(From the archives)
Some thirty-five years ago, a particularly brilliant Czechoslovakian dissident named Vaclav Havel wrote an essay entitled “Power of the Powerless”. The subject matter was a thoughtful and timely dissection of certain paradoxical behaviors required by society in order for a person to prosper under the post-totalitarian regime then in power. Unsurprisingly, the government-controlled publishing houses would certainly have refused to approve any version of the essay; as such, it was printed and distributed privately. The term, in Russian, was “samizdat” — literally, “self-published”.
There were vast quantities of underground protest literature produced throughout the Warsaw Pact in those days. They were widely read by the thinking class, but most of the public had little access. The profound nature of the societal change attributed to the dissemination of this countercultural political thought is widely seen today as a result of the censors being required to read it; these were the most trusted and capable people within the government bureaucracy, and through them change crept inexorably through the whole rotten structure of the tyranny that contained them, ruled them, and indeed gave them power.
Here in America, self-publication is a different animal altogether. It’s synonymous with low-quality pseudo-literary crap, virtually unreadable because it hasn’t been edited to fit the mold of our normal literary fare, the third-grade English seen on our summary newsfeeds and the front page of the paper (not that anyone reads the paper anymore either). Self-published works are the ones that even used bookstores won’t stock because nobody will buy them, much less read them.
On the internet, there exists a vast conglomeration of modern samizdat, the blog-sphere. Some of this is semi-professional and reasonably well edited; vastly more is relatively meaningless or absurdly self-referential. None of it is read.
This last sentence deserves explanation; after all, some people must read it or it wouldn’t survive. The sponsors whose pop-ups and banner ads pay for the blog sites would be quite irate (and stop paying!) if their advertisements were ineffective. Indeed, this very piece is doubtless destined to stand for a time on the outskirts of the blog-sphere; why then would I have written it if it were truly destined to remain unread?
It is sad but true that modern society no longer reads. Entertainment is more accessible in video or musical form and education, especially in our culture, must be forced on the unwilling; it is almost never voluntarily sought after and even more rarely found – and those that do seek to learn are the outsiders, the unaccepted, the criminally different. The few Americans that seek information are content with the weather, traffic, and celebrity or sports news. Only a tithe of a tithe ever reach the realm of true thought on the internet, and those are hopelessly lost within the vast morass of sub-par gossip and twitter feeds.
It was not always thus. Once, pamphleteers like Thomas Paine led our people to revolution over the loss of a few relatively insignificant civil liberties. Newspapers and broadsheets were hungrily pored over; fights would break out in public places over the words of a few impassioned writers, be they brilliant political thinkers or the merest and most contemptible rabble-rousers. People volunteered to join an underfunded, poorly-equipped, ill-fed and badly-led volunteer army that somehow managed to defeat the greatest war machine to take the battlefield since the legions of ancient Rome — not through inventiveness or ingenuity, but by virtue of sheer stubbornness and tenacity. They believed their cause was right and they fought for it, unpaid and unrewarded, in spite of defeat after defeat, for eight grueling years.
Today, we have the freedom to say what we think and feel, and this may be our undoing. Because of our freedoms, we perceive no need for societal change; the illusion of the possibility of success or advancement is sufficient to keep the working classes in their place, functioning cogs in the machine that feeds and clothes us. We are permitted to speak as we would, especially as those in power are confident that nobody will listen; after all, we’re content… aren’t we?
To me, the ultimate folly of humankind in the modern American culture is this: We struggle to gain positions working for massive corporations which will pay us to spend the best hours of the prime of our lives performing tasks that, for most of us, are redundant or unnecessary. If we are productive, polite to our bosses, and above all lucky, we will hold a job for forty years so we can retire with a spouse we barely remember to the ephemeral dream of Florida, where we will play shuffleboard, sit by the pool, garden, and enjoy the air conditioning until we die of heart attacks a couple years later. Our children and grandchildren, the hope of our future and the pride of our declining years, will never visit; they can’t afford to take the time away from work. And when they do come, we realize that we ourselves worked too much to take the time to get to know them; we don’t understand their passions and drives, though in truth they aren’t so very different from our own.
When Thoreau wrote Walden, he was not advocating the end of modern culture or the refusal of people to accept employment. He inveighed against thoughtless work, mindless behavior — and hopeless resignation to living the normal and expected lifestyle. Instead, we should examine our lives and live them with reason and deliberation, never working to accomplish meaningless goals, avoiding excess in possessions, taking time to appreciate the glory of life and nature that surrounds us. Manhattan, today, would horrify him.
What should we do, then? Shall we divorce ourselves from society — go and live in the parks and streets of our cities, occupy Wall Street in protest? I won’t say no… but if we do so, it should be done with thought, and deliberation, and a clear aim in mind. It’s all very well to say that corporate America is unjust and corrupt, but there are appropriate (and, far more importantly, effective) methods to effect change. To this end specifically, I would advise this instead: get hired by these corporations and then promoted to a position of power, one from which you can not only demand change but actually get it.
The people who ended the Soviet Union, who broke the repressive regimes and brought down the Berlin Wall — these were members of the Party. They were wise and intelligent men and women who believed that life could be better if lived a different way. They read Samizdat and were changed by it, and then they went and did something about it.
Perhaps we could do that here.