Saturday, 15 August 2020 01:56 PM
By Anne Applebaum
New York, Doubleday, 2020. 206 pp.
Anne Applebaum is an internationally known journalist and writer. Her latest work, “Twilight of Democracy,” is a challenging piece of political philosophy and human psychology. She has observed a recent social trend away from democracy and toward authoritarianism and is worried. As a keen observer and analyst, she asks a lot of questions and answers many of them.
Yet, she is puzzled. Something does not add up. Are people driven toward authoritarianism by identity, by ideology, religion, nationality, or by something else? Are we going back to radicalism and extremism? And implicitly, what is the meaning of history and what have we learnt from it?
Hegel once said: “The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.” And Henry Kissinger confessed, when he was young, he wanted to find the meaning of history. Later he admitted the meaning of history has eluded him.
I read “Twilight of Democracy” with real interest hoping to find some answers to my own uncertainties. And what I learned is, judging by historical experience, one cannot be “certain” of anything!
Applebaum wrestles with many problems ranging from psychological inclinations to ideology, identity, and national interests. She does not define herself per se, but her preoccupations define her.
As a journalist she traveled the world over, and for a while worked in Europe where she met and married a prominent Polish politician. She made Poland one of her homes. She is thus an international persona and sees the world through her professional position. Politically, she disliked the Soviet dictatorship and rejoiced the newly found post-Soviet freedom. Things looked good, but they would not last.
The narrative of the book starts with a garden party hosted by the author and her husband in rural Poland. Everybody seems happy. The communist abuses were gone, people were free and the future appeared promising. It was the euphoria of the post-Soviet years.
Twenty years later, however, some of the same friendly and affable guests that attended her party would not even talk to each other anymore. The new freedom of choice and options sent them into different directions. Some of them drifted to the left and others to the right. The same phenomenon occurred in other Eastern, as well as Western European countries.
So what happened? Did the author’s friends lose their sense and logic, or was she the one that did not keep up with history and human psychology?
The art of logic is to convince others that your arguments are right. The art of politics is to make them act upon their new convictions and support you. The author is trying both and she moves from the theoretical world of ideas to the practical political activism. “Twilight of Democracy” is a rich book, but it has two important shortcomings: It does not have a clear (and universally accepted) definition of democracy, and it does not address properly the hidden interests of those involved in politics.
For the author, democracy is the U.S.-type of society where people are free and have opportunities to pursue their own happiness. Allegedly, this kind of democracy was offered to Poland and East Europe after the fall of communism.
Here the author errs.
As a former political refugee from Romania, I have a good rational understanding, as well as a gut “feeling,” of what split apart the post-Soviet Eastern European societies. Communism represented a brutal attack on the identity of the peoples it conquered. People identify first and foremost with their families, their peers, their religion, language, and nations.
And, for several decades, religion and national identity were suppressed in Eastern Europe. During the immediate post-Soviet era, people did enjoy their new freedom, but two things soon happened: Spiritually, people did not find meaning in the new climate, and economically, they realized freedom without opportunities did not mean much.
Looking back, it is increasingly clear the type of democracy that evolved in the post-Soviet era was first “designed” in details by some planners. Accordingly, people would get political freedom, but the old communists would retain power and privilege. Then, the change did come with economic hopes of prosperity, but without any guarantees or equal opportunities.
Moreover, Eastern Europe was supposed to become like the West, which included adopting non-traditional values and unnatural habits. Thus, the citizens were expected to be happy, but they were not.
Interestingly, Armand Hammer, an early American communist sympathizer, visited Moscow in the 1920’s and Lenin complained personally to him that his government wanted to make the peasants happy by organizing them in collective farms, and they rejected the Soviet offer. In the 1990’s, some Western circles wanted to make the newly free countries happy and those countries also rejected the offer. Nations in general, and East Europeans in this case, wanted to assert their own identity first and then to forge their ideas of democracy and happiness. Applebaum is puzzled because she applied her understanding of democracy to other cultures and it did not work.
America is a representative democracy. People are politically free, respect the Constitution, are economically comfortable, and still find room and ways for upward mobility. This was Applebaum’s experience – the experience that shaped her and her convictions. However, what happens in a society where all good positions are taken by a rigid class and there is no room or hope for upward aspirations?
Then, people forget about principles of democracy. They split ideologically or by other criteria, revolt against the system, and seek changes and alternatives. It is exactly what happened in East Europe after the initial euphoria of regaining freedom. The concept of democracy is abstract and of little importance when personal identity or national interests and aspirations are violated or not fulfilled.
The world is perpetually changing, but human nature changes very slowly. Overwhelmingly, people identify with their native cultures: language, long-standing traditions, religion, and nation. These traits, some quantifiable and others emotional, constitute our innermost identity. Other traits, such as profession, social class, ideology, are also important, but our inner identity is a cut above.
These days “America first”, for example, has deep meaning because in the view of many Americans, the country began to lose its identity. And here we touch some very delicate cords of the book.
President Donald Trump was elected democratically according to America’s laws. Why is Anne Applebaum, the reader wonders, so vehemently against him? Probably because she perceives his attitude as a threat to her understanding of democracy.
Yet, if she challenges the American laws, it means that either the laws are wrong or that her interpretation is arbitrary. Therefore, the author needs a clearer definition of democracy. On the other hand, she is weary of a possible resurgence of extremism; the kind that led to WWII.
In fact, extremism is already here, but in a different form. Otherwise, history does not repeat itself. History does not move in circles. It moves in spirals. These days we should worry more about the present tendency of nihilism, about losing our traditions and identity, about losing the meaning of what we are and who we are. In this regard, President Trump is right in defending America’s meaning and identity!
Individuals may have multiple identities and can even change them, but nations do not have this luxury. When Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mountain Zion, he asked the Lord: “Who are you?” And the Lord answered, “I am who I am.”
Nations are also who they are and what they are: Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, English, or Americans. And they want to preserve their identity; to be themselves. We can spend rivers of ink writing rationally about what a nation is, but we would never understand it only rationally without “feeling” the meaning in our hearts. One has to feel his or her innermost identity to understand why people live and die for what they are.
As a professor with an American military school, I felt its meaning among my students. They were ready to fight and die for America. And some of them did!
(Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, “Journey to Freedom,” a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures.)
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