We the People… One More Time

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“It always makes sense to tell the truth”– Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011.

Hard as that is for each of us, it is only compounded when all of us lie. The personal is one thing, and it matters very much; the political is another: there the problem of lying is more horrible because more people are affected.

Almost a year ago I got off the plane in Prague, and was welcomed into the Vaclav Havel International Airport, which delighted me because I had flown there to walk his streets, to see the balconies from which he spoke. For two days, I did just that— walked and walked and walked again through the wonderfully-cobblestoned streets of the central city.

At a cafe one morning, I sat there with my very continental breakfast, slowly drinking my way through a pot of tea, reading Havel. The waiter, a young man who it turned out was on his first day of work, asked me what I was reading. When I told him, he smiled, and I asked what he knew of the former playwright-become-prisoner-become-president. “Not much, as I was too young. But he was a good man, a good leader for us. He told us the truth about who we are, about what our life should be.” Yes, I loved him.

Later that day I walked through the cathedral and castle grounds on the hill overlooking the city, hearing about the glory and history of Prague from a young man, a university student studying philosophy. He seemed to know everything! We came to the famous balcony, looking across the parade grounds to the cathedral, the place where Havel gave many important speeches– and I pressed in, wondering what the student thought of the relationship between the palace and the people.

At that he stumbled, articulate as he was and bright as he was, he had never thought much about the words Havel spoke as president, and the social and political life of the Czech people, wrestling as they were with the meaning of their post-communist and post-nazi life after three generations of public lies; he had not thought about the political and philosophical integrity that must exist between political speeches and life on-the-ground for the people. Of course, most of us don’t, whenever we are, wherever we are, for reasons that are terribly complex, written as they are into our very souls.

Two hundred years ago, another European, Francois duc de La Rochefoucauld, thought about the same questions, the same quandaries. Passionate for a more just society in revolutionary France, he knew that the guillotine was not an answer that would ever bring that about. Stretched taut between two visions, the French aristocracy and the French revolutionaries, he longed for a world that was not easily found— as in a different time and place, Havel had.

He wrote, “We are so much accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that at length we disguise ourselves to ourselves.” The personal and the political, twined together in self-deception, a problem that echoes across the centuries, through every culture. Whether it is Prague or Paris or even and especially Washington, it is perhaps the most difficult task of all to tell the truth about who we are, and what our moment means.

Eight years ago, a wise man wrote words for all of us about a different day in our history, inaugurating a different president. For years a respected op-ed columnist in the Washington Post and Newsweek, Robert Samuelson has analyzed our economic life, week by week weighing in on the choices we make about who we are and how we live, charting a course that is notably neither left nor right, not an obvious liberal and not a clear conservative. He takes the questions of our common life seriously in way that partisan loyalty does not allow. With a shot across the bow for America and its future, he wrote,

“The chasm between stump rhetoric and governing realities will haunt whoever wins. It also defines a dilemma of democracy. People want their leaders to tell the truth, but they often don’t want to hear the truth. Genuine leaders escape this trap by persuading public opinion to acknowledge distasteful problems. But these leaders are rare. Most pursue immediate popularity over truth even if this deepens long-term public mistrust.”

Yes— “we the people” it is — and we don’t often want to hear the truth about who we are and what our life should be, about what our life needs to be and must be. As Pogo said in a different time and place, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The truest truths of the universe are perennial, and always cut deeper than the partisan divide—whether that is in the Czech Republic 20 years ago, in France 200 years ago, or in America this day and this year.

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  • Gwen Hannan Meharg

    thanks.
    I have Havel’s book on a shelf, I will look for it and read it as this new season begins.