If you’re thinking that no one could possibly disagree with any of that, you’re underestimating just how disagreeable people are right now. Capillary-exploding fury greeted the statement above, via an open letter dated June 6 and signed by 1,800 people you’ve never heard of. Scores of them are remarkably ungrateful previous or current recipients of the foundation’s largesse. This virtual mob of versifiers, subscribers to Poetry magazine, and assorted random worked-up individuals inveighed against the foundation’s brief note for being wholly inadequate to the task of ending racism, calling it “an insult to the lives and families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other victims of the racist institution of police and white supremacy” as well as “an insult to the lives of your neighbors who have been targeted, brutalized, terrorized, and detained by the Chicago Police.” Further, the letter proclaimed that “the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence.” Threatening to withhold its submissions from Poetry magazine, the mob of signatories issued a list of five demands, not counting its call for the immediate resignation of President Henry Bienen and board of trustees chair Willard Bunn III.
In the course of denouncing the Poetry Foundation for not “creating a world that is just and affirming for people of color, disabled people, trans people, queer people, and immigrants,” the authors of the letter offered a hint that the ideal way to placate them would be to turn over all of its money to them: “Ultimately, we dream of a world in which the massive wealth hoarding that underlies the Foundation’s work would be replaced by the redistribution of every cent to those whose labor amassed those funds,” read the letter. Failing that, the angry poets suggested they might settle for “large contributions to organizations” of which they approved, together with “redistribution of wealth toward efforts fostering social justice.”
— Kyle Smith, “Insanity at the Poetry Foundation”
So Cisco created a public Google spreadsheet and titled it “Theaters Not Speaking Out.” It was open for anyone to edit, and it had a simple directive: “Add names to this document who have not made a statement against injustices toward black people.”
…“I went to bed afterwards and thought 50 names will be on this list in the morning and I’ll be over it,” Cisco said by phone from Atlanta, where she has been living since March. “But it started to get a lot of traction, and there are now over 400 theaters on it listed from across the country.”
Theaters are listed alphabetically by city, beginning with Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., and ending with the Palace Theatre in Wisconsin Dells, Wisc. In between are some big institutions — companies that produce plays and musicals as well as venues that largely present touring productions — including the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, the Goodman Theatre and the Second City in Chicago, Yale Repertory Theater in Connecticut and Playwrights Horizons in New York.
It did not appear to be a coincidence that the following day, and into June, theaters began posting messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter en masse, black theater artists said. The response was problematic because often the statements were perceived to have come from a place of shame and felt slapped together and hollow, Cisco said.
More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.
Custine grasped that the propensity to deceive and to be (or to pretend to be) deceived lay at the heart of Russia’s evident malaise. The maintenance of despotism depended upon this universal vocation for untruth, because without the fiction that the despotism was necessary, that it conduced to the happiness and well-being of all, and that any alternative would be disastrous, the subject population would cease to be controllable. The inability to speak even the most evident truth perverted all human relationships and institutions. And of course the lie came to be the foundation of all twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, without which they could not survive. “The political system of Russia,” wrote Custine, “could not withstand twenty years of free communication with Western Europe.”
…For example, shortly after his arrival in Russia, Custine went to the annual festival at the palace of Peterhof, a festival of such magnificence that it took 1,800 servants to light 250,000 lamps for it. Visitors reached the palace by boat from Saint Petersburg, and one boat had sunk in a storm on the way to the festival with the loss of all its passengers and crew. But because “any mishap [in Russia] is treated as an affair of State” in Russia, and because “to lie is to protect the social order, to speak the truth is to destroy the State,” there followed “a silence more terrifying than the disaster itself.” In Russia, people of the highest social class—as were the boat’s passengers—could disappear not only without a trace but without comment. Who in such a country could ever feel safe?
The silence encompassed not only current events, but extended back into history. A Russian nobleman, Prince Peter Koslovsky, had warned Custine before his arrival in Russia that in his country “despotism not only counts ideas and sentiments for nothing, but remakes facts. It wages war on evidence and triumphs in the battle. . . . [The Emperor’s] power is more far-reaching than God’s, for God makes only the future, while the Czar remakes the past.” Custine’s experience repeatedly proved this insight true. No previous czar was ever mentioned in conversation, he learned, to avoid the suggestion that the present czar was not immortal. For this same reason, Custine noted that Russians did not dare look at the palace in which the czar’s father, the emperor Paul, was murdered: for “it is forbidden to recount, in the schools or elsewhere, the story of the death of the Emperor Paul.”
When a man fell from grace, he not only ceased to exist, he ceased ever to have existed. “M. de Repnin governed the Empire and the Emperor. M. de Repnin has been in disfavour for two years and for two years Russia has not heard this name spoken—this name which two years ago was on every tongue. No one dares to remember him or even to believe in his existence—either his present existence or his past existence. In Russia, the day a minister falls, his friends become deaf and blind. A man is buried as soon as he appears to be in disfavour.”
Communist regimes went yet further in the creation of unpersons, of course, striking them out of photographs and encyclopedias (on the fall of a formerly prominent Soviet personage, the publishers of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia would send out substitute entries to paste over that unpersonage’s entry). But the precedent had been set many years before.
Custine appreciated only too well the violence that this remaking of history did to the minds of men, and the consequences it had for their character and behavior. In order not to look at the palace in which the emperor Paul was murdered, a person had to know that he was killed there; but his whole purpose in not looking at the palace was to demonstrate in public his ignorance of the murder. He thus had not only to assert a lie but also to deny that he knew it was a lie. And all officials—the emperor included—had likewise to pretend that they did not know they were being lied to, or else the whole edifice of falsehood would have come tumbling down.
