Years ago, the American satirist Martin Mull did a song number that ran like this, as I recall: Why don’t you and I get normal / We don’t have to be that formal / We’ll just sit and watch TV like others do / We’ll eat meat and mashed potatoes / Cut our hair so folks don’t hate us / Why don’t you and I get normal for a change …
I thought of this when I came across something the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev said in 2009 at a forum in Bratislava.
I find Krastev to be one of the most thoughtful, and at the same time concrete, of the scholarly pundits who expound on the condition of contemporary Eastern Europe and the whole European project. I especially recommend his short book on corruption. At the event in 2009, on a panel including Václav Havel and other political and cultural luminaries, Krastev talked about what he called Eastern Europe’s “obsession with normality.”
In Mull’s song being normal is about what you do rather who you are –
a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” theory of social behavior. Acting normal was one condition, maybe a necessary condition, of the totalitarian regimes in 20th-century Europe – there was a crippling disconnect between thought and action (or the production of social goods, if you will). Havel, Czesław Miłosz and others have of course written on this at length. Krastev saw a different kind of normality-obsession in the Bulgaria of 2009.
At the forum, Havel, asked about the state of democracy 20 years after the revolutions of 1989, mused that in the Czech context he saw a “strange alienation between society and politics” opening up. “When we hear in the news or read in the papers that this or that event has a political background, a political context, that it is based on political motives, basically it means that is it has a suspicious background, a suspicious context or suspicious motives. This means that politics as such, as a discipline, has implicitly become something suspicious,” he said.
In no shape or form was Havel drawing a parallel between totalitarian and democratic society. I think he was saying pretty nearly what Krastev said a few minutes later, talking about the Bulgarian situation. He recalled that when the far-right party Ataka was elected to parliament in 2005, there was a TV debate where one side said, “we can’t be a normal democracy because we started electing fascist parties and the other said: at last we’re normal, we’re like the French and others, we have fascists in the parliament.
“And I think this is very important,” he continued, “because one of the things that I believe needs rethinking twenty years after 1989, is this obsession with normality that has been constraining the way we think about our political life.”
Like “normality,” another slogan that circumscribes the ability to solve problems creatively is “post-communism,” Krastev implied in his next statement: “If Czechoslovakia was about normalization in the seventies and eighties, I believe we have all been very much about the discourse of self-normalization. We are trying to explain all the problems we are facing today as post-communist problems. For example, take populism. Is populism a post-communist problem? How different is Mr. Berlusconi from some of the people that we see in our countries? Why is what is happening there normal and here pathological? … [I]t’s very important to understand that democracy has never been the best form of government; it’s simply been the least worst. And when we start with this, the problem that democracy does not mean disappointment is a false assumption. Democracy is about disappointment and the difference between a democratic and a non-democratic regime is simply that in the former you know how to deal with disappointment …”
It is not easy to accept the normality of setbacks and disappointments, whether in the ex-communist countries or in countries with centuries of democracy under their belts. It used to be normal in the East Bloc countries that society be seen to make steady progress toward an ever more perfect state of socialist development. That is the kind of normality – a term of dogma, rather than realism – that democratic societies may need to believe in during critical times, but which they would do better to stay away from most of the time.
So here is my New Year’s resolution: In the true spirit of Václav Havel, why don’t we get abnormal for a change?