Building the Parallel Polis
Polity of Literature (17/51)

Building the Parallel Polis

A polity of literature can assemble in myriad ways and places. American artist and writer, Anne Focke, considers two examples: the “parallel polis” of 20th-century Czech resistance to Soviet domination; and a practice called “the dynamics of difference,” rooted in the work of Native American tribes in the Humboldt Bay area of California.

For victims of state repression, the invitation into politics can be a death sentence. How can marginalized or oppressed groups bring change to systems that are predicated on their destruction? At every scale—from the neighbourhood to the city to the nation—the targets of systemic attack must choose how and with whom to make politics in the midst of systems that threaten them. Sometimes they succeed. But how? Anne Focke, an American artist and writer, looks at two powerful examples: the “parallel polis” described by Czech dissident Vaclav Benda, in 1977, as a tool for resisting—and ultimately overthrowing—the repressive post-War Communist government in Czechoslovakia; and an innovative set of strategies called “the dynamics of difference,” that was driven by Native American tribes in the Humboldt Bay area of California, in their successful attempt to regain stolen land and create a tribal health centre. As Focke observes, both of these struggles “[continue] to unfold. There will be no final chapters (or happy-ever-after endings) here.” She offers them as possible models for the future emergence of a polity of literature.

1. The Parallel Polis

Václav Benda wrote “Paralelní Polis” in late 1977, and it was translated to English as “The Parallel Polis” a year later. This short, quickly written text was meant as a discussion paper. “None of my essays was more improvised,” he recalled in 1988. With “The Parallel Polis” Benda had a specific audience in mind: his fellow signatories of Charter 77, an informal civic initiative published in January 1977 in what was then the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Benda was one of 241 signatories (235 Czechs, six Slovaks) that the Charter itself described as a “loose, informal, and open association of people…united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world.” They were also united, as Benda carefully phrased it, by “a very dim view of the present political system and how it works.”

The Chartists, as they were called, intended to hold the Czechoslovakian government accountable to its own laws and the international agreements it had signed, including the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which guarantees human rights and freedoms, and the 1966 United Nations covenants on political, civil, economic, and cultural rights. They wanted their basic human rights, including the right to live and speak honestly and with dignity.

Benda described Charter 77 as “a deliberately naive” statement of principles and used his essay to lay out some of the pragmatic problems that would follow from it. At their core was the inherent weakness of any widely agreed-upon moral grounds for such divergent, oppositional parties. To speak in common, as they managed to do in Charter 77, they had to use broad moral arguments about dignity and freedom that would mean very little when it came time for action. But to succeed, they needed clear paths of action that would inspire and mobilize each of them and other citizens to take action in their daily lives. “The Parallel Polis” sketched a possible answer. Benda proposed that “we join forces in creating, slowly but surely, parallel structures that are capable, to a limited degree at least, of supplementing the generally beneficial and necessary functions that are missing in existing structures.” Action was necessary for the abstraction to hold. “The Parallel Polis” described seven specific arenas in which individual parallel structures already existed (or needed to be built), including law, culture, education and science, information networks, the economy, and foreign policy. In theory, these would be numerous, widely varying structures, some closely aligned with the Charter and others autonomous. All together they would constitute the parallel polis.

By signing the document, Chartists put themselves in grave peril. A campaign of harassment and arrest was launched against them, until the government realized that, instead of turning them into a cause célèbre, it would be more effective to just isolate them, or, as Benda put it, “limit itself to acts of strangulation in the dark.” While the secret police continued to harass the Chartists, which meant arrest and several years in jail for Benda, Václav Havel, and others, the regime’s attempt to isolate them did not stop, nor even slow, a huge increase in the number of parallel structures in the years between 1977 and 1989.

Charter 77 and Benda’s writing circulated widely, reaching, among many others, H. Gordon Skilling, a Canadian political scientist whose focus was Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe. A lifelong student of Czech culture, Skilling began supporting the dissidents in many ways, for instance, by smuggling Western newspapers, journals, and books into the country for them. In 1987 and 1988, he co-edited Civic Freedom in Central Europe, Voices from Czechoslovakia, and made the full text of “The Parallel Polis” its main focus. Skilling wrote:

The concept of a parallel society often had a mythical or romantic aspect which seemed to relate more to the future than to present realities, but it sustained people in the belief that their actions were worthwhile and might eventually exert an impact on the relations between state and society. The explosion of independent activities in the 1980s was a continuation and culmination of these tendencies and seemed to open the way…to a fundamental transformation of state-society relations and perhaps the establishment of a truly “civil society.”

Václav Havel, writing in the same volume, described “these informal, non-bureaucratic, dynamic and open communities [comprising the parallel polis]” as “a sort of embryonic prototype or symbolic micro-model of future political structures.” Benda added, also in Skilling’s book, that, “even my most audacious expectations have been considerably surpassed.…It is no longer necessary to show that the parallel polis is possible.” It existed.

2. The dynamics of difference

I first read “The Parallel Polis” in 2020. A friend said he thought that Benda’s essay described patterns in my own work and asked if I’d write about the overlap. This text is the result. The essay spoke to me across significant cultural and historical differences and the more-than-forty-year time span I’ve spent in the United States working on a series of projects that, indeed, manifest many of Benda’s principles and their translation into action. Among other things, I’m an artist, and the projects have focused mainly on the infrastructure of the arts—everything from the space, time, and money the arts require to the kinds of social organization necessary for bringing new art and ideas into the world. and/or (1974-1984) was an artist-run centre in Seattle, Washington; Artist Trust is a Washington State funder and supporter of artists (in 1986 I was a founder, it continues today); Arts Wire was a nationwide network of artists, arts organizations, and funders using a strange new digital tool called the “Information Superhighway” (1989-2001; few email options and no World Wide Web existed when we began); Grantmakers in the Arts is a primarily U.S.-based association of private, corporate, and public arts funders that needed a newsletter editor and then a director (I did both, 1991-2008; the organization continues); What’s Up? co-organized with an artist friend, was a monthly conversation and meal in my home around ideas prompted by two participants (2002-2013). There are more.

