Vaclav Havel Library Foundation Fellowship Essay: Lilly Crown

Spring through the lens of Vaclav Havel
by Lilly Crown

Spring, to me, is when out of nowhere the rain starts pouring, the cold starts to let up, and the flowers relearn how to bloom. It is rebirth, re-realizing that we do not need to live sheltered, secluded by the cold, though my aversion to low temperatures might be biasing my ideas. Spring returns each year as one of the four seasons. It also reoccurs in a symbolic, societal way. One such aptly characterized example of this is the Arab Spring. Starting with the self-immolation of Muhamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, the people in Arab countries like Tunisia, as well as Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria realized the winter they had been living in, under totalitarian regimes with dictators who stripped them of the dignity day after day. Not only did they realize the truth about their condition, but they realized the need to create a sphere of truth in which to exist more fully.

In Vaclav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless, he describes the societal condition of living within a lie under the communist regime. His essay quickly became a symbol of resistance, was widely circulated, and played a role in the Velvet Revolution.   Throughout his depictions of his environment of oppression in communist Czechoslovakia, I saw the pre-Spring Arab World especially in descriptions of power imbalances.   According to Havel, the dictators’ largest aims are conformity, uniformity, and discipline. They use ideology to create an illusion of an identity and a sense of dignity. In this way, the people function both as victims and as the pillars of the system, with each word the system puts out, the system is permeated further with hypocrisy and lies, becoming a society built on straw. The legal code functions as an instrument to reinforce these weak, straw walls as it is how the regime communicates their priorities in restricting the people. All those participating in the society, even if as bystanders, end up enabling the regime to maintain the status quo.

Havel claims that eventually, people recognize the falsity of which they are a part, and they decide to make a stand for the truth because the truth is something that speaks to an essential human moral code. The need to live in harmony with oneself and not be humiliated by power abusers is fundamental to living with dignity. Havel states that reclaiming dignity is not necessarily seeking political goals, which to me means that the lack of a tangible political end goal can make joining the resistance more accessible for laypeople. Realizing truth in this way is adaptable, it can be integrated into daily life in many ways. My interpretation of this realization’s goal is not antagonistic nature, but more creative. In other words, by reclaiming dignity in individually established ways, there will be a parallel culture established as an alternative for the oppressive society.

However, creating and existing in this parallel culture comes with risks. Working against the grain of the regime, though customizable and accessible is a difficult step to make. This is resistance. It usually is not self-serving and involves making an all-or-nothing type gamble.   In the case of Muhamed Bouazizi and the Arab Spring, it meant setting himself ablaze in response to being stripped of his dignity too many times. His actions rippled and inspired mass protests and popular support. Additionally, technology functioned as a liberating force, allowing a space for communication and community amongst the resistors when the regime responded negatively to public organization and demonstration. Participants across the Arab Spring could only focus on reclaiming their power and dignity; there was no vision of what would happen if the regimes were successfully overthrown. With each protest after Friday prayers, more people began to peer behind the curtain of lies that the circle of power, the regime, created.

At the beginning of the Spring in Syria, people were desperate. The Alawites in power, like President Bashar al-Assad, had been ruling through emergency law for 35 years. Energized by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, peaceful protests erupted in Damascus demanding political freedom after the arrest of students who had put up anti-government graffiti. The protestors took hold of their power, and the regime responded by dramatically escalating violence. Rebel brigades were then established to battle government security forces, and thus began a civil war. In the five years since, the strife of civil war has destroyed the country. Since March 2011, 320,000 Syrians have been killed, 1.15 million have been wounded or permanently disabled, 4.6 million are refugees, and 6.6 million are displaced within the country. The crisis has been referred to as the most devastating human rights crisis of the millennium.

For nine months, I was a research assistant on violence escalation in the Syrian Civil War, and after reading and coding over 10,000 articles from English and Arabic news sources, it is my understanding that at the heart of the beginning of this conflict is a misguided response to resistance by the regime. The people stood up for themselves and their freedom, and the government elites feared losing their power, especially due to their minority status as Alawites, so they cracked down brutally. I believe that the regime recognized the power of the powerless, for that is why they felt the necessity to employ such violence. They felt threatened by the not-so-powerless protestors, so they used a criminal level of force to prevent the protestors’ success.

To me, the messages found in The Power of the Powerless can be applied not just across totalitarian dictatorships, but across imbalances of power more broadly, such as on an interpersonal basis, between groups, and in the face of other forms of injustice. In essence, the power referenced in Havel’s essay title is understanding the value and imperative to be true to oneself and realizing the power of one’s voice in establishing said truth. Philosophers, historians, sociologists, writers, teachers, students, artists, and businessmen can resist that which binds them each in their own ways. I cannot think of a message more accessibly empowering.

For example, I believe that women in the Middle East and North Africa have an important role in directing their agency when it is denied for reasons of piety, chastity, security, class, and beauty. Permeated misconceptions regarding Muslim women veiling typically claim that the veil confines women, but in reality it is their inability to move freely though society because their voices and bodies are equally suppressed. Literacy and writing are a way to resist and free one’s self from the societal restriction of public space through the permanence of one’s words and the modes through which those words can be shared. Vaclav Havel himself once said, “I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.” His words ring true to those who exist in the corridors, in the spaces outside of the narratives, the ideology of the power holders, those whose personal history does not align with the official history, those whose truth has been left untold. Reclaiming this means gaining freedom and dignity for those involved, and there are also significant implications for the world-at-large, for each injustice I learn of further informs the lens through which I see my fellow members of humanity.

Perhaps, spring’s awakening nature is not so significant, but rather the energy accrued as a result that pushes societies to become more humane, empathetic, and tolerant. Yes, protesting the regime is the starting point, but today’s human rights crises deserve to be looked at by the critical eye of today’s global citizens in a way that creates a paradigm shift towards resistance, comradery, and truth. The prevalence of information technology creates a huge potential for news to reverberate in a way that creates nuanced, informed support, taking a rainy spring to a lush, blooming summer.

About Lilly Crown
Lilly Crown is an Arabic undergraduate student at University of Virginia. She has always had an avid interest and commitment to the study of human rights in the Middle East.