Welcome to the new site. I wrote a piece for the Polish tabloid Fakt last week about President Komorowski’s trip round Europe. The Polish version is here (well translated btw–thanks to whomever did it). The English version reads as follows:
Even his friends do not claim that President Bronisław Komorowski is sparkling company. He speaks no foreign languages and has never lived abroad. He has no expertise in world affairs, no close friendships with foreign leaders. He is not Donald Tusk or Radek Sikorski. But he is a sensible man representing a country that matters. He will find no difficulty in gaining meetings and audiences.
Not that the competition is very strong. Most presidents from “new Europe” are lightweights, cranks or political meddlers: Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic is a notorious example. Foreign leaders are tired of his bizarre theories about the menace of the EU superstate, or the green conspiracy behind global warming. They shudder when Romania’s rumbustious Traian Băsescu wants to visit. They find Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaitė insufferably self-important.
They thought Lech Kaczyński was tiresome too: his tussles with the Polish government about the minutiae of foreign policy, such as appointments, places at meetings and so on, and his overpowering sense of historical grievance stoked old stereotypes of Polish amateurishness, complexes and unpredictability.
Mr Komorowski heralds a different era: a sensible man working with his government colleagues rather than against them. Poland’s strong economy and stable politics, along with the upcoming EU presidency next year, mean that Polish ideas are taken seriously as never before. Mr Komorowski’s personal biography may be quite similar to his predecessor’s. But what he represents is a quite different country and mindset, conditioned not by the troubles of the past but the opportunities of the present.
The big question is what happens next, after the sighs of relief and the polite welcomes are over. What about the ideas themselves? Mr Komorowski shows every sign of sticking loyally to the script written by Mr Tusk and Mr Sikorski. He promotes EU integration and expansion, warns Brussels against neglecting “new Europe”, sharply distances Poland from the Kaczyński-era romantic attachments to Ukraine and Georgia, cautiously praises the apparent change of heart in Russia, and maintains a loyal but moderate Atlanticism.
That is fine as far as it goes. But it is vulnerable to events. What happens if Russia turns nasty again? The Polish government has bet heavily on the Kremlin’s sincerity in the year since Vladimir Putin’s half-apology at Sopot. Is there a “Plan B”? What happens if Barack Obama’s administration reciprocates the lukewarm and apathetic approach that Europe already displays towards America? Will Poland support more EU bailouts for the spendthrift countries of southern Europe? Poland’s foreign policy looks fine in good weather; it has yet to be tested by storms.
Another question is Mr Komorowski’s own role. Will he be content to be a general message-runner for the government, attending state funerals when Mr Tusk is too busy? To be a really effective foreign-policy figure he will need to learn English, at least for use in private meetings. I suspect not. Being decent and boring has worked well for him so far. His current crop of headlines may be the first and best.
Tony Judt, historian and intellectual, died on August 6th, aged 62
Aug 12th 2010
QUIZZICAL, erudite and clear-sighted, Tony Judt never let matters rest. He worried at his own beliefs—Zionist, Francophile, socialist and Euro-federalist—until they fell apart and reformed under the pressure of his restless, meticulous intellect. Few people in the Anglo-Saxon world can call themselves “intellectuals”, continental-style, without feeling (and sounding) a little odd. But in Mr Judt’s case the word deserved a capital “I”.
In the world of brain and pen, his main trade was as a historian: he plunged into that at Cambridge in the 1960s, and stayed with it even when immobilised by the wasting disease that cost him his life. His was no narrow historicism: he scorned the idea that the past was a guide to the future. But study of it could help avoid making the same mistakes twice.
Though he worked in America from 1987, his intellectual centre of gravity was Europe; the defining event in his world view was the second world war, and Hitler’s Holocaust. The aftermath of those catastrophes was the theme of “Postwar” (2005), a 1,000-page tome that dealt with the 44 years between the end of the main fighting and the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian empire that survived it. It was a book more bought than read. But even skimmers got the message: the European Union was a vitally important experiment, an attempt to transcend the ideological, nationalist and ethnic schisms that had cursed the continent. Prosperity, modernisation and peace, plus a judicious dose of amnesia, would lay the ghosts to rest.
But Mr Judt was no sentimental Europhile. His deep connections with the Czechoslovak opposition under communism gave him rare binocular vision, and an edginess towards those who focused only on the luckier western half of the continent. He detested the shallowness and artificial obscurity of European-born intellectual fashions such as post-modernism and structuralism. In politics, he bemoaned what he saw as the degeneration of the EU into a racket run by an elite class of administrators for the benefit of its richest citizens. Admittedly, the Eurocracy’s enlightened despotism was better than the other kind. But the cult of efficiency was no substitute for democracy and justice.
