Five years ago, in May 2016, East & West was born. 5 years is not a long time ago, but from the perspective of 2021 the year 2016 feels already like a slightly different era. May 2016 was before the Brexit referendum, before Donald Trump‘s presidency, the likelihood of which at the time most experts still considered nothing but a joke, and of course before the last pandemic, which has drastically affected our lives over the last year and a half.
We were not exactly planning to write much about politics when we started East & West. Even before the Trump presidency polarized political discussion, the culture of politics had been evolving into divisive hot stuff. Our goal was to unite: we wanted to be above all these petty and unnecessary arguments, these artificial outrages that have become the hallmark of all public discourse in the age of political correctness.
Current events forces us to think and write about politics far more than we had wanted to. Any conversation about culture or history would have been impossible without touching the hot topics of the day. At times we just had to react to what was happening around us. Many parts of the world have witnessed history in the making over the last few years and we could just not ignore this.
East & West started with a special focus on Central and Eastern Europe. In places like Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Russia historical conversation has the power to sow irreconcilable discord and provoke misunderstandings and deep hatred to this day. In the West history is seen as little more than remembering stories from many years ago. It does not belong to the good and cultured tone to judge and attack countries and entire peoples for what happened 80 years ago. In Central and Eastern Europe instead history with all its burdens and painful memories lives on.
East & West has been written mostly in English, English as a lingua franca, that is not always by native speakers, but used to reach to wider audiences. We wanted to show that, beyond the borders of the Anglicized, Netflix watching, post-historical and a bit, self-aggrandizing world of America and Western Europe, there is a a whole less explored world, a bit exotic but rather familiar at the same time. Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and even Russia, to the surprise of many, are no less European than Portugal or Greece.
Ten years ago the British historian Niall Ferguson published a book called: “Civilization: the West and the rest”. The book asked why the West could have become so successful. It seemingly assumed that in our contemporary world the word civilization and “West” should be regarded as synonyms. Only the West was truly civilized – the rest not so much. Not many people in the West would probably admit this in public, but the idea that true civilization today is to be found only in the West (with a few exceptions) belongs to the firm set of beliefs of most Western citizens. It is just not good manners to say this out loud.
Niall Ferguson‘s book provoked a long diatribe between the author and the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra in the columns of the London Review of Books. Mishra accused Ferguson of being a racist, Ferguson accused Mishra of distorting his arguments. Two of the most prominent public intellectuals of our time, the sort of highly intelligent people that one would naively expect to be able to find truth and harmony through dialogue and reason, descended into a heated discussion.
America and Europe‘s prosperity, until recently practically unrivalled by the rest, seemed to be an incontrovertible proof that only the West was truly successful. It was successful because it was liberal and democratic, that is the justest and most humane of all possible worlds. At least since the financial crisis of 2008 and the rise of China these claims of universality and unshakable self-assuredness seem to have been questioned a bit. Maybe the West is not so successful after all. Maybe the Western model is not the universal road to the good life. The utopian belief in the end of history, which persisted in the minds of many, appears naive now.
The idea that the entire world is bound to become like the West and that this is an ultimately desirable and good thing has shown its limits. But many Westerners continue to glee at the pictures of protests in Hong Kong or Belarus, imagining that these people “just want to be like us”. It feels good to feel privileged after all, in spite of what they say. Maybe not everything is perfect in the West, like most Westerners would have believed only a few years ago, but the sight of people wanting to join the West and fighting for freedom and democracy gave the Westerner some kind of complacent pleasure. It feels good to feel privileged after all.
Even after the Iraq and the Syrian wars, even after the financial crisis and China‘s increased influence, and for different reasons even after Donald Trump, to most people in the West Western dominance across the globe (that is US dominance) still seems to be the most natural thing in the world.
Some people now try to put the blame for the perceived loss of American and Western prestige on the callousness of Trump or Russian disinformation, but the reality is that the wider world has never had the blind faith in the West that people in the West would like to believe.
