Speaking Truth to Power

I see, via Daniel Larison that Bret Stephens has been unsurprisingly busy making the opposite argument to the one I just made:

A proper attitude [toward tyrrany] may not have required physical belligerency, [Havel] believed, and it could easily incorporate diplomacy. But it did require a constant posture of spiritual belligerency—a refusal to accept that a regime like Saddam’s or Kim’s was just a normal fact of life, beyond the reach of moral examination. In the context of Cold War Czechoslovakia, Havel called it a matter of “living in truth.” In the context of countries like North Korea, Russia or Iran, Havel told me it was also a matter of truth-telling. “We can talk to every ruler,” he said, “but first of all it is necessary to tell the truth.”

There’s a very important insight there, an insight Larison should acknowledge even though Stephens does his best to bury it. The insight is that truth, because it cannot be answered honestly and directly, has a corrosive effect on a structure that depends on lies to survive. Speaking truth to power can frustrate and even defeat power. Not always, of course. But sometimes, and to a surprising degree.

But the Iraq War was not “speaking truth” – because it wasn’t “speaking” at all: it was action. Without even going into the issue of the distortions – and self-deceptions – involved in building the case for war (in both of which I participated in my own small way, I should readily admit), action is not speech. Action cannot be truth; action creates truth, in the sense of facts, through the exercise of power.

The article that Vaclav Havel signed in support of the Iraq War was not an instance of speaking truth to power. It was an instance of speaking for power. The principal argument in the article is that unity is strength; that is to say, inasmuch as we want strength – power – it is more important to agree than to debate the truth. A secondary argument is that credibility is strength; that is to say, inasmuch as we want strength – power – it is more important to mean what we say than to debate the truth.

These are not specious arguments. They are entirely legitimate arguments – sometimes, they are persuasive ones. Once you have power, you have to consider these kinds of arguments. And it is juvenile to reject power as such – power is a fact of life, neither to be abjured nor idolized, but to be dealt with like other facts. I’m just pointing out that they are arguments about the accumulation, exercise and preservation of power – not about truth, and certainly not about speaking truth to power.

As a head of state, Vaclav Havel was implicated in power. Moreover, as a Czech, and not an Iraqi, he had only an indirect relationship with the sorts of truth that he might wish to speak were he not so implicated. Those aren’t cop-outs – they’re just more facts of life, things to be dealt with. It’s pleasant to imagine that the moral stature derived from one’s noble actions as a dissident is perfectly fungible, but it isn’t; it’s as context-dependent as everything else. With respect to the Iraq War, Havel wasn’t a dissident – not because he agreed with President Bush and disagreed with President Chirac (had he gone the other way, one could just as easily claim he was being a yes man and a conformist, but a conformist to European expectations rather than American), but because he was a head of state.

Stephens quotes Havel saying in a 2007 interview that “[t]he world . . . could not be indifferent forever to a murderer like Saddam Hussein.” Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is “no such thing as society” – by which she meant not that we are all atomized individuals without communal obligations but that there is no separate entity called “society” that can act. Individuals can act; they can direct institutions to act; but there is no “society” to which one can make an external appeal. Obligations imposed upon “society” turn out to be obligations imposed upon individuals. Similarly, there is no “world” to be indifferent or to take an interest in or to be indifferent to a murderer like Saddam Hussein. There are only the various governments of the various countries, and the various institutions those governments created to work within. We are not, once again, talking about speaking truth to power; we are talking about using power, and Havel was speaking as part of that power structure, not an outsider to it.

In my own view, Havel made the right call on Iraq for the right reasons. He had every reason to be grateful to the United States for its role in opposing the Soviet Union (even though we did essentially nothing to oppose the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Prague Spring – because, prudentially, there really was nothing much we could do), as well for, after the end of the Cold War, cementing Czech membership in the Western club of nations by expanding NATO to include them. He had every reason to trust the United States in its estimation of the Iraqi threat. And he had every reason to believe that the NATO Alliance and the United Nations between them held out the best hope for an international relations structured around simultaneously preserving peace and promoting freedom. One of the many negative consequences of the Iraq War is that, in its wake, people like the Czechs have every reason to feel that those feelings of gratitude and trust were exploited. But the blame for that lies with us, not with them.