Mr Judt’s deepest knowledge was of France, and particularly its post-war intellectual history, which he regarded with a mixture of fascination and disgust. “Past Imperfect”, published in 1992, was the definitive book about the self-indulgence and wilful self-delusion of the French brainboxes who failed to see that Stalin was a monster.
His evisceration of the phoney and creepy was best displayed in his journalism, often in his natural home of the New York Review of Books. A savage collection of essays, “Reappraisals”, published in 2008, skewered among others Louis Althusser, a mad Marxist wife-killer with a cult philosophical following, and Eric Hobsbawm, a distinguished British historian with unrepentant pro-Soviet views. George Bush fared little better: Mr Judt was a trenchant critic of his policies in Iraq and the Middle East.
In hot water
He was fearless in his fights. When he found the pro-Israel lobby in America too strong, and thought Israel’s democratic credentials were weakening, he said so. That got him into the hottest water of his career. It started with an essay in the NYRB in 2003 stating that the peace process was “finished”; that the Jewish state was an “anachronism”; and that legitimate criticism of Israel was being silenced by bogus charges of anti-Semitism.
Nobody could accuse him of letting fly from a position of ignorance. He had been an ardent teenage Zionist, working as an interpreter during the six-day war of 1967. But to many his critique was exaggerated. Given the intense publicity he attracted, it was hard to argue, as he did, that debate was habitually squelched. The notion that Israel had no friends outside America, or could be “the” (his italics) threat to world peace, struck even some of his friends as extreme. Lectures were cancelled and the New Republic, a longstanding ally, removed him from its masthead.
A severe self-critic, he dealt poorly with sniping from others. This East End boy did not wear his learning, or his polyglottal talents, lightly. He tended to dismiss adversaries as fools, rather than as merely mistaken, or half-right. As the head of a richly endowed faculty at New York University, his contempt for the poverty of British universities could sound gratingly complacent. He could fund-raise. So should they.
His final ordeal might have inspired great self-pity, though he displayed no hint of it. Just under a year ago, he appeared at a public lecture in a wheelchair to announce that he was suffering from a variant of motor-neurone disease, in which the body succumbs to inexorable paralysis: like being imprisoned in a shrinking cell, he said. But he wrote about that too, in poignant, crystalline vignettes about his upbringing and travels.
He was “raised on words” though by the end his vocal muscle, “for 60 years my reliable alter ego” failed him: “vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate”. He minded that, while insisting that “the view from inside is as rich as ever”.
The rise and rise of English
May 27th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language. By Robert McCrum. W.W. Norton; 310 pages; $26.95. Viking; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
English is what matters. It has displaced rivals to become the language of diplomacy, of business, of science, of the internet and of world culture. Many more people speak Chinese—but even they, in vast numbers, are trying to learn English. So how did it happen, and why? Robert McCrum’s entertaining book tells the story of the triumph of English—and the way in which the language is now liberated from its original owners.
The author’s knack for finding nuggets enriches what might otherwise seem a rather panoramic take on world history from Tacitus to Twitter. Take the beginnings of bilingualism in India, for example, which has stoked the growth of the biggest English-speaking middle class in the new Anglosphere. That stems from a proposal by an English historian, Thomas Macaulay, in 1835, to train a new class of English speakers: “A class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals, and in intellect.” At a stroke, notes Mr McCrum, English became the “language of government, education and advancement, at once a symbol of imperial rule as well as of self-improvement”. India’s English-speaking middle class is now one of the engines of that country’s development and a big asset in the race to catch up with China.
Bit by bit, English displaced French from diplomacy and German from science. The reason for this was America’s rise and the lasting bonds created by the British empire. But the elastic, forgiving nature of the language itself was another. English allows plenty of sub-variants, from Singlish in Singapore to Estglish in Estonia: the main words are familiar, but plenty of new ones dot the lexicon, along with idiosyncratic grammar and syntax.
Mr McCrum hovers over this point, but does not nail it. English as spoken by non-natives is different. The nuanced, idiomatic English of Britons, North Americans, Antipodeans (and Indians) can be hard to understand. Listen to a Korean businessman negotiating with a Pole in English and you will hear the difference: the language is curt, emphatic, stripped-down. Yet within “Globish”, as Mr McCrum neatly names it, hierarchies are developing. Those who can make jokes (or flirt) in Globish score over those who can’t. Expressiveness counts, in personal and professional life.
