Kieran Williams

Václav Havel’s “Letters to Olga” as a COVID-19 companion

For today’s anniversary of Václav Havel’s death, Kieran Williams makes the case for why Havel’s prison letters are timely reading in our pandemic. -promoted by Laura Belin

the course of this year I have read a lot about COVID-19, its effects on the human body, and what we might do to treat or halt it. I don’t yet feel ready to read about its other effects, on the psyches of billions of people who have had to adjust their daily lives. The fact is that until it is over, I won’t even understand how it has affected me, let alone everyone else.

That’s why I’ve wanted to turn instead to a record of another person’s experience of existential shock, one that happened far enough in the past that we can treat it as a completed event: Václav Havel’s letters as a political prisoner 40 years ago in communist Czechoslovakia, published as Letters to Olga.

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The "Normalization" Playbook

Having studied the fragility of democracy abroad, political scientist Kieran Williams draws lessons for America in the age of Trump. -promoted by desmoinesdem

In the weeks since the US election, a word that keeps popping up in commentary has been “normalization”. It has been used to refer to (and explain) efforts to accommodate behavior and attitudes that previously we would have dismissed as outrageous or improbable, and thus “abnormal”. The abnormal frightens us, and one way to manage that fear is by tricking ourselves, through euphemism and neologism, into thinking the abnormal as normal. As Peter Bradshaw puts it,

[Normalization] either means: “Trying to kid yourself that President Trump will forget his bigoted views and accept he must govern more or less normally.” Or: “Trying to kid other people into forgetting President Trump’s views and into accepting bigotry in government as more or less normal.”

But for those of us who have studied Central and Eastern Europe, “normalization” is itself a euphemism, and one with a long history. It refers to the process by which a country is sidetracked from having a government responsive to the preferences and needs of the people. That diversion usually involves a shocking moment – an Event with a capital E – that was being prepared in plain sight yet still came as a surprise, accompanied by some degree of coercion or menace. Ultimately, however, “normalization” happens because people in a position to stop it decide to play along, and find ways to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing, for either the greater good or the narrow good of kith and kin.

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