An Open Letter on “A scandal in Bohemia”

Following the publication of my Op Ed piece “A scandal in Bohemia” in the New York Times on July 10, I received the following email:

For your information, I have posted the following letter to my blog: labendz.wordpress.com

 

July 16, 2013

 

Dear Professor Seyer,

 

I read your recent opinion piece in the New York Times with great interest and you did not disappoint. Nonetheless, I must take issue with your tone and encourage you to rethink your position on the current political crisis facing the Czech Republic.

 

You write, “In light of Czech history, the latest scandal should be celebrated for its banality, its absurdity. It might just as well be happening in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy.” And you rejoice in the fact that the Czechs have weathered a serious political scandal – the fall of a government – without resorting to regime change and the willful transformation of the nation-state’s ideological foundation. (I will leave aside the fact that this may be the first fully domestic event of this sort since the foundation of Czechoslovakia.)

 

Somehow, though, I find nothing at all banal about the high tolerance for political and economic corruption that has plagued the Czech Lands and Slovakia since before 1989 – and certainly after Czechoslovakia’s hyper-liberal transition to capitalist-democracy. Indeed, as far as I can tell from the Czech press, even this scandal seems not to have provided the necessary impetus for civil society to demand (in any effective manner) a drastic change in the country’s political culture. What should be celebrated about the failure to do so, when change is so dearly needed?!

 

To that end, why should any country – and its well-wishers like you and I – celebrate its supposed political maturity into something akin to the little sibling of Berlusconi’s Italy? If I believe that this truly represented Europe’s potential, I would be forced to join former President Klaus in his opposition to that Union. Fortunately for me, I do not need to keep such ODiouS company.

 

In his reappraisal of the Czechoslovak revolution of 1989, Timothy Garnton Ash penned a moving, if nostalgic, elegy for the lost political third way, between capitalism and socialism, that so many Czech and Slovak dissidents had hoped to achieve in 1989. According to Ash, they envisioned a moral society that deployed the economic and cultural power of a Western-style capitalist-democracy to fulfill the utopian visions and social imperatives championed – miserably – by political Marxism. Instead, the Czech Republic has become a bastion of political and economic corruption and – at least under Klaus – a poster child for the worst kind radical liberalism.

 

To my mind, the fact that one can characterize this crisis, with salience and integrity, as a banal event, should give us pause and force us to reappraise our praise. Evil banal must not remain evil unchecked. Or is this the terrible “end of history” – the point from which we can go no further? As an aspiring historian, I hope that this not to be the case. What an awful way to conclude one’s book!

 

 

Sincerely,

 

Jacob Ari Labendz

Doctoral Candidate

Department of History

Washington University in St. Louis

 

I welcome debate, and think Mr Labendz deserves an equally public response.  His concerns are serious ones.  But so were mine.

In the Preface to my book Capitalism and Modernity, dated 31 December 1989, I argued that Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution “was not the sort of revolution to which the modern world is used.  It was, for once, a revolution against those ersatz gods of modernity who have stolen, by divine right of ideology, decades of people’s lives, hopes and dreams; a refusal of the reduction of the personal to the political.”  I went on to suggest that “we may be witnessing, in Eastern Europe, not the return of the prodigal to the fold of ‘the West’ hailed by politicians from Thatcher to Bush, but something quite new: a ‘post-modern’ revolution…”

Three months later I visited Czechoslovakia for the first time.  One episode in particular from that trip stuck in my mind.  I wrote about it later in Going Down for Air (2004):

It is early in 1990, that uncertain time between the Velvet Revolution and the first free elections in forty-two years.  At a loose end one evening I decide to take myself to the local opera house, where [Verdi’s] Nabucco happens to be playing.  Before the performance begins a man steps through the curtain to the front of the stage.  I expect to learn that one of the principals is indisposed.  Instead he makes a passionate plea on behalf of his fellow-artists for the audience to vote for Civic Forum, the opposition coalition formed in November 1989 around Václav Havel.

            If the communists steal the elections they’ll make Cambodia look like a dinner party, somebody remarks during the interval.  The tension is palpable, catching in the throat, acrid as the acid rain that hangs in the Ostrava air.