The big shift is towards a universally useful written Globish. Spellchecking and translation software mean that anyone can communicate in comprehensible written English. That skill once required mastery of orthographical codes and subtle syntax acquired over years. The English of e-mail, Twitter and text messaging is becoming far more mutually comprehensible than spoken English, which is fractured by differences in pronunciation, politeness and emphasis. Mr McCrum aptly names the new lingo “a thoroughfare for all thoughts”. Perhaps he should have written that chapter in Globish, to show its strengths—and limitations.
Life in Iceland
Nasty, brutish and short
May 27th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Wasteland With Words: A Social History of Iceland. By Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson. Reaktion Books; 288 pages; $39.95 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
Filthy, damp, cold and exhausting, living in Iceland for most of the past millennium had one redeeming feature: that the long dark winter evenings gave people the chance to read a lot and tell stories. That combination of cultural depth and material backwardness is the central message of Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson’s social history of one of Europe’s smallest and remotest countries.
Given its 300,000 population (about the size of New Orleans), Iceland produces a lot of news. Its volcanoes and banks have blown up with dreadful consequences for locals and outsiders alike. Alone in Europe, it husbands its fish stocks properly. It used to be horribly expensive to visit. Now its hauntingly barren landscape is a bargain holiday destination. This book, drawing on Icelanders’ astonishingly detailed diaries and letters in past centuries, gives the outsider a rare glimpse into the past lives of an extraordinary people.
The story is not wholly pleasant. Even readers with strong stomachs will find them tested. The book opens with an account of a man who rips his own testicles off with a cord after a tantrum involving allegations of infidelity. The pressure-cooker of emotions induced by isolation (the road round the island was completed only in 1974) dispel any stereotypes of Nordic stolidity. The dank squalor of the turf-built hovels in which most Icelanders lived is described with disconcerting relish, along with the suppurating sores, stoically borne, that resulted. Clothes were boiled in urine occasionally, but were otherwise worn without washing.
Life lightened up in the 19th century when mechanisation allowed Icelanders to make some money from fish. In 1940 British and then American forces occupied the island to safeguard it from Nazi Germany. That broke the country’s isolation for ever. The author regards with distaste the pell-mell enthusiasm for globalisation, and casino capitalism that marked the last decade. He is particularly scathing about the bogus boom-year talk of the virtues of the Icelandic national character (innovative, resourceful, etc). Thrift and hard work, not showing off and speculation would have been more accurate, he says.
Books on Icelandic social history are rare. So it is a pity that this one has so many odd omissions. The author barely mentions the greatest tragedy in Icelandic history, the colossal volcanic eruption of 1783 which cut the island’s population by a fifth, to just 40,000 people. He writes a lot about childhood (and child labour) but rather little about sex (which helps while away those dark winter evenings). In particular, he says almost nothing about the country’s fascinating national cuisine. Iceland is a country where raw puffin hearts, pickled rams’ testicles and putrefying shark flesh are all regularly eaten. It may be that, as an Icelander himself, Mr Magnusson does not find such dishes particularly exotic. His readers, especially the unsqueamish ones, would be hungry to know more.
May 27th 2010, 13:03 by E.L. | LONDON
Jokes helped make communism collapse. “Anekdoty” as they were termed, helped dispel the climate of fear and highlighted the backwardness and stagnation that were the hallmark of central planning and the police state. The best ones were about people like Brezhnev; few found Stalin a good subject for humour.
But since then life has become trickier for jokesters. Mocking other countries can easily seem patronising and crude. The fictional Borat was hilarious for people who couldn’t find Kazakhstan on a map, rather less so for Kazakhs (and for the Romanian villagers gulled into taking part as extras). Poland’s then deputy foreign minister Radek Sikorski won kudos in 1999 by forcing CNN to apologise after Ted Turner told a silly joke implying that Polish sappers used their feet to detect mines.
Some old joke themes survive. The “hot Estonian guy”, famous for his dim wits and low libido is highly amusing for that country’s envious southern and eastern neighbours. Jews are still canny; pensioners, such as the stereotypical elderly Hungarians Kohn and Grün, are fearful of the future (and sometimes of the fast-changing past). Jokes about “new Russians” and their crudeness and extravagance are legion. But for the most part political correctness has taken its toll. Ethnic stereotypes, once a handy summary of the plusses and minusses of national character, are now seen as thinly disguised racism. Even the most side-splitting joke about, say, a scheming Romanian, a cowardly Czech and a gloomy Hungarian risks attracting a rebuke rather than a roar of approval.
