In 1978, Czech playwright Vaclav Havel smuggled a long text he had written, “The Power of the Powerless,” in which he discusses life and forms of civil resistance under the communist regime in former Czechoslovakia. In the text, the eventual leader of the revolution tells the story of a grocer who put the slogan “workers of the world unite” on the glass front of his shop.
The dissident intellectual who would go on to become the president of the Democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia a decade later asked: What did the grocery store owner hope to achieve by displaying this slogan? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of the workers of the world uniting?
According to Havel, the vast majority of grocery store owners do not think about the slogans they put on display in their storefronts, nor do they use them to express their actual opinions. They had been doing so for years because that is just what they and everyone else do. That is how things were managed in communist Czechoslovakia and other countries with similar regimes.
As for those who refrain from doing so, they are subjected to harassment that begins with rapprochement and bashing and ends with accusations of disloyalty, which could leave them imprisoned.
The slogan is thereby plastered on the storefront because it should be and because not doing so could mean the owner of the store cannot continue to live his life in the safety he had grown accustomed to.
In this sense, Havel believes the people are “living a lie.” While that does not mean that they accept or believe the lie, it does mean they have to accept that their life is a lie. As for the consequence, it is that rituals and complying with them become a requisite for having both a personal and social life.
Equivalents of “workers of the world unite” can be found in all countries and instances of coercion that rely upon a ritual summed up with a slogan: “Unity, Socialism, Freedom” and “One Arab Nation with an Eternal Message” are those of the Baath regime in Syria and that which had previously ruled Iraq. “Neither East nor West- Islamic Republic” and “never to humiliation (Hayhat Minna Zilla)” or “the victory of blood over the sword” in Iran…
A week ago, we saw another case, though boringly repetitive, of living a lie: Israel’s assault on Gaza that killed civilians, including children. These victims should be presented as victims, and the tragedies that took their lives should be an additional irrefutable argument against Israeli aggression and its longstanding approach of evading punishment and justice.
However, those pushing the lie do not want to present the victims as victims. They only want to present them as heroes, and this is not, as it may appear at first glance, merely naive, inflamed rhetoric. The fact is that the reason for this lie is another that is bigger and more dangerous, one that has been framed through many speeches and public statements: we are at a stage in which we are preparing for a comprehensive war that does away with Israel.
More than that, Iran seems to be facing something of a dilemma regarding who will do away with the “Zionist entity:” Islamic Jihad, Hamas, or Hezbollah?
It is only natural for demand for heroes to increase under this state of affairs, with victims who cannot contribute to the operation to do away with the Jewish state and, perhaps, the United States and the West in its entirety, left out of the narrative. Victims are a burden to epics, while heroes, in contrast, were born for epics.
Worse still, this refusal to recognize victims as victims is coupled with a monopolization of victimhood. We are, as is being repeatedly confirmed, a people suffering from pains that have never been seen before and will never be seen again. We come from a long line of resistors confronting a relentless conspiracy rarely seen in history by any other people.
Living a lie, with all the rituals and slogans that come with it, has become a system and a way of life across the Arab Levant, though the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains the most generous supplier of lies.
That is how words sprout from words, lies sprout from lies, and false narratives are inflated and entrenched. Arguments, logic, facts, figures, and comparisons do not resist it, and the actual wills and desires of whoever is directly concerned do not stand in its way.
What is demanded, at the end of the day, is for the current power hierarchies, with the profiteering and vested interests that come with them, to remain as they are: armed groups are to remain in control of the lives of civilians, making their decisions for them; Iran is to continue to call the shots on questions of war and peace in the Levant, and “the steadfastness of the Assad regime in Syria” is to remain a noble goal loftier than any other…
All of that requires living and pushing a lie, as well as presenting those who do not live this lie and parrot it as leading others astray.
Yes, our innocent victims, the children and civilians in general, are lied to twice: once when they are deprived of being victims, and another when they are designated, against their will, as heroes.
This is the course we are taking merely because this is the “natural” course we should be taking. If we find ourselves in need of an argument, we reach out to our reservoir of poems telling us that “we have to abide by what is written for us.”