Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Historian speaks at Lviv Media Forum on morality, meaning, and the miracle of metaphysics on the Maidan

-Written & Narrated by Peter Bejger

Truth and lies. Facts and fiction. Reality and the unreal.

In today’s unsettled, and often bizarre, media landscape the very definition of these basic terms takes on an urgent meaning. How they are defined—and more importantly, who has the power to define them—shapes the political climate.

And the resulting political climate can force citizens to confront unpleasant ethical choices.

These fundamental issues were tackled by the American historian Marci Shore in her recent inaugural address to the Lviv Media Forum 2017.

Dr. Shore is an associate professor of history at Yale University in the United States. She is the author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.

She also wrote Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, and translated Michal Glowinski‘s Holocaust memoir The Black Seasons.

She writes frequently for the international press on European cultural and intellectual history.

Dr. Shore has devoted the last few years of her academic work and journalism to Ukraine. She is the author of the forthcoming book on the Maidan called The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution. This book, as well as her recent talk in Lviv, ultimately asks the question: What is worth living—and dying—for?

Dr. Shore’s speech in Lviv was called “The Power of the Powerless” and opens with the paradoxical remark that so many of her friends in Ukraine wanted their country to be more like the United States. In other words, for Ukraine to become a liberal democracy.

But, times have changed. We now have, Shore points out, the irony of “post-factuality” moving today from East to West, from Moscow to Washington.

Shore’s Lviv talk focused on former Czech dissident, and eventual president, Vaclav Havel’s 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” She reminds us of the meaning of his moral imperative “to live in truth.” Havel believed that “living in truth” meant speaking the truth.

But living the truth in the repressive conditions of 1970s communism in Eastern Europe was risky. So most people were “living a lie.” But Havel believed that living a lie did not make empirical truth disappear from the world. He believed in the reality of truth and the stable distinction between truth and lies. For Havel, one might choose to live an inauthentic life, that is, “to “to live a lie.” But this doesn’t make empirical truth go away. For Václav Havel, the ethical imperative was to reclaim one’s authentic self.

Dr. Shore’s writing has pointed out that new moral challenges emerged after the fall of communism. These challenges include the rise of populism. The triumph of the market economy enthroned the superficiality of the everyday. In this triumph Vaclav Havel saw the development a of consumerist global civilization that grows a mass of people who do not create any values.

And in Putin’s Russia, we see the cynical postmodernism of a regime where nothing is real and everything is possible. Shore’s Lviv talk noted we have many alternate realities that can be explained in many ways. This creates a feeling like a true reality does not exist.

Dr. Shore believes one challenge stands before everyone now: How to find the truth in a post-fact world. She has thought a lot about the meaning of truth and lies during the Communist era and in postmodern society. At the Lviv Media Forum she wanted to hear from older journalists, whose experience gained in communist times may have a special educational value today. She wanted to discover what journalists and writers see is similar and different in Soviet propaganda and PR in the “post-truth” era.

It may be the most startling irony, but Dr. Shore argues for the West to turn to Eastern European dissident philosophy of the 1970s to address current ills. She calls this a philosophy of responsibility. In Shore’s view this philosophy is an antidote to the poison of “post-truth” now rampant and reigning in our society.

Dr. Shore reminds us that for the dissidents of Eastern Europe liberty was the great priority before 1989. But after that was achieved, individualism began to dominate all other values. No longer did anyone pose metaphysical questions like “Where does evil come from?” The dissidents, as Shore reports, still felt the need for an “existential revolution” for a “civilization that needs metaphysics.”

Metaphysics returned to Eastern Europe, as Shore sees it, on Kyiv’s Maidan. She calls the Maidan the “most amazing thing she has seen” in all the years she has spent in Eastern Europe. In her view what happened was not only a political transformation, but also an existential transformation. A transformation of souls.

She writes, “the Maidan protests were a miracle: Divisions were suddenly overcome, ideas mattered, moral stakes were high. The concept of human dignity became urgent, immediate, and palpable. People proved willing to sacrifice themselves. The existentialist moments of making a choice, taking responsibility, being shaken into authenticity, were illuminated.”

Dr. Shore captured the drama when she wrote about that “existential moment of making a decision on which everything is staked. At some point one could feel, as if palpably, that on the Maidan people had made a decision: If necessary, they would die there.”

And they did.

This has been Ukrainian Jewish Heritage on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. From San Francisco, I’m Peter Bejger. Until next time, shalom!

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