The headline of Ivan Krastev’s essay, written at the time when the pandemic was only beginning to gather momentum in Europe, channelled a childlike impatience: Is it tomorrow yet?
No, it still isn’t. Even today, six months later, it still isn’t tomorrow, even if there are increasing signs of change. Not all of them are ominous, although many undoubtedly are. The rumble of collapsing icebergs, the boiling asphalt in our streets, the forest fires in Siberia. We have got used to them all. The number of these signs is multiplying but we are getting used to them ever faster.
The early signs included the bizarre orange mop of President Donald Trump who, authentically blind, has failed to see the warning signs all around him. His arrival on the political scene signalled a new global paradigm as well as a new political aesthetic, one that turns strongmen behaving like needy clowns into world leaders.
The only exception was the unexpected, yet predictable, outbreak of the pandemic. While for many it is just another ominous sign, it differs from the others in one fundamental way: you can’t get used to it because unlike the apocalyptic threat of climate change and other global threats, the virus will kill you right here and now. Furthermore, we are not completely helpless vis-à-vis the virus: although there is still no cure, we can avoid infection by means of physical isolation.
However, our chances of avoiding infection are all not equal, not even close. Rather than being the great equaliser, the coronavirus has starkly exposed the huge gap, dependent on our background, between our chances of staying alive and of continuing to live a dignified life rather than suffer the devastating economic impact of the pandemic and sink irreversibly into a paralysing poverty.
This fundamental inequality of chances is the key feature of the pandemic and it will be one of the main subjects of Central European Forum 2020. The painful realisation of inequality has sparked a broader debate on the economic models that could reduce inequality instead of steadily amplifying it, as is the case today. At the same time, it has opened a unique window of opportunity for the launching of a global debate involving the wider public, not just experts, about new economic models that frame the issue in terms of survival – both of civilised society as well of the biosphere.
Most clown-led governments have proved helpless when faced with the pandemic. They have been equally helpless in grappling with its economic consequences. On the other hand, several analysts have noted that in the first weeks of the outbreak, people began to seek and value the rational voice of science, turning primarily to virologists and epidemiologists, as well as anthropologists, sociologists, economists and psychiatrists. All of a sudden, probably because we got scared, we all wanted to hear the opinion of those who know what they are talking about rather than listening to ideological statements.
THE NEW JEWS
How far will this temporary boom in rationality, if at all, survive? The thirst for reliable factual information has been gradually overwhelmed by another, atavistic response to the imminent threat: the urge to cut and run. This urge, as social psychology shows, forces us to build fortifications – walls, fences and borders – to lock ourselves away in our own safety. It urges us to exclude everyone who is different, to withdraw into immutable patterns and old rules.
Hand in hand with the general uncertainty caused by an unpredictable future, this has given fresh momentum to anti-pluralist and anti-liberal tendencies in politics which relishes the authoritarian past. It nourishes fears and manufactures threats that might come from a partly, or wholly, invented enemy. In recent months and years, we have seen this kind of politics take hold around the globe, including Central and East Central Europe.
At Central European Forum 2020 we will talk about the victims of the authoritarian mood in our part of the world. LGBTI+, perhaps more than any other group, has recently become the target of hostility and anger. “Homosexuals are the new Jews,” said Agnieszka Holland a few years ago. Since then, many regions in Poland have declared themselves “gay-free zones”. These words speak a very clear language. Holland’s metaphor is no longer a metaphor.
DESTRUCTION OF VALUES
Authoritarians claim that by denying LGBTI+ people their rights and by limiting the rights of women, they are defending the original fundamental values of our Judeo-Christian civilisation. In times of uncertainty, they maintain, these values are what our nations need most. But the exact opposite may well be true: by attacking LGBTI+ people and limiting women’s rights they are actually undermining the fundamental values of our civilisation. This, too, will be a theme of Central European Forum 2020.
Without values that are authentically felt and lived, threats tend to turn people into a lonely crowd, one even lonelier than it was before. The pandemic has given us a taste of things to come and made us realise that no individual, city, country, community, culture, or even continent, can save itself on its own. The only thing that can save us is cooperation. This is easy to grasp rationally, but our logical mind is unable to make us feel, think and make choices that go against the instinct that always commands us to prioritise ourselves, our own survival, our own real or apparent security. To truly connect to the Other, and thus, to perceive them – be they another person or another community – as just as important as ourselves, is profoundly counterintuitive and can be achieved only by cleaving to fundamental arguments and a fundamental motivation that is more powerful than logical reasoning. However, this kind of deeply felt, fundamental reasoning is at odds with traditional thinking, since tradition can survive only when it is embedded in customs, decrees, prohibitions and regulations, while real, authentic arguments are truly alive. At the same time, love thy neighbour represents the oldest universal value Europe has ever had.
Hence, Central European Forum 2020 will strive for a different kind of discussion about values.
THE MALLEABILITY OF HISTORY
Meanwhile, the United States has witnessed a powerful and unprecedented response to the injustice and the disproportionate police brutality towards people of colour. The US has been swept by protests against racism that have spun out of control and the wave of protests we have seen in the spring and summer of 2020 is more widespread than ever before. The protests have also radiated into Europe, mobilising the young in particular. What has emerged is a new kind of transatlantic cooperation, indeed, transatlantic solidarity. The Black Lives Matter movement has come to include immigrants from Africa and Asia, whose lives matter too. For example, the lives of the Roma who have lived amongst us for centuries, yet of whom tens of thousands languish in hopeless poverty in segregated slums, without proper access to education. As the pandemic spreads, it is turning into an illness of the poor and invisible, with “Black Lives” being most at risk.
No, it is not “tomorrow”, not yet. Which is also the reason why it is still not too late, despite the dynamics of history and despite all the auguries. Unpredictability is also part of history. Its direction is not set in stone in advance. The human mind is capable of changing – and human society also has this malleability. As recent findings in neuroscience show, free will is no fiction and neurones sometimes do make independent decisions, not always predictable and determined by chemical and physical input. That is to say, freely. And this will be the spirit of our discussions at Central European Forum 2020
DESPITE COVID 19
We cordially invite you to Central European Forum 2020. It will be held in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica and Banská Štiavnica, from 16 to 19 November, traditionally around the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that was sparked by public debate in theatres.
At this stage we cannot be sure whether the pandemic will be under control by November and whether public gatherings will be possible. If the situation worsens, this year’s conference will be held online, in which case we will, of course, let you know in good time. Central European Forum 2020 is prepared for various scenarios.