Timothy Garton Ash’s “Facts Are Subversive”

Garton Ash cover.inddI discovered Timothy Garton Ash many years ago as one of the leading voices within the renaissance of scholarly and literary interest in Central and Eastern Europe – its culture, politics, history, all that belongs to that world. Those might have been the circumstances of my discovery, but Timothy Garton Ash is much more than that: he is a “historian of the present” – part investigative journalist, part public intellectual,  part witness to current events, and part essay writer. A wonderful mix, I might add, and one that he delivers in an exquisite manner.

What I always found attractive about his voice is its “groundedness”,  which might have several sources: maybe family and education, perhaps from having lived through different things, in different places, or maybe simple English common sense. I am referring to the ability – which should be normal, but is not – to look at things, and talk about them, as they are, and not through the ideological lens of the hour.

Perhaps this instinct, this capacity to be “normal”, this awareness of  the common human condition, comes  from the combination of professional  and personal paths that started with him studying life under Communism in East Berlin, and then led to an involvement with the anti-Communist dissidence of Central and Eastern Europe. A common trait of the writings of these dissidents was an antipolitics (to use György Konrád‘s coinage) that simply opposed to the regime’s ideology simply the truth of human existence; opposing normal life to the abnormality of the “new man” that Communism wanted to create. This “living in truth” (as Vaclav Havel says) was the common ground which united many of the named and nameless members of those networks of solidarity. Timothy Garton Ash’s writing very often reflects the freshness of that approach to life and politics.

In Facts Are Subversive, which is a collection of essays spanning the first decade of the new millennium, covering all the regions of the globe (most appropriately, especially those afflicted by oppression), his voice is at its best when it recalls this existential knowledge about what human beings are, and what normality is, and opposes it to the abnormality of the given situation.

However, without the pressure of an oppressive regime, pressure that continuously purifies one’s understanding of what is and what is not “normal”, it is hard to cling to that sort of an experiential knowledge. There are slips and slides, therefore, even in the work of person so well “trained” by what he has experienced. Such “slips” are made even more probable, because of the inherent pressures in the life of a public intellectual. Being a public intellectual is a function of public reception, and one is shaped by that public’s feedback; it is a function of being fully and continuously engaged in the public dialogue, therefore that public dialogue shapes you, and its shifting posts will keep reframing your thinking and writing –  especially (to repeat the above) when the pressure of the evil alternative is not as poignantly felt. Without that abusive governmental pressure, the public space is relaxed and the living is comfortable – and it is easy to go sideways.

This is not to say, or even suggest, that the book reveals a Timothiy Garton Ash who “went sideways”;  but the public conversation has gone sideways, and some of his answers will reflect that. I am referring here to a specific occasion, namely his back-tracking after the “scandal” which erupted when he characterized the attitude of some of Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s fervent (even militant) admirers as “enlightenment fundamentalism” (while also praising Hirsi Ali for many of her contributions). While Timothy Garton Ash’s essays on Islam are characterized by groundedness, pragmatism, and even wisdom, as he is trying to not give in to any of the idealisms of the usual antagonists in the “debate”, but to see the richness of the encounter with Islam as well as the inherent tensions, in the specific case of Hirsi Ali he had to give up this groundedness, and to renege on his “enlightenment fundamentalism” characterization. But he should not have done that, because he was actually correct; just as there is religious fundamentalism in the world of Islam,  there is also anti-religious fundamentalism in the West, very closely (and unsurprisingly) mirroring one its historical predecessor, the French Revolution. A French Revolution that was the precursor of quite a few good things, but also of several murderous fundamentalisms that we know from recent European history.