            Va, pensiero is heard in absolute silence—something I have never experienced at an operatic performance anywhere in the world.  No coughing, no shuffling, no whispering.  Nor, I think, have I ever heard a demand for a chorus to be encored.  When the last echo of the last note dies, but not before, the theater explodes.  People are on their feet, yelling for it to be played again.  Va pensiero was encored three times that night before the opera could go on.  I was later told that the same thing had happened in the National Theater in Prague after the Soviet invasion of 1968, leading to Nabucco being banned from Czech stages for the next twenty years.

Verdi’s Nabucco is set in the time of the Jews’ exile in Babylon, and “Va pensiero” expresses the Hebrew slaves’ longing for their lost homeland.   At the opera’s premiere in La Scala, Milan, on March 9, 1842, “Va pensiero” was repeatedly encored.  The performance ended in a riot.  Henceforth, the Austrian authorities decreed, no encores would be allowed in Italian opera houses.

Not for the first or the last time, my evening at the opera in Ostrava led me to ponder the myth of eternal return: the heresy, from a modernist point of view, that history might be better understood in terms of repetition-compulsion than onward and upward progress, or, as a Czechoslovak communist slogan of the 1950s once put it, “Kupředu, zpátky ni krok” (Forward, backward not a step).

I think I know where Mr Labendz—and Timothy Garton Ash—are coming from.  Faced with the sordidness of current politics in Bohemia, it is difficult not to feel nostalgia for those fearful, hopeful days of 1989-90.  But I wonder how much of the nostalgia is for the hopes that we invested in the Czechs, on which they have declined to deliver.   Not for the first time.  Friedrich Engels made a similar complaint when, after a promising start, the Czechs failed to play the role allotted them by the materialist conception of history during the revolutions of 1848-9.  The Czechs, he fumed, “are an absolutely historically non-existent nation.”

Almost twenty-four years have passed—as I said in my Op Ed piece, longer than the entire existence of Tomáš Masaryk’s First Republic—since the events of November 1989.  The democracy established by the Velvet Revolution has survived, even if it lamentably fails to live up to the hopes once invested in it by western “well-wishers.” Whatever we may think of present-day Czech political culture, the fact that a government can fall as a result of the implication of senior political figures, up to and including the Prime Minister, in graft and corruption—and indeed, that the police had sufficient independence from that government to be able to investigate and expose that corruption—is (perverse) proof of just how much has been achieved since 1989.  My point of comparison here is not the Utopian might-have-been of the unrealized dreams of that annus mirabilis, but what once was, the nightmares of the previous half-century.

So yes, I believe there is much to celebrate in the current scandal in Bohemia.  I do not celebrate the corruption per se—though I have come to expect it in liberal democracies.  (I prefer Berlusconi’s Italy, repugnant as it might be, to Mussolini’s.)  I celebrate the fact that the corruption can be exposed.  I celebrate the fact that the fall of a government does not entail a revolution in the whole political system: that politics no longer swallows up civil society.  Above all, I celebrate the fact that today’s Czech public is entertained by the sexual shenanigans of Mr Nečas and Ms Nagyová, not the grotesque political show trials of Milada Horáková and Rudolf Slánský.

As regards the “end of history,” history can be seen as having an end—whether understood as a terminus or a goal—only when it is equated with progress toward some ideal end-state.  I do not make that equation, and I believe modern Czech history gives us every reason not to.  As I wrote in the introduction to Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (available here), “The city’s modern history is an object-lesson in humour noir.  Where better to acquire an appreciation of irony and absurdity, an enduring suspicion of sense-making grand theories and totalizing ideologies, and a Rabelaisian relish for the capacity of the erotic to rudely puncture all social and intellectual pretentions toward rationality?”

My book, to which the Times article is a very small footnote, attempts to treat twentieth-century Prague as Walter Benjamin did nineteenth-century Paris—as a repository of the dreamworlds of an era.  I see Mr Labendz’s “lost political third way” (“a moral society that deployed the economic and cultural power of a Western-style capitalist-democracy to fulfill the utopian visions and social imperatives championed—miserably—by political Marxism”) as belonging to those dreamworlds.  It is time to wake up.


2 responses to “An Open Letter on “A scandal in Bohemia”

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