This is not just an ex-communist phenomenon. A recent column which lightheartedly chopped Italy in half and suggested that the southern bits might be nicknamed “bordello” produced some anguished responses (as well as a much larger number of appreciative ones). So did an animated version published a couple of weeks later. the arrival of a TV crew from Rome, solemnly eager to interview the author of the “provocation”.
But a joke-less future would be a bleak one indeed. And good though the old jokes were, it is high time for some new ones. Promising themes might be the sleaze and cronyism of post-communist politics, the stitch-up of Europe between big countries at the expense of small ones, and the lamentably inadequate response of the continent’s political class to the economic crisis.
To avoid offence, every country should concentrate on developing self-deprecating jokes (just as rabbis tell the best Jewish jokes). Estonia has (as in so many things) paved the way here, with two sharply amusing videos, one lampooning that country’s tendency to ignorant self-centredness, a second one its timidity and negativism. Self-deprecating humour is the ultimate sign of emotional and political maturity, just as a rabid prickliness is typically a sign of unresolved complexes about superiority, inferiority, and lack of attention from the outside world.
The sanction for those countries that don’t produce enough self-critical jokes is a simple one: they will be ignored. That is an even worse punishment than being mocked. An Estonian businessman of your columnist’s acquaintance was recently posted to Vilnius to sort out his company’s troubled subsidiary there. He forced through radical management changes involving minute-taking, attendance at meetings and punctuality. In return, he sat through a week of back-slapping anecdotes about Estonians’s social, sexual and other short-comings. Eventually his hosts tired of the fun and asked him for some Estonian jokes about Lithuanians. “We don’t have any. Our jokes are about the Finns”, he responded coolly.
Readers are welcome to post jokes in the comments section below and to recommend the ones they like best. A future column will pick some winners. Political correctness will not be applied, so ethnic stereotypes, historical grudges and other forms of grotesque unfairness will (within reason) be tolerated.
(a quick blog posting from today)
May 27th 2010, 13:50 by E.L. | LONDON
In some parts of the world, having two or even three passports is nothing unusual. Plenty of people in Ireland (north and south) have both British and Irish passports; a sprinkling have American ones too. Even countries that frown on dual citizenship rarely make much of a fuss about it (not least because it is so hard to police). That lesson seems to be lost on Slovak and Hungarian politicians, who are cooking up an almighty row about the Hungarian new dual citizenship law which will give all ethnic Hungarians outside the country the near-automatic right to a Hungarian passport. The new law, passed by parliament on May 26th, removes the requirement for permanent residency in Hungary; in future, applications will simply need to show they speak Hungarian and have some Hungarian ethnic roots (such as a Hungarian grandparent).
For Hungarians, that salves a wound that has been open since 1920, when the Treaty of Trianon dismembered old Hungary, leaving more than three out of ten Hungarians stranded in other countries such as newly independent Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and a much bigger Romania. Giving passports to these Hungarians, who now number around 2m, appeases the radical right in Hungary and also signals to other countries that the Magyar minorities have a protector. That does not matter much in places such as Serbia, Slovenia or Austria, where Magyars live happily alongside their fellow-citizens. But it is potentially explosive in Slovakia, where some in the Slav majority are twitchy about what they see as the uppitiness of the ethnic Hungarian minority, who number about 10% of the population. Slovakia has annoyed Hungary, and alarmed some outsiders, with a poorly-drafted language law that in some cases penalises the use of the Hungarian language.
So Slovakia has protested, appealed to outsiders, and now says it will strip dual passport-holders of their Slovak citizenship. In theory, the fact that both countries belong to the European Union should mean that passports are largely irrelevant. Hungarian passport-holders have the right to work and live in Slovakia just like any other EU citizen. But these sort of ethnic-historical squabbles are just the sort of thing that EU enlargement was meant to settle. It is troubling to see them bubbling up. When Slovakia’s new government takes office at the end of June, outsiders will be hoping to see some serious diplomacy between Bratislava and Budapest.
It is also odd to see ethnicity taking such precedence over more modern forms of political identity. The term “ethnic Hungarian” is convenient journalistic shorthand but a poor basis for legislation. There are people who speak excellent Hungarian but have no Hungarian ancestry, and others with pure Magyar blood (nasty term) who happen not to speak the language. It would take a new Nuremberg Law to determine exactly what level of Hungarian ancestry counts as sufficient.
