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The line between politics and friendship

A review of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism and Twilight of Democracy. The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. By Anne Applebaum. Publisher: Penguin/ Allen Lane, London, 2020.

November 16, 2020 - Simona Merkinaite - Books and ReviewsIssue 6 2020Magazine

The story behind the title of Anne Applebaum’s latest book is a peculiar one. It is sold under two different subtitles: Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism and Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends, since the publishers apparently could not agree on what the book is about. The later, in my view, is a more accurate subtitle and captures well what is unique about the book and makes it stand out in the growing amount of works on the crisis of democracy. Applebaum, a celebrated journalist and historian, puts aside all her scholarly expertise and exposes the effect of democratic turmoil on a personal level. Her book challenges us to ask whether the looming democratic crisis can be understood through personal experiences, such as friendship, and if it can be salvaged by friendship?

Friendships that overcome political divides

The book opens with a scene from December 31st 1999, somewhere in the Polish countryside, where a large party takes place to celebrate the beginning of the new millennium. It involves a colourful mix of people from different countries, backgrounds and political positions. The New Year’s fireworks are the echo of the story that goes back at least 10 years to 1989. The scene of the party portrays a strong sense of optimism of the good things to come: life in a newly renovated house and new, unexpected friendships among people previously separated by imposed ideological divides. The space of the renovated house is a metaphor for a new, shared public environment where all kinds of people belong, and an anticipation of a better future.

On the margins of this story about encounters among friends, spread through the first part of the book, is a looming question about the parallels between political and private, democracy and friendship. Friendships rely on a certain level of trust. We trust our friends to be truthful with us and accept a certain degree of honesty, even if it feels uncomfortable or hurtful. Socrates, by far is the most famous example in the history of western politics as he tried to make friends out of Athens’s citizenry. We learn that the democratic space of common dialogue disintegrates, like friendships, when people keep things from one other. It becomes primitive and depersonalised as the joys of sharing a conversation, an experience or a grievance is impaired. It is no surprise then, that in politics, the dismantling of trust – in science, in media, in fellow citizens – is (and always was) one of the main strategies of authoritarians.

Partition of friends

The question that preoccupies Applebaum is what happened. Like with any breakup, the question of “is it me, or is it them?” arises. Politically, this question can be asked as, “why has politics become (again) a force capable of breaking up friendships and why people, who merely 20-30 years ago together courageously defended freedom and human rights and spoke truth to power, now display resentment towards democratic inclusivity, are blindly spreading lies and actively dismantling independent institutions and the media?”

The question itself requires us to critically reflect upon one’s own circumstances and convictions. What made friends in the past 20-30 years, in Applebaum’s words, was the common value of democracy over authoritarianism, political freedom and human rights over dictatorship. Since the author still finds herself on the side of democratic conduct, the answer seems to lean towards “it is them”.

However, friendships imply a certain degree of honesty – in this case the authentic belief in and value of democracy, pluralism and rights. Thus, maybe this partition shows us the lack of authenticity when it comes to political values and, in Ivan Krastev’s words, an imitation of progress towards the democratic way of life. The political changes brought about by 1989 were met by some as a force of history moving on, leaving you with no choice but to adapt, and prompting resentment towards cultural, intellectual and political elites that emerged from the struggles of Soviet disintegration and democratic transformation. The book provides a compelling overview of reasons and motives as to why people change their political stances, making them deeply personal (such as unfulfilled political and personal ambitions, resentment towards the success of others, the feeling of being left behind and misunderstood, or struggling to find a place in the new order of things).

History serves as an example of friendships that sparked in the most unexpected of places. At the time of great political divides, and against all odds, it could be among perpetrators and victims, or among those divided by faith, race or nationality. It seems natural to assume that once these odds were removed in the post-1989 world, friendships would flourish (and, as Applebaum shows, for at least a decade they did). Yet if we look at friendship from the perspective of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, the opposite was bound to happen. Schmitt formed the distinction between friends and enemies as the raison d’etre of politics. The common goal of dismantling the Soviet empire made some unlikely friendships and even when they were authentic, political friendships could not last much longer past 1989. The aims which brought about unlikely friendships the post-Soviet space, including accession to the European Union and NATO were reached, new lines of division were bound to appear. The polarisation that we are now witnessing may be viewed as a struggle of redrawing the lines between political friends and enemies.

New dividing lines

Applebaum, in her book, does a great job conveying the global effects of 1989 and the democratic transition across post-communist countries. It is made clear that for people like John O’Sullivan, the National Review editor-at-large, or Laura Ingraham, a passionate supporter of Trump, liberal principles were valued for solely instrumental reasons – they were useful for asserting the superiority of US power. This superiority is now reframed as white power of pro-Christian America, drawing new enemy lines.  

Today’s leaders play into these new lines of division, taunting racism, antisemitism and homophobia, and moulding prejudices into political projects. The democratic process of dialogue and conversation is the exception, while politics features more nepotism, dishonesty, promoted fictions and corruption in the struggle for power. In addition, people like Boris Johnson, whom we first come upon during his days as the Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, felt exuberance in reintroducing elements of excitement to politics, by capitalising on conflict between faceless, bureaucratic Europe and the authentic spirit of Britons. It brings a level of urgency and excitement to politics, the kind Applebaum recalls, from 1980s and 90s as countries in transition attracted all sorts of people – writers, scholars, artists – exactly because politics was exciting, with public and private conversations filled with paramount questions to do with morality, humanity, and the best form of governance.

It was Schmitt who cautioned against the entanglement of personal and political friends and enemies, which can be an important reminder while reading Applebaum’s book. In his essay, “My last meeting with Heidegger in Rome, 1936” philosopher Karl Lowith recalls his meeting with Martin Heidegger. Lowith, who was forced to leave Germany due to the implementation of a law removing Jewish academics and civil servants, notes that during the meeting it obviously did not occur to Heidegger that his swastika was out of place while spending the day with Lowith (who, during his time at Freiburg, not only studies under Heiddeger, but also looked after Heiddeger‘s children, signalling a close past relationship between the two). Pride while wearing the party insignia on one’s lapel illustrates a kind of personal detachment, the separation between personal friendship and political enemies, which Lowith summarises as a burden and a sign of an intellectual who is “radical when it comes to ideas and indifferent in practical fact”.

Political engagement through personal detachment seems to also explain the partition of those who were connected by ideas. The case of Maria Schmidt, who, despite being the director of the House of Terror museum in Budapest, an institution that is supposed to explore the horrors of tyranny, imitates the divisive language and promotes conspiracies. It explains how family, like brothers Jarosław and Jacek Kurski (the former is the deputy editor of the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza while the latter is the head of Polish state-run television) end up on opposing sides of the current political regime in Poland. Or how mothers of gay children join anti-LGBTQ+ rights campaigns; how qualified people get fired not based on incompetence, but for political opinions they hold; or how smear campaigns against friends are orchestrated.

What is identified as hypocrisy in the book may indeed be understood as a form of detachment from personal relationships. Yet, in the end, Applebaum’s book is a reminder that the kind of political justifications come at deeply personal costs. As such it highlights, through a rather gentle style, a much bigger challenge ahead: how to re-examine the relationship between the personal and the political, and its impact and consequences for the democratic way of life.

Simona Merkinaite is a Rethinking Europe programme expert with the Open Lithuania Foundation and is doing a PhD focusing at Vilnius University.

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