There is one other instance that, although really minor, it aggrieved me: his off-hand dismissal of the events of the anti-Communist revolution in Romania as simply a coup d’état covered by street theatrics. For someone who had the privilege of witnessing some of these events (on the streets), and who is well aware of the innocence of the sacrifice of the youth who, unarmed and peacefully manifesting, were shot at and murdered by the regime, this qualifies as a “grievous” statement. The reality of the events on the streets of many of the cities of Romania, and foremostly of Timisoara, is in no way affected by the (equally) real but much less significant maneuverings in some of the government buildings of Bucharest; these are two different planes, that existed concomitantly, in no way annulling each other.  But I am making too much of a few remarks that are really made only in passing in the book; and one must also understand that, unlike his reporting from Czechoslovakia or Hungary or Poland, these fleeting remarks did not come from first-hand witnessing of the events.

The Magic Lantern

The Magic Lantern – Timothy Garton Ash’s exquisite witnessing to the events of 1989

Notwithstanding such (really) minor slips, this is a lovely, living book. True to form, i.e. true to the fact that many of the politically engaged intellectuals whose friendship shaped his formation were writers, firstly and foremostly, there is a whole section in the book gathering articles dedicated to the art of writing; also true to form, that section contains two extensive essays on George Orwell and on Günther Grass, respectively: two politically engaged writers, yet also two real writers. Other chapters in the book collect essays on Central and Eastern Europe (naturally); on Europe as a whole (including Britain’s position within Europe, and issues concerning the European Union); on the United States (where he lives and works); on the developing world (from Asia to South America); and  on “general considerations” about our time(s) and civilization(s).

Reading the book will be a very pleasant experience, I can guarantee that – and one from which you will learn. Timothy Garton Ash travels , and reports from the spot. His “politics” is a lived one – lived, mostly, together with the man of the street; of course, within the constraints of a longer or shorter exposure to the given situation. He is a writer, and it shows;  his concern is with people (first), and with ideas (second), which is the right order – and it shows.

Looking forward to his next books, I would express the hope that he will be able to reconstitute the intellectual – and, in fact, existential – scaffolding that he acquired during his years lived with the dissidents to the regimes of lies and terror. This challenge, of rightly grounding the “history of the present”, is especially relevant from my perspective, because it points to a deeper and broader problem with the field of journalism, in general (even if TGA’s writing is much more than journalism, and even if he is less affected by it). Although reporting is ideally conceived as an objective relationship with the facts on the ground, understanding and describing those facts is not an activity that can ever be value-neutral. Judgments about what is right or wrong, about the essential truths of human existence, are inherent in any “story” about people. Even reporting on the Syrian regime’s brutal (in fact, murderous) treatment of the people of Syria starts from the basic assumptions that democracy is a good, and that killing must be justified. While these might be assumptions shared by most readers, they are not shared by all; also, as soon as we go beyond these generally shared assumptions, we are in the weeds of endless ideological debates, which the journalists usually escape by taking refuge in one of the dominant ideologies of the day. This is understandable, given that few journalists have had the leisure or the existential opportunity, to construct a more solid, longer lasting scaffolding, than the “enlightened” assumptions that carry the day. And thus it is that, underlying reporting, one encounters clichés instead of thinking, and commonplaces instead of understanding.

Timothy Garton Ash is aware of the need to define for himself an existential/intellectual scaffolding, because he knows that what drives him is an interest in human beings, and in their welfare; and for that, he needs to define what that good is, and why. Accordingly, he defines himself as a European liberal (in the traditional understanding of the word, and not the usage current in the US, for example) – someone interested in human beings, in the good of the human beings, and in their ability to live freely and without oppression. Yet somehow this definition feels insufficient. Why it is so, and inquiring into the necessary philosophical foundations of journalism, perhaps some other time.

As said, Timothy Garton Ash’s writing is at its freshest and most illuminating, when it is at its most human, coming from what he instinctively and experientially knows to be true about human beings and their world – even if it conflicts with the fads, currents, media noise or loud politicos of the day. If you are interested in putting a finger on the pulse of the political events of the last decade. as seen from the level of ordinary human existence, this is a delightful and most recommendable place to go.

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