Vaclav Havel’s rhetoric, billionaires, and the 99%

Everything for me this week is relating to the late Vaclav Havel, and this “imbeciles” story makes me think of Havel’s 1965 speech/article “On Evasive Thinking”.

He opens with an episode from earlier that year when a girl was crushed by a stone window ledge that fell after the state failed to maintain it. Havel tells how the state acknowledged the issue and abstractly promised that things would get better. He tells how spineless writers wrote how wonderful it is that their society was now open enough for criticism.

As in…

A girl being crushed resulted in praise for the very gov’t that allowed her to be crushed, because the writers were too chicken to ask the primary question, “Dear gov’t, why do our window ledges fall?”

I’m not sure what the precise parallel would be with billionaires and their argument that the 99% are imbeciles. But there’s no doubt the 99% vs 1% argument creates rhetorical space for billionaires to say that they earned their way there and that the 1% creates jobs for the 99%. Billionaires don’t have to win a single debate; they simply have to keep the debate going. So long as the debate continues, it distracts from the real, illustrative human suffering of the Great Recession.

Instead, what if you avoid debate altogether? What if you simply ask a version of Havel’s why-do-window-ledges-fall question: “Dear billionaire, what are you doing to prevent the next Great Recession?”

Silence would be an answer. A reply about tax policy would be an answer. An acknowledgement that nothing could prevent it, because the recession was caused by a housing bubble — that too would be an answer. And each of those answers would delegitimize billionaires as effectively as Havel’s question delegitimized government.

It’s a largely forgotten lesson of dissident movements in central and eastern Europe from the late ’50’s to 1989. The most effective tactic wasn’t to make a demand of government but to ask a question about everyday life: why is my water undrinkable? Why was my fellow dockworker fired? How can it be that 1% of us have all the answers?