My first impulse was to consider a few of these in light of Benda’s concepts and experience in Prague. But what mattered in each got lost in the condensed summary required by a generalized discussion of a too-long history. Though many of the projects live on, they became dead examples in a post-mortem that no one needs. At my friend’s prompting, I decided to choose just one project and to write of it in parallel to Benda. Specifically, I settled on one that both echoed and diverged from my experience of the parallel polis and, like the Czech parallel polis, continues to unfold. There will be no final chapters (or happy-ever-after endings) here. I chose a project to which I was peripheral so that it easily could be seen in parallel to my view of Benda. Telling the story of work that is born in one’s own imagination produces entirely different insights than one told from an outsider’s view. The project that I’ll describe alongside Benda’s began centuries ago, is nowhere near ending, and transpires among people as autonomous and foreign to me as are the Prague intellectuals of the 1989 Revolution. And, although the claim may be surprising, I believe the reach and importance of both projects are equal.

In 2012 I traveled to a Native-owned lodge near the mouth of the Klamath River, in northern California, to attend a workshop on community democracy and “the dynamics of difference.” The language came from Peter Pennekamp, a community advocate and resident of nearby Arcata, with whom I’d worked before. In his role as head of the Humboldt Area Foundation, Peter convened a group of community activists, philanthropists, researchers of democracy at a community level, and members of the nearby tribes, including the Karuk, to look at community democracy in a place where the “dynamics of difference” could be seen clearly. Among the people gathered in a large circle on a Saturday afternoon was Amos Tripp, a Karuk ceremonial leader and an elder revered by tribes throughout the area.1

Amos Tripp was born in 1943 in the city of Eureka on Humboldt Bay, about 70 miles south of our workshop site. He spent his childhood in the small town of Klamath and worked at a local mill while studying at Humboldt State University. In 1971 he married the “love of his life,” Maria, graduating from HSU the following year. Struck by polio as a child, he could not follow his father into work as a timber faller. He pursued a legal degree instead, received his doctorate in 1975, worked for a few years as a partner in California’s first Indian law firm, and then went into private practice. (I should mention that I learned through my work with them that Native people in this region refer to themselves as Indians or American Indians and to their cultural groups as tribes. I follow their lead.) Throughout his long legal career Tripp was especially proud to have defended Indian rights – land settlement claims, fishing rights, and child and family welfare disputes. He also helped fight the planned construction of a road that would have traveled through lands sacred to the Karuk, Tolowa, and Yurok tribes.

Portraits of Amos Tripp and Vaclav Benda

An obituary published in the newsletter of the Karuk tribe on Tripp’s death in 2014, described him as an attorney who honoured both traditional and legal values. Well known for accepting payment in many forms, Tripp’s family remembers receiving deer meat and fish, deer hides, crocheted hats, and other forms of traditional payment. Tripp was also one of the forces behind the renaissance of Native culture in the North Coast region of California. As tribal ceremonies began to grow stronger in the 1970s, Tripp and his family worked closely with Karuk elders to restore their tribe’s brushdance at Katamiin, the site on the Klamath River that is the centre of the Karuk world. Tripp was a maker and caretaker of regalia and later became the dance leader for the Karuk Brushdance Camp, a role that became his life’s work. He was especially proud, the Karuk newsletter said, of “all the young people who have chosen to carry on these traditions, and he was never happier than he was when his granddaughters danced together at Katamiin.” Buster Attebery, the Karuk Tribal Chairman at the time, said of Tripp:

I learned a lot more about our tribe from Amos.… He brought his education, his knowledge of our ceremonies and our culture, and what all our people, our tribe, and the other tribes of the area have been through. He had a plan in mind to correct those things in such a peaceful way. His generation brought back the ceremonies so we have the true meaning of what the Karuk people are.

At the 2012 workshop near the Klamath River, Tripp spoke of the inspiration he and other tribal members had gained from the African American-led Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Little might have happened for the tribes in the region and on the river, Tripp told us, if the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t given them the confidence that, “We could do it.”

In the late ’60s, after years of inadequate health services and the removal of federal assistance for Indian health, members of several Humboldt-area tribes came together to build their own health centre. United Indian Health Services (UIHS) was incorporated in 1970 with Tripp as its first director. Due in large part to Tripp’s careful negotiation of an agreement among nine tribes in the region, UIHS was recognized as a tribal organization in 1984. The original nine tribes—including primarily Yurok, Wiyot, and Tolowa tribal members—continue to be part of an organization that has grown to serve many more. UIHS is “an enormous intertribal success,” Pennekamp told me, “and Amos was a holder of that flame.” The tribes’ success at coming together across their differences—and there were many—was one reason why the workshop on community democracy was convened there and with them. For Pennekamp, this was “living, breathing, on-the-ground democracy” wherein communities took a strong role in determining their own futures. Working with our differences, rather than against them, is the life-blood of a living democracy.

The tribes began by building their own health centre in the woods near the small town of Trinidad just north of Humboldt Bay. At first jury-rigged, built on several sites at different times, and put together to meet changing needs, UIHS services were known to no one outside the tribes themselves. Hiding away was nothing new to the tribes. “We survived by isolation,” Tripp said. “In a span of 50 years, 90 percent of the Indigenous population of California disappeared. The 10 percent who survived did so by running away when someone knocked on the door.” They hid so they would not be murdered, or taken to boarding school, or exposed to deadly diseases. But, he said, “The isolation that allowed people to survive also kept the culture from being passed along.”

The tribes spent almost two decades in the woods, focusing on internal work—relearning and practicing their culture and health traditions, and studying the ways of the white community and the benefits and bureaucracies of American medicine. “We were isolated there,” said Maria Tripp, chair of the UIHS board. “This was our incubation period. In this place that was not so visible, we learned to govern ourselves.” They also learned to live their traditional belief that “good health goes beyond that of the individual. It must include the health of the entire community, including its culture, language, art, and traditions.”

