Living in Truth and Living in Untruth

20 December 2011


Václav Havel insisted upon "living in truth" even under communist rule.

The death of Kim Jong-il of North Korea quickly pushed the death of Vaclav Havel out of the headlines, though in the long term it will have been the life of Havel that will have the far greater impact on the world. The twentieth century saw several remarkable transformations in which dissidents and rebels becomes heads of state. Vaclav Havel’s life stands among these political metamorphoses, and he is the man I personally admire more than the others.

Havel emphasized the importance of living in truth. In communist Czechoslovakia, it was not only difficult to live in truth, but also dangerous. The communist governments of central and eastern Europe, installed as a consequence of the Stalin Doctrine, were systematically mendacious societies in which dishonesty was rewarded and honesty punished and penalized. It was under such conditions that Havel formulated the idea of living in truth, and it was under these conditions that he himself sought to live in truth.

Although the Iron Curtain across Europe has been lifted, and Havel himself saw the complete dissolution of the mendacious state system that controlled central and eastern Europe through the Cold War, the world still has no shortage of dishonest and mendacious regimes. Even where political mendacity does not take the acute form that it took behind the Iron Curtain, still the advanced industrialized democracies are faced with a much more subtle, and therefore more dangerous, form of dishonesty — this is the dishonesty that Kierkegaard caricatured as the truth that triumphs by a thousand screaming newsboys, which allows a far greater untruth to triumph. Today the newsboys shouting from the corner are gone, but instead we have the mass media industry to fulfill the same function.

Living in truth is a kind of civil disobedience that transcends the bounds of civil society. An individual can live in truth as an individual, resisting the temptations of self-deception, or as a member of society, resisting the temptations of conformity. And just as living in truth can be expressed in the life of an individual or in the life of any social institution, from the smallest family or gathering of friends to the largest collective social unit in existence, so too living in untruth is similarly comprehensive: one can live in untruth in splendid isolation, or one can live in untruth as a member of a social whole of any size.

Kim Jong-il, whose death eclipsed that of Havel’s in the news cycle, presided over an extreme example of a society created for the express purpose of living in untruth. The rewards in such a society of conforming with untruth are so great, and the penalties for living in truth are so severe, that the mendacious state system created by Kim Il-Sung and perpetuated by Kim Jong-il will continue to survive for some time. How long the “Great Successor” can continue to perpetuate a society founded upon untruth remains a question only to be answered by history.

We know, on the one hand, that systematic mendacity cannot last, and that living in untruth is ultimately unsustainable and must collapse under its own weight of dishonesty. However, we know on the other hand that even when regimes of systematic mendacity are toppled, they are not replaced by a socio-political order of truthfulness and transparency. Some nation-states have taken the hard path of attempting to systematically pursue truth and reconciliation in the wake of the collapse of a corrupt regime. These efforts are admirable, and the world would benefit from further such efforts.

When it is the turn of the North Korean regime to collapse under the weight of its own dishonesty, it is difficult for me to imagine that any truth and reconciliation commission could function. The people of North Korea are so completely deprived of information about the world in which they live, that defectors to South Korea spend many months in classes in an attempt to teach them what life is like in the contemporary world. Some of them never really make the transition, and these were the bold few who escape. The vast majority never even attempt to escape, and thus are that much less likely to even be able to understand the monstrosity of their own victimization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Living in Truth and Living in Untruth”

  1. MisterEgo said

    The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, nice post.

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