By: Jared Marcel Pollen
In this month, twenty-four years ago, Vaclav Havel wrote a speech entitled “Politics & Conscience,” a speech he intended to deliver on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the University of Toulouse that spring in 1984, a speech he was unable to deliver due to the fact that the Communist government of Czechoslovakia had revoked his passport. The piece opens with Havel recalling the sight of a factory that scored his boyhood walks to school:
“It spewed dense brown smoke and scattered it across the sky. Each time I saw it, I had an intense sense of something profoundly wrong, of humans soiling the heavens. I have no idea whether there was something like a science of ecology in those days; if there was, I certainly knew nothing of it… Still that ‘soiling of the heavens’ offended me spontaneously.”
This indignation, registerable even to a child, is based on the intuitive knowledge that some things constitute an affront to our nature, and cannot be covered up or explained away with any political justifications – not economic growth, modernization, job creation, the “greater good,” etc. For there is a natural ethic upon which all politics is founded, and then there are the ideological moralities that attempt to map themselves onto it. You can demonstrate this using any number of examples. Take, for instance, an abattoir: it is a house of death, designed for the sole purpose of slaughtering living creatures. Whether you believe the abattoir should be owned privately, or by the state, whether its employees should be paid fifteen dollars an hour, or twenty-five, whether those employs deserve to be unionized or not; or whether the abattoir deserves to be powered by clean sustainable energy or by coal – none of it changes the essential moral ugliness of its existence.
Just shy of ten years after writing this speech, Havel would become the first democratically elected president of the newly formed Czech Republic, a country I have been a temporary resident of for the last ten months. At the moment, I am in my attic apartment, overlooking a rank of factories that lie north of the Vltava river, their blinking candy cane stacks a distant feature contained within the segment of my skylight. I spend an inordinate amount of time with my head out this window, observing this scene, but my thoughts are not on smoke plumes or killing floors. These days, my thoughts are on the first year of the Trump presidency, now in the books, and the three years that are still ahead. These thoughts, however, are driven by the same indignation imbued by a floor full of hanging carcasses. Which is to say that Trump, and the cultural phenomenon that brought him to power, represents not just a corrosion of democratic politics (as if that weren’t bad enough) but a corrosion of moral conscience. It also represents the ascension of virtually every bad human quality to the level of power. The disgust I feel towards the Trump presidency, therefore, is not political, it is human. He is not merely offensive to politics, he is offensive to nature.