3. Václav Benda

Having encountered the quiet but lively wisdom of Amos Tripp two years before he died and then reading the words of a distant historical figure from the time of the Iron Curtain, I was surprised to realize that Tripp and Václav Benda were close to the same age—and both nearly the same age as me. Born in 1946, Benda would be three years younger than Tripp, with me in the middle, born in 1945. Generationally, we are the same, all raised as children in the aftermath of WW II. But the historical frames of our lives are wildly divergent. While I grew up white in the San Diego area in a Protestant family of six during the sudden abundance of post-war America, Benda was surviving the deprivations and uncertainty of a war-torn Europe rebuilding itself with a deep wound down the middle—the Iron Curtain dividing the democratic West from the Soviet Bloc in which Benda lived and raised his Catholic family. Amos Tripp, meanwhile, grew up in the long tail of poverty during the second century of his people’s survival of an attempted genocide. Yes, we all grew up in the mid-20th century, but what mind-bendingly different worlds they were. I’m always startled when history jumps into my life like this, and so I wanted to learn more about Benda.

Born in Prague in 1943, Benda married Kamila Bendová in 1967 and with her had six children. His political activity began in early 1968 during the Prague Spring, a brief period of Czechoslovakian liberalization. Studying at Prague’s Charles University, he headed up the first independent students’ association and was active in a Catholic youth group. Later that year, the Soviets invaded with 2,000 tanks and shut the country down again. Benda went on to graduate with a doctorate in philosophy in 1969, but lost his academic position when he failed to join the Communist Party in the early 1970s. He earned a doctorate in theoretical cybernetics in 1975 and got a job as a computer programmer, but lost that job too when he signed Charter 77. The work life he described in a brief autobiography had the kind of haphazard variety I recognize in myself and among my circle of friends.

Since the age of 18 I have been (often out of necessity rather than from choice) a student of philosophy, an assistant lecturer in philosophy, a schoolmaster, a hydrobiologist, unemployed, a student of mathematics, a mathematician with the railway, a programmer, and a stoker. I have also had temporary jobs in a brewery and on a building site, as a cowherd, an assistant arts editor, a linguist, a teacher of logic, and a computer expert.

Charged with subverting the state in 1979, Benda spent four years in prison, for a time in the same prison as Václav Havel, fellow dissident and the future president of Czechoslovakia. In prison they co-wrote an appeal smuggled out to the 1980 Helsinki Conference. After his release, Benda immediately returned to his role as a spokesperson for Charter 77 and participated fully in the parallel, dissident world he helped create. The central-Prague flat he maintained with Kamila and their children became a centre of alternative intellectual life through the 1970s and 1980s. Benda was active in samizdat publishing and circulated many of his writings as typewritten texts, from philosophy and politics to literary criticism, poetry, and fiction. While he remained active in Charter 77, his organizing didn’t stop there. In 1978, he helped found the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (abbreviated in Czech as VONS), which documented in detail the repression of individuals for their political, religious, or human rights activity. In 1988, he was one of the main representatives for Democracy for All: Manifesto of the Movement for Civic Freedom, which, according to Havel, another proponent, put many “different self-evident truths in a single document [and did] so publicly, as a basis for political activity.”

In “The Parallel Polis,” Benda maintained that an active polis of parallel structures would not be created spontaneously. New structures would need encouragement. “This would include” he wrote, “a wide range of activities, from raising people’s awareness of their civic responsibilities, creating the proper conditions for political discussion, and the formulation of theoretical points of view.” I imagine the life in the Bendas’ Prague flat being a hotbed of exactly this kind of active, engaged conversation, with his children running through the rooms and getting into the conversations. In fact, three of his children later became active in Czech politics.

At the same time, his home was repeatedly ransacked by the secret police. His children were barred from their chosen studies and one was threatened with “disappearance.” After Benda died in 1999, a friend described him this way, “Bearded, portly, and a heavy smoker, Benda was immediately recognizable at any gathering. He was also adept at finding humour in his numerous encounters with the sometimes less-than-intelligent secret police. He was a devoted family man, and the long-suffering Kamila had to bear a heavy burden for her marriage to such a single-minded and tenacious man.” In the 1970s, Benda himself said:

The conflict with the state into which I have entered will be long, exhausting and, by all human standards, hopeless. In this country this means that my whole family down to the third generation will also be brought into the conflict, together with all my friends who were not quick enough to disown me publicly.

He went on to describe how police raids had become a “welcome adventure” for his children, who loved to play the games “Belonging to the Charter” and “Being Unemployed.”

About himself, Benda said “the need to face up to a real crisis and real doubts led me to adopt an unambiguously optimistic outlook.” His moral grounding came from a deep Catholic faith which he and his family would not hide. Recently, conservative Christian writers have found inspiration in his life and work, and they express admiration for his commitment “to display proper Christian concern for justice and charity in the public square” and “to live as a Christian in community.” After the Czech revolution in 1989, Benda helped found the right-wing Christian Democratic Party and was elected to positions in the country’s new democratic parliament, first in its assembly and then in its senate. Apparently he was an admirer of Margaret Thatcher and in the late 1990s gave vocal support for Chile’s president, Augusto Pinochet. He gained critics and lost friends, especially over his support for Pinochet. To some extent he anticipated divides like this in “The Parallel Polis” when he wrote, “We will have to accept the fact that we will probably find it easier to agree on a common starting point for our efforts than on any external limitation to them.”

4. They did not disappear

In northwestern California where Karuk tribal member Amos Tripp grew up, the natural environment of rivers, mountains, and ocean provided an abundant food supply, while the coastal mountain range and frequent rain, fog, and mist contributed to the region’s relative isolation. For thousands of years, this has been the traditional homeland not just of the Karuk but of many Native tribes including the Hupa, Tolowa, Wiyot, and Yurok. While sharing the general cultural framework provided by the environment, most of the tribes have wholly distinct languages. And as with the Czechs and Slovaks, it would be a mistake to assume that sameness follows from proximity. Many of their traditions differ and, of course, tensions have arisen among them over the years. However, as early as the 1850s, the aggressive invasion of gold prospectors and white settlers, supported by the U.S. and California state governments, gave them a common enemy. In fact, in 1881, the state governor would say that he expected, “a war of extermination will be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct.” While their isolation gave them more separation than the majority of California’s Native peoples, the threat was very real.

