I hope you are still resting in peace even as the world seems to be circling the drain. A lot has happened in the five years since you left. But I’m not here to gossip.
Before I tell you why I am writing, I should introduce myself. We never met, and you don’t know me in more than an abstract way, as a fellow former compatriot. For 934 short days you were the President of my country—our country—which, of course, no longer exists. A teenager, shy like you, I watched you steer Czechoslovakia through the transition to democracy and hoped to someday do great deeds myself.
I admit, I was mad at you for not doing more to preserve our country. Yet even after Czechoslovakia split like a loaf of bread torn apart by greedy brothers, you continued to inspire me, even if I didn’t care to admit it until much, much later. You did your best to stay above the political fray, you upheld the values you stood for, and you kept speaking out about things that mattered for the sake of humanity. Philosopher President, they called you.
I should perhaps call you Mr. President. While you will always be my president, I clearly recall there was always a degree of informality about you: I remember the sweaters you wore instead of presidential suits, the pants that were a little too short and even became a slang word deriving from your surname, the stories of you riding through the Prague Castle on a scooter, like the kid I was. I apologize if I’m overstepping any boundaries by calling you so informally, by your given name. I am doing so in consideration of you here as a fellow writer, intellectual (I can only aspire to your level), and, most importantly, a person who speaks truth to power. The times call for the kind of fellowship a first-name basis endows.
As you’ve probably heard by now—how could you not have, with all that yelling heard round the world—on November 8 last year, my adopted country, the United States, elected a president that would put Gustáv Husák or Leonid Brezhnev to shame. Sure, the election was open, free, and democratic, albeit influenced by the Kremlin (I relish the thought of you not being surprised by this at all). And yes, it’s okay to lose sometimes; that’s life. But the despair I, along with more than half the country, felt that night and in the ensuing days was of the same kind and magnitude I had felt in Czechoslovakia’s final days. I felt powerless and insignificant.
Thus deflated and hopeless, I was numb for days.
What got me out of it was you and something you once said:
Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred.Václav Havel
This, more than anything, is the reason for the words you are reading. That quote, which I first read on a hand-painted poster during the Velvet Revolution, reminded me that, though life, indeed history, is full of periods of darkness, we always emerge on the other side better for it, if we stay true to ourselves and our fellow humans.
Thanks to you, I shook myself off, picked myself up, and decided to do something.
As an American—I became a citizen shortly before you departed this world—I am more empowered than I was in Slovakia to take part in democracy: I can call my elected officials, I can sign petitions, I can join protests. Those things make a difference, and I will do as much as possible.
But as important and constructive as that will be in fighting for a better country, I feel it isn’t enough.
When your motto came to mind, your writing came to mind, too. Having read your essay collection Open Letters many times, and your most famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless” even more so, I remembered I carry within myself the remedy to my own powerlessness because power is only effective as much as I am willing to submit to it.
I’ve always enjoyed being an observer. After all, this is what we writers do: We watch and listen and smell and touch, and then we describe it in words. I am pretty good at observing too, if I may say so myself (I’m even writing a novel about a kid in the 1980’s on the way to becoming a State Security agent pursuing dissidents like you were; I hope you’ll like it). But an observer, by definition, does not participate; he remains on the sidelines while others do the work. In the new world, that is no longer tenable.
And so I’ve decided I must write.
I must write about this new reality not only as a way of coping with it, for the sake of my own sanity, but also, and more importantly, as a way of living in truth, as you conceived it. It is only when each of us live this way that we can face this version of America and make it through the next four years.
I will use my writing as a tool and an expression of my own, personal resistance against a president and all that he represents, the same way you did when you wrote your plays and essays. I will write my truths, yes, my observations as an immigrant and new citizen about what is going on, to fight hate that’s taking over my adopted country, to overcome the fear this new President capitalized on and sown.
Yes, America today is a country of fear. The consensus in post-election analyses held that the winner harnessed the anger many people felt about the direction the country is going. I think anger and hate are but symptoms. The new President tapped into a rich vein of fear among people who have lost a lot and who are afraid to lose even more. Jobs stolen by illegal immigrants and foreign countries; safety and security threatened by terrorists; white-majority comforts eaten away by people of color; the list goes on. They chose a leader who assuaged their fears by promising to give it all back.
As one half of the country voted out of fear, the other half—for we are a country increasingly divided—was overcome with it. We fear this presidency (and the partisan majority it dragged in with it) will lead to many losses on many fronts: civil liberties; reproductive rights; environmental protection; education; the country’s security; and yes, even jobs. If these fears seemed overblown in the aftermath of the election, you only have to look at what has already been happening since then. Our fears are already materializing.
This is a president of fear; this is a government of fear; this is a parliament of fear.
I am not afraid.
Yours in truth,
Featured image by Pat Joyce.