In Prague like in Washington

January 13, 2018

 

One of my favorite tweets is this. It packs a deadly punch --for it is accurate yet witty, pensive and hilarious.

 

 

Moreover, it paints a beautiful picture, from hindsight, though also waxes prophetic.

 

One can tell that, despite the herculean attempts by the Foucault-infused Marxists, if there are real historical laws with cogs cranking this old ship into a future of inter-group strife, they are based on something more than genitals, degree of suntan, or passport. Instead, they are based on resentment brewing in the hearts of the free and the unfree, against the world itself and, through that, via proxy, each other. What is puzzling, and unheard of in the history of humankind, though, is that, at the core, we are not really faced with a rural-city divide, nor a rich-poor, male-female, white-black, or any other form of the usual dichotomies. Sure, one can try to play the statistics game and observe patterns common to each camp, like type of dwelling, age cohort, or degrees obtained. Yet, in general, the free and the unfree come in all shapes and flavors.

 

Last year, in the United States, not signs but entire treatises were written all over the wall. Rivers of ink ran as to where the polarization was coming from, yet most of the attempts fell into the easy explanations of the gut or the statistics. As if numbers or hunches would tell the whole story, few were careful enough to venture deep into the catacombs of the human psyche. Brexit was another telltale. Alas, attention was spread like margarine over the toast of common places. Now, it is happening again, this time in the Czech Republic, and the readings appear to continue their usual course. A vote for president is taking place in the country nesting the gorgeous Prague, indeed. In the eyes of the world, and to the Czech themselves, Milos Zeman, the incumbent, is at the center of it and he is battling it out against Michal Horacek and Jiri Drahos, among others.

 

As it is usual for countries like the Czech Republic, the past years have been peppered by quarrels around symbolic acts regarding Russia, the European Union, and the like. Moreover, the central preoccupation of everyone has played a key role, i.e. Muslim immigration, with Zeman, plain-speaking and politically incorrect (where have we heard that before?) bluntly calling the Islamic world an anti-civilization and, thus, a threat. Even though he is tagged as a leftists, Zeman has been quite comfortable sharing spaces with nationalists and anti-immigration speakers.

 

Enter the typical BBC playbook.

 

If you search the usual leftist rags, such as the Beeb or, heaven forbid, the Guardian, this apparent dissonance makes heads explode. The typical reporting on the Czech elections regurgitates the commonplace reductionism of the "young and educated urban elite" pitied against the "aging and less educated rural people". A full blown déjà vu, if you ask me. However, it is nothing new, for the planting of apparently deep rooted divisions is an old strategy of those who see themselves as progressive, convinced as they are that the most ennobling activity of the mind is to stroke one's ego and smell one's farts.

 

This is not the Europe I know, mind you. If you don't live in a bubble, surely, like me, you have met a ton of ignorant urbanites and wise farmers, donkeys with a PhD and unschooled geniuses, inward looking thinkers and outward looking idiots, old progressives and young conservatives. Alas, we have also met valiant leftists and coward right-wingers. It is too easy for any organization to speak to its own members, confirming biases and creating an echo chamber. At the most, the readily available opinion polls and surveys can hint at some observable patterns, though they still can't explain the apparent outliers and their numbers. That is why cases like Zeman, who does not fit the stereotype, make everyone panic. How can he be a "leftist" and not sing praises to the open borders cult, for example?

 

At this stage a healthy dose of perspective goes a long way. I posit that, at the core, the battle is between freedom and unfreedom. Do we see the breaking of the variables of social cohesion as liberating or as a path towards oppression? Is the current structure of society a guarantor of a free life or is the apparent uniformity a straitjacket? How much of one's liberty is worth sacrificing for change and what type of change? What are the parts of the traditional ways that need destruction, adaptation or preservation? These are no simple matters and our position to all of those questions depends on both temperament and character. There are elements of what we're born with that are part of the machine and they won't be tweaked without the destruction of the self. Other elements, in the contrary, flourish or dim depending on life experience through socialization and learning.

 

Beware of easy conclusions, though. The picture painted of degree-bearing urbanites who love openness and want to do away with the current social and political boundaries is not an avatar for freedom. Remember that these types usually are in love with heavy bureaucratic structures and foolishly embrace cultures that are evidently oppressive. So, do they want freedom or unfreedom? In the same vein, the white haired pub patron in a village in the middle of nowhere, at the core, wants to be left alone to do his or her thing without interference of barbarians or bureaucrats. Is he or she longing for freedom or unfreedom? And if you want more complexity, riddle me this: we have all met the young tech startup guy who votes left but will be happy swimming in venture capital money once hitting the jackpot, and who codes with the tools of science and technology though considers sex, gender and preference independent social constructs. Also, we know the Bible reading countryside man who lives and works by the tenets of the Enlightenment, either tending the land based on scientific principles, teaching exact sciences, or working in a laboratory under the clear avenues of the scientific method.

 

The only way of incorporating all these complexities into the reading of our political situation is to solve the puzzle of what constitutes freedom and what doesn't. I do not have an answer at this point but one possibility is that human brains, and how they react in social contexts, are dictating behavior quite rapidly in the face of an unprecedented barrage of external inputs, always against the backdrop of natural and sexual selection. It follows that the society that is more exposed to challenges is more intensely trying to solve ancient riddles, e.g. inferring others' emotions, figuring out who is kin and who is not, and who is preferable to mate and cooperate. In this context, freedom is not the absence of obstacles, for nature and society will always play both a liberating and a restricting role. Instead, freedom is the right balance between borderline manageable risks vis-à-vis a setup with conditions that sufficiently allow for the preservation and thriving of the individual.

 

It is no secret how I lean in these matters. For me, the leftist is either ignorant of the risks at hand, or is too afraid to confront so is willing to sacrifice freedom in exchange for a protective Leviathan, or his resentment is too much to be willing to allow others to thrive. While necessary, the traits of openness and compassion can be a poison pill in evolutionary terms if not balanced by other life-preserving personality features. There are no surviving cultures among those which were open to everything and everybody. Instead, those who are still standing are either parasitical or were open to exchange of goods while being proud and protective of their higher ideals. And compassion, such a central element of humanity, turns murderous against the "other" when it is perceived as a threat. Also, too much compassion leads to a break in the natural course of selection.

 

Freedom, then, is at stake right now, not only in Czech but in the Western world. Our culture has made a way of life out of it, building on top of the strong foundation of Rome and Christianity in order to give birth to the wonders of the Enlightenment. The celebration of systematic doubt and rational inquiry, the belief in progress within the confines of high minded ideals, and the ability to prevail against adversity, all conform our definition of civilization, i.e. the right dose of social structure where freedom can thrive. 

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