The Wiyot tribal history gives a clear picture of these pressures and the resourcefulness that helped the tribes survive. For most of their long history, the Wiyot people lived in permanent villages along the waterways that also served as travel and trade routes. As for all the tribes in the region, the annual fish runs of coastal cutthroat trout, steelhead, and coho salmon on the Eel and Mad Rivers enabled them to smoke enough fish for the winter months. Seasonal camps were made on tribal lands and prairies, and the mountains provided berries, acorns, pine nuts, wild game, and basketry materials. Most tribes, including the Wiyot, actively managed the land, burning to open up grasslands, cultivating edible bulbs, and following strict hunting and fishing protocols. The early settlers often commented on the abundant game animals and the “natural” prairies and meadows to be found on the hillsides, but these were the result of thousands of years of intentional indigenous permaculture.

The first big wave of white settlers came to Humboldt Bay during the California Gold Rush. Gyppo miners chasing gold on the Trinity River mostly arrived by ship via Humboldt Bay, the river’s terminus, and established a permanent supply centre on the edge of the bay where the town of Arcata now sits. This was Wiyot territory, and from 1850 to 1865 their home hosted the largest concentration of white Americans in California north of San Francisco. The Arcata Historical Society reported that by the spring of 1850, “ships from San Francisco loaded with opportunity-seeking men converged on this large, natural harbor and the small one at Trinidad, bringing European civilization to California’s last frontier.”

Before the arrival of Europeans, the region had supported a Wiyot population of about 2,000. The Gold Rush proved devastating to them and to other Indian peoples in the area. Relationships between the Indians and the outsiders became hostile, marked by raids and white vigilante justice. The “Indian troubles” culminated in a series of brutal massacres of Indian people in February 1860, the worst of which took place at Tuluwat on Indian Island in Humboldt Bay. The Wiyot’s own account, published on their tribal website, tells what happened:

The Wiyot people had gathered at the traditional site for the annual World Renewal Ceremony, which lasted seven to ten days. At night, the men would replenish supplies, leaving the elders, women, and children sleeping and resting. Under cover of darkness, local men armed with hatchets and knives rowed to the island and brutally murdered nearly all the sleeping Wiyot. Estimates of the dead ranged from 80 to 250 in that night’s series of orchestrated massacres.

Author Bret Harte, then assistant editor of the Northern Californian based in Arcata, wrote a scathing editorial condemning the slayings. After publishing it, his life was threatened and he was forced to flee. In the end, and despite evidence, no charges were filed against the perpetrators. The tribe was decimated, rounded up, and moved to reservations in other parts of the region. After 1860, their population declined through disease, slavery, constant relocation, and loss of access to traditional resources, to about 200. By 1910, it fell to 100. But the Wiyot never disappeared and often tried to return.

As in many areas of white settlement, farming grew as the gold dwindled, leading, in 1892, to the diking of a large flood plain called the Arcata Bottom, which set the stage for a commercial dairy industry. Commercial logging grew in the decades before WW I, exploding as America’s entry into the war birthed a fighter-plane industry based entirely on wood construction. After declining during the Great Depression and World War II, industrial logging returned to meet the post-War demand for housing. Veterans began moving to the area to work in the re-opened mills and in home construction and to join the young people arriving to attend college at Humboldt State University.

Peter Pennekamp describes Arcata and its citizens as “generally progressive politically” and “protective of their small-town character.” People joked, he said, that it was “Berkeley North” or the “Socialist Republic of Arcata.” Among other contributions to the town, Humboldt State University has a strong, long-standing environmental studies program. In fact, Arcata’s reputation as a progressive place may come partly from its history of local environmental activism: it fought to keep a federal freeway from bisecting the town (thus saving an adjoining redwood forest from clear-cut), started an early recycling program, and took 30-40 acres of industrial brownfields that nobody wanted and turned them into the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, an innovative and cost-effective alternative for wastewater treatment.

Nonetheless, Pennekamp explained, even into the 1980s and ’90s “it remained OK to make racist jokes about Indians, even though that would have been completely unacceptable for people of other races.” White society’s increasingly liberal attitudes toward other racial groups did not extend in Humboldt County to Indians.” It didn’t help that there were no visible signs of the Indian communities in the North Coast’s urbanized area. According to Amos Tripp’s daughter, Pimm Allen, by the mid-90s, American Indians were seven percent of the population of Humboldt and Del Norte counties. “This is huge.” she explained. “In most places across the nation, it’s less than one percent. Even with that, other than casinos, there was no Indian presence here, not in any of the major cities or anywhere. There might be a tribal library hidden somewhere, but there was nothing that said, ‘This is Indian space.’”

5. Parallelness

The moral mission expressed in Charter 77—“to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights”—grounded politics in the question of each individual’s conscience. American writer, Flagg Taylor, who edited The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda (2018), wrote that politics, for Benda, demanded “the will to go on learning; [politics] is not a prepared program but rather the search for a path in complicated and rapidly changing conditions. In my opinion politics cannot, either today or tomorrow, do without humility…without humility with regard to reality, to the dignity of our neighbors (even the worst of them) and to their opinions (even the craziest).” Encompassing these differences was key.

Benda believed that the totalitarian regime maintained its power over people by isolating them, demanding conformity, and fragmenting their natural social bonds. Parallel structures, then, as Taylor reported, offered a way to fight the regime on a deeper level by creating concrete communal life, spaces where people could go to experience meaningful bonds of trust and affection, where they could hold things in common and expand their horizon of concern beyond a small circle of family and friends. Reawakening people’s social and political nature was the precondition for reasserting freedom on a broader scale.

