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On the 80th Anniversary of Havel’s Birth: A Remembrance of Plastic People and Greengrocers

In early 1990, Vaclav Havel took New York by storm. Six months earlier he had been in jail and two months earlier he had been elected President of Czechoslovakia. Yet here he was. Havel’s every visit to a pub in Greenwich Village made its way into the press, and dignitaries stood in line to meet him and he received an honorary degree from Columbia University in February.

I was in a good position to watch the festivities as I had just started as a student in the Ph. D. program that fall. The event I remember most vividly was an “American Tribute to Vaclav Havel and a Celebration of Democracy in Czechoslovakia” held at St. John the Divine to a packed house of 5,000. It was freewheeling event – I don’t even remember if there was a program – but the night featured performances by Paul Simon, Placido Domingo, Roberta Flack, Dizzy Gillespie, James Taylor, and readings by Paul Newman, Mikhail Baryshnykov, Elie Wiesel, Sigourney Weaver, Henry Kissinger, Kathleen Turner, Gregory Peck and Tom Hulce conducted a Mozart piece from the Seraglio.

But by far, the biggest star was Havel who came out last and complained that when he was in jail he had a lot of time to write, but now that he was free, he did not. So he did not have any prepared remarks. He thanked the audience who then went crazy with applause.

The night ended with everyone ringing bells as the protestors in Prague had done so many times in 1989. Fortunately, the event was filmed and is still available as a PBS special.

In 2006, Havel returned to Columbia as a former President for a seven-week residency to and I returned to Columbia that fall as well as a Professor, so again I had a front row seat.

This trip included too was well documented in the press.

For some the highlight was Havel’s discussion with former President Bill Clinton on the “Challenges of New Democracies” in Lerner Hall at Columbia. For others, it was the performance of the Plastic People of the Universe at the Cutting Room on West 24th Street. For me, a highlight was Havel taking the time to attend a student performance of his play The Beggar’s Opera at Miller Theater on the Columbia campus. The play was good, but more important to me was Havel’s presence in the audience which suggested his great humility and empathy. I won’t forget that night, but I’m sure it was even more memorable for the performers who could forever boast of having performed Havel before Havel. The details of his residence are available at the website

One last point about Havel’s legacy.

In The Power of the Powerless, Havel uses a greengrocer’s decision to hang a “Workers of the World Unite” sign in his shop window as a key to understanding communist dictatorship. The greengrocer hangs the sign in his shop window because he has always done so, because everyone else does so and, and because of the real consequences. Not doing so would mean demotions at work, trouble for your spouse, and difficulties getting your kids in to college.

But of course the greengrocer does not believe the slogan. Moreover, no one even really notices the sign because they have likely put up a similar sign in their place of work and also share the greengrocer’s lack of belief. The citizens are all “living in the lie” and this collusion of silence forms the essence of the communist autocracy. While citizens know that they do not believe, they are uncertain about how many others also do not believe, because all around they see people colluding with the regime. They are all living in the lie.

For Havel, the revolution begins when the greengrocer snaps and refuses to put up the sign in his window, to vote in sham elections, and says what he really thinks at political meetings. “In this revolt, the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. … He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity… His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.” This pre-political act begins to reveal information – the truth - about how people really fell about the regime that was so threatening to communist rulers.

Fast forward to the present. Today’s so-called “elected autocrats” in Russia, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and elsewhere are in some respects much more devious and can put our greengrocer in a far more complicated and compromised position.

For example, modern autocrats do not hold completely sham elections as in the Communist period, but include just enough competition to give a cover of legitimacy, all the while tilting the playing field so that they are very likely to win and perpetuate the system of autocratic rule.

Similarly, modern autocrats can offer far greater benefits from cooperation with the regime than the communists ever could. A cooperative greengrocer under communism might receive an extra week at a spa in Karlovy Vary, but a smart and ambitious green grocer today can own property in Miami through collusion with corrupt officials.

Finally, modern autocrats can also appeal to the very potent force of nationalism and xenophobia far more openly than could their communist predecessors whose hollow appeals to class had little traction. Today, as the greengrocer is constantly reminded by state media, to disobey the modern autocrat is to sell out the nation.

Taken together, the greengrocer’s decision to cooperate or not with a modern autocracy becomes far more complicated than under communism and collusion with the regime seems a far more enticing proposition.

It would be helpful have Vaclav Havel here today to help us work through these moral dilemmas.

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