Live Within the Truth

Christian Science Monitor | Dec. 24, 2007

Vladimir Putin is Time’s “Person of the Year”? What about Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov, forced to withdraw his presidential bid because of state harassment? What about Burma’s monks, beaten into silence? Standing for freedom is much harder than suppressing it.

Liberty around the world has taken it on the chin, and worse, this year, no small thanks to Mr. Putin. Freedom House, a nonprofit which tracks the progress of civil and human rights, concludes that 2007 saw an “increased assault” on freedom. This follows a decade of “freedom stagnation.”

When rights are under attack is exactly the time when individuals need to take a stand for them. Václav Havel, the former anti-Communist dissident from Prague, talks about this in an essay called “The Power of the Powerless.” He wrote it 11 years before the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” brought democracy peacefully to what was then-Czechoslovakia.

Imagine, he posed, that one day a greengrocer no longer places a propaganda slogan in his shop window, then stops voting in farcical elections. The grocer starts to say what he thinks at political meetings and even expresses solidarity with those whom he supports.

“In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie,” wrote Mr. Havel. “He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”

Of course, the grocer’s actions invite consequences. For Havel, standing for truth brought imprisonment; for others, it costs their life.

In itself, the greengrocer’s action has no power, Havel continues. Its potency lies in the light it sheds on his surroundings – light that others see. That is what gives it power, and why, he maintains, living the truth is the greatest threat to autocratic governments built on lies.

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