As Benda had prescribed in 1977, the movement grew quietly and slowly. After the government course-corrected and restricted its response to the Chartists through, as Benda put it, “acts of strangulation in the dark,” the number of parallel projects—that is, all the myriad efforts to act together, separate from official culture—grew in their own kind of darkness. Writer Monika Richter recalls her Czech émigré parents telling her, “the regime didn’t want to draw attention to an initiative that challenged its legitimacy and could spur protest.” Passive obedience was common—or as Flagg Taylor wrote, “a sort of resigned cynicism”—in exchange for the relative peace and quiet in which parallel projects could spark and grow without notice. A Czech friend of mine, born and raised in Prague, had only dim memories of the Chartists. In a recent conversation, though, she told me she agreed with Timothy Snyder, in On Tyranny, that an act like brewing beer–so important to the Czechs, she added–could be understood as a way to contribute to a civil society. This helped me recognize how parallel structures could grow in unnoticed, small-scale, day-to-day work, things we mostly think of as non-political, which could then also give citizens a sense of independence, freedom, and agency in their daily lives. When the powers-that-be focus only on their own, largely-ignored “official narrative,” countless changes can take place in the wider margins that then fall outside the scope of their story. Much ground can be gained.

To “defend the gains that an independent community had wrested from the powers that be,” said Martin Palous (who, like Benda, was a Chartist, scientist, philosopher, samizdat writer, and programmer), we must “[create] all kinds of independent parallel structures—that is, structures unmanipulated by totalitarian power: parallel information networks, cultural and educational institutions, parallel foreign contacts.” Like Palous, Benda believed that the mission of the polis was to encourage as many parallel structures as possible, as a way to make up for the inevitable losses. For Benda all tactical tasks, all “small-scale work” involved in creating the parallel polis was “connected with the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word.” In concrete terms this meant taking over for the use of the parallel polis every space that state power had temporarily abandoned. “The mission of the parallel polis is constantly to conquer new territory, to make its parallelness constantly more substantial and more present.”

Fish jumping through the air, with the words "Parallel Polis" in front of them

By mid-1989, at least fifty relatively formal, independent groups were active in Czechoslovakia, by Gordon Skilling’s count. Charter 77, VONS, and the Movement for Civic Freedom were the broadest in scope, while others had narrower purposes such as a union for jazz musicians, the John Lennon Peace Club, numerous ecology clubs, defenders of borderless travel, student rights associations, legal aid cooperatives, pacifist groups, Catholic and Christian networks, underground venues and support for music and visual art, a Polish-Czech solidarity group, semi-farcical Bohemian royalists (The Children of Bohemia), and The Society for a Happier Present (mostly concerned with event promotion), among many others.

The number of self-published samizdat communications and other publications also burgeoned. Skilling estimated that during this period the total number of typewritten journals was between 50 and 60, including specialized periodicals in drama, history, economics, literature, politics, philosophy, religion, and the underground. In addition, more than 1,000 books were published and circulated in near-secrecy.

Building on a long Czech history of public petitions, writing and circulating printed texts were also the public face of this parallel society. Initiated by the Charter 77 document, the transformations in Czechoslovak society also gave rise to the 1988 “Manifesto of the Movement for Civic Freedom” and  “A Few Sentences” (mid-1989), which demanded the release of political prisoners, freedom of assembly, rights for church-going citizens, and freedom of the press. Where Charter 77 made an enormous impact with its initial 241 brave signers, “A Few Sentences” gathered over 40,000 signatures from writers, scholars, scientists, dramatists, musicians, and others, a group Gordon Skilling described as “hitherto silent citizens.”

In naming the parallel polis, Benda quite deliberately chose the word “parallel” as the adjective. He believed that other more common terms—underground, independent, alternative or counter-culture—established the wrong relationship, and thereby narrowed the range and variety of the polis‘s methods or ambitions. The more common terms all stressed separation and apartness, if not direct attack on the official culture. A parallel polis would grow in relation to official culture, filling the spaces where official culture failed. It would be “parallel,” not independent. The word “parallel” also suggested a certain mutual respect and consideration. In addition, as Skilling noted in Civic Freedom in Central Europe, the line between parallel societies and official societies “was not black and white but was often smudged.” Sometimes individuals in the official structure might evade the norms and rules imposed on them and move in both “overlapping spheres.” As Benda put it, to call the structures “parallel” allowed for the possibility that they might converge or cross each other, adding with his understated sense of humour, “in geometry only at infinity, in practical life, however, much more frequently.” In Benda’s grandest vision, the nature of “parallelness” might open the door “to the peaceful dominance of the community anchored in truth over the community based on the mere manipulation of power.”

6. Out of isolation

Significant change happens at every scale. We can observe and participate in real change by shifting our focus to a scale that allows us to recognize ourselves and our agency and to see the consequences of our choices. A change in how a person or community is seen or a shift in personal commitments changes the future, often more long-lastingly than does a change in large institutions or governments. Seen this way, the siting of an Indian health centre in a small California town is no less important, no less global, no less world-changing an event than is the swift toppling of an oppressive Soviet government in Eastern Europe. Indeed, for the men and women of the Wiyot and other tribes, the event at the centre of this story changed the future their children will wake up to every day. It is an epochal event in the long history of their nations and might inspire others.

By the early 1990s after more than two decades operating their United Indian Health Services centre in the remote woods outside of Trinidad, the Yurok, Wiyot, and neighboring tribes reached a point when they knew enough about renewing their own culture and improving their own health that they ended this period of isolation. The UIHS board, comprised mostly of women (the mothers, daughters, and granddaughters) who had started the organization, decided to “come out of the woods.” In 1995, they felt experienced and strong enough to “move downtown and do so with confidence.” They began to look for a new clinic site.

Their search led to a 40-acre dairy farm just south of the Mad River, and the owner was willing to sell. Although the land had been farmed and ranched by white settlers since the 1870s, it was once part of a coastal prairie where the Mad River meandered and the Wiyot people made their home. As recently as 1850, four Wiyot villages were located along a large bend in the river. With open space, swale wetlands, and a desirable location at an important intersection of transportation routes, the dairy-farm property could return the tribes to something like their original settlements, and it allowed them to think about something more than just a building. The health of the cultures, communities, and family life of the Native people of this area all revolve around rivers. A “health village” of buildings could integrate Native and Western medicine and could also be part of a restored natural wetland, prairie, and forest. The UIHS named the consolidated health centre Potawot, the Wiyot name for the Mad River.

