Time to say goodbye to ‘Westernization’ and contempt for the East. Get to work

A quarter century after the 1989 revolutions, Central Europe’s path to freedom is still blocked by the many Mr. and Mrs. “Impossibles”. These resigned characters have been treading water trying to catch up with some abstract idea of the West, crying that it can never be done but then relaxing when they see that some other Easterners are still worse off than they are. Central Europe has to abandon this type of thinking. It needs to develop a healthier self-confidence. And yes, it can do so.

Foto: East West Propaganda Project

You can almost see Mr. Impossible grinning whenever he catches a glimpse of election results – ‘Of course this stupid nation votes for those stupid politicians’. You can see Mrs. Impossible shrug with indifference over gender imbalances in public office – ‘What do you expect? It’s going to take time. We’re in Eastern Europe.’ Together they lament corruption in politics while one works for a company that profits off of just that and the other never hesitates to offer a bribe when it seems easiest.

The Impossibles have many faces. It is the MP who is scared to vote on transparent campaign finance laws, it is the university professor who gives random grades, because ‘we’re not in Oxford’; it is the waitress who comes to your table with a blend of tragedy and contempt on her face; it is the ‘I am not a racist’ blogger who prides himself on voting for the extremists since the others have no solutions either. It is the guy who never votes. It is the rows of bureaucrats who are just following orders, the procession of entrepreneurs who look for legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes. The Impossibles are those that would never build a playground unless they got the proper PR out of it.

I do not take exception to the occasional grumbling about how ‘difficult this country is’, nor do I dismiss the legitimate concern that the pre-1989 political regimes have taken their toll. What I’m challenging is the default setting of apathy and resignation. The Impossibles bicker about the emptiness of politics, the ridiculousness of ‘the system’ yet they do not personally commit to changing any one of the things they complain about.

Imitation, Backlash and the Sources of a Sick National Pride

In the past two decades we have put some effort into the adoption of West European and North American institutions, often presented under the misnomer of ‘Western values’. The westernization in our part of the world came as a blend of a rush to emulate what ‘the West’ does and to follow what ‘the West’ says it does (and what by extension we should be doing too). The later discovery that not all that is happening in France or America is flawless accompanied by the continued pressure to ‘westernize’ is exactly one of the sources of the present day resignation. The Impossibles mock calls for pushing further with reforms at home with self-deprecating comments on their countries’ innate backwardness or they lecture the public with a serious face saying, ‘Communism did it, stupid.’

Yet the duration of post-communism is quickly catching up with the duration of communism itself – a quarter century as opposed to four decades. In all that time, we have lived under three delusions. First, the Kundera delusion – that we are basically Western, but that we were kidnapped by the brutish Russian bear. This delusion is extremely harmful in that it trivializes the role of local collaborators and exculpates the politicians for the decisions they made. Second, that we should become Western, catch the train, imitate all we can. This is damaging, since not only is it to no avail to become ‘exactly’ like our models, even worse, our models also have their flaws. The third delusion is self-defeatism par excellence, the castle of the Impossibles, the simple ‘no we can’t’ – perhaps we can import jeans and coke, and maybe even get an education in America, but home is always going to be somehow post-communist, smelly but warm, as a Czech saying goes. This obsession with a monolithic West as the savior and a homogeneous East as the source of our troubles is exactly the breeding ground for the Impossibles. ‘Shut up and take sides’ they snap for a lack of imagination.

It was only to be expected that an Occidentalist backlash would come. Former Czech President Klaus tried to gain popularity by speaking about forces that have a “vested interest in prolonging the transition as long as possible, and in not letting transition countries do it alone”. And the former Slovak PM Mečiar tried to soothe the confused souls of his voters by blaming human rights activists for being “Soros agents” and characterized the opposition as “prostitutes selling out their country”. Hordes of Impossibles had their fun in the wild privatization, the capture of the state by oligarchs, the public spending cuts that closed kindergartens and brought about a whole generation of transition losers, or mental refugees. This quickly fitted with the ‘post-1989 = westernization’ frame and left many suspicious about the West’s ‘real’ intentions towards us. And while all this was happening, the Impossibles proudly tried to heal their inferiority complex by turning their eyes to whipping boys – the Roma mostly. The more radical of the Impossibles spoke of the EU as threatening the traditional family (since membership came in the same package with anti-discrimination legislation), or, in general, our fragile sovereignty.

