slovakia, a division that objectively makes no economic sense.

In fact, when faced with shedding the blood of the people he was elected to lead or at least adopting some of the tactics he had opposed all his life, Havel achieved a victory for the politics of truth by letting the Slovaks go in peace.

Indians should honor Havel not for his plays but for his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” which could have been written for us because it was written for all who find their historical peoplehood in jeopardy.

Havel wrote from a time that would be, for us, before the Indian New Deal and earlier, but we can recognize life in a dictatorship in our historical experience: government appointed by the bosses, jobs apportioned to those considered “reliable,” documents needed to leave the reservation, Indian testimony discounted in the colonial courts. We are not there anymore, but the feel of it is in our blood, the time when meaningful political activity was at the risk of your livelihood or your life.

“If we are to change our world view,” wrote Havel, “images have to change. The artist now has a very important job to do. He's not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people, he's really needed.” Do our artists speak to that need? I give you Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, N. Scott Momaday, Carter Revard, Jim Northrup, Joy Harjo, Tomson Highway, Johnny Rustywire—the list could go on for pages. Even Sherman Alexie, who does entertain rich people, has also supported the liberation of Indians from all stereotype, all the time.

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Havel’s seminal essay about freedom cannot be meaningfully condensed in the space I have, but if I have one sentence I choose “Truth as a weapon.” The motto Havel put forward was “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.”

Note that he said “must prevail” rather than “will prevail.” The man was not crazy. He lived though 1968, when Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and ended the “Prague Spring.”

Havel again: “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. “

What his essay has to say to Indian people is that if you are still a people, act like it. Disobey the attempt to control your life until the attempt to control your life begins to exact a price the United States is unwilling to pay. If your peoplehood is a truth, live that truth.

“The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.”

Havel’s life teaches that first the artists break the mold the powerless are supposed to inhabit. Our artists have done that.

Then other intellectuals begin to demonstrate that, in so many words, the emperor is buck-naked. Vine Deloria, Jr. opened this process for us. Many have followed his example, and on these pages you have read people with dominant culture credentials demonstrating the fraudulent nature of what Robert Odawi Porter calls “federal Indian control law.” Steve Newcomb and Peter d’Errico have done yeoman work in reducing complex lies to 800 words of truth.

The politicians, of course, are always last to join the party, but join they will or become irrelevant. This is the lesson I draw from the life of Vaclav Havel, beside whom Kim Jong Il is bovine excrement on the boot heels of history.