The first step for the UIHS was obtaining permits from the City of Arcata. This proved more difficult than buying the property. At the first public hearings, the lawn in front of Arcata’s city hall was filled with signs reading, “Save the Ag Land, Stop UIHS.” In a later report on the process, Peter Pennekamp wrote:

As plans for the project proceeded, prejudice crawled out of the woodwork. City permit hearings in 1997 provided a focus for an outpouring of objections from neighbors about the tom-toms they assumed would keep them awake at night and about the casino they believed the project was a ruse for. Most startlingly, they objected to the loss of the land’s “traditional” use for dairy cattle grazing.

To use Pennkamp’s “dynamics of difference” well, we have to first be clear about what the differences are. In this case, differences include: what constitutes good health and how to foster it; the meaning of the phrase “traditional use;” the ways reliable agreements can be made; and, whether to rely on Indian traditional values or the U.S. legal system. The 1997 Potawot hearings brought the “dynamics” of these differences into sharp focus.

The white population’s “traditional use” of this land was agricultural, and as the population grew, farmlands came under pressure. Prior to the 1980s, the conversion of farmland to other uses had been increasing steadily. Nearly 100,000 acres of farmland had been lost to residential and commercial subdivisions over the previous several decades. Farmland preservation was a local liberal cause. The site that the UIHS hoped to purchase for their new facility was zoned “agriculture exclusive.” UIHS proposed that half the site, including the health centre, be re-zoned for “planned development,” and that the other twenty acres be protected as a wetlands in perpetuity, through a conservation easement held by the City.

Seen this way, the siting of an Indian health centre in a small California town is no less important, no less global…than is the swift toppling of an oppressive Soviet government in Eastern Europe.

In spring 1996 the plan for the Potawot Health Village was presented to the Arcata City Planning Commission and the City Council. At the time, Jerry Simone (“a 5-foot-2-inch fiery Italian,” in Pennekamp’s words) was the executive director of UIHS. When things got heated at the permit hearing, Simone angrily jumped up to tell the Council exactly what he thought. Peter Pennekamp described what followed: “Amos Tripp and other Indians quietly but explicitly pushed him down saying, ‘You have to let it go. It doesn’t work to just jump in their faces.’ The Indians had seen it all before. They were totally used to the bigotry of well-intentioned arguments. They had 150 years of experience.” In fact, this was part of the internal work the tribes had been doing for decades. “They were ready,” Pennekamp says. “They knew what they’d face.”

The hearings stretched over thirteen months, generating rancor and controversy, provoking news stories and letters to the editor. Some advocates for UIHS sought to show how race relationships over the previous 150 years had changed the landscape in ways that had come to seem normal. Other supporters focused their arguments on the multiple benefits of having a health village integrated with a wetlands restoration area. In addition, UIHS launched a major communications and community involvement campaign. They held strategy meetings, created an informational brochure, and gave presentations to Council members, service clubs, hospitals, and neighbourhood groups. They wanted to help local people understand the organization and their dream for the health village. Between spring 1996 and July 1997 there were ten separate Planning Commission and City Council meetings. UIHS made certain that its supporters always filled the meeting chambers, each wearing a sticker proclaiming support for the health village. As Pimm Allen, Amos Tripp’s daughter, said:

When the day came, we filled Arcata City Hall with Indians. I don’t know if that had ever happened before. We had to tell them that sometimes there is an exception to the zoning rules. It wasn’t like there hadn’t been a price paid for that ag land. This is an indigenous community coming back to reclaim the land.

Through patience, organizing, and constantly showing up, the tribes got their story out. Pennekamp elaborated: “Not having had the preparation that the tribes did,” he said. “the white community had to respond quickly. But, as they heard the story from a Native perspective, they gradually came to understand what the land and its history meant to the Indian people. They began to realize how bigoted their initial responses were. And many were ashamed.”

By the end of the hearings, both Arcata’s City Council and its planning commission unanimously approved the Potawot Health Village and the associated zoning. Through the long process of meetings and hearings, Laura Kadlecik, the Potawot project manager, reported, “A large percentage of the local community came to know, trust, and appreciate UIHS and their proposed project.” The tribes had come out of their isolation and were no longer invisible.

Afterward, Tripp observed:

For such a long time I think we lived our lives separate from the larger community in many ways. And I think this Potawot represents turning the corner—because it shows that we can successfully work with the larger community in these efforts…So, it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning.

7. The chance factor

In 1988, Václav Benda wrote that he did not believe the parallel polis, by itself, could fell the totalitarian state by destroying, replacing, or even peacefully transforming it. Totalitarianism functions when its control is total, and it retains this control through the maintenance of absolute power. He believed that this absolute power had “extended the sphere of politics to include everything, including the faith, the thinking, and the conscience of the individual.” As a human being and as a Christian, his first responsibility was moral—that is, to resist totalitarian power and oppose its demands. Beyond this individual responsibility, the long-term goal of the parallel polis had to be finding any space where independent thought and action is possible, to deliberately expand the space where the parallel polis can grow, and as Benda said, “to make its parallelness constantly more substantial and more present.”

Benda also pointed to what he called the “chance factor.” While totalitarianism is “capable of the most bizarre tactical somersaults imaginable” to maintain absolute power, it “works consciously on the outer limits of its own possibilities: a single loose pebble can cause an avalanche, an accidental outburst of discontent at a factory, at a football match, in a village pub, is capable of shaking the foundations of the state.” A parallel polis, patiently nurtured and grown, is always ready for the “chance event.” Its variety and scale, all tethered to its common root in a moral commitment to “truth,” give the parallel polis the decisive advantage of readiness for the ruptures caused by chance events. “It is this that gives the parallel polis its strategic location and its long-range task,” Benda wrote. “At a moment of crisis, it is our clear, unequivocal words that will be heard, not the confused and defensive stammerings of the government.” This was the long-range or strategic mission of building a many-layered parallel polis, the justification for all this small-scale work—the long-term goal was being ready.

