Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Revolutionary Shadows

VIENNA – What happens after the euphoria of revolution fades? Today’s Eastern Europe, some two decades after the revolutions of 1989, may offer a salutary warning for today’s defiant and jubilant Arab youth that they must remain vigilant.

Ever since I left Romania for exile in 1986, my returns have been rare and tense. Although the schedule for my most recent trip was overwhelming, and offered little real contact with ordinary people, I could still grasp – from daily newspapers, TV programs, and conversations with friends – the profound economic, political, and moral crisis engulfing the country. Mistrust and anger toward a corrupt and inefficient political class, coupled with skepticism about democracy – even nostalgia for communism – is to be found nowadays not only in Romania, but also in some other parts of Eastern Europe.

Some 70% of Romanians reportedly now claim to regret the death of Comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose summary execution in 1989 elicited general enthusiasm. Of course, the source of such an astonishing finding is difficult to trust, like everything else in Romanian politics, but the vulgar and radical coarsening of public discourse – now peppered with old-new xenophobic elements – is clear enough.

I was offered a taste of this as a guest on a well-respected TV cultural program. I was amused that the debate focused not on my books, but on issues like the “Jewish cultural mafia” and the “exaggerated” anti-Semitism of past and present Romania. My interviewer was kinetic, taking over the dialogue with insinuations and personal interventions. I assumed that I was supposed to be provoked into unguarded comments, a method that fashionable TV journalists everywhere use nowadays.

But I faced a new surprise the following week, when, on the same TV program, the hostess was rather passive towards her guest, a militant journalist turned mercenary journalist, as he confessed his admiration for Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, the “Captain” of the Iron Guard, the far-right Orthodox terrorist organization of the pre-war years. The journalist considered Codreanu a “Romantic hero.”

A group of Romanian intellectuals, including me, protested in an Open Letter against this effort to rehabilitate a murderer and propagandist of hate and xenophobia. Romanian TV answered promptly that it understood that victims of anti-Semitic crimes might feel hurt by such a program, but that the program had not promoted this kind of propaganda, offering the bizarre interview with me the previous week as proof of the channel’s good faith.

But the debate didn’t end there. Soon after, the national committee for the media condemned the program. And soon after that, some leading intellectuals condemned the national committee’s condemnation as an affront to freedom of speech.No one mentioned the danger of inciting an already radicalized audience. In fact, the responses from members of the public to these controversies were mostly of a vulgar nationalistic and anti-Semitic tone.

Romania is not alone, of course, in reliving this dark comedy. Revitalization of the extreme right in Hungary and the rise of “National Bolshevism” in Russia, where Tolstoy is now re-condemned by the Orthodox Church as a proto-communist, suggest a deeper and more pervasive atavistic longing.

I was reminded of my last class at Bard College before my trip to Romania. We were discussing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Commenting on the moment when “Asiatic cholera” kills the great and troubled writer Gustav von Aschenbach, a brilliant Asian student pointed out that Mann related the disease to the “pestilence” of the Ganges delta, which traversed China and Afghanistan, Persia and Astrakhan, and “even Moscow,” before reaching Europe through the “city of the lagoon.” She noted with gravity today’s migrations from poor to prosperous countries, the globalization of evil, the contradictions and conflicts of modernity, the angry terrorist response to it, and the contrast between a rational, pragmatic West and a more idealistic and superstitious East, prone to religious fanaticism and political extremism.

It was a relief to listen to my student’s well-articulated opinions and to see in her the hope of a new, cosmopolitan generation. But her example was also an unavoidable reminder of the great dangers of our time.

I needed that hope, for what I saw in Eastern Europe had depressed me as much as what I was seeing in the United States, my adopted homeland. For someone who lived through two totalitarian systems, it is almost unbearable to contemplate America’s decline. Although we refugees, immigrants, exiles, and outcasts do not boast ad infinitum that “we are the best,” as many Americans do, we still believe that the US remains a powerful guarantor of freedom and democracy, and we consider its incoherence part of its liberty.

For far different reasons, the US, and the entire world, seems condemned to simplification of thought, action, and feeling in the service of immediate, quotidian efficiency. Of course, art and culture can offer a respite from the oversimplifications of our age – a respite that we need more than ever if we are to reckon with the destiny behind and before us. But we also need modesty about ourselves and our societies.

Some years ago, I proposed that every country should add to its monuments to heroism some monuments to its national shame. After all, guilt is as significant as courage in any human enterprise. To remember and reflect on how we have wronged other people and nations may benefit a country’s citizens as much as celebrating great deeds. Monuments to shame would not resolve the insoluble problems of humanity’s fate on Earth, but they might slow the advance of its dark side – in Eastern Europe, the Arab world, and everywhere else.

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