'Live within the truth'
Global freedom has suffered increasing assaults. The words of Václav Havel offer encouragement.
Vladimir Putin is Time's "Person of the Year"? What about Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov, forced to withdraw his presidential bid because of state harassment? What about Burma's monks, beaten into silence? Standing for freedom is much harder than suppressing it.
Liberty around the world has taken it on the chin, and worse, this year, no small thanks to Mr. Putin. Freedom House, a nonprofit which tracks the progress of civil and human rights, concludes that 2007 saw an "increased assault" on freedom. This follows a decade of "freedom stagnation."
When rights are under attack is exactly the time when individuals need to take a stand for them. Václav Havel, the former anti-Communist dissident from Prague, talks about this in an essay called "The Power of the Powerless." He wrote it 11 years before the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" brought democracy peacefully to what was then-Czechoslovakia.
Imagine, he posed, that one day a greengrocer no longer places a propaganda slogan in his shop window, then stops voting in farcical elections. The grocer starts to say what he thinks at political meetings and even expresses solidarity with those whom he supports.
"In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie," wrote Mr. Havel. "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."
Of course, the grocer's actions invite consequences. For Havel, standing for truth brought imprisonment; for others, it costs their life.
In itself, the greengrocer's action has no power, Havel continues. Its potency lies in the light it sheds on his surroundings – light that others see. That is what gives it power, and why, he maintains, living the truth is the greatest threat to autocratic governments built on lies.
Leading such a life is easier in some places than others. In Venezuela this fall, university students successfully campaigned against a constitutional referendum that would have allowed President Hugo Chávez to run for president indefinitely. Mr. Chávez vilified the students, who also personally watched over ballot boxes to insure the integrity of the vote. The referendum failed.
In Pakistan, lawyers and others staged protests this year against emergency rule and manipulation of the Supreme Court. Media images of attorneys in suits and ties, hurling tear-gas shells back toward police, shone a light – Havel's metaphor – on injustice.
Those pictures helped pressure President Pervez Musharraf to give up his military title and formally end emergency rule in advance of next month's elections, though their fairness is still in doubt.
Pakistan's lawyers met with some success. But that is not the case for many defenders of liberty who patiently carry on in the face of hopelessness and repression. Burma's military brutally dispersed protesting monks in September. Will they regroup and try again?
Like Havel, who later became president of a free Czechoslovakia, those who take a stand for liberty don't know when their actions will bear fruit. But they persist. Small or large, their actions expose repression for the lie that it is, and radiate encouragement to others who seek to live freedom's truth.