At the end of 2020, the Project Forum staged the 11th Central European Forum, looking back at an eventful year in a series of online discussions.
About the forum:
The headline of Ivan Krastev’s essay, written at a time when the pandemic was only beginning to gather momentum in Europe, channelled our impatience: is it tomorrow yet?
Yet, 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 at an ever quicker pace.
The early signs included President Donald Trump who 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 not at all equal. Rather than being the great equaliser, the coronavirus has starkly exposed the huge difference that people’s backgrounds make to their chances of staying alive and of continuing to live dignified lives rather than suffering the devastating economic impact of the pandemic and sinking irreversibly into poverty.
This fundamental inequality of opportunities is the key feature of the pandemic and it will be one of the main subjects of this year’s Central European Forum. The painful realisation of inequality has sparked a broader debate on 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 launching an inclusive global debate about new economic models that frame the issue in terms of survival – of both civilised society and the biosphere.
Many of those governments led by exaggerated public personas like Donald Trump proved helpless when faced with the pandemic’s onslaught. 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 to virologists, epidemiologists, 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 long can this temporary boom in rationality survive? The thirst for reliable factual information has been gradually being 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 safe spaces. It urges us to exclude everyone who is different and 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 relish the authoritarian past. They nourish fears and manufacture threats that might come from a partly, or wholly, invented enemy. In recent months and years, we have seen this kind of politics spread across the world and take hold in Central and Eastern Central Europe.
At the Central European Forum, the discussions, therefore, addressed the victims of the authoritarian mood in Central and Eastern Europe. LGBTI+ groups have recently become targets of people’s 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.
The 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 that these values are what our nations need most. Yet, the exact opposite may well be true, that, by attacking LGBTI+ people and limiting women’s rights, they are actually undermining fundamental European values. This, too, was a theme at the Central European Forum in 2020.
Without values that are authentically felt and lived, threats tend to isolate people and make them even lonelier than 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 live entirely in isolation. 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 being just as important as ourselves, is profoundly counterintuitive and can only be achieved by resorting to fundamentalist arguments and motivations that are more powerful than logical reasoning. However, this kind of deeply felt, fundamentalist reasoning is at odds with traditional thinking, since tradition can only survive when it is embedded in customs, decrees, prohibitions and regulations and while real, authentic arguments are kept alive. At the same time, love thy neighbour represents the oldest universal value Europe has ever had.
Hence, Central European Forum 2020 strove for a different kind of discussion about values.
The malleability of history
Across the Atlantic, the United States has witnessed a powerful and unprecedented response to the injustice of 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 saw in the spring and summer of 2020 were more widespread than ever before. These protests have also spread to 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 for tens of thousands of whom life means 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 minority lives being amongst those 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 neuroscientific findings show, free will is no matter of fiction and neurons sometimes do make independent decisions. And, this also informed the spirit of the discussions at this online edition of the Central European Forum.
To find out more about the individual discussions at this year's Central European Forum, look at the following section of the page and click on the names of the respective speakers.
Click on the speakers' names below to find out more about the individual discussions.
The contemporary Czech author, Radka Denemarková, talks about what literature is for, but also about how dangerous it is when leaders attempt to take on pandemics with rhetoric. Moderation by Chris Keulemans.
The Belarusian dissident and editor-in-chief of Наша Ніва (Our Field), Andrej Dyńko, talks about the nightmare his country currently finds itself in. Moderation by Michal Havran.
The political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, talks about how to defend democratic institutions and the role of trust. Moderation by Michal Havran.
The Dutch writer, Arnon Grunberg, talks about the left and whether democracy is the theatre that has became a show. Moderation by Michal Hvorecký.
The Canadian historian & rector of the exiled Budapest Central European University, Michael Ignatieff, talks about what hope there is for Central Europe. Moderation by Zuzana Kepplová.
The Israeli philosopher and author of the concept of decent society, Avishai Margalit, talks about the sense of human duty. Moderation by Martin M. Šimečka.
The Hungarian author and university lecturer, Gábor Németh, talks about the future of Hungary, about students and their talent for civil courage and creativity. Moderation by Zuzana Kepplová.
The Milan-based British author, Tim Parks, talks about Italy and the pyschology of the pandemic. Moderation by Chris Keulemans.
The Austrian journalist, Joana Radzyner, talks about what it's like living in a city rated as having the best quality of life in the world just after a terrorist attack. Moderation by Michal Hvorecký
The German author, Ingo Schulze, talks about what threatens Europe's strongest democracy and where the populist threat lies. Moderation by Michal Hvorecký.
The American historian, Marci Shore, talks about whether trumpism can be see as a form of fascism. Moderation by Michal Havran.
Videos of the forum's English-language talks can be found at the top of this page and can be accessed by clicking here.
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Partners, supporters and co-organisers of the CEF in 2020:
The OG & thumbnail imagery for this page comes from photos by the Central European Forum's Peter Župník