The Meaning of Meaningless
I am questioning a chemistry professor friend of mine. It is late in the evening and my kitchen table is a landscape of failed experiments with bubbles. “Is there a way to turn bubbles black?” I ask my friend. “Why?” he asks. I wish people wouldn’t ask me why when I ask them such questions. It makes me feel stupid. As if what I am doing is meaningless. “I want to blow 600,000 black bubbles over downtown to mark the 600,000 Iraqi civilians killed because of the U.S. occupation,” I say, watching some thick, black goo drip from an overflowing bowl onto my floor. I realize this must seem like insanity to my friend and to everyone else who knows how many meaningless acts I commit, but I believe in the meaning of meaningless, and for good reason too.
In 1978, Czech dissident and activist Vaclav Havel wrote an essay called “The Power of Powerless.” By writing his simple essay, Havel planted the seed for a Revolution, the Velvet Revolution, velvet because it took place through symbolic- not violent- means. And what were those symbolic means, what was the power of powerless? Meaningless acts- little everyday forms of resistance that called into question the legitimacy of the regime.
Havel’s essay centers around a fruit and vegetable shop manager. The manager is told to put up a slogan in his window. The slogan, “Workers of the world, unite!” leads Havel to ask
Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world?
Havel answers that the grocery manager does it because that is the way it has always been done and because he is afraid of not doing it that way
Now think of all the signs of our own fear on display. Think of the little yellow bumper stickers that say “Support Our Troops” as if those words mean anything at all. Does supporting the troops mean demanding an end to the war or an increase in the military budget? Does supporting our troops preclude supporting the Iraqi people? The bumper stickers symbolize both our fear of reprisals and our desire to “get along.” Each and every time we display a sign of obedience we are rewarded; each and every time we don’t we face social ostracism.
And yet, there is power in refusing to participate. When Havel’s grocer refuses throws the sign in a back room, it is a meaningless act that can start a revolution. Suddenly people notice- the usual signs are not on display. What does that mean? Is a revolution beginning? Shall I throw my “Workers of the World” “Support our Troops” signs in the back room? What will happen if I do?
That’s why I waste my time trying to turn bubbles black. Black ink, my chemist friend suggests, and suddenly I feel the power of powerless, the meaning of meaningless. It is the power to believe we can make the world a better place, even when all our efforts are meaningless- symbolic resistance in the face of real power. But I believe in Velvet Revolutions and black bubbles and shouting that the Emperor has no clothes. I believe in the meaning of meaningless.
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