OF THREE WHO DIED

Posted on December 22, 2011

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This past week, two heads of state died.

 

But that’s where the similarities end. Indeed, the contrasts between these two heads of state scream so loudly that the whole world must but hear. It is this constrast between them that we must pay serious heed to if we as nations in this world are to see through our remaining years with some practical semblance of freedom and justice.

 

One fought against and suffered under soviet communist rule (1945-1989) and became the first president of Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the bloodless 1989 Velvet Revolution which saw the end of repressive rule; the other succeeded his father as president to perpetrate a hardline authoritarian rule.

 

One lived, worked and fought for himself and his people to be freed from iron rule; the other conspired to ensure that the people will still stay unfree, the better to scare, manipulate and domesticate.

 

One was a poet, playwright, and a writer of treatise with such titles as The Power of the Powerless (1985), Living in Truth (1986), Towards a Civil Society (1994). The other was written about by his state-controlled media in some such fashion: “… a spring of prosperity under socialism will surely come to the country thanks to the patriotic devotion of Kim Jong-il who blocked the howling wind of history till the last moments of his life”, when in reality, the nation with the world’s fourth largest army with a reported annual budget of US$6 billion has been for these past many years seen the ravages of famine among so many of its people. ( The same state press agency also reported that

“… in 1994, the Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea picked up a golf club for the very first time, and – as witnessed by 17 security guards- shot a smooth 38-under-par round of 34, including 11 holes-in-one.”)

 

One would be farewelled by his family and his people and then buried; the other “will likely be embalmed and put on display as a lasting reminder of the bloodline of the family that founded one of the world’s most reclusive states.”

 

In a sense, this sharp contrast between these two departed heads of state presents a kind of microcosm of political leadership intentions and styles in the world of human beings. In recent history, both nations were in fact in much the same boat; both societies were suppressed and repressed with the power elites in complete command of the political, economic and military institutions and the people were mere tools of the state, to do as the power elites desire, plan and implement.  Then in 1989, one of these two nations saw the people wresting back their freedom in a largely bloodless revolution. But up till this day, the other nation remains resolutely in the same situation since the partitioning of the Korean Peninsula after the Korean War of 1950–53.

 

The human struggle is between freedom and control, participation and monopolization, truth and dissimulation, integrity and dishonesty. In the political process, the purpose should not be the formation and consolidation of power elites or the monopoly of political and economic processes and resources. The governing authorities are not the masters but servants of the people of a given nation.   

 

This past week, sadly, a third person in political office passed on. This is Malaysia’s own Edward Lee. He was not a head of state or government, just a humble state assemblyman for Bukit Gasing, Petaling Jaya, Selangor. He was neither an internationally-acclaimed writer nor a superlative golfer.  He commanded no army nor is known outside his own state of Selangor. He will not be sent off through a state funeral. But he was known in civil society circles and the corridors of the various town councils and municipalities taking up the causes and seeing to the needs of the people. Before contesting and winning a state assembly seat four years ago, he was a leader in his residence association, and a campaigner to save his beloved Bukit Gasing (Gasing Hill), a cause he was still pursuing days before his passing- a grassroot, neighbourhood man. The country is blessed to have such a representative of the people. Go on your way, good brother, into the arms of your Creator and find your peace, joy and grace in His embrace.  May God bless his loved ones bereaved of son, husband and father.

 

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THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS

“The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in ihe manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s. real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestion~ ingly obedient;’ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome ihis complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with ihe workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from ihemselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and iheir adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing hisjob behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying iu power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.

The smaller a dictatorship and the less stratified by modernization the society under it, the more directly the will of the dictator can be exercised- In other words, the dictator can employ more or less naked discipline, avoiding the complex processes of relating to the world and of self justification which ideology involves. But the more complex the mechanisms of power become, the larger and more stratified the society they embrace, and the longer they have operated historically, the more individuals must be connected to them from outside, and the greater the importance attached to the ideological excuse. It acts as a kind of bridge between the regime and the people, across which the regime approaches the people and the people approach the regime. This explains why ideology plays such an important role in the post-totalitarian system: that complex machinery of units, hierarchies, transmission belts, and indirect instruments of manipulation which ensure in countless ways the integrity of the regime, leaving nothing to chance, would be quite simply unthinkable without ideology acting as its all-embracing excuse and as the excuse for each of its parts.”

(extract from Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, 1985 (that is, four years before the Revolution which ended communist rule).)

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