Needless to say, another source of this sick pride, in the futile effort to digest the transition, came from pointing to the dozens of countries in the world which are even worse off than we are. ‘Ha. Aren’t you glad we’re not like Ukraine?’ – gasps Mr. Impossible with relief. ‘C’mon, look at those Arabs or Turks, it’s clear they won’t make it even this far’ – remarks Mrs. Impossible with a self-satisfied smile of re-established national pride. The lack of ambition is taken for granted. The relative economic prosperity (in comparison with the Global East and South) is by far not the only determinant of this smug feeling. It is also the complacency that we have somehow made it to the table of ‘the civilized’, that we became accepted by our ‘model’. But beyond this façade, even the Impossibles occasionally admit that there is more to aspire for.

Learning from the East? Are you serious?

Amid this fixation on the West we have rarely looked back East – to learn from it. Only a handful of intellectuals have tried to read our post-1989 westernization through the prism of post-colonial scholarship. Edward Said focused on the Arabs, not on us. Todorova was there for the Balkanists. Turks are Muslims and hence their experience either does not matter or can’t inform our own. But the fact is that our two recent pasts – communism and the subsequent (re?)westernization have been just as humiliating as ‘real’ colonialism and similarly both remain undigested. Central Europe’s problem is that it refuses to acknowledge its colonial and post-colonial dynamics. It represses this analogy, investing a lot of energy in avoiding it. The East? Sure, yoga in India, or a holiday in Thailand. But the East does not serve as a source of knowledge about our own lives and political experiences.

But, does it not sound familiar when Nilufer Gole writes about non-Westerners as people “alienated from their own present” aiming towards ‘“either the utopian future or to the golden age of the past”. Does it not sound like ‘us when Nurdan Gurbilek states that Turkey is “caught between snobbish arrogance and provincial pride”, when Tarif Zafer Tunaya reflects on the anxieties of sitting in “civilization’s waiting room” or when Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar nails it with, “It is impossible that Europeans should like and admire us for what we have taken from them. At most they might congratulate us and pass on by.” In our region, we have had very few open conversations on the fragile dynamics of the toll the post-1989 imitations took on our self-confidence. We have rarely vented our inferiority complex responsibly, in a sincere effort to get rid of it. We have measured our worth by the EUs acceptance of us and the East’s admiration for our achievements.

The desperate need for recognition manifested itself most clearly when we prematurely accepted the label of ‘graduates of transition’.  We rushed to assert allegiance to ‘Euro-Atlantic values’ in our foreign policy strategies without actually giving a thought to the difference that exists between those values on paper and in practice. Only when we smugly started sharing our ‘transition experience’ with the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe and, most recently, North Africa did many of us fully open our eyes and realize how little has been done in many fields of public policy that really matter. More importantly, the proponents of our westernization often turned a blind eye to the West’s past and present misconduct. This diminished the credibility of their efforts and made them an easy target for backlash.

Towards a Healthier Self-Confidence

Struggling to become ‘western’ is obviously not the path to take. Because, in the end we must acknowledge that there is no ‘West’. There is France, Germany, Finland and the USA – each of which suffer from ills peculiar to their societies that certainly should not be emulated in Central Europe. There is no need to adopt US-style gun laws that reportedly cause more deaths in the US than wars do, or its health care system, which is expensive and inefficient. The French approach to its Algerian past cannot serve as a guiding light for coming to terms with the Benes decrees or the Slovakstaat.

But there are examples that we should study. There is something Iceland, Finland or Norway have done well, ranking as world leaders in gender equality. There is something the Americans must have done right, desegregation brought real results – it increased the earning potential and quality of health of African-Americans, let alone increasing their chances of political participation. And there is something the Turkish intellectuals must be doing right as they have managed to discuss what westernization has done to their self-confidence much more openly than we have. A discussion on how our transition was experienced – not just on the level of institutions, but emotions as well – is exactly what we need to have.

Framing our political debates in terms of having to decide whether we want to be Western or Eastern is futile. If all reforms are presented as a continuation of emulating the West, a powerful group of the Impossibles will always legitimately retort that the West is not the best. The transatlantic-linked establishment with thick travel miles will scream back a eulogy on ‘values’ and ‘freedom’ and we are left running in circles. There is no point in wanting to be ‘like the West’, neither is there one in escaping ‘back to the East’. But there is a point in becoming better than we are today. Being honest about our recent experience might be the step towards opening the Impossibles’ minds. If the ‘Possibles’, and they are not few, in our societies are frightened by nascent nationalism then they had better begin this discussion now, before the radicals hijack the unaddressed past.

Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.