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December 7, 2022

Beyond nihilism

In the majority of countries, political comments revolve around the options of several politicians. For instance: will President Basescu retire at the conclusion of the second mandate, or will he attempt to become premier? Another type of analysis relies on the evaluation of trends. Is the new Romanian middle class rather socialist, or liberal? On other occasions, niche phenomena are extracted from their particularity and receive a particular weight. Will environmentalist protests generate political rejuvenation? But in all these attempts, the unconvincing element is the implicit analytical snobbery, the pretention to explain social dynamics by reducing the human being to role playing games. A person which can be a voter with options determined by the ambitions of the few competitors in the electoral raced.
Or he can be more or less indignant over controversial political decisions. Or he can be a hipster who joins or not a protest march, attracted by specific sociability. The human being however is not a nude conscience, reacting beyond conditions and contexts, while also not being the representative of social typologies. Sometimes, political analysts – not the improvised ones, which form today a species that proliferates because of the demand for televised talk-shows or press columns – should become theatrical critics in order to understand the subtlety of the truths specific to that ‘art’ that was granted an outstanding consideration by ancient Greeks: politics.
In those long gone times, Plato tried to be a staunch opponent of sophists. In other words, he used an alternate ethos to the relativism professed by those who considered that one can successfully bring arguments in favour of anything. In their vision, rhetoric and truth were like paid love. In our post-modern times, a Plato has at best the chance to become a right-wing authoritarian (Karl Popper already labelled him as the ancestor of fascisms). The only credible adversaries of today’s sophists – politicians of all denominations, who only vary in the colour of demagogy – are the new cynics, those who choose radical satire and the exhibition of grotesque in order to break the vicious circle of the generalised corruption of political mentalities. Let’s take the example of the electoral discourse. During more than two decades of democracy, we saw dozens of presidential candidates pretending that they would reform politics, social peace or ‘public salvation.’ They promised everything, justifying the old sophists’ credo about the decisive role of the rhetoric, of the capacity to bring seductive arguments. They certainly were not innocent, because they knew how to capitalise on the people’s fears, aspirations and ambiguities. Several young actors now propose as a unique performance (under the name ‘Extraordinary congress of presidential candidates’) an atypical confrontation on TV. Anything can be said with enough credibility – this is the sensation of the spectator, both rejoiced and exasperated by the easy way in which a political discourse can be drafted, imbued by the rituals of TV debates with an additional air of fake honourableness. What makes it impossible for us to give up the shameful vice of consuming – evening after evening and campaign after campaign – the same surrogate of pretended ‘political dialogue’? In their variant pigmented with a salutary cynicism, the actors of this performance also bring nihilistic offers that do not seem strident. If politicians proposed us measures that would hasten the end of the world, would we be able to wake up from this strange lethargy? Or we wouldn’t even notice the monstrosity? Because it is precisely the insidious nihilism that poisons the political organism, while electoral offers rather denote the pedant care of a funeral home, capable to embellish dead bodies.
Beyond discourses, lie realities. Sometimes marginal, ignored by the majority. But which can become eloquent if they are brought on stage in an inspired theatrical show. With millions of fellow nationals emigrated to the West, Romanians tend to ignore the immigrants near them. They only notice them when they see them in a shop, seeing their non-European faces or the colour of their skin, other than ‘white.’ Seldom do they think that they are not here for tourism or studying, because they were chased from their own countries by humiliating or frightening situations. ‘Born in the Wrong Place,’ the theatrical show staged by Alice Monica Marinescu and David Schwartz, merges the stories of four immigrants – a Palestinian from Kuwait, a Serbian woman, a Christian Iraqi woman and an Afghan from Iran – with that of a Romanian Jewish woman that experienced the refuge to the USSR during the world war. Undesirable in their countries, they happened to reach a country that rather tolerates than integrates them. After the trauma of a first exile, of which they became aware when they came of age, because they were born in minority communities subject to discrimination, they reach the uncertain situation of the last exile, in Romania, which is far from being a paradise for immigrants. The bureaucracy of the process of obtaining the citizenship, an expression of the humble “apprenticing’ of requesting with effort the rights that are natural for others, intertwines with the vivid memory of crossing the countries of ‘others’ who are only transit points for them. The simple stage arrangement of the show faithfully illustrates this condition of permanently renewed journey: several plastic chairs, arranged in a polygon, so that to occupy the least space, specific to waiting places – buss stops, railway stations, airports. When seated, the characters face different directions, like travellers who ignore each other, going separate ways. We are upset when westerners suspiciously denunciate our fellow countrymen, but what are we doing with ‘our’ immigrants? We regard them with double suspicion, especially as we do not understand how they could choose such an unattractive place of exile. At school, children have long been taught about the proverbial Romanian hospitality, but reality was more nuanced, alternating between openness and intolerance, often pigmented with contempt dissimulated as humour. The Romanian society is contradictory: it easily imports models from the West, while also being retrenched in a pretended culture of identity, rather opaque to syncretic alternatives. At stake is not the degree of patriotism, but the social creativeness, which implies giving chances to those who apparently do not have them. Is this not what politics demagogically wants to be? Granting conditions for the society to be more than a sum of individual failures, a space of relative accomplishment, where vulnerabilities are not fatal and effort is not just a curse. All in all, a politics that is both pragmatic and visionary knows how to identify these vulnerabilities and offer favourable contexts for social redemption. The metaphor of exile is appropriate precisely where social exclusion – from various reasons – is not an exception. But sometimes, despite a humanist optimism, situations get complicated. The case of the old Jewish woman in the show is significant. She seems to be a victim of history’s injustice, banished at an old age from her house following the post-communist retrocession, an intellectual that cannot adapt to the materialistic pragmatism of the present. As a child, she suffered the Soviet exile, following the unbearable (later criminal) anti-semitism in Romania. Her father was a communist Jew who chose ‘the other side.’ After the war, he returned and received a comfortable job from the new regime and – we deduce – a nationalised house (the mentioned street is located in a residential neighbourhood inhabited by communist potentates). Where is ‘justice’? Probably, the owner of the house had been not only chased, like the now old Jewish woman, but even arrested, perhaps he even lost his life in prison, for inexistent crimes, like things happened back then. Social cohabitation is difficult, because aspirations often concur and conflict is inevitable. The ‘exiled’ is not only a victim, but should not remain an enemy whom we permanently threaten with suspicion, if not plain exclusion. Giving chances, this is the real meaning of politics. Defying nihilism.

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