From Politics of Fearlessness to Politics of Fear

15. 3. 2017

Twenty-five years passed from the collapse of communism in Europe. Much time has elapsed and much has changed in Europe beyond recognition. Therefore, it is quite legitimate to ask: Where are we now? And what is to be done?

Let me start by saying that one of the paradoxes of political change is that the less power you have, the more committed in the moral and political sense you can be. Eastern European dissidents have never exploited hatred and fear, those two precious commodities of modern politics. Instead, they have stressed responsibility for humanity and commitment to human rights. Self-victimization, deliberate and joyful powerlessness, willful disengagement, celebration of one’s own victimhood, and comparative martyrology with its question as to who is suffering the most—as if to say that somebody is more equal than others in his or her suffering—were still to come.

Twenty-five years after the fall of Communism, we are tempted to exploit our victimhood as an aspect of foreign policy: Once we do not have power, then powerlessness and suffering becomes the passport to the Heaven of Global Attention. Sometimes we even go so far as to explain away our political failures and low points of recent history as something that inevitably comes from our powerlessness or infinite manipulations around us. Although it appears as quite a trendy maneuver of power games nowadays, which allows us to get more moral legitimacy through the mechanism of more attention for more suffering and powerlessness, things were very different in those days when Communism was defeated.

By and large, this is an awkward tendency in present Eastern and Central Europe, since it springs from a global tendency to seek attention at any cost in exchange for popularity, publicity, and power. Heart-breaking stories, abolition of privacy, and self-exposure have become the means to achieve prestige and power for those who possess the high art of translation of the private into the public making their private and intimate stories a public property or even breaking news—the art in great demand now. Normally, this is a function of celebrities, although intellectuals and politicians cannot survive otherwise than becoming celebrities or victims, as Zygmunt Bauman wittily noticed.

Whatever the case, things were standing not in this way twenty-five years ago. Our part of Europe became famous for its fearlessness and engagement, rather than fear and disengagement. The Solidarity movement in Poland, the very climax of Eastern and Central European courage and sporadic powers of association, was anticipated by the Helsinki groups in the former USSR, the Memorial group dissidents in Russia, and other units of dissenting minds and naysayers. In those days, almost nobody spoke about suffering and victimhood, as people were concerned with how to win back their sense of self-worth, dignity, and self-confidence.

Needless to say, we are talking here about rather small groups of fearless individuals; yet it was they who made it possible to smash Communism from the face of Europe by translating their individual courage into popular fervor, and also into a strong belief in the right cause. Courage, instead of fear and hatred, was behind the miracle of Eastern and Central Europe’s liberty, both in the Annus Mirabilis of 1989, and in the years of dissent that preceded and anticipated liberation and emancipation of Yet Another Europe, as it was called by Czesław Miłosz and Milan Kundera. This especially goes in sharp contrast with hatred and fear that were thoroughly exploited by the Soviet regime and its satellites as a means of political mobilization and social control of the masses.

Contempt for fear is deeply grounded in Eastern and Central European thought and politics of dissent and freedom. If we are to grant George Orwell the title of Honorary Eastern European, which the Russian poetess and dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya strongly suggested we should do, his 1984 also exposes this characteristically Eastern European moral concern. The main character of 1984, Winston Smith, and his lover Julia despise fear, which they try hard to confront and wipe out from themselves.

Before George Orwell’s dystopia written in 1948, the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, in his novel The Master and Margarita (written in 1928–1941, and published, severely censored, in 1966–1967), depicted fear as the source of evil. According to him, fear is the reason of betrayal of a friend, our disloyalty to and rejection of a mentor, our amoral failure to take the responsibility for human individual’s life, even if she or he has established an eye contact with us and captivated our attention and imagination. Fear is what Pontius Pilate despises in himself the most after he washes his hands and allows Joshua (the name of Jesus Christ in Bulgakov’s masterpiece deeply influenced by Manichaeism and Joseph Ernest Renan’s version of the history of Christianity) to be crucified.

Eastern Europe fulfilled the silent promises and moral obligations of its towering thinkers and eminent writers by overcoming hatred and fear. In 1989, Communism fell in Eastern Europe as a consequence of courage, resolve, fearlessness, and solidarity. To reiterate a subtle point made by Michael Ignatieff, the human rights discourse was the outcome of Eastern courage and Western organization. How ironic that some politicians and public figures in present Eastern Europe tend to describe human rights solely as a West European invention with which they supposedly control us imposing on us their “alien” values of secularism and respect for minorities. This is especially the case when it comes to defend ludicrous legislation on what is called “traditional values” or “genuine family” or other pearls of homophobic and anti-European wisdom.

What happened to us? Milan Kundera wrote in his essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” that all Central European revolts and revolutions were essentially romantic, nostalgic, and, in effect, conservative and anachronistic. Out of our idealization of Europe, especially its early modernity, we firmly identified freedom and democracy with Europe shaping our emancipation policies as a return to Europe. We thought with good reason that the Soviet version of modernity was the most brutal one, and, therefore, we sought to replace it with Europe—yet a drama was that that kind of Europe we envisaged and identified ourselves with did not exist at the time of our upheavals. It did not become any better or worse; it simply became something radically different from what we imagined and thought it would and should be.

Our singing revolutions were about how to arrest social change. Yet we ourselves became hostages of rapid social and political change transforming our part of Europe into a laboratory of historically unprecedented acceleration of life with its uncertainties and insecurities. For example, over the past twenty five years, more than half a million people left Lithuania settling in the USA, the UK, Ireland, Spain, Germany, or elsewhere. This is hardly a specific Lithuanian phenomenon as Poland and Slovakia are facing similar challenges. Striking social contrasts and endemic corruption frequently led Eastern European countries to disenchantment even with was their most impressive achievements, including their accession to the EU.

And here comes a pivotal point. Populism came to our countries firmly establishing itself as a major political trajectory. What is populism then? Is it a genuine concern with well-being of the nation expressed in an exaggerated form of patriotism? In fact, it is not, since the real substance of this phenomenon lies elsewhere. Populism is a skilled and masterful translation of the private into the public with an additional ability to exploit fear to the full. Fear and hatred are twin sisters, as we know quite well. One never walks alone without the other.

Yet this time it is not organized hatred, which was something out of Orwell’s Two Minute Hate, or the séance of collective hysteria and group orgy of hatred, orchestrated by the Party and practiced in the Soviet Union and other People’s Democracies. Instead, it is the real fear of a private person elevated to the rank of public concern or sometimes translated even into mass obsession.

The question arises as to fear of what? The answer is quite simple: It is fear of someone who comes as personification of our own insecurities and uncertainties, who get their first and last names of facial features due to excessive sensationalist media coverage, tabloid editorials, and conspiracy theories. Fear of Islam and Muslims, fear of immigrants, fear of gays and lesbians, fear of godless pinkos, fear of new Jewish world conspiracies. You name it.

We became the same kind of Europe that we thought would never accept us as part of it. We adopted all their phobias and stereotypes that earlier worked against us. Or the world has become a Global Single Eastern and Central Europe. If that is the case, the change could be irreversible.

Leonidas Donskis

Leonidas Donskis was a Member of the European Parliament (2009–2014). He has written and edited over thirty books, fifteen of them in English. Among other books, he is co-author (together with Zygmunt Bauman) of Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (2013).

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