Good taste and government
When I first examined the subject of good taste and government in 1992, our country was under the jackboots of the military. I am using jackboots advisedly.
If I go by the advice of Chambers 21st Century Dictionary (Revised Edition) and Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the labelling applies more appropriately to the dark goggled Administration that came into being in 1993, and terminated most dramatically in 1997.
One lexicon describes jackboot as referring to a cruel military regime and the other as an oppressive regime.
Even then, by 1992, I longed strongly for taste and high ideals in government. What added impetus to my longing was an interview outgoing President of splitting Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, gave to Time Magazine.
Vaclav Havel, 57 at the time, was the soul and symbol, even if not the architect of the 1989 velvet revolution in the then Czechoslovakia which saw it separate into two—Czech and Slovakia. Much of the credit went to him in seeing to it that the country did not explode in murderous chaos as was the case of Yugoslavia. It was out of fashion then as it still is today. I was struck by his pronouncements in the interview on his resignation as President.
It will be recalled that Havel symbolized the struggle for freedom and human dignity in the heydays of communist authorities in the then Czechoslovakia. He was gagged and imprisoned.
The bitterness characteristically engendered by harrowing prison experiences he did not permit to pollute him inwardly by which I mean his soul.
As I did say at the time, he harnessed the experiences, it would appear, for further inner deepening and polish. And the consequence of his depth was his recognition of the place of man and humanity in life, and constant alertness not to diminish his dignity and esteem through speech and conduct.
Certain words, certain phrases and sentences leapt out of his statements in response to the questions put to him by his interviewer, Lance Morrow. Time magazine itself was unable to resist quoting some of his engrossing statements, to wit: “It gives me a feeling of inner freedom.”
He was asked: “Are you relieved to have resigned?” “It is one of the paradoxes of my life that I am experiencing such a creative feeling at the moment of my resignation.”
Another quotation went like this: “I came to this castle, and I was confronted with useless pictures. Only then did I realize how closely the bad taste of rulers was connected with their bad way of ruling.”
To the question as to whether he was relieved to have resigned, he said: “ I am quite relieved, almost happy actually, because, always when I accomplish something or make an important decision, spurring others to act rather than reacting only to what is happening around me, it gives me a feeling of inner freedom and self-confirmation. And every-one needs such self-confirmation.”
How much gracefulness and good taste have we evinced in our public affairs after we became free from the jackboots of the military two decades ago? The last general elections revealed our underbelly. Where we expected edifying and parliamentarian language, was it not foul language that was our frequent experience in most instances?
In the interview with Lance Morrow, Havel was asked: “I have been fascinated by a phrase that you have used in your writings and that translates into English as good taste. I wonder what you mean by that? His response went as follows:
“I have found that good taste, oddly enough, plays an important role in politics. Why is it like that? The most probable reason is that good taste is a visible manifestation of human sensibility toward the world, environment, people. I came to this castle and to other governmental residences inherited from communism, and I was confronted with useless furniture and many tasteless pictures.
Only then did I realize how closely the bad taste of former rulers was connected with their bad way of ruling. I also realized how important good taste was for politics.
During political talks, the feeling of how and when to convey something, of how long to speak, whether to interrupt or not, the degree of attention, how to address the public, forms to be used not to offend someone’s dignity and on the other hand to say what has to be said, all these play a major role.
All such political behaviour relates to good taste in a broader sense. What I already have in mind is something more than just knowing which tie to choose to match a particular shirt.”
There were phrases such as “inner responsibility”, “inner freedom,” “spiritual dimensions,” “a state of spirit without which I cannot imagine living or doing something and higher principle,” lacing his statements to underscore his points.
The awareness of these inner attitude and inner state by Havel arising from inner maturity and refinement is what has shaped his outer attitude and behaviour and has drawn poignant attention to the truth of life that, as within, so without.
The offices Havel met on assumption of authority as President of the then Czechoslovakia were cold, the furniture and pictures tasteless. Where such exists, amongst us human beings wherever, it cannot be but a clear mirror of us, leaders or the led, indeed more of the led.
In a democratic dispensation, leaders are the mirror of their electors, the quality or degeneracy of their inner beings. They cannot rise above the level of the generality of their peoples. It is not conceivable for instance that a crooked leader can survive in the assembly of high-minded and noble men.
The picture Havel was trying to paint was that his predecessors were dead within, in other words, fettered within.
A dead person cannot, therefore, have or know good taste. An inwardly fettered man is a weakened man…a dead man who is lacking in inner mobility and warmth, even if he were a king or an emperor.
Thus, he is ponderous, cold, coarse, and lacking in good taste or sense of beauty. He is one who will not see the ugliness in crossing well kept lawns and will devastate gardens and nature in general.
On the contrary, the man with inner freedom is the lively man with good taste, a robust sense of humour and language which seeks to build and ennoble and not someone who would reduce the dignity of the neighbour. It is the man with inner richness that appreciates and renders selfless service. It is the man with inner freedom that is free without and who is free and free indeed, to borrow the expression of Martin Luther King Jnr.
What is observable outwardly is a manifestation of the inner condition. It follows, as we are privileged to now know, with the unique higher knowledge available in the world today, that, filth, disorder and chaos in a society, either in the traffic or in the market, in the neighbourhood, workplace, restaurant, airports, or cinema halls, are all reflections of the inner nature of the people. Man builds his environment; it is not the environment that moulds the man!
The free man is he who understands the automatic mechanisms of life, the higher laws and heeds them. It is he who is free from entanglements, and is thus unburdened, and is free indeed. The consequences of entanglements are devastating fall and humiliation, sooner or later, depending on the nature of the activities.
Only people who are dead within, or whose spirit is walled up or no longer glows through the materiality of their mantle as radiantly as it ought to, can fail to hear the voice of nature or understand its language and heed its adamantine compulsions. Such failure can only cause blind groping in the annihilating dark and forcible erection of repressive and consuming non-living forms.
This pertains to not only haphazard formation of nations, which are breaking up or under the threat of breaking up because they were built on unnatural foundations, but also to their pursuits, communism or crass capitalism, and relationship between nation and citizens in these pursuits.
It is said by the sage, not for nothing, that the ant makes wiser. Of ants, there are many varieties: soldier ants, which travel in columns; Pharaoh ants, which are to be found in homes; sugar ants; fire ants; carpenter ants; honey ants; etc. In the wise ordering of nature, they live in colonies, each species, apart from another and enslaving ants of other species which stray into their specific territory or their midst.
The values over which Mr. Havel lifts the veil and espouses are eternal, pointing the way all societies inexorably have no choice in the future, but to follow. It is the forces his ideals release that will keep the images of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Adam Smith, and Gorbachev lingering in the focus and consciousness of peoples.
For Havel and Gorbachev, man predates the state and will survive it; the state is no more than a contrivance meant to serve the end of man and which must be discarded when it becomes a torment, unable to serve that end—which is spiritual development goal.
Havel says, and it must shock the world which is unable to distinguish state from man: “I do not place the highest value on the state, but rather on man and humanity!” The exclamation mark, mine.
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