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Sometimes, digesting the latest news of the unhinging of the world, one is tempted to fall into despair. I experienced this feeling acutely recently, reading a report of a conservative commentator who had been questioned by the FBI because he posted a one-liner on Twitter mocking the Human Rights Campaign for seeking to persuade businesses to put rainbows in some visible place about their premises, presumably as an indicator of acquiescence in the LGBT agenda.

“That’s a nice business. Too bad if something happened to it,” tweeted Austin Ruse, president of the Center for Family and Human Rights. It was an obvious riff on Mafia-style protection methodologies, but you can count on social-justice-warrior types not to get jokes. Ruse was reported by the Human Rights Campaign and as a consequence received a visit and later a phone call from an FBI officer. Luckily, the officer knew a joke from a shakedown and that was the end of it.

Ruse subsequently observed that the HRC has made a habit of attacking Christians who defend traditional sexual morality. He elaborated:

It works like this: A local restaurant is owned by a faithful Catholic who objects to the gay agenda. … Gays notice he doesn’t have the gay rainbow affixed to his window. “Why don’t you have the rainbow on your window?,” they ask. “Are you homophobic? Do you really want the local community to know about you?” You can see it spooling out from there. He is targeted by the local bully boys who proceed to make his life miserable, perhaps harming and even shuttering his business.

This kind of thing is escalating at a rate that begins to be very ominous indeed. Not only do these people brook no dissent from their agendas, but they do not rest until anyone who questions them is badly burnt toast. And officialdom everywhere plays along and treats them like jolly pranksters.

On the Monday after the Pride March in Dublin, the Irish newspapers carried pictures of members of An Garda Siochána (police) posing and cavorting with homosexuals dressed in mock-Nazi bondage outfits. Last year, I had occasion to report an incident in which several LGBT tweeters issued threats of violence against me. The cops were pleasant but explained that the law has yet to catch up on this kind of harassment. At the time I took them at their word, but now I’m not so sure. This isn’t healthy.

Ruse’s experience brought to mind Vaclav Havel’s story, in his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” about the greengrocer who put the sign in the window with the slogan, “Workers of the World Unite.” Havel draws us into the mindset of the greengrocer, who places the sign essentially as a gesture of obedience. The sign might as easily read, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient”—but this would cause the greengrocer to lose face. The “Workers of the World” sign serves both the needs of the greengrocer and the needs of the regime. So it is with rainbow stickers. The sign or sticker thus becomes another kind of sign: of the operation within a culture of an ideology. This is its true function.

Ideology, Havel explains, is the quasi-metaphysical “glue” that holds a totalitarian power system together, making complicit all those who in truth are its victims. The purpose of ideology is to dehumanize, to persuade people to surrender their human identities in favor of a corporate identity. Ideology provides the “gloves” by which the system achieves its objective in ways that outwardly appear devoid of coercion. It enables the human being to be brought into harmony with the system, but this enslavement becomes invisible, hidden behind high motives and ideals. Ideology pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life.

Ideology also offers human beings the illusion of identity, dignity, and morality, “while making it easier for them to part with” all these things. Thus, the self-preservation exhibited by the greengrocer is subordinated to “a blind automatism which drives the system.” By displaying the sign, the greengrocer colludes in his own enslavement. Havel speaks of the “panorama” of slogans that litter the landscape of the Soviet-style dictatorship of ritual.

But he makes clear that he is talking about universal conditions. The syndrome he describes has many parallels in Western culture, especially in the ideologies grouped under the heading of “political correctness.” The word “equality,” in this context, has been distorted by the ideological imperative, so that it no longer indicates a genuine desire to make all people equal, but signals that certain groups are entitled to demand and obtain rights over the claims of others. Some people are more equal than others.

People live within lies, Havel tells us, not because they have no choice, but because something makes it congenial to live this way. Human beings can accommodate themselves to the lie, including the lie that makes them less human. And this accommodation, he insists, is present in the mass-consumerist systems of the allegedly free West, where an unwillingness to sacrifice material benefits for the sake of spiritual and moral integrity results in the demoralization upon which the regime depends for its power. A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in the accoutrements of mass civilization, and who, as Havel says, “has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his or her own personal survival,” is a demoralized person, a puppet of the regime.

But the power of the lie, which is dependent on the collusion of the individual, can be broken by the individual’s choosing to refuse. To live within the truth requires just a short step, but its power is tremendous. Everyone who steps out of line with the lie “denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.”

In this there is an answer to those who feel that the neo-powers of modern society, in whatever guise, are too overwhelming to be resisted by just one person. Havel shows us that it is precisely in the single act of one person that the lie is exposed and undermined. “Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence.”

The lie is an attempt to suppress the truth; the lie occurs, therefore, because the truth exists. Hence, a sense of falseness should always alert us to the suppression of something real. To live in the truth in the face of a powerful lie is not as risky as it may sound, for truth finds harmony with itself, and is unmistakable for anything but itself. The hidden sphere of truth is dangerous for the regime but an ally of the enslaved. To live within the truth is to create a subversion that can only grow and grow.

The truth does not require armies of its own, but finds its strength in the repressed longing for authenticity, for human life as it ought to be lived. This is the power of the powerless. “This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power; rather it makes its presence felt in the obscure arena of being itself.” And the hidden movement it gives rise to there can suddenly erupt as a political or social phenomenon. This is why the regime will always prosecute even the smallest gesture that occurs as an attempt to live within the truth. The crust of lies needs to be broken just once, in one place, for the whole thing to disintegrate.

The criterion is not the scale of the gesture, but its nature. The gesture can take the form of an artist pursuing the truth in his work, or a citizen intent upon preserving her human dignity in a clear and uncompromising fashion. Havel writes: “You simply straighten your backbone and live in greater dignity as an individual.” The elixir of truth overcomes the tissue of lies, which eventually disintegrates, and no one can say at what moment, or by what crucial intervention, the moment of disintegration will occur.

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.

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