Chance events could also be triggered by what Benda called “favorable global constellations [that could allow] even small nations to cease being mere vassals of their fate and have the opportunity to become its active captains.” (One naturally wonders how Benda would tell the story of Arcata and the Indian tribes of the Humboldt Bay; in that tale, which of the nations is small, and which has the deeper history?) In his original proposal for a parallel polis, in 1977, Benda stressed the importance of foreign affairs, mutual co-operation with other Eastern Bloc countries, and support from abroad. The late 1980s saw the beginnings of such favourable conditions. Gorbachev’s introduction of glasnost and perestroika in 1986 began an explosion of independent activity in Central and Eastern European countries around Czechoslovakia. Full blown revolutions against communist regimes in Poland and Hungary began in mid-1989. Benda was cautious about putting hope in them when he wrote in 1988, but cracks started to appear in the wall, the pebbles that would start an avalanche.

Small anti-government protests began in Czechoslovakia in early 1989 with the first demonstration attracting about 5,000 people. On November 17, a march was organized to mark the 50th anniversary of a deadly Nazi action against Czech student resistance. Although it was anticipated to be relatively small, the number of marchers gradually grew to about 50,000, the biggest anti-government protest in the country in 20 years. The crowd shouted, “Dialogue! Dialogue!” and “We don’t want the Communist Party! Forty years is enough!” Police stood by at first, but when so many people poured into the street they moved in with their batons, beating hundreds of demonstrators.

Through the rest of November, public discussions replaced performances in Czech theatres. During a discussion on November 19 at the Cinoherni Klub theatre, the Civic Forum was established as the official spokesgroup for the opposition. Led by Václav Havel, the group demanded the resignation of the Communist government, the release of prisoners of conscience, and investigations into the November 17 police action. The next day, 200,000 people took to the streets in Prague, with 40,000 showing up in the Slovak city of Brno, and many in smaller cities around the country. They demanded an end to Communist rule and accused the country’s leadership of murder. They shouted for free elections and called for a general strike on November 27. On November 24, the leadership of the Communist Party resigned from their party positions. But the Civic Forum decided that the change in leadership was insufficient and called a rally for November 25 that ultimately attracted a crowd of over 800,000. The demonstration was also the first oppositional event to be broadcast on public TV, which swelled the crowd as some who first saw it on TV left home to join in.

Negotiations between the Civic Forum and the government began the next day. The general strike on the 27th shut the country down, and people were again in the streets demonstrating. On November 28, the Guardian reported that, “The Czechoslovak government bowed to overwhelming people’s power and agreed to the opposition’s key demand for an end to one-party rule.” The government also proposed dropping the clause in the constitution guaranteeing Communist Party rule. On November 29, these constitutional amendments were approved unanimously by the communist parliament, and a new government began to be formed. A month later, on December 29, Václav Havel, the Civic Forum’s leader, was elected president of the country.

After so many years under a totalitarian regime, the change seemed to come quickly. In just eleven days the Czechs and Slovaks had participated in what the Guardian called, “the year’s most peaceful revolution against Stalinism.” It was also the shortest. A popular slogan in Czechoslovakia described how long it took to destroy communism in Eastern Europe:

Poland – 10 years

Hungary – 10 months

GDR – 10 weeks

Czechoslovakia – 10 days

In 2017, Martin Palous, who by then had served as the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the U.S. and to the U.N., said that, for years the Chartists were left alone with their ideas and their hopes. But, he said, “moments in history come when hope plays a role in the practical world.” Benda might have called it a “chance factor” that gave a quiet parallel polis, prepared by years of slow daily work and a nascent sense of freedom, the opening to cross with an official structure. But whether it’s hope or chance, the opening came and citizens walked through in massive, peaceful and joyful numbers.

8. What now?

No matter where it’s built, the parallel polis takes time and tenacity. Before they even got to the Arcata City Council hearings in 1997, the Native tribes in northern California were not only building their own health centre in the woods but had begun quietly to build relationships with the white community. Culture bearers and white allies had been slowly opening doors and lowering barriers through relatively modest efforts—an annual exhibition of contemporary Native art at a community-based arts centre, tribal participation in the local community foundation, an “apology and reconciliation conference” hosted by a consortium of local churches, and more. The construction and development of the Potawot Health Village, which opened in 2001, offered additional opportunities for collaboration. Communication and trust grew and spread eight miles down the bay to Eureka, where in 2018 the City Council peacefully transferred—or “returned”—a 200-acre island to the Wiyot Tribe without rancour, lawsuits, or financial gain, the first such act in the U.S. The island, Tuluwat, is sacred land to the Wiyot who for centuries have considered it the centre of the world. Tuluwat was also the site of the white settlers’ greatest atrocity against the Wiyot, the massacre of 1860; and now, without force or violence, it had been reclaimed.

To make this kind of progress, Peter Pennekamp observed, they had to change their relationships with each other. American Indian people did the internal work that prepared them for this encounter with white society and gave them the ability to share their history and culture. Internal reckoning and strength helped them endure their 150-year experience of brutal attack, near annihilation, racism, and fear while also guiding a white community to see what they hadn’t seen or recognized before. Changing relationships also required white policymakers to reckon with what their ancestors had done and what they themselves might be doing in the region where they lived. They had to understand what the region meant to Native people and had to change what they had come to believe about their own identity, history, and place on the land over the last 150 years.

As they developed and built the Potawot Health Village, the Native “parallel polis” began weaving in with the official governmental structure. Ever since, in most practical matters, they’ve settled down alongside each other, connected through the relationships of trust and cooperation that they’ve built together. But Pennekamp adds a warning: The work of building relationships in the Humboldt Bay area is unfinished. Old tensions remain and new differences and conflicts will arise. This work has no easy end.

In Czechoslovakia, the parallel polis went into the streets and became the official structure. For the most part, though, the ideas in Benda’s writing of the parallel polis seemed to disappear in the creation of the new state. The vision embodied in Democracy for All: A Manifesto of the Movement for Civic Freedom was not realized. Havel foreshadowed this disappearance in his address to citizens on New Year’s Day, 1990. He described the problems facing the country after decades of Communist dictatorship:

We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another. We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other, to worry only about ourselves. The concepts of love, friendship, mercy, humility or forgiveness have lost their depth and dimension.… Under these circumstances, even the best government, the best parliament, and the best president cannot do much by themselves.

