Learning from history: Why we need dissent and dissidents by ProQuest


It was Vaclav Havel who brilliantly offered a way out of this conundrum in his influential 1979 essay "The power ofthe powerless" - now translated into many languages and serving as a guide - as much for current dissidents in Iran and Cuba as for their fellows in central and eastern Europe a generation ago. 7 Circulated widely in samizdat among central and east European communities of dissent, Havel pinpointed the birth of, and the possibilities for, dissent within the ranks ofthe powerless, not within efforts to gain power or influence among the powerful. Admitting that his admonition to "live in truth" and to act against the ideological automatism demanded by the system requires no small level of moral courage and personal risk, Havel nonetheless theorized a way forward. Authoritarian power on some level must rest on dissimulation and the restriction of free expression - undoing it requires acting "as if" these strictures do not exist. This advice still holds today, and is one reason why contemporary communities of dissent are disproportionately over-represented by the ranks of independent and citizen journalists, internet activists, and writers.Havel's philosophical insight was buttressed by his friends Adam Michnik in Poland and J ano s Kis in Hungary, who detailed how dramatic yet piecemeal efforts to undertake peaceful yet radical reform were both possible, probable, and almost inevitable. Tellingly, Michnik dubbed the strategy "new evolutionism"; to Kis a more suitable term was "radical reformism." Together, their experience and collective oeuvre provides us with clear documentation as to how dissent can flourish and yield concrete results.8 I like to call this process "regime change from below," and although it is timeconsuming and highly dependent on favourable and fortuitous externalities, it is certainly much cheaper and less controversial than recent regime-change operations "from above," such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. And perhaps most critically

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Barbara J. Falk

Learning from
Why we need dissent and dissidents

Politicians and journalists habitually mine history for watershed moments or
decisions to use as metaphors for why wars are necessary or avoidable. Pearl
Harbor was invoked repeatedly after 9/11; the failure at Munich to stop Hitler
was provided as a reason to intervene in Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein
from power. We can debate the uses and abuses of history in this practice, but
it continues unabated.1 Curiously, when it comes to alternatives to open
conflict, we tend to engage in historical abstinence. Nevertheless, we have
much to learn from history as to why we need dissent and dissidents,
particularly since authoritarian rulers take greater care in paying attention to
history and have adapted their tactics and strategies accordingly in dealing
with them. Moreover, in incorporating these lessons into our foreign and
security policy, we might go far to avoid conflict while promoting our values
and interests abroad, all the while advancing meaningful political and social
change in support of democracy. By paying attention to the powerful role
dissent and dissidents played in the collapse of authoritarian communism,

Barbara J. Falk is head of the department of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College
in Toronto and Royal Military College in Kingston, and fellow of the Centre for European,
Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The
Dilemmas of Dissidence: Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher-Kings.
1 Recently, this process has been analyzed and discussed by Margaret MacMillan in
The Uses and Abuses of History (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008).

                                         | International Journal | Winter 2008-09 | 243 |
| Barbara J. Falk |

we can learn much about how to engage (and how not to engage) with
authoritarian governments such as China and Iran. By reflecting on the
evolution of our own historical protection of free expression and the
cultivation of dissent in advanced democracies, we can learn much about
how a liberal culture and independent civil society is a necessary prerequisite
for consolidated democracies and a measure of current democratic health.
      China is a litmus test, and 76-year-old Bao Tong is a case in point. He
holds the distinction of being the most senior government leader charged
and imprisoned following the Tiananmen Sq
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