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The Power of the Powerless
July 03, 2014
Editorial By Wendy McElroy
In the sixth century BC, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu identified the world's biggest problem. Individuals viewed themselves as powerless. The burden of impotence made them resent others and fear life, which, in turn, led them to seek power through controlling others. The quest was not an expression of authority, but one of aggression. Lao Tzu rooted most of social problems in the individual's sense of paralysis.
The extraordinary power of the individual can be declared in many ways.
The Power of Living in Truth
In 1978, a 42-year-old Czech playwright named Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) made an observation similar to that of Lao Tzu. He wrote what became one of the most influential essays in the Cold War era: The Power of the Powerless. It was published in samizdat form; that is, it was reproduced by hand and distributed from individual to individual to avoid censorship.
The Power of the Powerless was written in the wake of the "Prague Spring" (1968) during which Czechoslovakia liberalized freedom of speech and freedom of travel. The Soviet Union responded with brutal force that crushed the flicker of liberty. Havel was targeted for his prominent role in the reach for Czech independence. Arrested and imprisoned, he achieved an epiphany: the most powerful weapon against guns was the truth. The Power of the Powerless was a blistering attack on the communist regime. It was also a call for individuals to understand their own power not merely when they dissent but also when they comply with a system that is a lie.
Havel illustrated the impact of compliance – denying the truth – by pointing to "the manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop" who places a "Workers of the world, unite!" poster among his onions and carrots. He does so because not placing it would make him appear disloyal to the regime. "He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life." Thus, the grocer and others who obey without question "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." The strength of communism or any oppressive regime rests upon the obedience of individuals.
Havel argued that individuals have "within themselves the power to remedy their own powerlessness" simply by living the truth. If the grocer realized that the slogan was actually saying, "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient," he would be ashamed to display it. By realizing the meaning of their actions, people are led toward "living in truth," which is the source of freedom. The truth need not be screamed from a rooftop; it can be manifested in small daily acts through which the individual reclaims his own power, such as the 'act' of not posting a sign. The individual must defy unreality and refuse to be complicit in a delusion. Havel observed, "The principle here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth."
Havel concluded by asking, "the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?"
The Difference One Individual Can Make
Chiune Sugihara expressed another way in which an individual can express his own power. Sugihara exercised what is called "positional power." That's the impact a person possesses due to his position in an organization.
During World War II, Sugihara (1900-1986) served as Vice-Consul at the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. Japan and Germany were allies. The Japanese government issued visas only to those who had gone through an immigration process and had sufficient funds. Few Jews qualified, especially since the Japanese Foreign Ministry required everyone who received a visa to be cleared for a third destination that ensured they would leave Japan.
Against orders from his superiors and against German interests, Sugihara acted on his own initiative. In July 1940, he began to grant ten-day visas that sidestepped the requirement of a third destination by listing one of two obscure venues that did not require their own visas for entry. He negotiated with officials in the Soviet Union to allow Jews to travel through their territory at five times the normal price of a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He reportedly spent 18 to 20 hours a day arranging visas; his wife assisted him with the paperwork. For 29 days, Sugihara issued the documents that meant life. In September 1940, when the Japanese Consulate was closed and Sugihara was forced to leave, he reportedly threw blank sheets of paper with the consulate seal and his signature out of a train window to a gathered crowd of people still appealing for visas. He gave the consul stamp itself to a refugee who used it to save more Jews.
Estimates on the number of visas issued by Sugihara vary but 6,000 is the most common number. Since families often traveled on a visa granted to a "head of household," the number of lives saved is even more difficult to assess. The Simon Wiesenthal Center believes that about 40,000 descendants of the refugees he saved owe their existence to him.
In 1985, the state of Israel rewarded Sugihara with the title of Righteous Among Nations. The title honors those who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
What is Necessary to Assume Your Power
Sugihara claimed his power by acting on his conscience rather than on orders. When asked why he risked so much to help strangers, Sugihara responded: "They were human beings and they needed help. I'm glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them. I may have to disobey my government, but if I don't I would be disobeying God." That was the truth within Sugihara.
It was the truth Havel believed every human being should live. Anyone who did so is profoundly free because he has "shattered the world of appearances.... 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."
Anyone who dissents by living the the truth is a fundamental threat to the state because a lie cannot coexist with what is true. Anyone who dissents and claims his own power denies the state "in principle and threatens it in its entirety." That is why speaking out against the state is "suppressed more severely than anything else."
What is required to live the truth? First, an individual must realize that truth does not come from outside as an ideology or from other people; it exists within as a realization that comes from experience, reason, and a sense of humanity. Second, freedom rests on a recognition of the inextinguishable dignity of every individual. Third, it requires courage. Each person must stand up and claim their own power even if it is expressed in seemingly small ways. Because there is no such thing as a small step toward freedom. The first step, however small, is the one that matters most .