Paradise Lost

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

The return of freedom to a place that became morally unhinged has produced something that it clearly had to produce, and therefore something we might have expected. But it has turned out to be far more serious than anyone could have predicted: an enormous and blindingly visible explosion of every imaginable human vice. A wide range of questionable or at least ambivalent human tendencies, quietly encouraged over the years and, at the same time, quietly pressed to serve the daily operation of the totalitarian system, has suddenly been liberated, as it were, from its straitjacket and given free rein at last. The authoritarian regime imposed a certain order—if that is the right expression for it—on these vices (and in doing so “legitimized” them, in a sense). This order has now been broken down, but a new order that would limit rather than exploit these vices, an order based on a freely accepted responsibility to and for the whole of society, has not yet been built, nor could it have been, for such an order takes years to develop and cultivate.

And thus we are witnesses to a bizarre state of affairs: society has freed itself, true, but in some ways it behaves worse than when it was in chains. Criminality has grown rapidly, and the familiar sewage that in times of historical reversal always wells up from the nether regions of the collective psyche has overflowed into the mass media, especially the gutter press. But there are other, more serious and dangerous, symptoms: hatred among nationalities, suspicion, racism, even signs of fascism; vicious demagogy, intrigue, and deliberate lying; politicking, an unrestrained, unheeding struggle for purely particular interests, a hunger for power, unadulterated ambition, fanaticism of every imaginable kind; new and unprecedented varieties of robbery, the rise of different mafias; the general lack of tolerance, understanding, taste, moderation, reason, And, of course, there is a new attraction to ideologies, as if Marxism had left behind it a great, unsettling void that had to be filled at any cost.

A look around our political scene (whose lack of civility is merely a reflection of the more general crisis of civility) should suffice: with half a year to go before the elections, almost every political activity, including debates over extremely important legislation in parliament, is taking place in the shadow of a pre-election campaign, of an extravagant hunger for power and a willingness to gain the favor of a confused electorate by offering them a colorful range of attractive nonsense. Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds. One politician will undermine another’s work only because both belong to different political parties. Partisan considerations still visibly take precedence over unprejudiced and pragmatic attempts to arrive at a reasonable and useful solution to problems. Analysis is pushed out of the press by scandal-mongering. (Supporting the government in a good cause is considered practically shameful; kicking it in the shins, on the contrary, is praiseworthy.) Sniping at politicians who …

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