The need always to lie and always to avoid the truth stripped everyone of what Custine called “the two greatest gifts of God—the soul and the speech which communicates it.” People became hypocritical, cunning, mistrustful, cynical, silent, cruel, and indifferent to the fate of others as a result of the destruction of their own souls. Moreover, the upkeep of systematic untruth requires a network of spies: indeed, it requires that everyone become a spy and potential informer. And “the spy,” wrote Custine, “believes only in espionage, and if you escape his snares he believes that he is about to fall into yours.” The damage to personal relations was incalculable.
If Custine were among us now, he would recognize the evil of political correctness at once, because of the violence that it does to people’s souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not believe but must not question. Custine would demonstrate to us that, without an external despot to explain our pusillanimity, we have willingly adopted the mental habits of people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship.
— Theodore Dalrymple, “How to Read a Society”
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 the 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 unquestioningly 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 his 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 the 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.
Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.
Why in fact did our greengrocer have to put his loyalty on display in the shop window? Had he not already displayed it sufficiently in various internal or semipublic ways? At trade union meetings, after all, he had always voted as he should. He had always taken part in various competitions. He voted in elections like a good citizen. He had even signed the “antiCharter.” Why, on top of all that, should he have to declare his loyalty publicly? After all, the people who walk past his window will certainly not stop to read that, in the greengrocer’s opinion, the workers of the world ought to unite. The fact of the matter is, they don’t read the slogan at all, and it can be fairly assumed they don’t even see it. If you were to ask a woman who had stopped in front of his shop what she saw in the window, she could certainly tell whether or not they had tomatoes today, but it is highly unlikely that she noticed the slogan at all, let alone what it said.
It seems senseless to require the greengrocer to declare his loyalty publicly. But it makes sense nevertheless. People ignore his slogan, but they do so because such slogans are also found in other shop windows, on lampposts, bulletin boards, in apartment windows, and on buildings; they are everywhere, in fact. They form part of the panorama of everyday life. Of course, while they ignore the details, people are very aware of that panorama as a whole. And what else is the greengrocer’s slogan but a small component in that huge backdrop to daily life?
The greengrocer had to put the slogan in his window, therefore, not in the hope that someone might read it or be persuaded by it, but to contribute, along with thousands of other slogans, to the panorama that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don’t want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility and security.
The woman who ignored the greengrocer’s slogan may well have hung a similar slogan just an hour before in the corridor of the office where she works. She did it more or less without thinking, just as our greengrocer did, and she could do so precisely because she was doing it against the background of the general panorama and with some awareness of it, that is, against the background of the panorama of which the greengrocer’s shop window forms a part. When the greengrocer visits her office, he will not notice her slogan either, just as she failed to notice his. Nevertheless, their slogans are mutually dependent: both were displayed with some awareness of the general panorama and, we might say, under its diktat. Both, however, assist in the creation of that panorama, and therefore they assist in the creation of that diktat as well. The greengrocer and the office worker have both adapted to the conditions in which they live, but in doing so, they help to create those conditions. They do what is done, what is to be done, what must be done, but at the same time-by that very token-they confirm that it must be done in fact. They conform to a particular requirement and in so doing they themselves perpetuate that requirement. Metaphysically speaking, without the greengrocer’s slogan the office worker’s slogan could not exist, and vice versa. Each proposes to the other that something be repeated and each accepts the other’s proposal. Their mutual indifference to each other’s slogans is only an illusion: in reality, by exhibiting their slogans, each compels the other to accept the rules of the game and to confirm thereby the power that requires the slogans in the first place. Quite simply, each helps the other to be obedient. Both are objects in a system of control, but at the same time they are its subjects as well. They are both victims of the system and its instruments.
If an entire district town is plastered with slogans that no one reads, it is on the one hand a message from the district secretary to the regional secretary, but it is also something more: a small example of the principle of social auto-totality at work. Part of the essence of the post-totalitarian system is that it draws everyone into its sphere of power, not so they may realize themselves as human beings, but so they may surrender their human identity in favor of the identity of the system, that is, so they may become agents of the system’s general automatism and servants of its self-determined goals, so they may participate in the common responsibility for it, so they may be pulled into and ensnared by it, like Faust by Mephistopheles. More than this: so they may create through their involvement a general norm and, thus, bring pressure to bear on their fellow citizens. And further: so they may learn to be comfortable with their involvement, to identify with it as though it were something natural and inevitable and, ultimately, so they may—with no external urging—come to treat any non-involvement as an abnormality, as arrogance, as an attack on themselves, as a form of dropping out of society. By pulling everyone into its power structure, the post-totalitarian system makes everyone an instrument of a mutual totality, the auto-totality of society.
The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.
Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.
The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. Most of those who apply these sanctions, however, will not do so from any authentic inner conviction but simply under pressure from conditions, the same conditions that once pressured the greengrocer to display the official slogans. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama, to which belongs an awareness that this is how situations of this sort are dealt with, that this, in fact, is how things are always done, particularly if one is not to become suspect oneself. The executors, therefore, behave essentially like everyone else, to a greater or lesser degree: as components of the post-totalitarian system, as agents of its automatism, as petty instruments of the social auto-totality.
Thus the power structure, through the agency of those who carry out the sanctions, those anonymous components of the system, will spew the greengrocer from its mouth. The system, through its alienating presence in people, will punish him for his rebellion. It must do so because the logic of its automatism and self-defense dictate it. The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.
The first conclusion to be drawn, then, is that the original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the “dissident” attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest “dissent” could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.
— Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless