Panel I: Roots of Anger

Martin Porubjak opened Central European Forum 2010 by paying tribute to philosopher and writer Milan Šimečka, to whose memory this year’s conference was dedicated. As someone who had been encouraged by Milan Šimečka – his teacher at the Slovak Academy of Dramatic Arts – to engage in passionate discussions, Martin Porubjak wished the participants Šimečkian freedom and joy of dialogue.

In her opening speech Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic Iveta Radičová welcomed the illustrious guests and audience of Central European Forum 2010 and expressed her hope that it would be a platform to discuss freedom, the most precious component of human dignity and one of her three guiding values, the other two being responsibility and tolerance.

Chaired by Slavenka Drakulić, participants of Panel I – Zygmunt Bauman, Gyorgy Dragomán, Micrea Cartarescu, Jáchym Topol, Jeanette Maziniová and Franzobel focused on the Roma issue.

Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić, a panelist at Central European Forum 2009, returned to Bratislava to chair this panel dedicated to the Roma issue. She opened by emphasizing it is fear rather than the Roma who are the problem. Right-wing parties in 15 countries are riding the wave of fear and xenophobia, which is basically fear of others. As a result, we are seeing a closing down of society rather than an opening.

Referring to a question from Slavenka Drakulić’s book – how come that people who wouldn’t hurt a fly became murderers – sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman followed on with a question of his own: How come that despite the high hopes that we would leave behind animosities and learn to live with otherness what we currently see in Europe is a resurrection of tribal moods and animosities, a return of the resentment of strangers and a revitalization of intolerance. The effect of recent expulsions of Roma from France orchestrated by President Nicholas Sarkozy, as well as of similar policies promoted by Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, is to divert people‘s eyes from real problems. We are experiencing a crisis of legitimacy of current government. This, Professor Bauman believes, is caused by governments‘ inability to hold their traditional promise of security – an essential, existential security, ensuring a dignified and respected place in society. Instead, governments‘ offer has been reduced to the most televisable aspect of security – personal security, and in order to provide it they have been stirring up the fear of strangers. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, earthly powers are built on the elaboration of cosmic fear, something that comes naturally. Official fear, however, needs to be created artificially by promising an enemy who has to be visible on TV and who can be presented as powerful, yet weak enough to be seen to be conquered. It is questionable how long this strategy can be effective. Professor Bauman holds that modernity produces redundant people. Europe, which was the first to modernize, found a global solution to a local problem: industrialisation leading to colonialism and imperialism. In the past immigration was not a permanent phenomenon because people assimilated – to use a biological term, an alien substance was transformed into part of own body. Nowadays, however, there are no free territories for people to move to so they have started coming to Europe. There are currently 70 different diasporas in London with no intention whatsoever to assimilate. For the first time in history we have to develop the art of living permanently with cultural difference. We are only learning to develop this art. However, seeing groups of young children in England mixing happily inspires the hope that we are learning to live interestingly and excitingly with difference without forcing the other to change.

Slovak Roma blogger Jeanette Maziniová told the audience that she was tired of having to answer the same questions over and over again. Yet she keeps on writing about the life of the Roma and what it is like to live on the edge of two worlds. Ever since she was a young girl she has longed to be respected but being a Roma she has always had to work extra hard to gain respect, to convince people that she has something worthwhile to say. She still feels resentful about having to expend so much energy in the first few minutes before people start listening to her. She does not like the term Roma, which she considers too neutral, refusing to change words with each changing subtext and proudly calling herself a Gypsy girl. In Maziniová’s view the main problem is not in the minority but rather the majority and it is the majority’s prejudice that something needs to be done about.

Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu believes the roots of evil are deeper in Romania than in other countries – 500 years of Romanian and Roma history can be synthetized into one word: slavery. Even monasteries in Romania had slaves: the Roma were sold like cattle and forced to intermarry without being asked whether they wanted to. The Roma people have been deprived of their historic values. Even their name – Tsygan – originally denoting an Egyptian, has become an insult. The Roma have suffered, they were forced to stop travelling and made to settle. They have been turned into a mass of people with no right to education and decent living, something resembling cattle. And now we expect them to behave in a civilized way. Romanians have a duty to help the Roma and to remember that they represent a reservoir of difference and non-conformism. As intellectuals we have the duty to sympathize with this flamboyant population.

Transylvanian-born Hungarian writer György Dragomán spoke about three new concepts that have crept into public speech in Hungary. Crime is being ethnicized through the use of the term „Gypsy criminality“ and this tendency is difficult fo fight because even to deny it, the expression has to be repeated, thus reasserting its existence. It is like a genie that has been let out of a bottle and cannot be put back again. A new euphemism for the Roma is „ethnicity“ – without specifying it everyone knows who is meant. And most recently people started borrowing from The Lord of the Rings, referring to the Roma as Orks and to the Jews as Hobbits. This trend is very worrying – once you change language you also change reality.

Czech writer Jáchym Topol countered the pessimistic mood of the debate with two pieces of good news. Ever since Romani was constituted as written language in the Czech Republic, it has produced its own literature – examples are Elena Lacková’s autobiographical novel “I Was Born Under a Lucky Star” and books by the contemporary writer Erika Oláhová. The other piece of good news is that over the past 20 years public opinion has changed. Xenophobia still exists but four neo-Nazis, who had set a house on fire, killing a little Roma girl, were recently given terms of imprisonment of 20 years. While 90,000 out of the 200,000 Roma in the Czech Republic still live in ghettoes, an increasing number of people are willing to support them.

Austrian writer Franzobel started by giving the example of a Kosovar family, whose story he has been following. When the family of refugees was first threatened with deportation after living in Austria for 10 years, there was a wave of public support. However, after the family was presented as criminal the public mood changed, and an Austrian man who allowed them to stay in his house became the victim of a hate campaign. The roots of this hatred have to be sought in animalistic instinct that still lurks in us beneath a veneer of morality as the example of Rwanda has shown. This problem cannot be overcome by political correctness as its roots go much deeper. Franzobel believes that only societies that are open have a chance to survive.

Photo Peter Župník