These people, generally professional experts and by the sole virtue of their profession and reputation objective like no-one else, conveniently forget that by the time Trump was elected President the US had already done more than enough to lose prestige in the eyes of at least hundreds of millions of people across the globe. One could say that these people are not mature enough for civilization and Western values. The paradox here is that hundreds of millions of people cannot be disregarded as a far-fringed marginal group. The feelings of entire nations cannot be easily dismissed, especially when one claims to be a humanist, that is to value the human in every person. Apparently even in the eyes of Western humanists, some humans are more human than others.
Not everything is bad in the West. It would be stupid to say so. But the Iraq war and the chaos that ensued and endures to this day in the entire region is just one of most recent examples of Western hubris. Trump‘s seeming unwillingness to continue with the US mission of being the world policeman turned out the entire US and globalist establishment against him and proved to be a fatal blow to his presidential career. Experts said that the Trump was a menace to world order. If the world order is meant to be understand only as an order built around the foundation of Western moral and military supremacy, Trump was certainly a threat to that.
The first major and for years the most important issue for East & West has been the Ukrainian crisis. By now, most people in the Europe and America think they know what is going on in Ukraine. Crimea was annexed and Russia is waging war in Eastern Ukraine. And in Ukraine, the West is being threatened by Russia and Putin. But it would be more precise to say that Ukraine became the battleground of the confrontation between the West in its unstoppable and fueled by a sense of inevitability push for expansion and resistance forces, in this case supported by Russia. The US and the EU conveniently portray the Ukrainian conflict merely a result of Russian aggression, but clearly the situation is more complex than that. It does not matter how many times one is told this, the conflict in the Donbass cannot be seen just as a Russian-Ukrainian war for the independence of Ukraine. Ukraine has been independent since 1991 and was independent in 2014. It is a conflict between two parts of the souls of Ukraine in which both the West and Russia intervened.
The phrase fake news has become common language after the 2016 US election. Professional experts simply could not find any reasonable explanation for the election to US president and by extension to leader of the Western world of a man of the calibre of Donald Trump, which they judged inept and divisive. Some in all seriousness compared Donald Trump to Hitler. It does not matter now that this kind of analogies appeared wildly out of proportion. None of the reputed professional experts lost him job for making wild claims like that. The experts told us that Donald Trump was elected because of fake news and Russian disinformation. A deluge of articles and books affecting concern was published. Donald Trump, an isolationist, a nationalist rejecting the inevitable path of integration and globalism, could not possibly have been elected in a civilized Western country without the help of a villain like Putin.
Suddenly it looked as if internet, which had been celebrated for its independence and freedom and an instrument of enlightenment and progress before, was a dangerous place controlled by hostile powers. Russian propaganda was seen everywhere.
It was a field day for the established corporate media, the only ones that were legitimate and had a right to a say. Dissent became to be regarded as suspicious, hostile propaganda. It contrasts to the omnipresent Western claim of the sanctity of freedom of opinion and information. Social media, previously promoted as a place for dialogue, turned out to be a place of division. But blaming all divisions in Western societies on Russian propaganda won‘t certainly solve the problem.
After the US election that went the way it was not supposed to go, Facebook and Twitter, on the instigation of the US establishment, engaged in an overzealous campaign that inevitably resulted into massive censorship of alternative media. Criticism of anything that the West did in the international arena triggered the reflex of blaming Russian propaganda and Putin‘s plan to do nothing short of destroying the West. Most so called fake news website did not have any connection to Russia and the mythical Kremlin bot factories.
In the age of YouTube, Twitter and TikTok, East & West has been a niche publication. Deviating from the standard line puts one at risk of being labelled as Kremlin propaganda. It does not matter how articulately, carefully and measuredly one crafts one‘s points and articles. The quality of the texts does not count too much in the age of smart phones. There was a time when people could talk of an article they had read in their favourite magazine for weeks. Now the success of a media outlet is measured in the number of views, clicks, comments and likes. This is not a complaint. It is just the way things are. East & West won‘t follow the logic of views, clicks, comments and likes. This probably condemns us to remain a marginal publication. But in this independence lies out strength.