When the hostile currents of history that have made refuge necessary only roar louder and louder, can any of us do the patient, mundane work of building a parallel polis? Can we remain vigilant, creative, and ready for “the chance factor?”

Writing just before the 1989 revolution, Benda worried what would happen when a parallel polis was given a chance by “favorable global constellations.” He looked back to earlier unsuccessful examples and placed blame for their failure in the hands of political and military leaders. In the past, the people were ready, he said, but the leaders were not. “At the next moment of decision about the future of our nation,” he said, “our political leadership should be at the same level of thinking as society.” In the preface to Civic Freedom in Central Europe, written just after the revolution, Gordon Skilling observed that in Czechoslovakia, “the new leaders had a valuable background of experience in opposition and independent movements, but were novices in governing. They would have to learn to perform their new tasks through trial and error.”

The conditions calling for a parallel polis still exist today. Many of us live under increasingly authoritarian regimes or are isolated by force or legal means or, recently, a global pandemic. And many of us hold, as Benda wrote of the Charter 77 signatories, “a very dim view of the present political system and how it works.” In the United States, much is at stake in our 2020 election. But it is also true that no matter what happens (and I write before the votes have been counted), we will need parallel structures. Many certainly exist already, as Benda acknowledged was true in 1977. In my Seattle community alone there are a multitude, from an active Black Lives Matter movement to neighbourhood-based, mutual-support networks of older residents. Benda’s words urge us to encourage as many of these parallel structures as possible and to understand that the need is not only for efforts with a big public presence but for quieter, small-scale projects, as many as possible.

In 2017 shortly after America’s presidential inauguration, author Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New Yorker about the power of a parallel polis. With reference to Václav Havel, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, he said, “the cooperative action of self-aware individuals can be a formidable force.” He found hope in the vigorous protests against the then-new president and believed that U.S. dissidents might be creating “a vital space where many, over the next four years, will find refuge from our age of anger and learn to live in truth.” Can a space of refuge birth a “parallel polis?” When the hostile currents of history that have made refuge necessary only roar louder and louder, can any of us do the patient, mundane work of building a parallel polis? Can we remain vigilant, creative, and ready for “the chance factor?”

Perhaps we can strengthen our parallel structures by considering the Chartists again. At about the same time Mishra’s New Yorker article appeared, Chartist Martin Palous spoke at a panel in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Charter’s signing. “The search for truth seems under attack,” Palous said. “Everyone is selling different narratives. We all need to appreciate others who bring new facts to bear.” He added that the Chartists “did not keep their beliefs untouched by others.” I absorbed this thought slowly and remembered the broad range of the Chartists’ political and philosophical commitments, and Benda, who said politics must include humility…”humility with regard to reality, to the dignity of our neighbors (even the worst of them), and to their opinions (even the craziest).” He also maintained that a polis of parallel structures could only be maintained if each gave the others a certain mutual respect and consideration, even the worst and the craziest. Benda lived this kind of respect during his work with fellow Chartist Petr Uhl, who was an atheist and self-described “revolutionary Marxist,” as they collaborated on the Charter’s offshoot VONS (the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted). In a 1990 essay, Uhl wrote:

We Chartists are in fact very diverse. There are those like me who saw the Charter as a step in the direction of political revolution, while others saw it as a way of disseminating the word of Christ. We respected one another, indeed, there was a veritable laboratory of tolerance among the differing viewpoints of people all involved actively in the struggle.

How can we have conversations that move each of us out of our insularity, that allow us, together and with respect, to hold a space with our differences? The question makes me wish I could have peeked inside the discussions between Benda and Uhl during their work on VONS. How did they handle their differences? I’d like to have been present invisibly when Amos Tripp brought together the nine Native tribes in northern California and carefully negotiated an agreement that led to the creation of the United Indian Health Center, especially since the tribes don’t all share the same values and practices. In fact, not all the tribes agreed to be involved initially. Or how about sitting quietly in the back of the room when the Czech Communist Party members all decided to step down together? In each of these situations, I’d love to know how they did it.

The stories we tell about political change often restage minor, intimate events as deliberate, larger-than-life moments when unusually strong or courageous people rose up to meet the scale at which history and fate are made—Havel’s ascension to power, the labour strikes of Polish dock workers, the Chicago Seven, May ’68 in France, Rosa Parks. If we inspect our own lives through such lenses, history seems to be made elsewhere by people far away and far smarter or braver than us. But that is an unfortunate misperception.

History becomes history in the telling. The events themselves are going on in our own vicinity every day. The shift from Václav Benda, unemployed math theorist, sufficiently skilled electrician, father of six whose children like to play the game “Being in the Charter” to the historical figure I’ve found in these texts could also happen in each of our lives. We just need to find the scale that allows us to recognize ourselves and our agency—and then act. It can seem like nothing, but it is everything. Thinking back on my own life suggests how confusing the inclination to act can be. I remember being puzzled early in my working life when I began to be treated as some kind of authority. Whatever power I had came mostly from just doing something. Generally I wasn’t hired to do it or invited to do it and I often didn’t have the money to do it. In my mind, the work just called out to be done. Only in the wake of action will we sort it all out into the stories we want to tell, the history we use to make a future.

A final passage from Václav Benda is tacked to my wall as a reminder to keep asking how talking and listening together and writing and reading together can help us find our place as distinct and self-aware individuals in community with others across both the honest differences we have and the sharp divides that have been created between us by others. In 1988 Benda wrote:

The Iron Curtain does not just exist between the East and the West: it also separates individual nations in the East, individual regions, individual towns and villages, individual factories, individual families, and even the individuals within those entities from each other. Psychologists might even study the extent to which such an Iron Curtain has artificially divided various spheres of consciousness within each individual.

To tear down or corrode these miniature iron curtains, to break through the communications and social blockade, to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human togetherness (pospolitost)[2] in mutual love and responsibility—these, in my opinion, are the present goals of the parallel polis.


1 The essay includes terminology used by the Native people in the Humboldt area. They refer to themselves as Indians or American Indians and to their cultural groups as tribes.

2 Skilling noted that this Czech word is often translated as “community,” though “togetherness” is closer to its meaning.

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