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Progressive Politics? The Fall and the P.J. Factor

I met several people in the former DDR who believed life was better before the Wende. (Not hard to believe considering the 40% unemployment in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommer.)
Heather Bourbeau

Issue #14, May 1994

As a freelance writer, covering many of the socio-political changes in Eastern Europe, I found myself continually reevaluating my personal beliefs. My experiences as a student in Rostock a year ago (pre-riots) left me angered and confused. From what I could see and feel, there were benefits to the communist system, especially when it came to the rights of women. This reinforced my socialistic tendencies, which favor Scandinavian socialistic democracies.

I met several people in the former DDR who believed life was better before the Wende. (Not hard to believe considering the 40% unemployment in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommer.) Most people I met, however, wished that the Unification was just that, a unification, and not a complete Westernization, so that the good from both states could be blended into a wealthy and concerned social-democracy. In my ignorance, I believed many other former East-blocers would feel somewhat similarly; that for certain things, life was better before. Even when I was in Prague and Budapest, I had people complaining about the new system, or lack thereof, though I didn't really hear the cry for Communism's return.

This year, however, was different. My situation and itinerary had changed. I was no longer a student, doing a bit of writing on the side. I was an investigative reporter, actually exploring the issues in depth outside of former East Germany.

The first shock came in Poland, where the women's rights situation is appalling and quickly becoming worse as the Vatican gains more power. (It was interesting the number of people who would try to bond with me because I am mostly Irish and look it. 'We Poles feel very close to the Irish. Religiously and culturally we have many similarities.' Yeah, like the repression of women, denial of sexuality, fucked-up economies and potato eating. Except for the potatoes, I am successfully recovering from these cultural maladies.)

In Poland, I was hard-pressed to find someone who thought that life was better before 1989. The quality of life was decidedly worse than in East Germany; waiting in lines for basic goods had been a daily reality. Women were theoretically equal to men, but were still subject (or object) to social conspiracies older and greater than communism, misogyny and Catholicism. This meant that many of the progressive strides in health reform (a.k.a. birth control and abortion), employment and feminist theory made by East German and Czech women could not (and, to a large extent, cannot now) occur in Poland. Having many years before realized the bad, bad ways of Catholicism, I knew not all the problems could be blamed on the great Pole, himself, John Paul.

I began to reevaluate what the East-bloc called communism I, like many others on all parts of the political spectrum, was in crisis of faith and belief. The East-bloc was not the great evil that the US government had been telling us. Nor was it the protective, caring and fair system of the extreme left's dreams and hopes. Most distressing for me, was that even a blend of the two systems (Communism and capitalistic democracy) would not produce an ideal government. I was out of political models and frustrated by all the alternatives.

By the time I met P.J. O'Rourke in Prague, I had lost what remained of my political idealism that had not been squashed after graduating and working in broadcast news. Do not get excited. I am not going to claim that P.J. showed me the Libertarian light. Nor was I wooed to the right of center. I was, however, convinced to listen, without complete disgust or dismissal, to opinions I previously considered antithetical to my own.

Upon returning to the US, I even read, in full, one of his books. Before Prague, my only association with P.J. was my old roommate, who would quote him out of context along with Rush Limbaugh. Unfortunately, the man I read was more like the ultra-conservative, closed-minded (albeit humorous) man I had stereotyped and less the intelligent, thought-provoking man I had met.

Yet I must admit that I had a frightening realization when reading, Give War A Chance. I agreed with Mr. O'Rourke, a die-hard conservative, about liberals or, rather, certain liberals. When pressed to give myself a political label, I choose to call myself a 'liberal'. What I agreed with, however, was the pathetic state of progressive politics, or lack thereof. Many 'PC' people's big political efforts consist of buying a pint of Ben and Jerry's and attending a Peter Gabriel concert, where they can send a postcard to their congressperson AND get the added bonus of knowing that one percent of the profits go to peace. Don't get me wrong, I love Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Wavy Gravy. I like Peter Gabriel. I even like the fact that at least part of their profits go towards helping organizations that I support and who support me, i.e. Planned Parenthood. I definitely support the idea of direct contact with congressional representatives. What I don't agree with is that the postcards, mass produced and the ice cream, mass consumed are the only action, political, social or otherwise that many of my 'liberal' mates take. They criticize 'conservatives' and others of not thinking about politics or being active, and yet, they let a large (Goddess forbid) corporation think and write about their positions for them.

This is my alternative in alternative politics?

The combination of my recent travels and P.J. O'Rourke's comments has left me with more confusion but also more incentive to find or create a political and social model that I and others can live with comfortably.

Heather Borbeau graduated from UC-Berkeley with a degree in Mass Communications in 1992. She is now working as Assistant to the Dean of Social Sciences while preparing for graduate work in international relations. She continues to freelance as a print and broadcast journalist.

Copyright © 1994 by Heather Borbeau. All rights reserved.