Hungary would be on stronger ground if chose political-historical rather than an ethnic base for the law. For example, it could say that anyone whose ancestors were citizens of the old Hungarian Kingdom had the right to apply for a passport from the modern republic. (Estonia and Latvia took that approach when they regained independence in 1991, giving passports automatically to all citizens of the pre-war republics, regardless of ethnicity, while asking Soviet-era migrants to apply). If Hungary did the same, it is a fair bet that few non-Magyars would bother to take up the offer.
An unfinished revolution
Public life in the ex-communist world is again run by a well-connected elite. But things may be starting to change
May 19th 2010 | From The Economist online
The Europe.view column will henceforth appear as a weekly posting at Eastern Approaches, The Economist’s central and eastern Europe blog.
In the communist era, the countries of eastern and central Europe were run by tightly knit clans. Connections, particularly those of your parents, mattered more than ability. The same kind of people held the top jobs in the ruling party, in government, in media and in commerce and industry. One of the most potent fuels for the revolutions of 1989 was public discontent with this closed system and the unfairness and incompetence that went along with it.
It worked for a time. In the 1990s, social mobility, in both directions, was huge. Some of the former elite ended up washing dishes or selling insurance. People from the fringes of society (unemployed playwrights and electricians) rose to giddy heights. Capitalism opened huge possibilities for the flexible and ambitious. And if you didn’t like it, you could always leave: millions of people tasted the difference with work and study abroad.
They won that fight
But the new era proved brief. Instead of the old monopoly, a new cartel now holds sway. It is not so blatant. The communist parties’ statutory grip on power is gone, as are the grim, grey men of the secret police. But from the Baltic to the Black sea, public life has again started looking like a game for insiders. The same people, with backgrounds in the same elite universities, with wealthy and well-connected parents, dominate politics, the media and top jobs in officialdom. Social mobility is slowing in many parts of the developed world, particularly Britain and America. But it is tantalising to see it fade in “new Europe”, which once seemed so open and dynamic.
The problem is most acute in politics. Generous subsidies for established parties rig the system against outsiders and newcomers. Electoral rules have the same effect—candidates for election face onerous registration requirements, for example. When voices are muffled, so are choices. Emigration, and in extreme cases even depopulation, is the unwelcome result.
But change does seem to be afoot. Running as an independent, Indrek Tarand, a popular former official, won a surprise victory in Estonia’s elections to the European parliament last year. In Hungary, the green-tinged anti-corruption movement Lehet Más a Politika (Politics can be different) won an unexpected 7.5% of the vote in the recent parliamentary elections. Less pleasingly, in the same election the far-right anti-establishment Jobbik party won nearly 17%, helped by protest votes as well as its traditional racist base.
The trend is visible elsewhere in central Europe. As the print edition reports this week, new parties and protest movements are making inroads into the clubby politics of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Some, such as the Slovak Sloboda a Solidarita (Freedom and Solidarity), make heavy use of the internet. In the Czech Republic, a movement called Change the Politicians uses smartly made video clips of cultural hotshots such as Aňa Geislerová, Aneta Langerová, Marta Kubišová and Jiří Stránský denouncing corruption and calling for change.
But complaining is easy, as is casting a protest vote. The newcomers will certainly put the old guard under greater scrutiny, dent cultures of impunity and give heart to others who want to change the system. But that is not enough. What the ex-communist countries need is a big new impetus, to complete the changes in officialdom and public services promised but not fully achieved after the collapse of communism. Accession to the European Union and NATO gave that process a boost, but it has proved only temporary. In some respects, the countries of the region are regressing. To restore momentum the new outsiders must show that they can win power and use it—and at the same time not fall into the mire that has engulfed their predecessors.
I have also been made International Editor, starting in September. However I will continue to write on the east European region for the print edition of the Economist, as well as running a new blog called Eastern Approaches.
I am delighted to receive material from outsiders. It need be no more than a short email and a link to something interesting, such as a news item, a pamphlet, or another blog. My aim is to post something new every day. I am also interested in books which I can feature in the “Book of the Week” slot. My email is edwardlucas(at)economist.com
My column Europe View will now move to this blog as a regular weekly posting. It has had 183 outings in its current form, and (and another 100-odd in its humbler preincarnation as Wi(l)der Europe in European Voice).
I will continue to post my main articles from The Economist and other outlets on this blog, which is about to have a snazzy redesign.