sat 05/12/2020

Anne Applebaum: Twilight of Democracy review - lost friends and new hope | reviews, news & interviews

Anne Applebaum: Twilight of Democracy review - lost friends and new hope

Anne Applebaum: Twilight of Democracy review - lost friends and new hope

The historian has experience of the Centre Right's collapse in Poland and America

Anne Applebaum: lucid first-hand knowledge

Things fell apart; the Centre Right could not hold. Anne Applebaum knows it from the inside. A Reaganite with whom I imagine a civilized conversation would have been possible even in former times married to a Polish politician, now MEP, Radek Sikorski, whose many good deeds speak louder than his views, Applebaum has produced a concise, lucid and very readable summary of how it all went wrong.

Things fell apart; the Centre Right could not hold. Anne Applebaum knows it from the inside. A Reaganite with whom I imagine a civilized conversation would have been possible even in former times married to a Polish politician, now MEP, Radek Sikorski, whose many good deeds speak louder than his views, Applebaum has produced a concise, lucid and very readable summary of how it all went wrong. She reminds us of key happenings in the unhappy chronology while summoning up a range of figures on the scene, now so-called populists and including erstwhile friends, to root it all in the specific.

The form is elegant, starting with a 1999 New Year’s Eve party in Poland organized by Applebaum and Sikorski, going on to explain why some of the people present are friends no longer, and seeming to end with a parallel event in America in 1995. Then, in a superb epilogue (Chapter VI, "The Unending of History"), Appelbaum achieves a real tour de force, going back into the late 19th century to the polarizing effects of the Dreyfus Case – the wider historical perspective is always there, as it is in the writings of Timothy Snyder and Fintan O’Toole – before presenting us with another Polish party, in 2019, to lead forward to hope in the shape of the new generation represented by the couple’s sons, friends and contemporaries. So the title of the book, thankfully, should really be rounded off with a question mark, just as the revolution of the internet, placed here in historical context after that of the printed word and the radio, and crystallised in the online activity of the Spanish Vox party, is acknowledged as a potent force for the good, too.

Readers will be familiar with most of the events cited - sources are plentifully referenced, though helpfully for such a short book there are no footnote figures in the text itself - though I wasn’t aware of the dark-web proliferation in suggesting that Muslims were responsible for the Notre-Dame fire. What makes this more than just another retelling of how the new dark age came about is Applebaum’s citing of personal former friends and acquaintances who moved from “different opinions” to “different facts”. Why did seemingly rational intellectuals like Ania Bielecka and Mária Schmidt come respectively to embrace the illogical aspects of Poland’s Law and Order Party and Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary? What happened to Laura Ingraham, who adopted three immigrant children yet is so virulently against immigration? Applebaum makes the wise point that Trumpsters and others who shout so loud are covering up doubt about the more untenable aspects of their leaders.

Twilight of DemocracyCareerism and former failure also have much to do with it. Ingraham desperately wanted her own TV show, but only eventually got it on Fox through supporting Trump. Jacek Kurski, previously in the shadow of his much more talented liberal-newspaper-editor brother Jarosław, rose to become head of Polish television by turning "resentment, rage and envy" to his own political advantage. Applebaum recommends we look at literary models – Shakespeare’s Iago, Stendhal’s Julien Sorel – rather than isolated radicalism for the reasons. In Ingraham she confesses herself disappointed, but at the same time perplexed: “picking apart the personal and the political is a fool’s game”.

Personally, I’d question Applebaum’s choice of some of her friends and her rating of their supposed qualities. Was Simon Heffer ever as brilliant as she makes out, for instance? And while it’s clear her centre-rightism was nourished by a concern for democratic values and human rights – she and Sikorski have done so much for the Ukraine and against Putin’s Russia – I’d question that it was only the far left as well as the religious right which found fault with the rottenness at the heart of American values; there’s a hint of complacency at how those values seem to have gone awry, or never gone right, when it comes to racism, sexism and sheer greed. We meet again on how violence from either side must never be an option, and how alarming it is that Bannon, Trump and lawyer Joseph diGenova – “I do two things, I vote and I buy guns” - support it in words that have led to fatal action.

While the joins between essays for different sources are sometimes apparent, the range and selection are admirable, and we come bang up to date with the questions raised by the coronavirus epidemic. The roll of names to be ashamed of is redeemed by quotations from wise authors and younger torchbearers of a better future – Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová, Kosovan Agon Maliqi, Swiss Flavia Kleiner who calls herself and her friends “the children of 1848”. The question-mark that should come after the title figuratively ends the book in brighter, more optimistic large font; writers like Applebaum and Snyder help to keep it ever before us.

Comments

“Centre-Right” ?? How centrist is it to reject calls for the introduction of child benefit? Their tax policies were written directly by a Big4 consultant - the Tusk govt merely stamped and accepted what German Big Business dictated. Home Sec. Sienkiewicz was secretly recorded saying that the Polish state exists on paper only.

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