Skip links

The Ever-Present Totalitarian Temptation

First circulated underground in communist Czechoslovakia in October 1978, Václav Havel’s brilliant dissection of totalitarianism, “The Power of the Powerless,” retains its salience four decades later. It should be required reading for politicians given to describing the Knights of Columbus as an “extremist” organization because of the Knights’ pro-life convictions and activism.

Havel began his essay with a homely but devastating vignette. A Czechoslovak greengrocer is arranging vegetables in his shop window. There, amid the carrots and onions, he puts a small sign, “Workers of the World, Unite!” Why? Havel asks. What does that dreary Marxist slogan have to do with vegetables? Does the sign manifest the greengrocer’s fervent political convictions? Does the greengrocer feel an irrepressible desire to share the communist gospel with all who pass by?

No, Havel answered, the greengrocer’s sign is something else: It’s a white flag. It’s a signal to the authorities, including the secret police and the government wholesaler who provides the store with supplies, that this shopkeeper is reliable. He won’t make trouble. He won’t dissent from the official “truth” of things. The sign may read, “Workers of the World, Unite!” but what it really says is, “Please leave me alone.”

The totalitarian impulse did not (and does not) express itself only through constant surveillance, the sharp knock on the door in the dead of night, the sudden disappearance, the slave labor camp. As the word implies and Havel’s greengrocer analogy illustrates, totalitarianism demands something more than external obedience to the system. It demands that others concede that they are wrong and that the totalitarians are right. To be socially acceptable, one must not just toe the line visibly; one must be converted.

When United States senators describe the Knights of Columbus as “extremist”—and by implication apply that epithet to all of us who think like the Knights on the life issues and the nature of marriage—those legislators are declaring us socially unacceptable: people whose commitments to democracy are suspect; people who should be shunned as morally unclean; people who are leprous.

One of the senators who indulged the totalitarian temptation in respect of the Knights of Columbus, California’s Kamala Harris, is now running for the presidency. Senator Harris is the daughter of an Indian mother and an African-American father. When the scribal guardians of political correctness began hassling her with questions about her “identity,” the senator sensibly brushed off such impertinent and irrelevant inquiries by saying, simply, that she’s “an American.” That was exactly the right answer.

Read more at First Things. 

Share with Friends: