30 November 2011

The Lesson of Ivan Jirous

Earlier this month I noted that Czech cultural impresario Ivan Jirous has died. Yesterday The Guardian ran this obituary which gives me an opportunity to note his passing once again and to offer Jirous as an example for current politics.

As a result of an unlikely friendship and political alliance with Václav Havel, Jirous was a key figure in what ultimately became the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe. His arrest and trial in 1976 provided an animating event in the emergence of open coordinated dissent in what then was Czechoslovakia.

There is a lesson here for contemporary politics. Here is how Havel describes overcoming his own skepticism about Jirous and other denizens of the cultural and musical underground he inhabited in the 1970s:
"Suddenly I realized that, regardless of how many vulgar words these people used or how long their hair was, truth was on their side. Somewhere in the midst of this group, their attitudes, and their creations, I sensed a special purity, a shame, and a vulnerability; in their music was an experience of metaphysical sorrow and a longing for salvation. It seemed to me that this underground of Jirous' was an attempt to give hope to those who had been most excluded."*
In other words, Havel overcame his skeptical and patronizing attitudes and persuaded others in the "the official and officially tolerated opposition" (what we might term the 'respectable' dissidents) to take seriously and to listen to the young and disenfranchised and vulnerable. The consequences for progressive politics were immensely important. This seems like a lesson that established progressives in the U.S. might learn from OWS.
* From: Václav Havel. 1991. Disturbing the Peace. NY: Vintage, pages 126f.

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