Moral Imperatives


October 07, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

KRAKOW, POLAND. — Freedom was supposed to mean happiness. East European countries are now free, but happiness has proven fleeting. There is a post-totalitarian depression evident which goes deeper than a simple consternation at confronting all the practical problems which are part of political independence.

The real problems are moral. When people confronted Communist governments and Soviet occupation or control of their countries, moral choices were simple. You collaborated, tolerated or resisted.

You also believed that if resistance were successful the moral choice of collaboration and the dilemmas of toleration would be abolished, with virtue installing itself. This has not happened. Not only have bitter domestic divisions of political and material interest re-emerged, which 40 years of dictatorship had suppressed, but ethnic hatreds of the past have reappeared, with the initial result of a civil war in Yugoslavia -- deeply shocking to people everywhere else in what used to be the Communist bloc.

The notion of another war in liberated Europe had seemed utterly inconceivable in the East as in the West -- until the moment that it happened. And war for such a cause as that in Yugoslavia had seemed a nightmare which Europe had finally abolished. What had World Wars I and II accomplished if not finally to discredit wars of race, ''blood,'' tribe, creed -- and of territorial expansion, living space, the making of ''greater'' nations. Yet here it all is, once again.

Speaking to a meeting in Krakow of writers and artists from formerly Communist countries, a Bulgarian philosopher, Ivailo Ditchev of Sofia University, said that ''after the mad erotics of the total struggle'' against dictatorship had come to an end, the need is felt ''to invest erotic energy in other total gestures'' -- thus to attribute absolute value to struggles for ethnic independence, or some domestic political cause.

However, post-totalitarian politics lack this absolutism. People actually confront banal, non-absolutist conflicts that require toleration, compromise, the acknowledgment of plural interests, for solution. Post-totalitarianism means awakening from life-death struggle to life-struggle. It is quite a different thing, filled with non-lethal choices.

The East Europeans' problem now is closer to the metaphysical than to the political, and this fact is at the core of the crisis in the ex-Communist countries. Populations there still have not completely grasped the implications of the fact that they are free. They do not fully understand that it means freedom to fall, to fail and to indulge evil.

Evil is part of the vocabulary these East Europeans use to describe their condition. They have rediscovered not only the banalities of political conflict but the ambiguities of evil. Before, they enjoyed what another East European dissident intellectual has called the innocence of the prisoner. Now, free will again functions; the prisoner is free. He discovers how troublesome it is that God has bestowed free will on men.

The vocabulary of these people includes other terms all but abolished in Western intellectual circles. They speak of ''spiritual values'' and ''spiritual crisis.'' They talk about good and evil -- the non-religious quite as much as believers. For them, spiritual values, good and evil are defining categories of daily life and choice and of the public debates of citizens and governments.

It is an uncomfortable experience for a privileged Westerner to listen to these people because one is forced to compare the triviality and selfishness of current U.S. and West European political debate -- the meanness, even the degradation, of the last presidential campaign, for example -- with the vital issues these people willingly confront and the gravity of what they consider. They occupy a universe of realities unknown to us in the West, or at least ignored, abandoned.

We in the West have constructed a system which, by dealing only with material gratifications, blocks fundamental reality from us, substituting diversion and escape. Ours is a place for playing at life, in an absence of real life.

One cannot but believe that in the end this evasion of reality will go badly for us and produce for us a crisis -- a ''spiritual'' crisis. One is impelled to believe that for people in Eastern and Balkan Europe, the Baltics and elsewhere in what used to be the Soviet Union, the outcome will be better than for us, simply because rTC they deal daily with the truths of existence while we remain amid mirrors and indulgence. I do not know whether those are statements of optimism or pessimism.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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