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June 28, 2022

The conformism of moral emotions

The communist regime has been talked about freely for a quarter century. The memoirs abound, so that we now have access both to the point of view of the victims (convicts, deportees, those under surveillance, those blackmailed, the victims of injustice) as well as to that of the representatives of the former regime (renowned activists, Securitate members, journalists), but also to that of many other “in-between” categories (intellectuals, engineers, athletes, traders). The historical investigation of the period developed in parallel, ranging from the analysis of the mechanisms of repression (penitentiaries, labour camps, information networks) to that of specific “mythologies” (in the sense of Roland Barthes).

The Securitate files have mostly become accessible, and historians have at their disposal a rich fund of documents from various archives. However, this multitude of pieces is not part of a single great puzzle, but serves some parallel perspectives, often concurrent and even egregiously contradictory. More prestigious historiography cultures have already faced upfront the issue of “historic truth” and the serious methodological difficulties of investigating the past. More or less, any historian is a potential public servant within a “Ministry of Truth” (such as the one imagined by George Orwell in “1984”), meant to influence the future through a certain reading of the past. Unfortunately, instead of honestly taking responsibility for the intentions – any exercise of memory raises the issue of its integration into a project of forging the future – there were hysteric polemics about truth and the hiding of truth, as if the main goal would be the practice of an “archaeology of knowledge” (somewhat in the sense of Michel Foucault).

The appreciation of the Securitate’s excellence, even though in a negative sense, was not however an innocent option. Just as other presuppositions of various public anticommunist campaigns of recent years were not innocent either. The main issue remains the following: what do we do with the images on communism?

A first answer was, naturally: we politically delegitimise the various “collaborators” of the former regime. Looking back, we notice that this attempt has largely failed. Ion Iliescu and his party (with its metamorphoses de rigueur) managed to confer protection and even honorability to many characters that have an ambiguous past. Rather it was others (from other, more avowedly anticommunist parties) who suffered because of the uncovering of their role as former informers.

A second answer was: we are building a political system at the antipode of the communist one, cultivating an entirely different political culture. It was however naiveté (because the shortcomings of politics are not limited to its totalitarian variants), but especially an alibi for political options in a crisis of prestige. Contemporary anticommunism is above all anachronic, because Romanian society is no longer facing communist temptations (except for some circles of young protesters, marginal and with rather anarchic undercurrents), even the left wing is in the midst of an insidious crisis, being increasingly detached from any intellectual landmarks. But many of the problems raised by the Western culture of the left wing continue to be legitimate and await their answers, which cannot be avoided just by simplistically invoking the crimes of the communist regime.

A third answer was: we are capitalizing on the moral example of those who opposed totalitarianism and preferred the risk of suffering. This moral level of the debate is also the most delicate, being prey to subtle emotional manipulations. And to build on the suffering of others is always a sweet temptation.

In this context, it’s not by chance that not even art managed to be convincing when it tackled the communist past. One of the shows running at the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj is dedicated to the surveillance activity conducted by the Securitate. “Leonida Gem Session” mixes Caragiale’s classical play (a satire towards the armchair “revolutionaries” at the end of the 19th Century) with quotes from the Securitate surveillance files of some Hungarian intellectuals based in Cluj, some political scandal recordings and with the metaphor of a Jazz “jam session.” To the surprise of the producers (Tompa Gabor and Visky Andras) the play did not have the expected success, despite the relevance of the theme. And a recent dialogue that took place between Hungarian intellectuals – with Marko Bela present too – and that started off from the show revealed the same trench lines present in the wider Romanian society. They all want a moral satisfaction in relation to the dramas of the past, but have different opinions on the criteria of such a “trial.” To such extent that each one has its own moral geography that separates the territory of the victims from the one of the culprits. The one guilty in the eyes of one person can be the victim in the eyes of another, and vice versa. We could ask ourselves why the show does not persuade.

The final perspective is already a common place in Romanian public discourse: the Securitate members are still among us and their simple presence explains the failures of post-communist politics. The “clean-up” was missed, with the innocents being rather the ones that ended up smeared. Caragiale’s text serves the image of an imagined revolution, which in fact did not fundamentally change anything – an idea that would however deserve a less schematic debate than the call to the permanence of some devils in leather jackets. The idea of political immobility is legitimate, just like the one of communist demonism, and even that of the totalitarian control’s touch of improvisation. The image of a malefic bestiary or the metaphor of the grotesque gang rape are not worthy of being discarded either. But thus weaved together all these strands lose some of their eloquence.

Apart from specific theatre options, maybe the reason has to do with the local culture’s more general shortcoming. A shortcoming that has to do with problematizing and conceptualizing ethical issues, a strange emotionalism being dominant, only good for masking wars for intellectual prestige and influence in the public space. At the base of discourses as refined as possible there are always far too commonplace and conformist emotional reactions that do not express the effort of creatively innovating the approach to problems. Precisely these primary reactions should be questioned and subjected to significant changes of attitude. Otherwise the intellectual discourse (with all of its social implications) will be undermined by the feebleness of its roots.


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